The Syrophoenician woman

September 6, 2015
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Pastor Steve Loy

 

New Testament Reading: James 2:1-4, 8-10

     My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

Gospel Lesson: Mark 7:24-30

     Jesus 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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 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.

 

Pastor Steve Loy’s sermon

     I’m beginning today’s sermon with a 9-minute segment of a video from 1970 that some of you may have seen. The original title was “The Eye of the Storm;” later it was renamed “A Class Divided.”

[These video clips are excerpted from a story by “Frontline” that was a follow-up to an experiment that Ms. Jane Elliott did with her 3rd grade class in 1970. The adults you see in the video, other than Ms. Elliott, are the students as adults. They were brought in several years later to view the video and talk about their experiences. Watch these two clips before continuing with the sermon text. ] 

Divided Class – day 1

Divided Class – day 2

 

     The Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter may be one of the most important characters in the New Testament and yet we hardly ever hear about her. We don’t read about her in Sunday School or remember her in Vacation Bible School. We don’t have songs about her or remember her in children’s plays. She comes to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter and he says no. And worse, he says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” People in ancient Israel didn’t treat dogs like a part of their family. Dogs were scavengers that roamed the streets looking for garbage. Jesus suggests that Jews are the children of God, and she is nothing but  scavenger, unworthy of the children’s food.

     We like to assume that Jesus loved everyone, cared about everyone, had compassion on everyone, included everyone. But not in this story. In this story, Jesus draws a line between Jews and everyone else. I have always wondered what it means that Jesus won’t heal someone. And yet, when she persists and argues with him, he relents. Does this story represent a change in Jesus self-understanding? Is this the moment when he realizes his ministry is not only to Jews, but to all races and all nations?

     The Syrophoenician woman represents every person who has ever been considered a dog by good, religious people. She represents witches in Salem who were drowned by pious Puritans. She represents Muslims in Jerusalem who were slaughtered by zealous Crusaders sent from Rome. She represents black people in the South who were lynched by Clan members while the cross burned in front of their house. She is every person unlucky enough to be born across an arbitrary geographical line or with a skin color that is less desirable than some other color. She is every person who has not measured up to someone else’s standards or been excluded because of the way God made them. She is every person to whom the church has ever said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

     This nameless woman who finds herself unacceptable because she is born north of Israel’s border to parents of a different nationality won’t let Jesus’ insult be the last word. She says to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She has a simple, relentless faith that won’t let Jesus off the hook She presses him to heal her daughter. She didn’t know much theology. She had no education. But she had a faith that grabbed hold of Jesus and wouldn’t let him go. Like Jacob at the Ford of the Jabbok she says to Jesus, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

     This unnamed woman changes everything — changes us — because from that day forward Jesus viewed his ministry differently. From that day forward everyone gets included, everyone receives the same grace, the same healing, has the opportunity to know God in the same way. Because of her, the principle of universal grace guides the church into ever deeper inclusiveness. Because of her, we know that our God favors no one group over another, no one person over another, and that everyone is loved and forgiven and healed and welcomed by God in just the same way.

     The closing scene of this video is a glimpse of the kingdom of God. The children represent every person who discovers the deep spiritual reality of our unity in the eyes of God.

A Class Divided – reunited


Click here to see the full “Frontline” story.