Preacher Revd Neil Summers
For me, that story of the healing of a Gentile woman’s daughter is one of the most fascinating in all the gospels. It sees Jesus mainly in Gentile (non-Jewish) territory. He has already performed one healing of a Gentile, a man we know as Legion, when his host of demons was sent into a herd of pigs. In today’s story, too, a demon is exorcised, but on this occasion Jesus appears to heal with some reluctance. The most startling aspect of the story for the modern reader is his answer to the woman’s request, ‘Let the children be fed first; it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ Although Mark’s account softens the word ‘dog’ with a diminutive ending (we might say ‘doggies’, or even ‘puppies’) this is, inescapably, the standard Jewish insult against Gentiles. Contrary to our common perception of Jesus as the great includer, here he seems to be endorsing this prejudice, making it clear that what he calls the ‘bread’ of his mission was intended only for the true ‘chosen’ of God – the Jews. Although the woman’s daughter is healed, because of her mother’s faith – note the Syrophoenician woman is the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus as ‘Lord’…and this from a Gentile – the impression remains that the healing is done very much as an exception.
Some commentators suggest Jesus really didn’t intend to insult the woman, but rather that he was sparring with her in the humour of the day. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he initially refused to heal her daughter, simply because she wasn’t Jewish. Jesus’s words and the intention behind them come across as jarring and theologically problematic, for they are meant to exclude, and the language used, however you translate it, is a religious, if not a racial, slur, whether the tone was mild or harsh, serious or laced with humour. But what a bold retort Jesus got in return! ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’…the sort of quick-fire, clever clincher that most of us might think of hours after the event rather than on the spur of the moment. She persisted and she won as Jesus, rather than delivering another put-down or making an excuse, instead tells her that her daughter has been healed…despite her status as a Gentile.
Different people will find this story challenging for different reasons. We could find this story difficult because it challenges something of the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus’s divinity. How could Jesus possibly ‘make a mistake’? We could also find it difficult on a contemporary human level, not least because of recent controversies around racial and religious slurs in our own society. But another way of looking at it is that it tells us much about Jesus’s human nature – which, it seems, includes taking on even our human capacity to judge people according to their ethnicity, race or religion. The argument goes that even Jesus had to learn that inherited ways of figuring out who’s in and who’s out must be challenged. Indeed, these attitudes can be so ingrained, so habitual, so natural a part of being human, that Jesus had to have his mind changed, astonishingly by his encounter with a Gentile woman with a remarkably stubborn faith. Remember, from a Jewish perspective, she wasn’t supposed to have any faith at all. Jesus, it seems, finds something in this woman that caused him to change his mind, and to hear God’s call in a different way.
As we reflect on Jesus’s attitude in this encounter, we recognise that we can all hold negative attitudes towards people who are different from us, those we might regard as ‘dogs’, outsiders, and so not worth bothering with. This was an occasion when even Jesus broke free of old attitudes, social, cultural and religious prejudices, in order to let God’s healing into this scenario. Imagine where all this could lead in terms of our assumptions about who is in and who is out, and also the challenges presented by new contexts, encounters and discoveries. If even Jesus was persuaded by this ‘outsider’, couldn’t we all reconsider our attitudes towards those we instinctively exclude, or are different from us, or with whom we disagree?
As we reconsider, the moral good – what we ought to do – actually shifts. The perennial challenge is to do our best to identify and choose the best moral option actually available to us, trying to overcome the fact we are often hindered by our emotions, or inherited ways of understanding (and misunderstanding) our world – and, yes, even by our own religious, cultural and racial biases. Inevitably, we’ll end up short of the ideal; we are fallible, and being fallible is an inevitable part of being human – even, it seems, if you’re the fully divine yet fully human Son of God.
Just one example to illustrate this. In the past, it might have been reasonable to treat your slaves with compassion; but once we realised that slavery was wrong, that question became pointless. God no longer requires us to treat our slaves properly, because we now know we ought not to have slaves at all. Now a new moral obligation exists. New moral options emerge that never existed before, because we have created different structures, or because we understand things differently. For sure, some ethical principles remain always and everywhere the same. For the Christian, the foundational instruction to love our neighbour doesn’t change. But the concrete good – how we actually love our neighbour, and who our neighbour is – often changes. The moral good changes for us, and it changed for Jesus too. That’s not surprising, for the moral good does not pre-exist out there on a tablet of stone, waiting to be discovered. Rather the concrete good changes as new possibilities emerge. The real moral challenge is not just to do the eternally preordained right thing, but to set up the conditions and the structures, so that new and better things become imaginable, conceivable and achievable; quite a prospect given recent controversies here about anti-Semitism, violent clashes in Germany, political shifts in Sweden, and a generally febrile and fragmented atmosphere in politics in many parts of the world.
Our reading from the Letter of James this morning makes it clear that faith by itself is of little use, unless it changes the way you live. Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman changed his options. Once he recognised her faith in him, calling her a ‘dog’ was no longer an option. A new good emerged as a new possibility, and so her daughter was healed. We, too, are urged to think of what could be, to be willing to have our horizons shifted and broadened, our assumptions undermined by the unexpected face of God discovered in the person who is different from us, or an outsider – the Syrophoenician women of our day, those we’re secretly tempted to leave out of the equation, and label ‘doggies’, ‘dogs’….or worse.
The vision, the good news, here is – and we forget this to our peril – that this most fascinating of Gospel encounters is, at heart, a story of human healing.