It seems that living into the larger more inclusive heart and mind of God’s vision is not easy and that, dare we say it, even Jesus needed to be persuaded or to grow into that larger dream of God, at least in the case of the Syrophoenician woman and her child. (Revised Common Lectionary, Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10,14-17; and Mark 7:24-37.)
The story of Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman is quite difficult as he is being, how can we put it - quite rude. He is calling her, and her people, dogs and the people of Israel children. Some commentators have tried to say that the language is more that of puppy or pet. Or that the woman is being given an opportunity to pass a test and prove her faith. But there is really no way of getting around the fact that Jesus is saying her needs as a Gentile are secondary to those who are from Israel. This is not the sort of things we expect Jesus, meek and mild, who cares for children, who was a great healer, to be saying.
So let us for a moment step back and think about the context a bit more. Jesus, and his disciples, clearly understood his mission as being to the house of Israel, to the chosen people of God. A mission which is not going too well. After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand the religious only notice that the disciples haven’t observed the ritual cleansing code. The disciples themselves have struggled to understand what is happening. Jesus has headed off into foreign territory and seems to be travelling without his disciples. He seems to want to keep a low profile and not have anyone know who he is for a while.
But this woman finds him and seeks him out because of her desperate concern for her child. And when Jesus says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” she comes back with “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Now maybe she was just being sassy, had a smart mouth, but given that her child is at home desperately ill I think that like the parable of the widow knocking on the judge’s door demanding justice she is driven by her need to convince Jesus to heal her daughter even if she is from the wrong side of town, or the wrong side of the Sea of Galilee.
And Jesus is convinced by her argument. It is worth noting that Jesus cures the child from a distance which is both a sign of his power but also meant that he did not need to visit a Gentile in their home. In allowing himself to be persuaded by the woman’s argument Jesus opens himself up to a ministry with the Gentiles. And makes himself even more vulnerable to criticism by the religiously righteous of Israel.
In the second healing story we hear this morning Jesus heals the deaf and dumb man with the words “Be Opened”. Despite his instructions the man and the witnesses to this healing will not keep it a secret and so now the Gentiles are acknowledging Jesus in the language of the Messianic prophecies from Isaiah. Jesus then seems to give up all resistance and throws a miraculous banquet for those on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee and in doing this effectively declares his ministry to the Gentiles as well as the house of Israel.
Scripture nearly always works on at least three levels. Scripture teaches us, challenges us, encourages us in our relationship with the divine, with our neighbour, and with ourselves. When have our ideas and experiences of God been opened up and we have found God more inclusive and responsive to us than we could have imagined? Maybe times when we have felt that we are unacceptable only to find God welcoming?
Scripture also teaches and challenges us about our relationship with others. I wonder what are the encounters we have had that have opened us up to people and issues that were not our natural inclination?
I remember once standing behind the altar half way through the thanksgiving prayer when a young dark middle eastern man came into the church. He seemed pleasant enough but had a back pack on and just kept walking down the aisle. While continuing with the prayer I did have time to think well if he is going to blow us all up it is better that he comes to the front of the church where he will only get me and if I die while celebrating the Eucharist surely I will go straight to heaven. Eventually he stopped progressing and sat down in the front row. He did not take part in the Eucharist but cheerfully joined us afterward in the hall for morning tea. It transpired that he was a young man from Afghanistan who had come to Australia as an unaccompanied minor and he with two other young men had been housed in a vacant church house. He therefore had a very happy association with the church and although a practicing Muslim had decided to come to the local Anglican (Episcopalian) Church when he had moved into a new area. After that he came frequently to join us for morning tea and a chat and indeed he and I occasionally met for a cup of tea and an update on his progress with his study.
Who has opened us up? And what have we had to confront in our own assumptions before we could see the humanity of another? As we watch the evening news it is as desperately urgent today as it was in Jesus day. And it is no easier. Being opened up by the spirit invariably leads us into a bigger world than the one we bargained for and we need to move beyond the family or group we were born into.
And Scripture can be relevant to how we relate to ourselves, within ourselves if you like. Do we need to recognise some aspect of ourselves that is in need of healing and advocate for ourselves? Many of us are very good at ignoring symptoms or gnawing doubts and anxieties. Maybe we need our inner Syrophoenician woman to advocate for our inner sick child. Is there a part of our nature that we treat as Gentile or outside the fold? Do we need to acknowledge some part of ourselves as also a child of God worthy of inclusion?
Just as we spoke last week of the danger of hypocrisy, of acting the part of holiness, rather than going to the heart of the matter and being a person of God, sometimes those of us on the spiritual journey ignore aspects of ourselves that we think are not worthy of inclusion. But in our story this week Jesus himself is moved to include the Gentile woman and her sick child, the one on the outer, in his healing loving circle.
This is a challenging story this week and if it shocked Jesus and those who knew him personally then it will certainly challenge us. But it a story ultimately about inclusion, of just how inclusive and all embracing the kingdom of God is. And that is good news for us and for our world. Nothing is outside the circle of God’s love.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and open us to your fullness.