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Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman (and Us): The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 5, 2021:
James 2:1-17
Mark 4:27-34

Did you find yourself reacting strongly to that reading we just heard? A noticeable reaction, like when drinking Buckley’s cough syrup? Did the hairs stand up on the back of your neck? Did you find yourself disappointed in our Saviour? Or was your heart breaking for the pleading woman, whose daughter was ill? Was this a playful interaction between two evenly-matched partners? Or is this a story of prejudice and cruelty, salvaged by a good news ending? There’s a whole other healing story that follows up this episode, someone at our Wednesday Bible study remarked. But that one isn’t quite so consuming.

This interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is one of the stories that really sticks out to me, thinking back to my whole life in church. It comes to mind, especially, as one of the Lenten gospels, where it appears in Matthew’s version. “But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It’s even rougher in that rendering.

Whether from our own reflection, or what we’ve read, or what we’ve been taught, I suspect that each of us will have adopted some coping mechanisms — explanations — to help us coexist with today’s story. You’ll know some of the (possible) explanations. Some say the Greek wording (and the BCP’s wording) is “little doggies.” Jesus is calling her a cute dog; it’s a compliment… Or Jesus was testing her faith. Or the woman was transcending societal norms, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the exchange is difficult. Or perhaps she’s testing Jesus, helping him to more fully realize the implications of his mission. (This interpretation sounds a bit like what we heard from the Letter of James, with its criticism of “acts of favourtism,” and distinctions and partiality. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” she is basically saying to Jesus. So forget your tidy religious ‘system,’ and get down in the trenches with us. A whole other thought is that this is a sort of fable (maybe it didn’t ‘really’ happen) about the early Church’s mission to the gentiles; to non-Jewish persons like the woman in the story. In the gospels and in Paul’s writing we come across the idea that salvation goes to the Jews first, and then spreads out to the Gentiles second. (Like bread crumbs cascading off a table.) This is a story that illustrates that. (And it kinda lets Jesus off the hook.)

So I’m curious about what your reaction was and is to this interaction between Jesus and the gentile woman, and also how your mind adapted to that reaction. What do your responses tell you about yourself, and what’s important to you? What do they tell you about who Jesus is, and what God is like? What connections did you make between the year 30 and the year 2021?

For a brief time in another life, I wrote album reviews. And I will tell you, the words flowed with albums that I loved, and with albums that I hated. But it was a real challenge (and a really boring challenge) to write about something that was just mediocre. I think today’s gospel is more in line with the former, where a response is easy to find. And I think if we’re thinking about our faith — imagine yourself standing, like the soldier (another gentile) on that first Good Friday at the foot of the cross — and I think God wants a response. Anything but apathy.

But then we might want to stay with our response a little longer, and be curious about it. What is our emotional reaction? What is our intellectual reaction? And what purpose do our thoughts and explanations serve? Do they domesticate this story, perhaps unhelpfully so? Or was our response so strong that we could do nothing more than turn away entirely?

I think the question before us is this: In this story about a change in the relation between Jesus and the woman, and a change in the life of the little girl off stage, does our engagement with the text bring about the possibility of change, surprise, and growth inside of us? Or do we do all in our power to insulate us from change, or surprise, or growth?

This is far from the only difficult story in scripture. Or in the New Testament. Or even in the Gospels. And beyond that, the story of the Christian Church is full of difficult, sometimes disappointing, even enraging stories. But in all of those cases do we trust in a God whom we encounter as we open ourselves up to these stories? A God who is not just stuck on the page: the page of the Bible or the page of history. But a God who is the connecting tissue between ourselves and the Bible we read, and between our own day and the historical past. Might we adapt the ending passage from our reading from James, and say “our scriptural stories by themselves, if they arouse no response, and facilitate no encounter, are dead.” I’m reminded of a famous quote from the theologian Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.”

Indeed the Jesus we’ve met today roots himself in his own inherited tradition, but also seems to give it just enough air to ensure that it is a living tradition. And I’m sure some traditionalists took exception to that. Yet we read: “She went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”

Our responses, even if we feel ourselves ill-equipped, is part of a living tradition. We are all called, through our participation, our engagement, our care, to keep alive the faith. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter