The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
From there [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Cures a Deaf Man
Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Have you ever been invovled in a situation; a heated conversation, phone call, potentially embarrassing interaction and walked away saying to yourself “I probably could have handled that better.” Every time I read today’s Gospel text this week I kept asking myself: I wonder if after the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman Jesus thought to himself, even just for an instant, “I probably could have handled that better.”
I makes a good opening question to ponder, but I’m not trying to be funny. I wonder if Jesus, being the Son of God, ever had a few encounters like today that he didn’t immediately tell himself this. I really achnowleges the concept of Jesus being fully human and fully divine and makes you wonder if Jesus responded humanely by making that comment to himself ever.
In the Northwest region of Galilee, a mostly Gentile territory, Jesus performs his third exorcism according to Mark’s Gospel. In the story, Jesus encounters a Syrophoenician woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit (Mark 7:25). This story has always been problematic to preach from since Jesus is not the hero of the story. The Syrophoenician woman emerges as the example of faith and devotion, and expands Jesus own understanding of God’s reach beyond the frontiers of Israel. Whether Jesus’ harsh words to this Gentile woman was to prove a point about the grace of God, it is still problematic that he used an ethnic slur to insult her. We may learn from Jesus’ acknowledgment of the woman’s wisdom, that it is necessary to stand corrected, especially when our assumptions and biases are exposed by the people affected by our prejudice.
We may consider some groups of people undesirable and unworthy, but Christ, contrary to most members of dominant cultures, changes his mindset, and opens up to the reality that God’s grace cannot be contained to a particular clan. The Syrophoenician woman teaches Jesus, and us as well, what it means to stand for the rights of marginalized people. Jesus was a Jewish man, a teacher, and a celebrity of sorts, but an unnamed Gentile woman, turns his words against him, and allows him to see how the deep faith from marginalized people really works. She knew Jesus had more power than her, but her determination to get justice allowed her to turn an insult, into a mirror for the one hurling the insult.
In the second story of our Gospel lesson, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and had a difficulty in his speech. I would like to believe that the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman led Jesus to a more caring and loving approach to this healing. As we read in this part of the Gospel story, Jesus takes the man aside, and does not merely declare him healed from afar, like he did with the Gentile woman’s daughter, but in this case, he touches the deaf man’s ears, and touches his tongue after having spit on the ground. These actions, that may seem anti sanitary to our modern sensibilities, are typical of ancient healing stories. The irony of the story is that after healing this man, hearing and speech, Jesus asks his audience to keep quiet about what they have witnessed him do. We can only hope and pray, that one day Jesus may rebuke us for zealously proclaiming the Good News of what he has done for us.
So what does it mean to be healed? I asked that question of myself a lot over the last few weeks. With all the hours spend in recovery clinics before going to medical school I have made some observations.
First, healing is miraculous. It is nothing short of breath taking to witness how nerves reawaken and muscles regain their power to move once flaccid limbs. It is marvelous to behold how hearing, taste and smell often sharpen to compensate for lost sight. As far as we have come with our medical technology, the best we can do is aid the human body as it repairs itself-until finally it does not.
My second observation…healing is always incomplete this side of the Resurrection. Everyone Jesus ever healed died of some other human aliment-just as each one of us finally will. We are inescapably mortal, no matter how desperately we try to cover it up with lotions and creams; no matter how rigorously we exercise; no matter how wholesomely we eat; no matter how effectively we hide the reality of death away in end stage hospital rooms, nursing homes and hospice facilities. At best, healing gives one a reprieve. To be healed is to be given more life, more health and more opportunities to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God for whatever time we have left. In that respect, healing is no different than waking up in the morning to a new day. The question is, will you live it joyfully, thankfully and obediently as God’s faithful creature and beloved child?
Third, healing never returns one to the status quo. When illness is serious, it leaves scars. Recall that the Resurrected Christ still bears the wounds of the cross. Sometimes those scars are visible. Sometimes they lie deep beneath the surface manifesting themselves in nightmares, panic attacks and spells of depression. Sometimes scars make one stronger, wiser and more compassionate. Often they leave one crippled, bitter and withdrawn. The difference between healing and worsening sickness frequently turns on how one’s scars are treated, the meaning given to them and the degree to which one is able to make peace with them.
Finally, and most important, true healing is cosmic. I mean, we can never be made whole individually. Only when the broken bodies and wounded minds of all God’s people are finally woven into the fabric of the new creation can it be said that we have been truly healed. We ought to know that. If this Covid 19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our own health can never be assured until the day that disease of this kind is given no more slums, no more malnourished populations and no more space where persons are deprived of basic health care. Such healing as we experience in our lives, as marvelous as it is, remains but a sign and a witness to the ultimate healing God desires for the whole creation and of which the resurrection of the crucified one is a sign and a down payment.
Christians are frequently disappointed by Jesus’ actions in this pericope. That’s OK! It’s good to have an emotional reaction to Scripture and let it challenge us. Sometimes we, maybe especially Lutherans, like to skip straight to Peter and Paul and neglect much of the rest of Scripture. Jesus, like his Father, is partial to Israel. God is also partial to the poor (James 2:5) and chose them first. But does that mean God doesn’t love or desire the salvation everyone else? NO!!!
Jesus was intentional about sharing the bread of life with foreigners and walked to where he knew he would encounter them. We can’t miss that it was Jesus who went to foreign lands and shared God’s healing power with non-Jews. Jesus’ mission was never to be ethnically limited, but it does have a starting place in a specific people. The bread of life was and is to be shared with everyone.
There’s a lot of good news here. That even Jesus “learned” about the fullness of the kingdom of God and all its glory and he shows us how to grow in our own expression of those values.
That we are invited into that full and expansive gospel. And that, no matter who we are, who others see us as, how we’ve been cast out or regulated, the littlest bit of Christ is more than enough to welcome us into the family of God—and there’s nothing anyone else can say about that. And even if we’ve been gotten the message that we don’t deserve it, we can approach the throne of grace and advocate for ourselves and for our beloved to know the healing power of God.
In our Gospel stories today, Jesus acts both in presence and from a distance. He heals with words and with physical action. The Gentiles were overwhelmed by what they were witnessing. It was amazing! It knocked their socks off! They couldn’t get enough so they kept talking about it! “He has done everything well” becomes their awestruck sermon.
How many people are sitting in our communities but still feel like outsiders? How many have refrains of faith going unspoken because they do not fit our comfortable and tidy pictures of God? How many are holding on to the smallest portion of faith in Christ and need to hear that that small seed is enough for now?
So there are many experiences in our lives that when we reflect on them later we may say “I could’ve handled that better.” So we learn from them, correct them, and the next time we do better. And if we’re a little slower on that learning, thankfully God’s grace continues to support us until we do. Let’s learn to love better and walk humbly with our God better so we can do our part to make the world we live in a little better.