Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman by Rembrandt
A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2012. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.
We could almost make today’s Gospel into a riddle or quiz. If we did, the question would be, “How many people are healed?” In the stories we’ve just heard, how many find healing?
The story is almost only about one healing, because for a while, it looks like Jesus is going to pass the first woman by. Jesus is in Tyre, a long way from home. He’s moved beyond the familiar, out of those towns where people remember his mother and his father. He is in a northern area that today, would be in a part of Lebanon. Though Jesus seems to be trying to get away for a little while, no sooner does he get to this out-of-the-way place, that he meets a woman who asks for his help.
Scripture doesn’t tell her name, but Mark the Evangelist does what he can to show that she’s a stranger and a foreigner to Jesus. He refers to the woman by her ethnicity. She’s a Syrophoenician. He doesn’t bother with her name, but associates her with her people. It’s like when we might label someone by their ethnicity or race—“that nice Indian family down the street,” or “that Middle Eastern man who works down the hall.” Mark just calls her the Syrophoenician woman, so we instantly have a picture of how he (and Jesus) say her: her strangeness and her foreign-ness. She is not a Jew. She is not from Galilee. But she approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. And she approaches in faith.
This woman begs Jesus to cast out a demon from her little girl. But Jesus shrugs her off, repeating what must have been an expression of his day, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Here, Jesus implies that the “children” are the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. Jesus understands his own mission (to the extent that he understands it) as being for Israel, for the Jews—not for others. And so, this woman’s problems are simply outside his purview, beyond his job description. But the woman snaps back, “It may not be fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs— but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
And then something happens. Something opens up. Something happens to the little girl who is at home, not even present, and something happens to Jesus. The little girl is healed. And Jesus suddenly present in a new way. Jesus understands this woman, also, as one of God’s children– every bit as much as he or anyone else. His own vision is expanded.
The second story of healing involves Jesus meeting a man who is deaf and mute. Jesus takes him to the side, places his fingers into the man’s ears, spits and touches. Jesus sees the man, feels the man, and moves very closely into the man’s space and world. Ephphatha, he says: the Aramaic command form, “be opened.” “Open up now.” “Clear way, hear, speak, and live.” These are loaded words, loaded with new life for the man.
And so, if we’re keep count, there’s the healing of the little girl, the Syrophoenician’s daughter and there’s the healing of the man who is deaf and mute.
But isn’t more going on? The mother of the little girl is healed also, isn’t she? This mother who has worried about her daughter, who has probably prayed for her daughter, who perhaps has tracked down and stalked Jesus the healer—this woman is in some ways healed—healed of her worry, her pain, her heavy heart.
But let’s not stop there. I mean, if we really think about all that’s being said in this Gospel, is it too much to suggest that Jesus, too, is “healed?”
Jesus is healed as his own mind, perspective, sense of mission, sense of himself—his whole self-understanding is opened to God in new ways. When Jesus heals the man who is deaf and mute, he names that healing in terms of openness. Ephphatha “Be opened,” he says. In his interaction with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of her daughter, it’s also as though God says to Jesus, “Ephphatha.” And all kinds of things are opened to new life. The woman, the girl, Jesus, those watching, the early followers of Jesus, the foreigners, and any who might have been kept outside the formal religious tradition of the day. Through this woman God opens the male-dominated society up to the reality of a woman who is smart and persistent. And God uses this woman even to open up the heart of Jesus.
Jesus is open to the kind of vision Isaiah offers. A vision in which
The eyes of the blind are be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand becomes a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.
That’s some vision, but it’s what we, too, can encounter if we’re open to God’s spirit. Whether something is OPEN can mean all the difference in the world.
Sometimes when I’m on the campus of Virginia Seminary in Alexandria, people ask me, “how long does it take to get to your church?” That depends. As any of you who come from Virginia well know, it depends on marathons, and special events, and mostly on the openness of Rock Creek Parkway. On a weekday morning, with the parkway open, I can leave the church parking lot and roll into the seminary lot in exactly 14 minutes. But that depends on things being open.
In today’s Washington Post Magazine there’s a great story on technology and ancient texts in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. Because St. Catherine’s has been open since the 6th century, God has used those monks and that special place in amazing ways. The primary text that informs our scriptures today comes from the Codex Sinaiticus, which St. Catherine’s began to share with the wider world in the 19thcentury. Since then, other texts have been found, preserved, and deciphered. Now, technology allows for a close reading of palimspsets, pages that have been scraped clean and written over again. The image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ the Ruler of the Universe, thought to be the oldest icon in existence, comes from St. Catherine’s. All of this, because the monastery and the people within, have had the courage and the faith to be open to a world that sometimes is full of violence, greed, and ignorance; but just as often is a place of wonder, and learning, and growth.
This week we observe the anniversary of September 11, 2001. The terrorism and violence of that day shut down cities, roads, airways, and people for a little while. In New York City, there had been ways to navigate much of midtown underground, but as of September 12, many of those passageways were closed. Some continue to be close. But over time, with healing, much has opened. Fear of those we perceive as foreign or different has even improved a little, though we have a long way to go.
Our own parish tries to be open in new ways. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we stumble, but we’re open to the Spirit’s leading.
“Be opened,” are the simple, stark words that Jesus uses. But what mighty words!
If Jesus were standing in front of us right now, perhaps with one hand on our shoulder and looking us square in the eye and then saying, “Be opened,” what might that loving command call out of us? Healing? Growth? Renewal? Forgiveness? What would that enable? What new chapter of life might that launch for you? What new person in you might that opening create?
There’s old prayer from Salisbury, England that has been used for centuries to ask for God’s help and healing. And on this Sunday beginning a new season, perhaps it can lead us to new openness:
May God be in our head, and in our understanding.
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our heart, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.
May we be open to his power, to his healing and to his love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.