If my words this morning are somewhat incoherent, it is because I flew back to these wind-swept shores on Friday from the Northern Hemisphere and my body is still telling me to be asleep when everyone else is awake, and awake when everyone else is asleep. So when we are finished here this morning, I am going to go and have my evening meal!
One of my overriding feelings as I flew back to Newcastle was a sense of release from the constant sense of pressure of being in places which understand themselves to be under imminent threat of attack. You cannot spend time in England and in the United States of America at the moment and fail to be struck by the incredible fear which breeds in the rumours of terrorism and attack, especially in large cities such as New York and London, spurred on my 24 hour television news stories which raise any possible suspicion to a major news event. Whilst I know that one danger in those kind of contexts would be to simply live in denial about the real potential risk, there is a greater danger I think in creating a society in which everything is a potential threat, and in which everyone is a potential target.
Because whilst over the last few weeks in those places there have been a whole series of stories about the excesses of security — where a grandmother (for example) caused a major terrorist alert because she boarded a plane with a set of knitting needles the over-ridding feelings of suspicion are focused around people who are from a certain ethnic background. That reality in itself(which raises the potential for whole communities of people, on the basis of their race or colour, to be rejected and held in suspicion by the rest of a society)is perhaps the greatest threat of all.
Which is why we might be shocked, or puzzled when we hear the first of the two stories about Jesus from our Gospel reading this morning. We are used to Jesus challenging and provoking, not just those people who we encounter in scripture, but us as well, as the Gospels shine a light into our own lives. We are used to Jesus providing a penetrating analysis of the human condition, of our lives, and our values and our priorities, but in this encounter (between Jesus and a woman who comes to seek healing for her daughter) Jesus appears to be down-right rude!
This woman comes to Jesus whilst he is resting in the region of Tyre and Sidon: two places which are marked out in the Old Testament as cities of great evil, and which are being used by the author of the Gospel to set the stage and emphasise that this woman is herself an evil person, a person outside of the reign. of God because she is unclean, she is not a Jew, and this woman comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter.
There is a parallel story told in the Gospel of Matthew about a Canaanite woman who, in the same region of Tyre and Sidon comes and asks exactly the same thing of Jesus. As you continue to reflect on this story during the coming week you will find it in the 15th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s account the woman is more laboured in her pleas to Jesus. In that story Jesus initially ignores her pleas, and reinforces to the disciples that his mission is to the Jews alone (the chosen people of God), and not to those, like this woman, who are Gentiles; Gentiles like you and me, who live outside of the Jewish Covenant.
Well, as we heard, this woman is not going to take “no” for an answer. Like any of us, who would do all that we could if our own children were ill or suffering, this woman who has heard of Jesus’ fame even in this Gentile region, and who is desperate for his help, continues to plead for her daughter. Jesus’ reply isn’t to say yes, he says instead these extraordinary words — “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!” Or to put it another way, Jesus says to her, “I am here for my people the Jews, not for the rest of you who are animals, who are dogs.”
Am I the only one here this morning, who would be offended if someone called me a dog when I asked them for help? Just as there is the potential for any of us to regard others as less important, less human than ourselves — particularly in this period of world history when there are all of the threats to world peace and harmony, just as it is possible for us to treat others in that way, so it seems that Jesus is willing to do the same: to treat this Gentile woman as if she were no more than an animal.
Some scholars re-assure us that the Greek word here for dog, when properly translated actually refers to a young dog (to a puppy) — and there have been some wonderful depictions in art through the centuries of Jesus talking to a woman who is clutching on to a cute little puppy. But we would probably no rather be called a puppy than a dog — and so the woman persists. She really is not going to give Up – “yes Lord,” she says, “even the dogs, even people like me who you see as a dog, do we not deserve to eat the crumbs which are left by the children, by those of you who are Jews?, is there no part of God’s kingdom which is open to us?” As she says this, the woman may have had in her mind the account which she has heard of Jesus feeding five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish.— surely there must be an abundance in Jesus’ Kingdom for everyone?
Hearing the challenge of this Gentile woman, something happens in Jesus, his mind is changed. Having previously said ‘no’ perhaps he now understands, for the first time, that the culture which has shaped him has got it wrong about people like this Gentile woman; something is lifted from his eyes. “For saying that,” he says, “you may go, the demon has left your daughter. What you asked for has been done.” In the other story in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “woman great is your faith, let it be done for you as you wish.” In both of these encounters the women’s daughters are healed.
So what are we to make of all of this? The traditional interpretation of this passage tells us that to get to God we need to persevere, that somehow God’s default position is to say no, but through our perseverance, through our pleading, it might be possible to persuade God to help us. It is true that our Christian lives are lives of perseverance, but that interpretation seems to ignore the fact that it is Jesus who is changed by this encounter, and not just the woman’s daughter who is healed.
Before Jesus meets this woman he believes like other fellow Jews of his time that all those who are not Jews are outside the love of God, or as he puts it are animals in comparison to the chosen ones who sit at the table. By the end of this encounter Jesus’ ministry has been globalised – through this woman he now recognises that his ministry is now to everyone, and as a sign of this her daughter is healed. In Mark’s Gospel this is the last time that Jesus questions anyone before healing them.
At the heart of this passage we are reminded of this great mystery which is central to our faith, that Jesus our Lord was both fully human, and fully divine, that he was human just like us, under the
influences of the culture in which he lived for good and for bad; and yet also and truly God made manifest to us.
It is through this woman, the least expected of all, that Jesus hears the voice of his Father in the words of someone whom he has been taught by his culture to despise. Jesus comes to the conversation sure that he knows the mission which his Father has given him. He walks away from the encounter with a very different vision of what he is called to do.
It is this Syrophonecian woman who in his culture is considered to be the least worthy to speak to him, like an animal who does not even deserve the crumbs left over at the end of a meal; it is this woman who is in fact the bearer of a message which will totally change Jesus’ earthly ministry from being focused only on the Jews, to being good news for all people, in all times, in all places. Which is very good news for us and for those who lives around us as well.
That is why we as Christians are not called to follow Christ on our own, because we know that it is through encounters with others that we will come to know the risen Christ more and more fully in our own lives. That is why guided by the Holy Spirit, and by Holy scripture, we come to know the love of Jesus more fully for us, in a community such as this. Where through the stories of each other, we are inspired to live more fully as disciples of Christ. That in turn will remind us that the mission to which we are called (to share God’s love with others) is not just about seeing the change which comes with conversion in the lives of other people — although that is so very important — the reality will be that through our sharing in God’s mission, we will be changed too.
Every new Christian who is incorporated into this congregation will change the complexion of the Body of Christ in this place. Every new Christian in this congregation will bring to our life the gifts which God has given to them for the building up of the Church, so that we may be a fuller preview to those who live around us, of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus meets a woman who speaks words to him which transform the future shape of his ministry, and the future shape of his Church. As we share God’s love with those around us, confident that the message of Jesus will bring renewed life to others: let us also be prepared to be surprised by those who will have a message from God for us.
Are we prepared to share God’s good news with others this week? Are we ready to hear God’s words to us through the least expected voices?