Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2015
The Faith of the Syro-Phoenician Woman
Praying for another is the action that secures Jesus’ blessing for the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Because she begs for the healing of her daughter, Jesus rewards her with his healing powers. How often do we pray whole-heartedly for others?
For centuries Americans have proudly upheld the democratic morality that states as a human right the access to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Though one could argue that the French also hold these truths to be self-evident in their motto, “liberté, égalité, et fraternité” – liberty, equality and fellowship – the symbols Americans have attributed to these virtues have a specific focus on being used to unite diverse nations, cultures and races. I think of the early colonial flag of a coiled serpent on a yellow field, its tongue flicking and beneath it boldly stitched are the words “Don’t Tread on Me!” I think of another symbol, this one created during the First Continental Congress, of a snake – this time severed into eight parts – and beneath it is boldly etched the words, “Join, or Die.”
Americans proudly defend these rights which includes within them one’s freedom to practice religion as they please – and thank God because if not I don’t think we’d be sitting here. These interpretations cast life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as both political and spiritual endeavors, and therefore not only as human rights but as political and spiritual human rights.
The unnamed Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 is only identified by her race and origination: she’s a Gentile, most likely a Greek, and she is from the coastal region of Phoenicia. Roman power in Ancient Palestine was made most effective because of its use of division as a tool for ruling. Roman authorities used local personnel to serve as puppet rulers in conquered regions like Judea, while inserting an overlord assigned to the region from Rome. An example of this would be Herod – a local “king” at the time of Jesus’ birth – who was likely over-ruled by a Roman authority like Pilate – the Roman official assigned to govern Jerusalem and Judea at the time of Jesus’ death. Ancient Palestine was already naturally tribalistic, but the Romans exacerbated existing tribal animosities by enforcing this type of hierarchical structure. They implemented an “Us-versus-Them” mentality that naturally drove wedges between tribes and persons within tribes. Socio-anthropologists would call this “tribalism” – meaning to describe the natural reaction of like-minded or genetically similar or historically-similar persons together into a “tribe”. Sometimes the strongest uniting factor for a “tribe” was that its members were uniquely different from the members of other tribes. In these cases, one certain psychological outcome was to demonize members from the tribes, or indeed the whole tribe itself based on their differences. In essence, tribalism is divisive.
The Jewish tribe is not the Gentile tribe, the Nazarene tribe is not the Syrophoenician tribe. Mark captures the divisiveness of Ancient Palestinian tribalism in verse 27, when Jesus calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog unfit for the children’s food. When it’s a matter of “Us vs. Them”, “Us” always wins.
But this isn’t a matter of “Us vs. Them”, it’s a matter of the healer and the unclean, the needy and the provider. Verse 28 shows us that the Syrophoenician woman has no intention of backing down until she gets a blessing for her daughter. She fights back saying, “Lord, even the crumbs of the children’s food falls to the dogs.”
Done. End of discussion. By your faith, your daughter is healed.
How often do we pray whole-heartedly for others?
In hermeneutics, this is what we’d call a text of terror. It leaves an uncomfortable feeling within us. Why does Jesus dismiss the woman so harshly? What opinion do we have of our savior, cast in this light?
It’s uncomfortable to see Jesus – a man we call our comforter, our compassionate teacher, our loving sacrifice – being vulgar to an innocent woman. Maybe he dismisses her because he knows she’ll fight back and he wants to make an example of her. Maybe he dismisses her because he’s tired of doing his ministry and carrying the burdens of the world without rest. Maybe he dismisses her because she is a dog, undeserving of the fruits of his blessing.
If he knows she’ll fight back, then we learn an incredibly important lesson about the immense power of intercessory prayer. If he’s tired of his ministry and shouldering the weight of the world, well then we can forgive him for being human because we’ve been there before and we can empathize with him. And if he truly thinks she’s a dog undeserving of his blessing…. Well, shoot…. That’s terrifying to see; terrifying to see that Jesus, in his humanity, can be both kind and cruel. We don’t want to see the cruelty, but there it is, and now we have to wrestle with it.
Where is the Good News in Mark’s passage? It seems hidden. Jesus has a human side, and just like us, he can be cruel.
Just like us, he can be dismissive.
Just like us, he can be harsh.
And that makes the role of the Syrophoenician woman so much more important. She stands firm. She will not be beaten down. She will not cower under his cruelty. His dismissal will not dismiss her. His harshness will not beat her down. His cruelty will not faze her.
Even the dogs eat the crumbs of the children’s table.
In one tribe, there are many tribes and all their members – diverse in culture, race, color and nation – deserve your blessing.
October 6, 1998: Wyoming. Silence as the sun sets. A long dusty road changes hues in the fading sun, and out of the dusk, a truck kicks dust beneath its tires. Three young men sit in the cabin, cozily: two are deceivers, one a Shepard to his cross proceeding. They stop, drag the Shepard from the truck, beat him, berate him, disfigure his face, then tie him up to the fence and leave him to die, alone. This Shepard had the audacity to be himself, to love a man, and his reward was humiliation, isolation, torture and death.
We come from different tribes across this great democratic republic, but our bonds of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are loose enough so that we – like that straw-haired scarecrow – can die for the sake of practicing our rights. If we Americans cannot bring ourselves into one tribe – one united state of being – then we’ve made almost no progress away from Roman occupied Ancient Palestine.
August 9, 2014: the state of Missouri, a Brown boy holds up his hands in front of a color-blind firing squad and is shot to death. Suddenly we have a new “shot heard ‘round the world,” and the bold declaration “Don’t Tread On Me” evolves into the keening scream “Black Lives Matter.” These are the banks of the great river where once a King united the tribes in peaceful protest. But two score and seven years later, how far have the slain King’s efforts brought us toward equality, liberty and fellowship?
We mistake division for diversity, tolerance for acceptance, cultural warfare for social progressivism. But on April 12, 2015, this time in police custody, in West Baltimore another brown boy dies.
We mistake the keening call for social equality as religious condemnation: October 7, 2014 – the state of Indiana refuses to define a loving bond between two men or two women as marriage and to accept such a union as legal. And in March of this year, in the same state, a baker refuses service to a gay couple on the grounds of religious belief.
We permit divisive interpretations of Scripture to force a wedge between what Jesus taught and what traditional religion teaches, because surprisingly to some, loving your neighbor is just as important as loving yourself. And that’s our faith, not my faith versus your faith. We are Ancient Palestine beneath the ironclad fist of Roman occupation, and it is terrifying that so many believe that our faith ought to dismiss outsiders because they are not in our tribe!
Who will be our Syrophoenician woman?
Whose faith in the Good News will raise them to stand up firmly in advocacy for all those who have been denied, who have had doors closed in their faces, who have been refused service because of who they are, what they look like, what they believe, and how they love?
Whose faith in the Good News will raise them up to stand firmly in advocacy for the oppressed, for the children of God who’ve hidden their true selves because society tells them that to be themselves is not normal? Who’ve been ridiculed and dismissed so often that they wear their pain like a second layer of skin?
Whose faith in the Good News will raise their voices to cry out, “STOP!”, “Don’t Shoot!”, “I can’t breathe!”?
Whose faith in the Good News compels them to be like the grieving mother whose compassionate plea is not to recommend death for death but life for death?
The answer is simple: yours, and yours, and yours, and yours, and yours, and God willing, mine. The Good News requires us to raise our voices, lift our intentions, direct our actions for the goodness of this world. We can begin by courageously reforming ourselves into one faithful, one loyal, one tribe focused on love, life, liberty, equality, fellowship, and yes, the pursuit of happiness. Not just for ourselves, but for all.
Let’s all be the Syrophoenician woman, being battered down, dismissed by voices of separation, division and vengeance, yet strong enough to get back up and declare that our Good News cannot be silenced. When we do that, this table will always be open for the hungry; these doors and this sanctuary will always be open for the wanderers – even for Jesus – who come to seek rest.
How often do we pray whole-heartedly for others?
It’s never too late to start.
It’s never too late to start.