A Remarkable Woman Changed the Church
A sermon based on Mark 7:24-37
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 9, 2018 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
The New Testament Lectionary lesson that we just heard Rev. Young read tends to not be very well known in churches. The first time I remember hearing that reading in church was at a friend’s ordination in 1999. I found the text disturbing, so I can empathize if you were a bit surprised or uncomfortable hearing the story. I understand. It’s jarring.
I have to confess that nowadays I also understand why my friend picked it because I have come to love the Syrophoenician Woman– or the Canaanite Woman as she is known in the Book of Matthew who adds that Jesus cured the child because of the woman’s faith.
By whatever name we call her, the story wakes people up, even scares them. This is partly because we don’t know what to make of it. The sweet loving Prince of Peace that we know Jesus is cannot be found in the story. At least not at the start where he seems to use abusive language with a rough and mean edge. Jesus starts off demeaning and impairing the woman and her sick child’s enjoyment of an equal footing of access to God’s Grace and the healing that Jesus freely provides to others . . . well, at least freely to the children of God in Israel.
The woman and her daughter – as Syrophoenicians in Mark or Canaanites in Matthew– were considered to be what we would call of another race, nationality and ethnicity with respect to First Century Palestine Jews. And there is no easy way to put this a woman of another race with a child in dire need respectfully approaches and asks Jesus for help; and he discourteously denigrates them claiming his work is only for the Children of Israel, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is reported to have told her.
We cannot soft peddle it, “Dog” at the time was a derogatory term for a non-Jew. The insult, however, does not phase the woman. Desperate to help her child she pleads, ” Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her plea for Jesus to provide to even those seen as a dogs works. Jesus exclaims to her in Mark “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” And we are told the daughter is healed.
This little story can be used to assert all kinds of theological points. The right of women to teach and lead in the church; the acceptance of other faiths; the humanness of Jesus; the ability of humans to have altering affects on the Body of Christ. There is even a lesson about the power of prayer – ask Christ for something even when the world seems to understand that you will not get it.
I like this story so much I have to admit that for fun in seminary when a theologian, student or even a professor pontificated on something or another that I thought was a bit off or hoity-toity, I’d sometimes take the Syrophoenician woman out and put her on the table just to see what would happen. If I heard “Jesus was perfect and unchanging from the start.” I could say “Why is it that Jesus called the Syrophoenician woman and her child dogs, refused to help them, and then changed his mind?” If someone argued “Christian faith is the One way!” I’d could say “Why is it that Jesus glorifies the Canaanite Woman’s faith in Matthew and she was neither Christian nor Jewish?” If I heard “Since the beginning of Christianity women are not to teach” I could say “Then why does the Syrophoenician woman teach Jesus?”
Our lesson today befuddles orthodoxy. It puts down self-righteousness and speaks to many other subjects. It is packed full of wisdom and meaning. Although I sometimes had fun with the Syrophoenician Woman I take her story very seriously. The only person who is recorded to have taught Jesus something and changed his mind was member of a race considered subordinate to the Israelites; and was the gender considered subordinate to men. The lowly of race and the lowly of gender matters and can affect change in the church and theology. The lowly to culture must be heard.
Hearing her, the Syrophoenician woman packs more power than even Jesus himself in this story. She can be understood to have transformed Christ, and Christ’s ministry, and the Church! And as disturbing as the story seems to us, it likely would have been heard as humorous, the lowly bests the supposedly superior in a debate.
For those of us who want an easy out for this story we can take a sigh of relief as Jesus Scholars deem it as too unreliable to trace back to the historic Jesus. 1. In other words, reputable scholars don’t believe that Jesus actually mistreated this woman and her daughter, but see it as a parable.
A case can also be made that the story was written in a far different time and culture when sensitivities about racism were not the norm so Mark’s claiming Jesus “dissed” a Syrophoenician woman would not be heard by most as sullying his reputation. But that’s does not alter the fact that the story depicts a racially demeaning exchange with Jesus used as a literary tool to do the demeaning. But it can also be heard as the story unfolds to lift up the Woman being demeaned by showing as Matthew expressly does, that the heroic mom has faith. But also BY Mark and Matthew both showing a woman of courage and wisdom. Even though at first she gets no response, and then a very negative response, she keeps at it and finally gets through to Jesus and gets what she prayed for – his efforts to help heal her daughter. “Pray persistently” even if you think Jesus would not care for you, even if you hear he does care for you, is a fair message found in the text. 2. That’s a facet in it.
I find it interesting, though, that about a fifth of The Jesus Scholars are reported to have taken “the view that the story was a Christian invention to justify the church’s mission to the Gentiles.”1. As one of my seminary professors suggested, Jesus in this story was meant to symbolize the Church and its decision to change from being the Body of Christ that ministered only to the children of Israel to being the Body of Christ that ministered to the ends of the earth – to Gentiles and Jews. 3. That is another facet in the story.
All this begs the question, if the early church restricted the Good News of the Gospel to only those of a certain race, would we today call that a form of racism? Was the Church doing something like that? And from our modern perspective I think the answer is “Yes.” The early Church had leaders at first centered what we now call Christianity only on Jewish Jesus Followers.
Paul is the most famous early church leader to try to change that centering. Paul urged that the Church needed to also allow in non-Jews– the Gentiles, which is a word, like the word “Greeks,” used to politely delineate people of non-Jewish races in the Bible. Since most of us here are not Jews from the area we call Israel we would be considered a different race than Jesus and Paul and almost all the heroes and heroines in the Bible. Paul and a few others on his side argued early on that all races should be allowed in and cared for by the Church, the Body of Christ that lives on after Ascension Sunday.
In the Gospels, prior to his Ascension Jesus tells his followers to love everyone. Paul, in his older than the gospels writings beautifully puts it like this in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” There is a big battle over this and the side Paul champions eventually wins in the long run. We can hear vestiges of this historic battle in the text today. The Church, the Body of Christ, at one time did not want to waste resources on other races – the Gentiles. Many in the early Church wanted to focus only on the lost sheep of Israel, not on the lowly dogs of other races. Seen this way our discomfort is shifted to the exclusionary ways of the early Church, not the historic Jesus.
But there is also good news about the Church in the story. The Church learns from the victims of racism, it chooses to change and tend to them, symbolized by Jesus changing and tending to the Syrophoenician woman and her child. In other words, the Church early on makes the mistake of excluding folks on the basis of race from the continuing Body of Christ as Church . . . . and when the error is called to its attention . . . the Church fixes it.
The Body of Christ, the Church, when all is said and done, relatively quickly answers the call to help the Gentiles. That’s not disturbing. That’s a lesson in Love. That’s a lesson in how Church ought to act when it makes mistakes, when it has excluded others from Jesus’s open-to-all community and table, when it excludes people from access to God’s unconditional love and grace. In this day and age when people and groups of people are still referred to as dogs, or worse, today’s Lectionary text has a powerful lesson. When the care and justice and respect provided to one race is different than the care, justice and respect provided to another, churches and church people, would do well to learn as the living Body of Christ does from the Syrophoenician Woman.
Her wisdom is very similar to what we discussed last week, that we need to value all people. But I like the quote I used from Paul in his letter to the church in Galatia. We must have a frame of mind and become a community of faith where:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all . . . are one in Christ Jesus.”
That means every barrier and false construct created by humanity must be taken down. So there is no racism. So there is no sexism. So there is no heterosexism. So there is no classism. So there is no ism of any sort. So no human is called a dog.
May we learn from the wisdom of the Syrophoenician Woman, of Paul and of Jesus and our text today. AMEN.
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008
1. Funk, Robert & The Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco (1998), p. 96-98, 212–214. The suggestions and references in this sermon pertaining to the probability that certain words in the story of the Syrophoenician woman are not traceable to the historic Jesus are derived from this book. But I note that the Jesus Scholars did think the core story probably has roots in something(s) that happened in Jesus’s life.
2. See, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1 p. 336-338.
3. These are not his words, but, rather how I interpreted Dr. John Rigg’s musings one day in a course on Baptism and Communion in the fall of 2005.
4. Woolf, S. H., Johnson, R. E., Fryer Jr, G. E., Rust, G., & Satcher, D. (2004). “The Health Impact of Resolving Racial Disparities: An Analysis of US Mortality Data”. American Journal of Public Health, 94 (12), 2078-2081. I located this information and the citation in a footnote at a Wikipedia site on “racism” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_United_States#cite_note-134
5. This information is extrapolated from the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services website at http://www.omhrc.gov/templates/content.aspx?ID=3021
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2018