May only God's word be spoken, and may only God's word be heard. Amen!
Have you ever had a day, when you just didn't like Jesus? I should be more clear. Have you ever had a day, when you didn't like the Jesus that was presented to you? For example, about ten years ago there was a TV miniseries depicting the life of Jesus. This thing was bad, horribly written and horribly acted. Something that really tweaked my gourd was that everyone around Jesus had English accents. It was like the production company did all of its casting from the rejects the Royal Shakespeare company. So you had all these first century “Jews” walking around talking like they just walked out of Queen Elizabeth's court. In the middle of them was this guy playing Jesus with the blandest American accent I had ever heard. He had obviously spent more time in the gym then in acting class. And despite walking all over the backwoods of Israel and Palestine, this muscle bound Jesus' hair was always perfect. The Jesus that was presented to me was up setting because of the total disconnect from any sort of reality. However, that was TV. It is supposed to be fake. Let's face it: even reality TV is fake.
Now the Jesus of the Gospels is a horse of different color. Surely the stories of our Lord's ministry will be more palatable. Surely they will connect with my actual experience of Jesus better then TV. However, the Jesus in our Gospel today, sure doesn't match with the image of Jesus I've come to know from a life time of church attendance. Jesus in this reading seems like a real jerk. This woman comes to him with a sick child, possessed by a demon even, but Jesus calls her a dog. When she in faith and humility begs him to heal her daughter he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Wow! Jesus just called this woman a dog. Which is bad enough in English, but in ancient Greek, the language in which this gospel was written and the language in which the first readers read it, one of the worse things you can call a person, much less a woman, is a dog. Jesus comes across as unsympathetic, arrogant, and down right mean. He seems to be saying that his blessing, the healing power of God that he brings to the world is only for the children of Israel. Who taught him pastoral care? This is definitely not the Jesus my momma taught me about in Sunday school.
So what's going on here. Well, let's look at this woman a little closer. First off, she's female. In ancient society, be it Jewish or Greco-Roman, women were hardly valued. They certainly weren't supposed to talk to important people in public. Second, she is Syrophoenician. Meaning, at the very least, she's a gentile, and possibly she is of mixed race being both Syrian and Phoenician. So, there is no way for this woman to be any more of an outcast in Jesus' eyes. She's a woman, a gentile, and her kid is possessed. There were probably enough judging eyes upon her in her community, and Jesus seems to pile it on with his refusal.
Now, something interesting happens here. She says to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” She basically calls Jesus out. She basically says you are Son of God, the Messiah, the anointed one, doesn't your God have something for me, or are my Greek gods better? Is the power of your God only available to Jews? Does God's power have limits? Can God's healing reach beyond the Jews?
Now here's the really cool part: Jesus listens to this woman. She is no great sage, no great ruler, no rich authority, but Jesus learns from her. The messiah, the anointed one, the son of God, learns something. That is life giving and hopeful in an of itself. If Jesus has to learn the limitlessness of God's love then we are given permission to keep trying to learn God's limitlessness. But even better then that, Jesus learns from the lowest. Therefore we are challenged to keep our ears open because God could teach us something from the strangest of sources.
When I was in seminary, we had a guy on the maintenance staff named Martin. He was janitor. He spent most of his time mopping floors. Martin would sing hymns to himself all day while he worked. He was the happiest person on campus. Now, all of seminary students would walk around all day trying to be sufficiently troubled by the scriptures. If we weren't sufficiently troubled by our inner angst, our professors would make sure we were sufficiently troubled by all the papers we had to write. In midst of all this angst, there is Martin mopping away singing, “I have decided, I'm gonna follow Jesus.” One day I asked Martin, “How come you sing hymns all the time Martin.” He said to me, “I never want to forget what my Lord's done for me. No matter how bad my day might be, it ain't as bad as the cross. If Jesus can go through that certainly he can be with me while I mop floors. Singing hymns all day helps me remember that.” Now, y'all, I learned a lot from my Seminary professors. They are some of the most brilliant and wise people I have ever been around. They taught me a lot, but definitely, God was teaching me through Martin the janitor that day.
“I have decided, I'm gonna follow Jesus.” We are all called to follow Jesus, called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. My brothers and sisters, if we are lucky, we'll have syrophoenician woman along the way to teach us something, and if we are wise, we'll be like Jesus, and listen to her. Amen!