Today's gospel reading is a puzzling one to say the least. There are as many opinions about the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman as there are scholars. This is the message I preached today at Bethel in Portville, NY.
In today’s gospel, Jesus has travelled to Tyre, a distinctly non-Jewish city on the coast of the Mediterranean, knowing he would meet Gentiles, or non-Jews. Tyre had an extensive relationship with its Jewish neighbors. It was a rich city, which depended upon the agricultural production of outlying areas like northern Palestine. Galilee fed Tyre. So what is a rural Jew like Jesus doing in a place like Tyre? Jesus always seems to be hanging out with the wrong people—sinners, outcasts, Gentiles—all the people the religious elite did not approve of.
The woman in the first story, being a Syrophoenician from the region of Tyre may well have been an urban member of the ruling class with interests directly opposed to those of rural Jews. And what was Jesus? He was a rural Jew from Nazareth. Jesus and the woman were from completely different worlds with different customs, beliefs, and values. Society in Jesus’ day was all about status—your own status and how you might elevate it. One did not bother spending time with those who could not improve their station in life. The woman’s status would certainly not become higher by spending time with Jesus. What did he have to offer her? Why was she interested in seeking him out? She had a sick little girl and she was desperate to find a cure.
This woman had heard about Jesus. As wealthy and powerful as she may have been, she was a mother who cared about her sick little girl, a child who had an evil spirit, which wealth and prestige could not get rid of. So imagine this rich high-class woman (whatever that may look like in your mind) humbling herself by seeking out such a commoner-- and a Jew at that! Jesus belonged to the race that her people used. The woman cast aside her concerns about status to come to him in the first place. The text says she bowed at his feet, which is a very mild way of saying that she fell down at his feet begging for his help. Women were not supposed to approach men in such a bold way. She was really taking a risk. But what did she have to lose? Just maybe Jesus could do something for her little girl. Can you sense this woman’s desperation? We may have felt this way at some time in our own lives. Maybe we feel like that now. This unnamed woman had faith that Jesus could heal her daughter in spite of the way their world was supposed to work.
Look at how Jesus responds to this woman. He sounds harsh and uncaring. We are not used to seeing this side of Jesus. Does he seem a little mean? Is this more of a glimpse into Jesus’ humanity? He calls her a dog! This is not some cute little pet like you or I may have. This use of dog is an insult! The Jews referred to the Gentiles as dogs. We are more used to a portrait of Jesus that shows compassion. Was Jesus just calling the situation as he saw it?
Here he is in Gentile territory with a Gentile woman whose people oppressed the children of Israel and now this woman is asking for Jesus’ help. In Jesus’ seemingly mean response to the woman, those listening would have heard a legitimate grievance of the Jewish people against unfair practices like the diversion of harvests to wealthy urban centers like Tyre. Jesus defined the wall between himself and the woman, between his people and her people.
The Syrophoenician woman does not argue with Jesus about the political and social situation of that time. She acknowledged it, but she was a determined, feisty woman who wanted healing for her little girl. Jesus had put this woman in her place, but she did not stay there! She argues with Jesus, which was not done at that time. When Jesus spoke of children, he used the Greek word meaning biological children. In her argument, the woman uses a more inclusive word for children, which could include the entire household, even the slaves. Now Jesus heard her and granted her request for the healing of her daughter. Jesus stepped over that wall that he defined earlier.
Jesus went outside the bounds of the Jewish custom of his day by going into Gentile territory. The point of this lesson is that the kingdom of God is too great to be simply limited to Jewish territory. Jesus is defining his ministry to encompass both Jew and Gentile. God would not be kept in a box. The woman breached the boundaries of Jesus’ society and her own by coming to him for help. Both defied the conventions of their time and place.
So we may ask ourselves, what is the point of today’s gospel? The first point for us is that God’s kingdom is big enough for us all. God in his divine plan does not want to exclude anyone and Jesus is waiting for us to ask for help. The second point for us today is that no problem is too big or too small to be brought before Jesus. Jesus is telling us is that we need to ask for help. Sometimes because of human pride, we have to humble ourselves and lower our station and bow down before the feet of our Lord.
The Syrophoenician woman was bold enough to humiliate herself publicly to ask for Jesus’ help. Are we willing to take that same risk? Amen.