In recent critiques over the chaotic and disgraceful withdrawal from Kabul and Afghanistan by the Western powers, one of the many reflections is the belief so many Afghani people have been pulled from the wreckage of their country, simply because we can see their suffering directly via the social media and we know Afghani people living in our towns and communities. They are no longer strangers and aliens; they are our neighbours and we can see the impact of our discrimination.
When I read the story of the Syrophoenician woman’s encounter with Jesus, I always have the same appalled, shocked response. Have I heard the story correctly? Did Jesus really say that to her? Is there a mistake in the translation? Has something been added or lost over time? Did she really respond in the way she did to his gendered, racist, cultural blindness?
But in the stillness in my heart and mind, created by their brief exchange I realise I have been invited to think about God’s presence in the most challenging moments of our lives, illness, discrimination, war, violence, death for ourselves and loved ones. So let us go with the woman to her meeting with Jesus.
Firstly, Jesus’s response to the nameless woman takes place in Gentile country. Jesus has travelled into Phoenicia and Syria, away from Jewish territory. He has stepped over a racial identity and national boundary and into countryside where he hopes for anonymity and to find some quiet time for reflection. Up until now, Jesus has been speaking directly to his own people, the chosen people of God, bringing his message directly and uniquely to them. It has been a difficult time for his ministry. He has been rejected and vilified; he is under escalating pressure and the religious authorities now want to silence him permanently.
A Syrophoenician woman, with a daughter ill with demonic possession has broken into his quiet retreat and is demanding a response from him. Jesus’ response is less than gracious. I think we are encountering the fully human Son of Man. Jesus was a religious Jewish man whose cultural and religious thinking, behaviour and expectations are being challenged at every level by an unaccompanied woman, a foreign Greek stranger.
I can imagine several tones of voice used by Jesus in the conversation and in thinking about this story, I have imagined all of them. Perhaps the one with a wry smile is what was shared in the exchange, rather than a deadly insult, with the use of the word ‘dog’; a general term used for foreigners, a term of contempt for women. The word itself was a diminutive term for dog, and in Greek we’re told such diminutive terms are often affectionate. We can call someone an ‘old rascal’ with contempt or affection.
In the end, rather than become stuck on the horrible insult and stay within the cultural cringe we experience in this moment, I see and hear a man who, when challenged by a shameless foreign woman who’s disregarded her cultural code, who has broken her own boundaries to seek healing for her beloved daughter, is now being the Jesus I recognise more clearly. It is Jesus hearing the grief, love and desperation behind her words and his realisation he too is encountering a new possibility and recognising his old boundaries which no longer serve God’s purpose. Jesus’ old way of thinking is suddenly too small, too predictable and too unkind.
Jesus takes a world-changing step across another human-made boundary into ensuring his message is shared with Jew and Gentile alike. The whole world has just shifted.
Here is a woman holding Jesus to account, ignoring any embarrassment as she argued for the just restoration of health for her daughter. Nothing was going to stand in her way, not least the cultural inhibitions of a foolish man who she trusted to have the wit to hear her and see her and respond to her request, her plea for help, with love and respect.
In this magnificent story, Jesus has just shown us how to see the new possibilities offered by God and how to step across our human-made limitations in our thinking, behaviour and speech, and to see a new creation.
Our church, our communities and our own lives are always shaped by our human-made cultural limitations and unquestioned thinking over patterns long set in concrete. We set the limits and respond like everyone else in our church or community to those we decide are foreign, strangers and too demanding, those who are of the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong culture. Yet we are all children of God.
Do you seriously imagine God has looked at the face of anyone God creates and not loved them? If you have, then here is God’s answer to such wrongheadedness, in this encounter between God’s Son and a Gentile, Greek woman who is demanding justice for her daughter, who is not about to go away without an answer.
The woman’s trust upsets Jesus’ thinking, his response is not as gracious as it could be, but he does what she asks; her quick answer in the exchange of words leaves him without any alternative as he confronts his own bias and self-imposed limits and truly understands what is at stake:
Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:29)
There is no reference to faith or trust being recognised by Jesus in the woman’s words and actions in Mark’s Gospel, while there is in Matthew’s gospel 15:21-28. However, Jesus promptly steps across this significant, world-changing boundary and opens up his message of love and salvation to the Gentiles because of the demands of this woman, going beyond the limits of the Jewish peoples, knowing this decision will have life-changing consequences for all of God’s children as well as for himself, while still trusting God.
It is worth spending time with the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter, a woman who has just taught us how to pray boldly and unashamedly to God, demanding justice and change for her daughter and herself, with love and trust. A woman who also opens our eyes to our own judgmental and discriminatory behaviour and words to those on the other side of our cultural, racist, gendered boundaries in our churches, communities, politics and business. If Jesus can do it, so can everyone here and everywhere, whatever the limits we have put on our thinking and behaviour.
Will you respond like Jesus? Or will you be like the disciples in Matthew’s story, demanding she be silenced:
‘Send her away for she keeps shouting after us.’ (Matt.15:23)
I suspect the people of Afghanistan, like all our refugees are receiving from our government and many in the community, the response the disciples gave to the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew: we hear ourselves saying: ‘send them away, for they keep shouting after us’. They are inconvenient, they remind us of our failures and discrimination and we do not want to recognise or deal with it.
James also reminds us:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (James 2:1)
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (James 2:8)
Jesus brought salvation to all of us, Jew and Gentile alike in this stunning story of exclusion and acceptance, of justice, trust and love. In Jesus’ humanity and humility, we find a pathway laid out cutting through our own self-imposed boundaries. We are reminded discrimination, judgment and unkindness are not God’s way. God’s love does mean all of us are able to walk Jesus’ path with trust and faith. Let us truly be Jesus’ companions on the Way.
The Lord be with you.