The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2015
Today’s gospel lesson is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. In seminary, you would have bribed your professor so that you wouldn’t have to write a paper on it. But now, I think it’s time to pay the piper. What we’re going to do this morning is a careful walk through of this story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. In seminary, we would call this “exegesis.” That’s the Greek word for, “pulling out the meaning.” Don’t worry, we won’t get too nerdy. In fact, I think this is one of the best ways to get to know Jesus. So let’s pretend we are all seminarians, and let’s walk through what we might put in an exegesis paper.
Open up your worship bulletins to the gospel lesson and let’s read through it. Now remember, the original New Testament was not written in Latin or Hebrew. It surely wasn’t written in King James English either. It was written in Greek. The first sentence of this passage is written in such a way in Greek that it’s supposed to convey a new chapter. Like when you’re having a conversation with someone and you say, “So, there was something else I wanted to tell you.” And it says that Jesus goes to Tyre. That is not a Jewish city. That is a Syrophoenician city in modern day Lebanon on the coast of the Mediterranean and was, back then, a major port city.
Then it says, “Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” In other words, he’s taking a little seaside vacation. He’s checked into the Hotel Galvez for a spa treatment and a quiet dinner at Gaido’s. “Yet he could not escape notice.” Very, very important. Even here, in a non-Jewish city, everybody knows about Jesus. His fame and notoriety precedes him, even among the Gentiles. And he doesn’t even have a Facebook account.
A woman approach Jesus. She has a daughter with an unclean spirit. Now, about unclean spirits and demons. My sense is that many of the maladies described as “unclean spirits” or “demons” in the New Testament, we would now classify as things like “epilepsy,” “schizophrenia,” or any number of mental health issues. I’m not saying that demons don’t exist. It’s just that the authors of the New Testament would not have been able to differentiate between things we can now categorize.
And notice that it says, “immediately.” That is one of Mark’s favorite words. He is trying to convey a sense of urgency. Parents, you get this. When your kid is sick and you don’t know what’s going on, you get that panicky, urgent feeling deep inside. That is what is driving this woman to Jesus. She begs Jesus to cast out the demon. Again, go back to his popularity. This nameless woman already knows that Jesus can do such things.
Now, this is the tough part. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yikes. The children he refers to are most likely the people of Israel. The Jews, like himself. The dogs are what Jews called the Gentiles. It was a racial epithet. (Now, we know perfectly well that would the Gentiles called the Jews was as bad, if not worse.) It seems that Jesus is saying that the people of Israel need cleansing and healing before the Gentiles receive that same grace. This shocks us because we like to think of Jesus as a generally nice guy who treats everybody equally.
Then the woman replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Notice, she is so urgent, she is so worried about her daughter that she doesn’t care he called her a dog. She even calls herself a dog if it will get Jesus to do something. The image here is one of tenacity and devotion. That is something that we can chew on for awhile. She is willing to go to any length, even self-deprecation for the sake of her daughter. Finally, Jesus says, “for saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
There are two common ways to read this passage. First, we might say that the woman shows Jesus something, that she teaches him a lesson. He didn’t want to help her because of her race and/or gender, but he learns better. That is one way of looking at it. But does that mean that Jesus is being rude? Is he dumb? The other way of looking at this passage is to say that the woman passes a test. Jesus is probing her, seeing just how faithful and devout she is. When she passes, then he is willing to cast out the demon. That’s another way of looking at it. It seems to fit the passage, but is that how we think Jesus work? He’ll only do good things if we answer correctly? You remember that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – where the guard at the bridge asks everybody certain questions. If they get it right, they can pass. If they don’t, they’re thrown off the bridge. Thinking that Jesus is testing the woman has that feel to it.
So pretend you’re in seminary. You’ve spent a few hours taking apart the Greek structure of the sentences. You’ve read some ancient commentaries on the passage, you’ve looked at some modern authors. You have laid out the problems in the text. You’ve walked through it like you and I have just walked through it. You know the pros and the cons of the interpretations. That’s the easy part, because then it’s time to write what you think about the text.
You know what’s coming next. We’re going to take a few moments, I want you to turn to the person or people next to you, and share what you think this passage means. Don’t worry about sounding dumb, or saying the wrong thing. And you can disagree with each other. That’s what Episcopalians do best. And here’s what I want you to consider: Is Jesus being a nice guy for healing the daughter, or is Jesus being rude?
Alright, seminarians, let’s reconvene. Straw poll: who thinks that Jesus is being a nice guy for healing the daughter? Who think that Jesus is being rude?
The real point I want you to get from this exercise is not what you think about this passage. The real point of this is to show that you are capable of talking about the holy scriptures and of having your own ideas about Jesus. You have the capacity of encountering Jesus. Your ideas might be different from the person next to you. That’s fine. They probably disagree with you about other things too. You can sit down with a bible and with a friend, and you can talk about Jesus. You don’t have to know Greek. You don’t have to be the smartest girl in the room. You just have to be honest about your faith and about what you think.
Now I’m going to tell you what I think. I think this story is really about Jesus’ identity. See, the woman only sees Jesus as a healer. As a means to an end. I think that Jesus is trying to convey that he is much more than that. The way he says it comes across as a little rough, but it’s true. Jesus is not a means to an end. Jesus isn’t just a healer when people are sick. Jesus doesn’t just make a lot of bread when people are hungry. Jesus is not a universal problem solver. Often times, I think that’s how we approach Jesus. We want Jesus to solve our problems. But that’s only part of who Jesus is. Jesus is the Son of the Most High God. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the Messiah who has come to earth to defeat death. Jesus is not a means to an end. Jesus is the end.
I understand that not all of you will go to seminary – and that’s okay. You don’t have to hang a theology degree on your wall to know Jesus. Here’s the key – each one of you can know Jesus. In your head and in your heart. You can have a conversation with a friend, or open a bible, and you can meet Jesus.