God Does Not Turn Us Away
I once met a pastor who told me “If I could get rid of any one book of the Bible it would be Job. That book just doesn’t make sense to me.” Now, the pastor didn’t think you should get rid of any book of the Bible, he was just telling me his druthers. And I have to admit I feel a little like that about this snippet from Mark. Here we have a woman who runs up to Jesus and asks him for His help for her sick daughter. And He says, “Shouldn’t I be expected to feed my kids before the dogs?” It doesn’t matter that His saying that was a common turn of phrase like our “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” It doesn’t matter that Jesus had just got done scolding Pharisees about being hypocrites and feeding five thousand people on a lakeshore and calming storms. Being tired is no excuse to be rude.
That’s what I think when I read this text. It would be one thing if Jesus had to do something like what Elisha did in Second Kings and had to go in person to heal a child. But when Jesus does heal this woman’s poor sick kid, He does it with a sentence from the other side of town. He doesn’t even break a sweat. So why did He have to say “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?”
And, adding insult to injury, in the next few verses, Jesus gets a deaf and mute man brought to him. Does Jesus grill this guy’s friends? No! He says, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened” and suddenly the man can hear and talk without a problem. We have no reason to believe that this miracle was more difficult or this man was more deserving of help than the woman’s child—no one in Mark or Matthew even said he was Jewish. But after Jesus challenges this woman, he helps this man with no hesitation. Why?
The answer to that question isn’t obvious. It isn’t even easy to understand. It’s the sort of answer that makes the wise feel silly. It has to do with how people at the time thought. It has to do with the fact that in the kingdom of God, the first are last and the last are first—and Jesus doesn’t think any of us should feel terribly comfortable about that.
What an odd message, right? Well you may have noticed that today’s whole service is a little odd, too. All the liturgists today are women and the people running our Sunday school are men—the pastor included. That’s because today, we are altering your regularly scheduled service to honor the mothers and female caregivers and women in general of our congregation. And today we look at a text that honors a woman who had the audacity to speak up to the Son of God and say, “I am here. Recognize me. Help me.” Because of her love for her child and her willingness to stand up and ask for help from someone who, according to His culture’s rules about women and Gentiles, should not have even bothered to look at her, because she approached him she not only had her plea answered but she has been remembered for 2000 years. Today we honor that boundary-breaking woman as well as all the women of our church who take risks to help others, who love children, who care for others often without any social acknowledgement or thanks, just as Christ cared for all of us. Today is a day to flip our preconceptions around and take a good look at them.
That’s exactly what this story in the Gospel of Mark is trying to do here. Mark likes to stress the irony of Jesus’s life. Jesus could command bodies healed and demons banished with ease; but the often well-meaning humans who say they serve Him plain ignore His commands. The Syrophoenician woman is used here by Mark to show the other side of that—Jesus listening to the word of a human He was not expected to even interact with and responding with a compassion He is rarely shown. In doing so, He shows us how God listens where honorable, self-righteous, correct people would not, thus showing how God possesses a higher, deeper, truer honor. God through Christ does this to the point of subverting the very social structures God’s chosen people, the religious, the strict, the holy and wise, believed God set up. Christ’s kingdom angers the self-righteous and honors the dishonored. In doing so here, God shows us that we cannot presume to know how we compare to others in God’s eyes. Instead all we can do is ask for God’s compassion for ourselves and our brothers and sisters and children beside us.
That is what the Syrophoenician woman did. She stepped up for someone she loved who could not stand up for herself. Now, we do not have the Syrophoenician woman’s life story, but the bare facts point us to a sad picture. Women in the Ancient Near East were not supposed to bring their problems before men; if anyone had to, it was supposed to be a family male. A woman that ran up to a man—a respected teacher even—was considered rude, dishonorable. Yet no one seemed ready to help this woman. In Matthew’s account, we learn that she has been trailing behind Christ and the apostles for a while, to the point that they get sick of her noise and ask Christ to stop and listen to her. No one stepped up and said, “Sir, please, give this woman, my neighbor, your time.” And not only was she a woman alone, she was Greek not Jewish, with a demon-possessed daughter or, perhaps by modern eyes, an insane child. This desperate, dishonored woman brought her problems to Christ, a teacher pursued by crowds of admirers and critics alike. She did this because she knew something. She knew that Jesus was the kind of teacher who spoke to the unwashed masses. She had heard either from those who’d listened by the lakeshore or through His sermons, that the heart of His message, the message He proclaimed from mountaintops and lakeshores and boats and, later, from the arms of a cross, was compassion. That compassion gave her courage.
Perhaps she did not understand that Jesus is Lord—few did at the time—but she knew that He was the sort of person that debated the strict, self-righteous Pharisees, that spoke to and fed and ate with the Gentiles on the plain along with the chosen people of God. She listened and she hoped that this great teacher who worked miracles was the sort of person who would listen to a strange woman with the guts to reach out to Him. And, of course, Christ did. But He chose to make a point of it that His more traditionalist disciples would be forced to hear.
Matthew’s version of this story emphasizes the woman’s faith as the reason Christ healed her daughter. But here Mark wants us to know that God desires us to challenge our own expectations of God. God wants us to ask for help for things we do not deserve and to know that we do not deserve them. God wants us to be persistent in our faith. We are shown here that while God does heal us, does love us, none of us have a right to expect God’s extended grace. Rather, we must ask for it as a gift freely given, not an entitlement. Not one of us, not rich or poor, not woman, man, child, senior, immigrant, or native, has a right to God’s grace for healing or salvation. But we are called to both know this and to ask anyway. Humbly but with the courage of knowing Christ’s message.
There are lots of women in the Bible we can and should emulate. There’s Dorcas, a beloved, hardworking, kind disciple who was raised from the dead; there’s Deborah, the general-judge from the Old Testament who commanded armies and won battles; and of course there are the Marys and the other holy women of the New Testament. But today I want us to think about this unnamed woman who irritated the apostles, who was filled with love for her daughter and an excess of moxie. When we talk to God we are often either apologetic and timid or bold and demanding. But that woman, thinking about her daughter suffering at home, did not apologize and did not demand. Instead, she reminded Jesus that even the unworthy, the unchosen can benefit from His teachings. She reminded Him that He spoke not only to Jewish men, but to the people of all races and genders and creeds who came to listen to Him in the fields. When Christ spoke from the lakeshore, He knew that people like this desperate woman would listen to Him and follow Him to all corners of the world. And though He challenged her to ask Him why He should bother to help a shamed Gentile woman, I believe Christ knew before He asked that He would. He and His disciple Mark who gave us this version of the story wanted to make it clear that Jesus wanted this woman to challenge His words. He wanted her to challenge the technically appropriate response any Pharisee or disciple would give to a Greek stranger on the street. He wanted His ever-baffled followers to listen to her response. To understand His compassion.
Like the Syrophoenician woman we must consider to ourselves why Christ, through no social or theological obligation, chose to help the Syrophoenician woman and, in turn, all of us unworthy sinners. You not should think to yourself, “Oh no! What have I done to deserve His love?” Nor should you think, “Because I’m a good person—I am in the right, so God will give me what I ask.” We are all undeserving beneficiaries of God’s love, each and every one, no matter our moral status, our wealth, our gender, our dysfunctional family relationships, or our mental health status. Our place at or—like awkward eager puppies—beneath the world’s table does not matter. Because even if we were worse, even if we were better, God like God’s only Son in this story, would listen to our pleas. In Christ, God proved to us that God does not—will not—turn away the least or the greatest of us. We are all elevated through Christ to a place at God’s table. When we turn to Christ and ask for God’s help, we are all loved despite our worst and our best selves.
We do not always have the courage to come and lay our pleas at God’s feet. Sometimes our burdens seem too large. Sometimes they seem too small and petty. Sometimes someone who loves us has to carry that burden for us. Sometimes we, like the Syrophoenician woman, have to carry the heavy burdens of others. But we should not hesitate. We should be ready to lay our needs and desires, our sins and our successes, bare before God. Because the King has heard our plea and will answer it with compassion. We know that God will because Christ challenged and then healed this quick-witted woman’s daughter. We know because God so loved the world that He gave His only Son up on a cross not only for the chosen people but for a weak and dishonored world. We know when we dare to lift up our eyes and hearts to the Lord that we are seen. We are loved. So share your burdens with God today. Share the burdens of others. Do not hesitate to shake the hand of the person beside you, to show compassion and kindness to the people we have been told to scorn. The least person beside you is your brother. The least beside you is your sister. Your mother. Your father. Your child. Because that is the lesson of the Syrophoenician woman; once we all would have been placed beneath the table. Christ is the one who lifts us from the ground and sets us at a seat.