The Syrophoenician and the Syrian

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”  –Mark 7:24-37 (Lectionary 23 B/15th Sunday after Pentecost)

This story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, I’ll admit, is one I struggle with.  Every single time I read it.  I call it “the one where Jesus is a jerk.”  There are all kinds of explanations about Jesus’ behavior, but to me, they all try to explain it away.  This is not the Jesus who welcomes with open arms, who loves without condition.  This is Jesus who is very much a human being, a product of his time and culture and religion.  And, to be completely honest, I don’t know what to do with that.  I don’t know what to make of this story.

But I know this.  When I was reading this week, the Syrophoenician woman wasn’t living in the country side outside of first century Tyre.  She is living here in Cairo.  She is the refugee woman, waiting in the courtyard to speak to someone from psycho-social or RLAP, desperate to secure housing and education and medical care for her child.  She is the refugee woman, holding her baby above the water, after being thrown from a boat on the Mediterranean.  She is the refugee woman, living in squalor in a camp in Kenya or Lebanon or Ethiopia or Jordan.  She is one of millions of women in the world, displaced by war and poverty. 

All these years after Jesus called the Syrophoenician woman a little dog, too often, she is scorned and told she does not have a place.  In spite of the heartwarming stories, such as 10,000 Icelanders offering their homes to refugees or the train in Dresden welcoming refugees with اهلًا وسهلاً (ahlan wa sahlan), there are far too many stories of refugees being told they are not welcome.  There is far too much talk of building walls and fences along borders in Europe and the US, and too many bodies washed up on shores, or found decaying in a truck in Austria or in the deserts of the southwestern United States.  Too many innocent lives lost because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Because they carry the wrong passport or no passport at all.

The Syrophoenician woman defied a lot of social customs.  A woman approaching a man.  A Gentile approaching a Jew.  Most would scoff and call it inappropriate.  Some would see it as incredibly brave.  And at the same time, incredibly desperate.  This is the last resort.  She’s likely tried everything else in her power to help her sick daughter.  She doesn’t do this on a whim.  She does it because she has no other choice.

Thursday’s New York Times’ top headlines included, “Unicef Warns of Lost Generation of War Children Out of School.”  Across the Middle East and North Africa, 13 million children have been driven from school.  Rick Gladstone writes, “In some countries — particularly Syria, which once had one of the world’s highest literacy rates — many children who ordinarily would be third or fourth graders by now have rarely if ever been inside a classroom.” (1)  And, “death, mayhem, hunger and disease are among the most obvious risks to civilians in these conflict zones, the collapse in primary education is another compelling reason for families with young children to flee.”(2)  Parents who choose to try to get to Europe aren’t doing this on a whim or for fun.  They are desperate.  They do it for their children.

David Lose writes about the woman, “I have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus time.  But I know that she believed her daughter was.” (3)  This unnamed Syrophoenician woman, by some accounts a wealthy Tyrian and by others, an ostracized villager, is a fierce advocate for her daughter.  No matter what she believed about herself, she wanted the best for her daughter.  She believed that her daughter was worthy.

So do they, all of these women who risk everything on the Mediterranean and in Europe and on the border between the US and Mexico.  They believe their children are worthy.  Of safety.  Of healthcare.  Of education.  They will do whatever it takes, including risking their own lives and the lives of their children, because they believe those precious children are worthy. 

What parent out there can blame them?  Who doesn’t believe that her child is worthy of a place in the world?  Who doesn’t want her child to have education and health care and a safe place just to be?  Who doesn’t want to exorcise the demons from her child’s life so that her child can simply grow up?

I struggle with this story as I read the news because Jesus isn’t supposed to be the one who turns people away.  Jesus isn’t supposed to be the one slinging racial slurs.  Jesus isn’t supposed to insult and shame.  Jesus is supposed to be the one who welcomes with open arms, who keeps making room at the table.  Jesus is supposed to tear down barriers.  Jesus is the one who is supposed to say yes when everyone else says no.

He gets there.  He just needs a little nudge.  From a brave, desperate woman who says, in the imagination of Karoline Lewis, “Guess what, Jesus?  God said yes to me.  God said yes to me when God tore open the heavens.  God said yes to me when God decided to show up in the wilderness rather than in the temple.  God said yes to me when you came here instead of spending all your time in Jerusalem.” (4)  This woman is the only character in Mark to best Jesus in an argument. (5)  Her daughter is healed.  And soon after, a deaf Gentile will hear and 4,000 will be fed.  All of the sudden, the borders that had been drawn are breaking down.  And we see the Jesus, who came for the sake of the whole world, at work.

Like the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man in Decapolis, there are a lot of us out there who yearn for healing.  Physical healing, but also healing of our hearts and souls.  Healing of this world that is so very broken.  Healing from all of the things that cause people to be displaced and get on boats and cross dangerous borders.  Healing from all of the things that cause so much hatred among people. 

We long for the world Isaiah speaks of in Isaiah 35:4-7a, where “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.”  Where “the lame shall lead like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  Where “the waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”  Where “the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”  We long for this world.  And, sometimes, we lose hope that it will ever come.

I can’t say when it will come.  But I can only trust that it will.  I can only place my trust in the God who tore open the heavens to enter in a broken, desperate world.  I can only place my trust in the one who opened his arms, who died, and who rose so that the world could know life.  I can only place my trust in the promise that, somehow, in the midst of all of this brokenness, the Spirit is working to restore this weary world and to make all things new.

And that is the promise, isn’t it?  To the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man at Decapolis.  To the people desperate to hear good news from the prophet Isaiah.  To people across the ages who long for healing and cling to little, tiny threads of hope, all the way to us, weary of war and violence and oppression and poverty.

When Jesus looked at a Syrophoenician woman and saw not a stranger, but one worthy, the heavens tore open a little wider.  When Jesus healed that little girl, they tore even wider.  They tore a little wider and showed a little more clearly that the world as it is is not the world as God intends it to be.  God knows it is still not.

God is still working.  God is still mending and healing.  God has not, and will not, and will never, abandon us, no matter where we find ourselves on this planet.  God doesn’t care about passports or countries of origin.  God cares about people.  Every single one of the precious children who is born on this planet.  God is tearing open the heavens and working in this world for each and every single one of them.  Like the Syrophoenician woman who fights for her daughter, God will keep fighting for each and every single one of God’s beautiful, beloved, worthy children.

Even when it seems impossible and so unbelievably unlikely, God is, somehow, working in this world to restore and redeem.  God is at work tearing down boundaries and breaking down barriers and making all things new.  For us and for our children.  For the stranger and the enemy and the friend and the neighbor, for the refugee and for the migrant.  And for their children.  They are worthy.  We are worthy.  God, let it be so.  Show us it is so. 

  1.  Rick Gladstone, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/world/middleeast/unicef-warns-of-lost-generation-of-war-children-out-of-school.html?emc=edit_th_20150903&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=57351645, 3 September 2015
  2. Ibid
  3. David Lose, “Pentecost 15B: What the Syrophoenician Woman Teaches,” http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-15-b-what-the-syrophoenician-woman-teaches/, 31 August 2015
  4. Karoline Lewis, “God Said Yes to Me,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3679, 30 August 2015
  5. Mary Ann Tolbert, Women’s Bible Commentary, “Mark”, p. 356
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