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September 6, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 18 - Year B "Of Syrophoenician Mothers Then and Now"

 

 

Proper 18

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

 

    This has been a busy week in the Warren house. Besides all the usual household chores and errands, I guess you could say that I spent the majority of my time this week doing two things: combing through hundreds of back to school pictures on Facebook, and preparing for this morning’s sermon. The two are related, although in very strange ways. 

    A number of friends had posted pictures of their children with the same Elizabeth Stone quote: “To be a parent is to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” I think that is a wonderful sentiment, and captures so much of the vulnerability you feel as your children begin to carve their own path out in the world. As parents, we all want our children to be generally successful. Of course, as a parent, you want your children to really succeed in the spheres that are important to you. Kristy, for instance, is grooming Abby to be a pitcher. I, on the other hand, am carefully crafting her golf swing. Maybe “Parenthood is to have your ego walking around outside your body.” We believe that our children are the ultimate reflection of who we are, and, as such, we want them to be the best at the things we care about most. It sounds prudish, but one area where I place an incredible premium is our children’s behavior. I want Abby and John to reflect our values of etiquette and appropriateness. I want them to value compassion and altruism as much as I do. So you can imagine my pride when John came home from the first day of Kindergarten to report that his teacher told him that he was wonderful little student, sitting quietly at his table doing the work in front of him while other children were loudly parading around the classroom. 

    I want to contrast my pride in John’s behavior with my research in this week’s Gospel lesson. All week, I read excuse after excuse, theologians tripping over themselves trying to find a way to justify Jesus’ treatment of the Syrophenician woman in this morning’s gospel. 

    Here in Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus trying to find refuge outside of Galilee. Jesus has performed miracles and mighty works throughout Judea, and now simply wants to go somewhere where he could be anonymous. While staying in Tyre, a desperate mother, whose daughter has been tormented by a demon, somehow hears that Jesus is nearby, immediately goes to Jesus and begs at his feet to cast out her daughter’s demon. Jesus rebuffs this Syrophoenician woman, arguing that using his power to give relief to a gentile would be a zero sum game—that maybe a Hebrew would be better served by this exorcism. Jesus cuts down the desperate mother “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

    Explicitly, Jesus is likening this foreign woman to a dog, and implicitly, Jesus is saying that there is greater value in saving an Israelite than a Gentile. And so, all week, I have read commentators make some variation of the argument that “Jesus’ rude comments were merely tongue in cheek—a case of a skilled teacher teasing out the best in his pupil by presenting the most formidable challenge.”

    And to that, I say hogwash. 

    There is a simpler answer to explain Jesus’ behavior: he was human!

    That sounds strange to say, doesn’t it? Jesus was human. When theologians talk about the nature of the Incarnation—they have to answer two important questions. Was Jesus fully human? Yes, because unless he was fully human, the Godhead would never, and could never, fully understand experience the human condition. Of course, if Jesus was only fully human, he couldn’t perform the miracles ascribed to him, and his death would not have been salvific. So, was Jesus fully divine? Yes, because without it, what good could he have been to reconcile humanity back to God. 

    Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus’ ministry as frenetic and non-stop. Here, we see Jesus trying to escape the crowds that have followed him since he first called his disciples in Galilee by trying to find some anonymity in Tyre. No sooner does Jesus put his suitcase down does a woman arrive at his feet begging for something. Making matters worse, she’s a Gentile. Maybe Jesus was just tired that day. Maybe Jesus believed that the Jewish messiah was meant only for the Children of Israel. Other than believing that Jesus was a human capable of being tired and annoyed, I can’t explain or excuse Jesus behavior, only how it was changed by witnessing the faith of another. 

    Because, you see, a funny thing happens at the intersection of the incarnation and faith: Grace. 

    Jesus, in his incarnational experience of being a 1st Century Jew, believes that his mission is to the Children of Israel. But, when he is confronted with the faith of this Syrophoenician mother and her insistence that God's mercy can extend beyond the political and social borders of Israel, when Jesus comes face to face with that faith--we see the extension of God's Grace to include Gentiles. 

    Last week, we saw Jesus castigate the Pharisees for their incorrect vision of God's law. Our diet is not the arbiter of our holiness or sinfulness, it is our heart, which directs our actions which define our righteousness. This morning we find Jesus being corrected. Israel has and will enjoy a place of prominence in God's plan for salvation, but God's mercy was never meant to be limited to that one family. Instead, God's Grace is to originate from, and extend beyond Israel to include the Gentiles. That understanding is confirmed with Jesus additional miracles around the Decapolis. 

    And so, that is the Good News this morning. That the embrace of God's love and mercy has been enlarged, extended beyond Israel to include the Gentiles, as well. I use the passive voice purposefully, because while it may have been part of God's plan to extend salvation to all, it is a lesson that Jesus himself needed to be taught. This newfound understanding was not the result of some divine revelation, but of the insistence of a brave mother who would do anything for her daughter, even if that meant turning the ear of the Jewish Messiah. 

    That is the Good News this morning, but it is not the only lesson we are to learn this morning. 

    As I said, I spent this week trying to understand Jesus' treatment of this Syrophoenician woman--how Jesus could treat this woman who wants nothing more than relief for her child with such contempt. But this week we saw an allegory of our Gospel lesson play out on the international stage.  Syrophenicia and Tyre are both located north of Galilee, in modern-day Syria. So in our Bible, we see the harsh treatment of a Syrian mother, and regrettably, our news this week has been filled with Syrian mothers and fathers, desperate and pleading for the smallest crumbs of mercy and human decency, only to have the International community respond with something like to "our country has enough problems, we can't be forced to take care of these refugees." That answer, by the way, is something akin to "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

    Our Gospel lesson teaches us that God's grace is freely available to all. And that message is driven to the hilt by our Epistle reading this morning. In our lesson from James this morning we are given two demands, that we show no favoritism, and that our Christian faith be exemplified by some demonstrable action in the world.

    James denies can we really call ourselves Christians when we display acts of favoritism. More of an indictment, James believes that Christian faith can only be through action. James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

    And so, my point this morning is this: As Christians, we can not delineate between our care of our children and those of refugees. The response "our country has enough problems, our infrastructure is taxed enough already," is specifically and unequivocally defined by the bible as unchristian. It is showing favoritism. It is offering the seat of honor to those with while ignoring the plight of the needy in our midst. 

    Like so many of you, I was moved by the image of a Turkish police official carrying the body of Aylan Kurdi. And as tragic as that photo is,  I would argue that image is the most palletable for media consumption. There were close to twenty other drowning victims who died when their ship capsized. The media has shown the crowded overpasses of Budapest, but only rarely shows the violence that these refugees suffer after escaping the war torn villages they once knew. I saw a father being dragged from his wife and children. When several police officers wrested his hands from his wife, he bit her denim jacket, and despite being pulled by three men, you can see his jaw straining to keep his family together. 

    As a world, we have been shamed into action. There is a grotesqueness of the West crying poor to those displaced by the horrors of war, when merely the crumbs under our table could sustain them. 

    

    In our Gospel, we heard the Good News that God’s plan for salvation includes us all, that, in fact, there is no economy of Grace. That understanding came from a desperate woman who would do anything for her child. We are now witnessing more Syrophoenician mothers and fathers, who share that same desperation and determination to protect their children and provide them some chance at hope. 

    My prayer is that once again, Grace will be found at the intersection of Incarnation and Faith. What will we learn by witnessing the insistent faith that these refugees have in the generosity and graciousness of the modern West. They want a better life, one from from war and persecution. They want what all parents want, safety for their children and an opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. 

    Our platitudes will not be sufficient. We must offer prayers for the refugee crisis in Syria and around the world. We must advocate for their safety and their humanity. We, as individuals, as a nation, and ultimately as one of God’s children, must do all we can to provide for the least among us. It is when we see the body of Aylan and mourn his death as we would the death of our own child, it is only then, James argues, can we truly dare to call ourselves Christians. 

    The Good News is sometimes a hard instruction. But our lesson this morning reminds us that God’s Grace is often found in the midst of incredible faith. Sometimes we will discover it in places we were not expecting. But that is what grace is all about—helping us do the unexpected. In turn, that faith will lead us to the hard work of making the Kingdom come the Kingdom now. 

    Amen. 

 


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