Pentecost 15 B: What the Syrophoenician Woman Teaches

Dear Partner in Preaching,

A lot rides on how you interpret Jesus’ surprising reaction to the request of the Syrophoenician woman. Okay, “surprising” is an understatement. How about down right rude? After all, she comes to him bowed down, in the posture of worship, begging that he cure her daughter of an unclean spirit, something we already know he can easily do. And yet he brushes her off, refusing her request and casting her aside, throwing in an ethnic slur just for good measure.

And the haunting question is, why?

Here’s the traditional answer to this question: He is not actually refusing her but rather testing her. That is, the rebuff, the insult, the rejection – these aren’t real at all but rather the means by which to test her faith, to see if she really, really believes in him. And, of course, she passes.

The trouble with this interpretation is that a) nothing like it occurs anywhere else in the Gospel of Mark, b) there is no mention of testing in the story (as in Job, for instance), and c) it creates a rather cold-hearted picture of a God who taunts and tests us in our deepest moments of need.

If not this interpretation, then what? Why on earth, that is, would Jesus react to someone in need in such a callous manner?

And here is the untraditional answer to this question: Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus had not yet realized the full extent of God’s mission or the radical nature of the kingdom he proclaimed.

Look, I know that’s a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion to reach. We want to think of Jesus as full-bodied, perfect, and immutable from birth, kind of like Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus. But if we are to take Mark’s narrative seriously, never mind the incarnational and creedal affirmation that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, then perhaps we should not be surprised to see a development in Jesus’ own recognition of God’s vision for the world. After all, the profoundly expansive notion of a kingdom that included everyone – no exceptions! – was completely and totally novel. (And still is!)

If so – if we can imagine that this woman didn’t simply pass a clever test but instead, and as Jesus himself says, demonstrated profound faith – then we might acknowledge that this brave mother actually taught the Teacher and, therefore, might have some things to teach us as well.

Two things in particular stand out. First, she teaches us about the power of the stranger. Newcomers, strangers, people who are different from us – they stretch our perspective and teach us things about themselves, about the world, and about us. But only if we will listen. And while from time to time you will meet persons as bold – or desperate – as is the woman in this story who will offer their insight to us unprompted, more often these folks sit at the margins of our faith communities if they enter the door at all. So we will need to reach out to them and convince them that we care about their opinion. So one question might be to ask – both in the sermon and in later meetings with leadership – whom are we overlooking? Who is a part of our fellowship but does not often participate, does not sit at the center, is not enfranchised but might have a great deal to teach us.

Second, this woman teaches us about the nature of faith. While it’s tempting to see this story as one of self-actualization – the woman not only believed in Jesus but also and more importantly believed in herself – I’m not sure that’s the case at all. I mean, I have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus’ time. But I do know that she believed her daughter was. That is, she was convinced that her precious, beloved daughter who was being oppressed by this unclean spirit was absolutely deserving of Jesus’ attention and so she was willing to go to great lengths to help her, even to the point of arguing with this famous teacher and healer.

And I think that’s often the case with faith. It shows itself most fully when exercised on behalf of others. This isn’t to say that I’m against self-affirmation and actualization – indeed, I think the promises of Baptism are among the most affirming and life giving there are in the world! Rather, it’s simply to say that we are not created to be isolated beings but rather find our true selves most deeply in community, in relationship, and when we are advocating for another.

Might we on this day, Dear Partner, invite our congregations to imagine that they will be renewed in mission and energy and spirit when – and I’m tempted to say “only when” – they identify those persons around them who need their advocacy and care? I am convinced that congregational renewal does not come from figuring out what hymns we – that is, those still attending – want to sing, what programs we most want, or what pastor we really deserve. Rather, congregational renewal comes when we look around us – to our households, schools, communities, and world – to discern who needs us, what they need from us, and how we might leverage our resources to be their advocates before God and the world.

Elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that only those who give away their lives will find it. I think that’s true both in our individual and congregational experience. And I think Jesus first learned just how true that is from this fiercely loving mother.

Blessings on your preaching, Dear Partner, as the words you offer this week may draw persons from the margin of the community to share the insights God has granted them and invite your congregation to discover a mission grounded in the self-sacrificing and life-giving Gospel of our Lord. Thank you for your ministry.

Yours in Christ,