I don’t know if many of you are familiar with the film ‘A Time to Kill’ starring Sandra Bullock, Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Its set in the US deep south and is the story of a black American whose 11 year old daughter is raped, abused and misused and then left for dead by two young white men who are then found not guilty by an all-white jury. Her father tries to kill them and subsequently goes on trial. His lawyer is a childhood friend, a white man from the same town.
The film goes through the usual process of defining of friendship, feelings of rejection, outrage, consideration of racism and discrimination, as the lawyer and his young family are targeted to make him drop the case. The final scene in the courtroom sees the lawyer asking the jury to close their eyes and imagine a little girl and he walks them through the rape and abuse and then says: ‘now imagine that she is white’!
And all their eyes fly open, because of course, none of them, in their minds, have imagined anything else. An all-white jury thinking and understanding and imagining being black was not normal.
I thought about this film as I read the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter is possessed by demons. It is a startling passage that confronts us in our own imaginings. Last week we heard Jesus teaching about food and what is clean and unclean and ritual cleanliness. He now seems to revert to his cultural heritage as he claims it is inappropriate to feed dogs before children.
There are two very painful ironies in this story. First, Jesus has been calling out the pharisees for worrying too much about defilement, yet here he seems to state his own concern about those who are unclean. In implying the woman and her daughter are like dogs rather than children, he groups them with the ritually unclean who are not welcome at the table.
A second irony revolves around his use of the term ‘children’. The woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter, her child. He agrees children do need to be fed; yet her daughter does not even count as a child, she is nothing but a dog, a typical middle eastern insult even today.
The story starts with Jesus having travelled into Gentile land, in the region of Tyre while he himself is from Galilee. Secondly the woman confronting him is Greek, a gentile and Syrophoenician while Jesus is Jewish; and thirdly the encounter is with a woman and concerns a girl child, while he is an adult male and all that entails with patriarchy and sexist thinking. The daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit. The woman, who is completely unacceptable to men of this culture, renders her own actions even more unacceptable by bowing down at Jesus’ feet, accepting the designation of herself and her daughter as dogs.
There are a number of ways to approach the story; we could try and find a reason for Jesus’ behaviour. Perhaps he was trying to make a point about the constancy of prayer; maybe he was trying to make a point about cleanliness; or even perhaps he was trying to teach about forgiveness.
However, I would rather make a point about Jesus’ humanity. In this story we glimpse the fully human Jesus, limited by his own culture with its prejudices to which he was subject along with the rest of humanity and he was caught unawares and responded badly.
Jesus offers a condemnation of this human being, a gentile, a woman, and a possessed female child. He has encountered and healed other women, other children but they have been Jewish and in his community. The parallel with the story of Jairus in 5:22 is clear as is the contrast. Jairus is Jewish, male and named; she is pagan, female and unnamed. And Jesus does not speak to her about her faith – Jesus responds bluntly to her bold, frank, clear resistance to his name calling: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter”.
This is an extraordinary story because we see and hear Jesus changing his mind. Due to the woman’s quick-witted response, he actually changes his mind.
What we now reflect on is how Jesus’ human nature and divine wisdom interact in this story.
Does this exchange show a brilliant glimpse of God’s wisdom or a deplorable moment of Jesus’ own cultural captivity, redeemed not by his action, but by the woman’s quick thinking and determination to have her daughter healed?
And all of us would know that for such as reason like most parents, we would do whatever it takes to achieve healing and wholeness for our children.
This story also provides an opportunity for all of us to think about our own minds also being possessed. Our focus on gender, race and ethnicity, foreigners and aliens, difference and exclusion together with those whom we invite to sit at our table and those whom we reject. James highlights our blindness in our inclinations and reminds us: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
I think Jesus responded initially to the woman out of his own deep rooted Jewish traditions and cultural norms instinctively and without thinking, before being compelled by her sheer audacity, determination and wisdom in her response, to think again, to come to himself, recognise what he has said and implied; and to change his mind and to act according to the good news he had come to deliver and to embody.
This story challenges us to think about the times and occasions when we do the same; and, our willingness to accept we have done wrong. Then to think about how we put it right, without demanding or requiring a higher standard because the person doesn’t meet our expectations, judgements and requirements to comply. In other words, how generous are we when we seek forgiveness and repent?
On this occasion, Jesus does not speak of faith, he acts to put right the wrong he has inflicted unthinkingly; and he heals, from a distance without further delay.
The woman’s courage and smartness in speaking offers a model for all of us, particularly for women and all who suffer from discrimination as they speak truth into entrenched privilege, entitlement, rejection and despair. Who belongs or not these days in our own churches and communities and country that we reject as dogs from our table?
This reflection on Jesus’ humanity stands in great contrast to our preferred way of thinking about Jesus as the Son of God, the Word made flesh and incarnate. The entire paradox and power of the incarnation can be reconsidered here.
And my final reflection on this story is about the quality and character of our prayers; of the resistance, boldness and creativity in prayer shown by this woman, a mother and foreigner.
It stands as a reminder of an ancient accepted Jewish tradition of ‘arguing with God’ which we see in the Hebrew scriptures. Abraham arguing over the fate of Sodom, Moses confronting God and changing God’s mind, the entire book of Job as the dispute between divine and human.
In many Christian traditions, the Lord’s prayer is introduced with the words ‘we are bold to say’. We often forget after 2,000 years of tradition, a radical boldness is required of us, who would speak with God.
I started out with a story of discrimination. We have crossed many unspoken boundaries, we have been shocked by behaviour which we as Gentile Christians have also perpetuated and practiced, enabled with our own boundaries deeply entrenched and invisible.
In this story, Mark points to a kingdom as radically inclusive as he can make it, while we continue to work hard to make it exclusive. Boundaries are unacceptable in the kingdom. Jesus being bested by a gentile woman dog who forces him to cross the boundaries of his culture and thinking, is a story worth telling and a story worth applying to our own lives and communities.
The Lord be with you