Sunday, August 17, 2014

The dogged faith of the Syro Phonecian woman

This is a reflection I just shared with Jubilee today on Matthew 15:21-28, the lectionary reading for today:

Maybe every week the news is bad, but this week has seemed especially turbulent- the riots in Ferguson, MO, ongoing violence in Gaza, the war in South Sudan, children and families languishing in the militarized zone of the US Mexico border.

When I read the gospel passage for this Sunday I groaned, “Oh no, not the one where Jesus seems like a real jerk!”  How could I make sense of this passage that has always left me and lots of others befuddled?  How could I even read a passage where Jesus apparently drops a slur on a foreign woman during this time when relationships between nations and races are exceptionally tense? Maybe I would just skip it altogether, it is not like we have to follow the lectionary or have a thoughtful reflection at every worship service.   We could just go heavy on the songs and prayers, read the psalm about unity and leave it at that.

So, I said to my husband that we would just have a long prayer service because I didn’t want to tackle the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.   He said, “Oh, I just read Kenneth Bailey’s commentary on it in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes,” and he tossed me the book that his parents had given us for Christmas.  So with the help of that gift, a little book by Elton Trueblood called The Humor of Christ, and more on-line commentaries than I care to mention, I seized the opportunity to take on the challenge.  Between visiting with old friends, getting my kids off on their first day of school, cleaning bathrooms, peeling pears, snapping beans, hanging laundry and washing dishes, I took some time to be reminded about just how good Jesus is. It is now clear to me and I hope to you by the time I am done that Jesus is definitely not a jerk, even in this story.  

 Jesus calls all people to unity in him. This is very good news, especially during a week like this.

Before we tackle the story from Matthew, let’s look at the context of the other lectionary passages for today.  In Genesis 45 we see Joseph forgiving his brothers in Egypt.  The tables have turned and the one who was sold as a slave now has the power to destroy or help his starving family.  After shutting the door and weeping so loudly that everybody can hear, he calls his brothers to him and says, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph’s tears on his brother’s necks, mingling with their tears on his neck are like the precious oil running down over the robe collar in Psalm 133; the oil of unity that restored these men as brothers after circumstances that could have sealed them as eternal enemies. Today’s reading from Isaiah 56 says: “Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed……for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered."

 So, if the Old Testament themes for this week point to forgiveness, unity, and gathering people together why are we given this Gospel passage in which a woman seeking healing for her demon possessed daughter seems to be humiliated? Remembering that Jesus is the embodiment of compassion and that all scripture points us to that truth, let’s look at the story together:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."

Jesus and his disciples have entered a gentile community and this woman has gone further than even his disciples at this point by publicly calling Jesus “Lord, Son of David.”  She declares him to be Messiah- which Bailey points out is very unexpected for a gentile woman.  He has gotten her attention because through her greeting she has shown him that she knows just who He is.  
Bailey sites eleventh century doctor theologian Ibn al-Tayyib who notes that the mother cries out “Lord have mercy on me.” Bailey notes “the caregiver is at the end of her rope and also needs healing.”

But he did not answer her at all. 

His silence was typical for a Rabbi in that context.  According to the social laws Jesus the rabbi would not be expected to speak to woman and a gentile.  But why did he speak to the Samaritan woman at the well but not this woman?  Jesus, the one who healed on the Sabbath and touched the lepers was not one to uphold societal expectations.  I wonder if his silence could have been a time of prayer.  Maybe he realizes that this encounter would be remembered by his disciples and he was careful about just how to respond.  His disciples interpret his silence as disapproval so they say:

 "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."

Just as they asked Jesus to send the children away from him, they felt the same way about her: she doesn’t belong, they don’t want to be bothered.
So Jesus puts into words what they all must be thinking
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
Thus begins a dialogue that can be seen as an exam. Bailey interprets these words as the beginning of a test for this woman who has already shown courage and wisdom. As a good teacher Jesus wants to draw out her strengths even more.
  According to Bailey, Jesus is teaching his disciples by voicing and exposing their deep prejudices. They interpret his words as “Of course I want to get rid of her! We have no time for such female Gentile trash.” Meanwhile the woman is challenged to stay in the conversation and not go away because she believes that Jesus will heal her and therefore he does not mean what  he says.

But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."
Grieving parents of tormented children will not go away.  Like the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina or the mother of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and all the other mothers around the world whose children are oppressed by powers and principalities- be that mental illness, demon possession, addiction, systemic oppression and violence, miseducation- they have already had their hearts torn open, they have nothing left to lose or fear. Mothers will do anything to get help for their kids. Whether it means a modern mother sitting on hold for hours on end as she navigates mental health care bureaucracy, or suffering through miscarriages of justice that lead to mass incarceration, sending her kids unaccompanied into the US, and enduring social stigma as this woman surely did, mothers of hurting children have got to be tough.  They also are bearing an incredible burden that can sometimes feel worse than what their children are enduring.  They will humiliate themselves for the sake of their children.  They and their children have already been treated like trash, they can’t get any lower.  Things cannot get any worse.  She saw in Jesus hope for healing and she would stop at nothing to get it.

Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Really Jesus, you said that to her?
In The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood says:
“If there is a harder problem than this in the New Testament interpretation we do not know what it is.”  I take great comfort in knowing that even people who have spent way more time on this than I have find this to be a particularly challenging bit of scripture. He goes on, “Taken at its face value the sentence is rude and contemptuous.  Above all, it is at complete variance with the general picture of Christ which we receive from the rest of the Gospel, particularly in connection with the poor and needy…..As it stands alone, the situation is intolerable, but perhaps the completion of the dialogue can provide us with a clue”
Here, Trueblood points out, “We must remember that words are made very different in connotation by the tone of the voice and by the look in the eye of the speaker.  There are things which we can say with a smile, but which cannot be said, without offense, with a straight face.”
Bailey sees this as part two of the exam.  He says what the disciples are thinking, “Jesus is only for Jews.” Because he trusts, that of all people, this woman has the wit and the tenacity to prove them wrong and thus make clear his purpose to spread his healing and love to every corner of the earth.  Bailey says “is her love for her daughter, her faith that Jesus has the power of God to heal, her confidence that he has compassion for Gentiles and her commitment to him as Master/Lord so strong that she will absorb the insult and press on, yet again with her request?”  

 She knows that Jesus loves her and so kneeling at his feet she says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

She has touched upon a mystery of our faith: The stone that the builder rejected shall be the cornerstone; from discarded crumbs Jesus is feeding his people and growing his kingdom; there is healing in a single thread of his garment, in the spit from his mouth, the sound of his voice and even the crumbs from his table.  His grace, even if it comes as crumb, is all sufficient.

Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. 

In humble, relentless trust in God’s infinite goodness she laid her burdens at the feet of Jesus and healing came.  Can we do the same? How does this story speak to our broken world today?

Joseph and the Syro-Phoenician Woman both responded in love rather than resentment.  They both had every right to hold onto anger and bitterness but instead they chose the path of love.  Joseph’s brothers and Jesus disciples were forever changed by the love shown in those stories.  Our liberation and healing is bound up in the liberation and healing of our enemies.  By exposing the evil thoughts of his disciples Jesus offers them a path to transformation.  By using and thus taking away the power of hurtful words to hurt Jesus does far better than lessons in political correctness that might change language but never expose or eradicate the rottenness of our hearts and thoughts.

Are we willing to be humble – to face humiliation- before the Lord and before others for the sake of healing?   People that were trained for sit-ins and freedom rides sat through mock sessions of verbal abuse and ridicule so that they would have the courage to endure the genuine cruelty they encountered.  Jesus was despised, rejected and acquainted with grief.  He saw in the Syro-Phonecian woman a sister who felt his pain and the pain that was to come.  He offered her healing in that moment but the story did not stop there.  Immediately following that encounter he told his disciples to feed thousands with a few fish and small loaves of bread.  There was enough.  Later, He said to his disciples take this bread, and this cup, my body and my blood and let me live in you.  In his final hours he endured every insult and injury so that we would stop insulting and injuring one another.  He invites us into a new way of living in and through his body and blood.  Just a crumb, just a drop of faith is enough.

In her article "A National Shame" in the August Sojourners, printed before the Ferguson debacle, Ruby Sales exposes the tragedy of unarmed black youth being killed by police. In 1965, when Ruby was 17 a deputy sheriff in Alabama leveled a gun at her and her friend, a white man named Jonathan Daniels, took the bullet intended for her and died instantly.  The murderer was acquitted by an all white jury.  After Jonathan Daniels’ murder Ruby could not speak for seven months. But then she found her voice and went on to seminary, the very Episcopal seminary that her friend had been attending when he was killed.  She has dedicated her life to being a voice for human rights.  In her article she asked the prophetic question, “What does it mean to be church in the 21st century when too many of our black brothers and sisters are still seen as disposable waste?” 

 She didn’t offer any easy answers except the assurance that we are all beloved children of God.   Do we believe that of ourselves and our neighbors both seen and unseen? Do we see and treat ourselves and others as beloved children of God? If Jesus were to speak and bring to the light all the prejudice that we try to cover up would we be humbled and transformed.  Would we have the courage of his disciples to write it down even if it makes us squirm? In the face of insults and injury can we be like Christ? Would we respond like Jonathan Daniels or Jesus Christ and lay down our life for our friends? When we cry out in prayer and are faced with silence, do we keep praying? Do we trust that Jesus and his provision are truly enough?  Is there room in our hearts for a mustard seed or a crumb of faith to take root and make miracles in our own lives and communities? Are we relentless in our prayers and our pursuit of Christ no matter the cost?

I have no other hope for this world but the poor, homeless, rejected man named Jesus who smiled as his healing flowed to that mother and daughter.  May it be so for all the rejected, hurting souls throwing themselves at his feet.  By God’s grace, may we grow closer to Jesus through this story of the faith of the Syro Phonecian woman.