The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Please pray with me. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today’s gospel reading gives us a vivid view of Jesus in his full humanness. Frankly, it’s not a very pretty picture. We have two stories of healing, healing of Gentiles. In the first story we encounter a Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus, bows down at his feet, and begs him to heal her little daughter. Jesus, in response, not only sidesteps, but he calls her a dog. It’s not a very pretty picture. It makes us beg the question: so, what’s going on with Jesus and what’s going on with this story? We like to think of Jesus as “come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” What happened to that Jesus in this story? That’s what I’d like to invite you to wrestle with this morning, along with me, because context really matters, as we all know, when we engage in studying scripture and how it applies to our own lives. Let’s explore together where we can find some good news in that story.
At first blush, there’s not much good news there. As my former New Testament professor Sharon Ringe once quipped: That’s one of those stories where Jesus “. . . was caught with his compassion down.” So, what’s happening? As you might imagine, theologians and commentary writers have been delving into this passage for years and years and years. I’ve read a lot of them and basically, biblical scholars seem to fall into three camps when looking at this passage. None of them particularly like it, for good reason, but they come at it from different places.
Let’s just say, the first camp can be characterized by, don’t like it, didn’t happen—they just can’t wrestle with that image that we all hold of Jesus, who is the picture of compassion and love and reconciliation. They don’t like it and think it didn’t happen. Now, this passage also appears in a slightly different form in the gospel of Matthew in the 15th chapter. So, I think it’s a little too easy to just say, out of character, didn’t happen.
Then there’s the second camp that I would characterize as, don’t like it, won’t have it. That group tries to soften what hits us as particularly harsh and rude. They say, well, maybe Jesus was just kidding. Really? Can you imagine the desperation of this woman to go to Jesus, to bow down and beg him to heal her daughter? I don’t think she would have found that very funny. Then there are those who engage in the word study to try and soften that, too. They say, “Well, you know, what’s translated as dogs is really a more diminutive form of the Greek—so think little dogs.” I love dogs. Anyone who knows me knows I love dogs and I don’t care if it was a little dog or a big dog, he called her a dog! It was not a term of endearment. It was understood and would have been received as an insult.
Then there’s the third camp: don’t like it but deal with it. That’s what I’m inviting you into this morning. What’s happening? How are we to understand this passage? It’s difficult, but that’s what makes it even more important that we go a little bit deeper. So many biblical scholars have given me insight, but in God’s great timing, I got a wonderful gift, just in the nick of time at the end of last week. Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine’s brand-new book, The Difficult Words of Jesus arrived at the office. She grapples with this text and many others that trouble us. It was a huge help to me and I commend it to you if you’ve ever wondered what was happening with that passage about “hate your father, hate your mother” or “sell everything” or passages about slaves. What’s going on there? If you’ve asked such questions, this is a good book for you.
At the very beginning of the book, Dr. Levine says that “All scriptures have passages with which people of conscience wrestle . . . Since the name “Israel” traditionally means ‘to wrestle with God,’ we do well to wrestle with passages that confuse and disturb us.” Well, this is one. I’m going to invite you this morning to take a different lens with which to engage this passage. Now, first we have to understand that Jesus was tired. He’d been busy healing and teaching and preaching, and he went off, as the scripture tells us, to be by himself to “refill his compassion batteries,” if you will. I guarantee you, every minister I know has been in that situation where you just don’t have much compassion left and you don’t want to intersect with them when they’re in that spot. I ask you and God to forgive me because I’ve been pretty cranky at times when I needed to take a timeout and be with God by myself.
In looking at the passage, I’m reminded of part of my own training. Anyone who’s seeking ordination in The Episcopal Church has to do one unit of what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education—CPE, for short. In my case, it entailed being a hospital chaplain for a summer. Part of that training is to make you better aware, if you’re not already, of your blind spots, your biases: things that they call your growing edges, where you have a lot to learn. In addition to being assigned particular units to be a chaplain, you as a group—your cohort—get together maybe once a week and do what’s called verbatims. Now, verbatims are like case studies and you’re supposed to bring your worst encounter to the group so that they can help you see and learn, maybe to see some things you might’ve missed, things that are directly in your growing edges. As I was reading this passage again and praying about it, I thought, “Oh my gosh, if this had been Jesus’ verbatim, what a reception he would have had from his cohort!”
So, I invite you, gather in that chaplain circle and let’s see what’s going on here. Verbatims begin with basic demographics. He’s encountered a woman. We know a little bit about her age because she’s the mother of a little girl. We know about her religion, her ethnicity. We know that she is a Gentile. She’s a non-Jew, Greek, Syrophoenician, which helps us locate where she is. We also know from a socio-historical lens that it’s highly likely that she was a person of privilege. So verbatims give you just those basic outlines and then you’re supposed to write down word for word, as best you can, what transpired in your conversation.
You note the posture, the body language. We know that this woman has come to Jesus. Her body language tells us she bows down at his feet and begs. He basically sidesteps what she says and calls her a dog. Now, if you are a member of that circle and have ever been put down, pushed aside, demeaned, or dismissed that might hit some of your hot buttons. You just might, in response say, “So, Jesus, you surely knew that this woman was desperate, right? Who knows who all she went to to get her daughter healed before she came to you—you might’ve been a person of last resort. Did you really mean to call her a dog?” You might ask Jesus, “So, Jesus, do you have any other Gentile patients and how have those conversations gone?” You get the drift. It begs a lot of questions, but we all have blind spots, don’t we?
Now here’s where the great good news comes. The woman is not put off by what Jesus says to her. Look carefully. He says that essentially, Jews come first. He doesn’t say, “Not now, not ever for Gentiles.” He’s just ordering how he sees his ministry. The woman turns the other cheek and doesn’t return an insult in kind but says, “Sir, (or Lord), “that may be true, but surely, Jesus, you have even a crumb of grace left over for someone like me?” Jesus hears her. He turns and he heals her daughter in that moment. Commentary writer, Mary Ann Tolbert acknowledges that that’s the only time in the Gospel of Mark that someone bests Jesus in an argument. She further posits the view that this woman, this Syrophoenician woman, of all people, helps to broaden the scope of Jesus’ ministry to help him see, if you will, that his ministry wasn’t just restricted to his own people, but was intended for all. That means you and me. That means everyone. That is the great good news. Immediately following this passage, he heals a Gentile man who is deaf and mute. There’s no pushback. He goes on to an expansive ministry that truly fulfills the commandment that he gives to you and to me: to love God with all that we are and all that we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves—neighbor defined as everyone.
Today, I suspect many of us have come with heavy hearts as we look at the tragedies and the needs at home and abroad. In a short few weeks, we’ve seen yet another earthquake devastate the people of Haiti. We have seen the fires raging in the West and the destruction and the loss of life and livelihood there. More recently, Hurricane Ida and it’s incredible, indescribable destruction. And, of course, our neighbors in Afghanistan and the tragedy there. How are we to respond? Well, the good news there is, sometimes it can seem overwhelming, but we know from the stories in the Bible and from our own experience, that what may seem like just a crumb of grace and compassion, when we pull it all together makes loving and life-giving loaves that nourish and heal and bring wholeness. We can do that.
In these instances, one way is through Episcopal Relief and Development that is on the ground in Haiti, on the West Coast, and with the victims of Hurricane Ida. For our new Afghan neighbors, Episcopal Migration Ministries has ways that you can respond. For those of you in the Washington metropolitan area, the Diocese of Washington is partnering with Lutheran Social Services to help our new neighbors from Afghanistan who are resettling in our areas. Your crumbs of grace count. As we heard in that passage from James, we marry our faith with our works, our faith informs how we respond.
Jesus invites us to follow Him—to love God with all that we are in all that we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There’s no finite limit, truly, to Jesus’ compassion and grace. Neither should there be on ours. So, offer up the gifts God’s given you in love, in hope, in great good news. Let it be so for you and for me. Amen.