The story of the Syrophoenician woman is among the strongest evidence available that both Jesus himself as well as the early church were part of an evolutionary process — that continues to this very day– in which we are continually being invited to learn just how much larger, more compassionate, and more inclusive God is then we are capable of realizing at any present moment.
Jesus Had a Lot to Learn:
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg Mark 7 October 3, 2010
Jesus sounds like his usual, insightful self when he says, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” But a clue that the historical Jesus may never have spoken this passage is Mark’s parenthetical comment in verse nineteen, “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)” Mark has perhaps tipped his hand here. Instead of allowing the story to speak for itself, he feels the need to insert editorial commentary. Mark likely felt the need to be excruciatingly clear that Jesus himself “declared all food clean” because a controversy raged after Jesus’ death about whether his followers needed to keep kosher — that is, whether they needed to follow the traditional Israelite dietary laws about not eating pork or shellfish and not mixing milk and meat. But if Jesus had stated so baldly that all foods were clean, then presumably there would have been far less debate after Jesus’ death about dietary laws. To name only one famous example, if Jesus had so clearly declared all foods clean, then Peter’s vision in Acts chapter 10 after Jesus’ death of being told to “kill and eat” unkosher food would be far less surprising. One likely scenario is that a story developed in some segments of the early church about Jesus declaring all foods clean, and Mark naturally chose to include the story in his Gospel to make his Gospel more appealing to Gentiles, who wanted to follow Jesus, but did not want to keep kosher.
If this scenario were the case, there are are multiple sources of potential inspiration. Notice that Mark’s Jesus quotes quotes Isaiah 29:13 to buttress his point. Jesus says, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.’” Jesus then summarizes Isaiah’s prophecy as, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” So, although I would argue that the historical Jesus didn’t clearly teach that all food is clean, I nevertheless think that what we do see here in Mark chapter 7 is the natural outgrowth, evolution, and extrapolation of the life and teachings of the historical Jesus that is also in line with the heart of the Hebrew prophetic tradition that Jesus inherited.
You can see traces of this evolution when this saying is considered alongside the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Whereas certain Gentile segments of the early church could have exaggerated the link between Jesus and the teaching that all foods are clean in order to bolster their position of not keeping kosher, it is doubtful that anyone in the early church would make up the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician women because the story is potentially embarrassing to Jesus. Theologian Letty Russell describes this passage of scripture as Jesus getting “Caught with his compassion down.”
These two parts of Mark 7 make a stunning contrast. In the first part of the chapter, Jesus acts as we are accustomed to seeing him: he rebukes the corrupt religious establishment for fixating on lesser matters like ritual hand washing and neglecting the point of the ritual, which is to increase the love of God. Jesus then rebukes them for abusing the commandment to make financial offerings to God because they are using offerings to line their own pockets. Indeed, Jesus is so mind-blowingly impressive most of the time that we can forget that he did not emerge fully formed. But part of what it means to be fully human is be grow and develop. Most famously in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2 verse 52, we are told that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor.”
And in the second part of Mark 7 we see a stunning contrast to the Jesus we are accustomed to seeing: the story of the Syrophoenician woman shows us that Jesus did not stop growing and learning even in the midst of his public ministry. A Gentile women asks Jesus to heal her daughter. We expect Jesus to be the mature sage, the wise elder, and the compassionate healer. Instead he refuses to heal her child, saying harshly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus does not say that he is unable to heal her child; indeed, he does heal her at the end of the story. Instead, he seems to be choosing not to heal her because, at least at this point, he seems to understand his mission to be either primary or exclusively to help his own people, his own tribe.
Jesus may have been fully grown in height — that is, in stature — at this point in his public ministry, but he still had room to grow in wisdom and in divine and human favor. So, we see the tables turned. Instead of Jesus rebuking the stubborn, hard-hearted, stuck-in-the-mud, myopic, traditionalist religious leaders, we see a Gentile woman in need rebuking Jesus. In this instance, Jesus is the one being stubborn, hard-hearted, stuck-in-the-mud, myopic, and traditionalist. And this Gentile woman harshly reminds him that God’s way of love is bigger, wider, more expansive, and inclusive than any individual, tribe, or nation. She says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Using the mundane imagery that we that expect Jesus to use, she reminds him that even if the adults neglect to feed the animals, the children will often slip the pets some food under the table — that is, children will often make the compassionate sacrifice that adults are too busy, too stressed, or too anxious to make.
Perhaps this woman’s comment is part of what inspired Jesus to later make statements like, “Let the little children come to me” or “The kingdom of God is like a little child.” Or, in one of Jesus’ harsher statements found two chapters from now in Mark 9, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Jesus’ strident warning against anyone putting a stumbling block in front of a child sounds like he is at least in part overcompensating for the stumbling block he himself came close to throwing in front of the Syrophoenician woman’s little child when he almost chose not to heal her. A more generous interpretation would be that two chapters later, Mark is confirming for us the readers that Jesus has learned his lesson from the Syrophoenician woman. He has grown in wisdom and in divine and human favor. He not only healed the Gentile child in that one instance, but now is openly advocating for the welfare of all children everywhere.
I believe Mark is inviting us to see how Jesus’ life models the developmental journey that we all must take if we desire salvation, which I define as making the choice to answer God’s ongoing call to turn from our self-involvement, anxiety, and limited perspective and move toward compassionate connection with others, inner freedom, and wholeness. By humbling himself, admitting that the Syrophoenician woman was right, and expanding his circle of compassion beyond his own tribe to include all of humanity, Jesus models spiritual maturity for us. He shows us what it looks like to grow in wisdom and in divine and human favor: to increase your love of God and neighbor, to expand your circle of compassion, to deepen your sense of interdependence with all creation.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman is among the strongest evidence available that both Jesus himself as well as the early church were part of an evolutionary process — that continues to this very day — in which we are continually being invited to learn just how much larger, more compassionate, and more inclusive God is then we are capable of realizing at any present moment.
I invite you to pay attention to the movement here because it is so important. Jesus was known to heal those in his own tribe even in times and places that were sometimes considered culturally taboo like on Sabbath. But this person standing before him was not only a women in a patriarchal culture that marginalized women, but also she was a Gentile, a non-Jew; and Jesus was from a culture that emphasized the needs of the Jewish tribe first, especially given the current situation of Roman occupation of Jewish land. But this Gentile woman confronted Jesus with the desperate situation of her daughter and in so doing exposed Jesus to their shared humanity.
Where Jesus had once felt disconnection and disgust, he suddenly felt connection and compassion. Jesus’ epiphany of realizing deep connection and interdependence with someone who seems separate and foreign has been repeated throughout the centuries both before and after Jesus, inviting us to see that we, too, are invited to have this experience. Perhaps the most famous 20th-century comparison to what Jesus experienced in his encounter with the Syrophoenician women is the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton’s unexpected experience of human connection on March 18, 1958 on a normal, everyday street corner in Kentucky. Merton was going about his ordinary business on an ordinary day, just as Jesus was going about his business. Neither expected an epiphany. But Merton wrote the following in his journal about his unexpected experience: “In Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the ‘special’ vocation to be different.”
I invite you to consider that in between the lines of this written record of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, that Jesus had an inner experience somewhat like Merton describes 2000 years later of realizing that he could love his neighbor as himself in a way more profound that he had previously realized. Jesus could love this Syrophoenician woman as himself, as if she were part of his tribe, because on the most important level they were interconnected, interdependent, in God, part of the same larger reality — which is what Merton also experienced on a street corner in Kentucky.
Those of you who follow our church’s website and Facebook page know that I wrote two blogs this past week, which I originally intended as stand alone pieces, but now, in retrospect, I can see connected to the themes of this sermon.
The first blog was titled, “Love God with your Mind,” and was written in response to the survey released this week that showed both how poorly most Americans did on a basic religion test and that atheists scored higher on the test than religious adherents. I hope that just as Jesus had the courage to change his mind and expand his perspective based on his experience with the Syrophoenician woman, that we here at Broadview can model a way of being church that is courageous enough to ask the hard questions about our faith and is open to being in dialogue with other groups both religious and non-religious.
The second blog was titled, “Lament and Resolve with Victims of Hate Crimes.” I wrote this piece in response to the disturbingly frequent acts of harassment and violence against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people in our country as well as the all-too-frequent rate of suicide amongst the LGBT population.
Some of you, for instance, may be as haunted as I am about the senseless death of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who was harassed about his sexuality by his roommate. I think Jesus was haunted in the same way by the Syrophoenician woman: a haunting that invites not only lament for the past (which we cannot change), but also that calls for resolve to be more outspoken and compassionate in the future.
Thus, the question I am left with at the end of this sermon is: “Who is the Syrophoenician woman in my life today?” Or, “Who is the Syrophoenician woman for Broadview Church?” Who is on the margins speaking in a voice I can barely hear? Who is on the edge of my peripheral vision, almost invisible, all too easy to ignore?
In the history of the church and of our nation, many groups have been in this marginalized role: American Indians, who were lied to, killed, and manipulated for their land; African-Americans, who at one time were declared only 3/5’s of a person; women, who make up 50% of our population, and who have been able to vote for less than a 100 years; and as our current economic climate reminds us daily, the poor have always been — and continue to be — the Syrophoenician women for us, calling us to find a way to live so that all human beings have enough food each day, clean water, access to health care and education, and a simple, decent place to live.
Just as the Syrophoenician woman was a wake-up call for Jesus to widen his circle of compassion and speak-up for the welfare of children everywhere, Tyler Clementi’s all-too-early death served as a symbolic Syrophoenician woman for me this past week, calling me to speak up more clearly for the shared, basic humanity of all human begins regardless of their race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. As we enter into a time of silent reflection I invite you to reflect on the people who have played the role of the Syrophoenician woman in your life.
Who is the “under the table” in your life, asking for only a crumb of bread or a morsel or attention? How is God speaking to you through those you have met or passed by or barely noticed in recent weeks? Whom is God inviting you to include, to love as if they were yourself? Because in the broadest sense, in God, your neighbor is yourself.