The Syrophoenician Woman
9 September 2012/Proper 18B - Mark 7:24-37
Jesus is trying to hide out. He wants to get away from it all. He has just tangled with the Religious and Political authorities over what is clean and what is unclean – he decries cherry-picking the rules you choose to follow, and he refuses to be constrained by the traditions of the elders.
Which brings us to this story in Mark 7 – the traditions of the elders forbid a man and a woman being along together unless they are married. And the traditions of the elders forbid a man and a gentile woman being together at all. She is considered unclean and just being in her presence can make you unclean as well. On the basis of gender and ethnicity, Jesus should not be talking with her at all.
A sentiment he echoes when she asks for help. Her daughter is possessed by a demon. This nameless woman has heard what Jesus can do to help broken people to become whole once more. This mother is desperate – she knows she should not be alone with the man, with this Jew. But she is filled with love for her daughter, and she senses that Jesus is filled with God’s love. His response, however, is not so loving – “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Do we get that? He calls her a dog. He calls her daughter a dog. He calls all Gentiles dogs. And in those days, dogs were not cuddly pets, but were themselves considered unclean scavengers. Jesus suddenly appears to be fully aligned with the traditions of the elders. Until he listens to the woman.
She does not stand down. He talks about dogs, so she engages the metaphor – ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ This woman’s heart is filled with love and with faith – faith that God will hear her cry. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
At first Jesus could not see this woman. He could not see her love and her faith. All he could see was someone intruding on his alone time, and that that someone was an outsider – a woman, and a Gentile woman at that. But Jesus hears her. Jesus hears her and sees her as if for the first time. Jesus sees that this woman embodies the Love of God in a way that he was lacking just moments before. All she asks for are crumbs. She does not ask for all of his power. Just a few crumbs.
“For saying that you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
It is hard to know what the miracle is in this story. Is it that the daughter is delivered from her distress? Is it that Jesus can heal up close and far away – that his powers are not bound by the ordinary physical laws of time and space? Is it that this woman possesses such self-confidence, such faith in Jesus, such love for her daughter that she will not be deterred?
Or, is it that people like this woman can change God’s mind? And, by so doing, can change the world?
It is all of the above and more. Spending my days teaching young women, I find a particular fascination with this story. Every day I come more and more to the realization that the future of the world will come through the determination and self-confidence of women like the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark chapter 7. I remember reading this in class with the girls last year. When it dawned on them how Jesus initially responds, how the woman does not stand down, and how Jesus is moved to a whole new place in relation to women and Gentiles, one of the girls simply responded, “Wow!”
This year we have a new student from Afghanistan. She writes a blog. She is part of a collective blog called the Afghan Women’s Writer’s Project. I urge you to go there and read what the women of Afghanistan are saying. They represent the Syrophoenician Woman of today. They write with confidence, with hope, and with faith – faith that the world, their world, will be a better place as they let their voices be heard.
There is much that we hope for, much which remains unseen. But if you want to spend a few moments or even a few hours with a miracle – listen to the Women Writers of Afghanistan. You will find your spirit moved. You will see that the world is changing. All that is left for the rest of us is to let ourselves be changed as well.
Jesus allowed himself to be moved, to be changed, to be opened up in a whole new way. Listen to the women of the world. If we do, we will be changed, and the world will be changed. All for the better. Amen.
The Reverend Kirk A. Kubicek, St. Timothy’s School for Girls