This week we have another curious story. It echoes, and may have been inspired by, yesterday's story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. In both, a representative of God serves a foreign-born woman. An outsider is affording God's healing grace, which would have been shocking to many who assumed the God of Israel would only care about and act for Israelites.
What is curious, troubling even, is that Jesus initially resists the Syrophoenician (Greek) woman. Her daughter is possessed by an impure spirit and comes to ask Jesus to liberate her daughter from this torment. We know that Jesus is able to free people from demons. We know, from an earlier story in Mark that Jesus is not averse to speaking to and healing women in public. But when this woman approaches Jesus, his response is less than warm and welcoming. 'First, let the children eat,' he says. By children, he, of course, means the children of Abraham, the people of Israel. It is apparent that at this point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus understanding his vocation to be the Messiah of Israel, but NOT of anyone else. But what happens next is troubling. 'It is not right to take the children's bread and toss is to the dogs,' Jesus says. Did Jesus just call this desperate and fearful woman a dog? It may be an unfortunate choice of words, but it is still deeply troubling. This is not the Jesus we have come to know or to expect.
We could get hung up on what appears to be the suggestion that Jesus, the sinless one, is guilty of bigotry. But I choose not to interpret the story in that way. The theology is in the action. And what is happening is that Jesus is being challenged, by a strong and intelligent woman, to listen to her story. In listening to her story, Jesus more fully hears and comprehends God's call, and grows in understanding that he has come to be Messiah for all people. Mark presents a very human Jesus. The theological truth revealed is that the God, who watches, listens and attends to the poor, calls to us through their cry. And in this case, the cry isn't a desperate plea, but a challenging confrontation with bias. Sometimes that too is the way that God calls to us. When we are confronted by those whom we have ignored, stereotyped, or prejudged, God calls to us. God is making sure that Jesus knows that the life of a Greek woman matters just as much as the life of a woman of Israel. This story shapes us when it encourages us to re-think our assumptions, prejudices and the stereotypes we accept as true.
If you would like to listen to the sermon connection with this reflection return to our home page and listen to Hagar's Life Matters from September 25, 2016