A Sermon on Mark 7:24-20 — The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith

Here is a sermon I preached in my Homiletics class this week:

Mark 7:24-20 — The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology
February 7, 2012

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Over the last couple of weeks, a pretty consistent theme that I have heard in our homilies has been that these stories about Jesus are just plain odd. Today’s story is no different, no less odd.

A quick skim of the gospel of Mark, and we find out that to this point Jesus has been a pretty busy man. In the first half of the book we hear story after story about Jesus healing this person and that person, performing miracles, and butting heads with the Pharisees every step of the way.

As we enter the story of the Syrophoenician woman, we begin to see that the setting and mood has changed from the previous context. Mark goes to great lengths to demonstrate that there are a lot of details in this story that seem out of place for Jesus.

Jesus has been pursued by many, many people thus far. In chapter 6, Mark observes that when Jesus arrived in Gennesaret the people “ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people wherever they heard he was.” Can you imagine? Jesus leaves Gennesaret and enters the unfamiliar Gentile territory of Tyre, perhaps expecting some reprieve. Mark notes, Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.” Even in this place where he maybe expected to be unknown, he is still unable to retreat.

Enter the Syrophoenician woman. Mark writes, as Mark often does, that the woman came “immediately” after Jesus got there. If you can imagine, Jesus scarcely had a moment to himself when this woman arrives on the scene. Her boldness and audacity in approaching Jesus is quite disorienting. She is a Gentile AND a woman. If her approach wasn’t bold enough, she continues on to ask Jesus for a healing. This leads to a rather disconcerting kind of encounter between the two.

Jesus’ initial response to her is to say, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Her reply, “Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And with this her daughter has been healed. What in the world has just happened?
I have spent the last few weeks stewing over this story. At first I felt rage over Jesus’ treatment of the woman. I tried to soften the blow by finding a way to get Jesus off the hook. Perhaps the words weren’t for the woman, perhaps they were meant for the prejudiced people who would regard this woman as being an outsider. Maybe this was simply a teaching moment.

The problem with this is that Mark does not make clear whether anyone was even present in this scene to witness the encounter. I’m not sure how to resolve this tension that exists here. Mark is careful to point out that Jesus is exhausted, perhaps disoriented, maybe experiencing culture shock, possibly overwhelmed by the masses who have sought him out, begging for healing and begging for wholeness. He is seeking retreat and solitude, and instead is met with another person who is in need. Could it be that his uncharacteristic response to her was out of this place?

And the woman is such an interesting character. Despite Jesus’ initial refusal of her request, she persists and cleverly uses Jesus’ own words to her advantage. Jesus is moved by the woman’s words and faith in response. Jesus shifts from refusing her request to providing the healing she so desperately calls for. Maybe what we see in this encounter is the repentance of Christ on behalf of this woman. Not a I-have-sinned-and-now-I-don’t-anymore kind of repentance. Instead, a repentance in which Jesus comes to reaffirm the woman in the image of God, in an act of humility, bringing her comfort and increasing her faith through the healing of her daughter.

This story, despite my initial aversion to it, began to jump off of the page for me as I was in Haiti recently. For a few days my team was working at a school where we were doing a Vacation Bible School for 400 students. The school building and property was close quarters, especially with 400 kids hanging around! Our time there was rather chaotic and the kids swarmed us, wanting to play with us and talk to us. I cannot even begin to count how many times the kids asked me for money or my camera or my hat or my water bottle. It was overwhelming. It isn’t hard to find people in need in Haiti. Everywhere you look you are smacked in the face with poverty that is incomprehensible to many of us. It is wearing and tiresome and it didn’t take me long to become a bit desensitized or numb to it.

So, on the second day, when this one little boy in particular arrived at the school, I didn’t even notice him at first. I had seen kids allllllll day, and here was another little kid curious to see what our team was up to. After glossing over him a few times, my eyes finally stopped and really caught an image of this boy. He was different than the other children that had been hanging around us. This boy had on a shirt that was dirty and worn down to the threads. There was an oval shaped worn spot on the front of his shirt from carrying this big burlap bag half his size around with him. He had tattered shorts, and shoes worn down til they were hardly even holding together on his feet.

After watching our team work for awhile, the boy grabbed his burlap bag, dragged it over to the missionary Evelyn who he had heard speak Creole and politely asked, “May I have your empty water bottle?” Evelyn gave him the bottle and then began to ask him questions. “Where do you live? Where are your mama and papa? What are you doing with the bottles you are collecting?” He responded that his mama died. He lives with his papa. And he collects the bottles because there is a merchant in town who will give him 1 goude, the equivalent of 3/10ths of a penny, for every bottle he collects. After hearing this, our group collected all of our water bottles that we had been just carelessly throwing on the ground and filled the boy’s bag to the brim. His eyes lit up and he smiled the most beautiful smile and replied with a very humble, “Mesi.” Thank you.

I found my own story with this boy located in the story of Christ with the Syrophoenician woman. My own exhaustion and feelings of being overwhelmed led me to be almost blind to this boy’s presence. And through his humility and boldness in asking for what might have been our equivalent to crumbs in that moment, I was brought face to face with a kind of grace and humility that I have yet to really put words to or understand. What I do know is that that boy brought me to a kind of repentance, a kind of reaffirmation of the image of God in someone I had previously ignored.

This passage is incredibly important for all of us as we seek to enter various helping professions. There will be times when we are smacked in the face with the needs in our homes, our congregations, or communities. And sometimes it will be incredibly overwhelming. There will be those days where you’ve just spent hours and hours visiting people in the hospital, nights at committee meetings defusing the latest conflict, meeting with the couple who is on the verge of ending their marriage. There will be weeks where you’ll do too many funerals, struggle to make time for your family, and cringe every time the phone rings. It is easy to become desensitized, impatient and angry. In this story of Christ we do not find an example of love that shows us how to act perfectly or respond perfectly in every situation with grace and kindness. Instead, what I think we learn here from Christ fully human, and from the Syrophoenician woman, and from that sweet little boy, is that we are invited into a perfect love which has an openness that allows repentance to move in us and change our hearts. To help us begin anew to affirm the image of God in those around us. To act with humility in the face of our acts of arrogance and numbness. An openness and vulnerability which paves the way for grace to enter in, and to enter in deep and transformative ways. I find this incredibly hopeful; we join with Jesus in our capacity to be changed, to become new people who learn to love better, see better, and find compassion for our brothers and sisters.

Amen.


photo credit:

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Dutch, Amsterdam, about 1650
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, corrected with white bodycolor
7 7/8 x 11 in
(image source)