Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
September 10, 2000
James 2:1-10 and Mark 7:24-37
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Jesus' words to the woman were harsh and insulting. These certainly didn't seem like words that could come from Jesus' mouth. The Syrophoenician woman had come to Jesus begging him to drive the devil out her daughter and he had refused, equating the girl with dogs, in the process.
Troubling? Yes. But, I find it comforting. In this story we find the humanity of Jesus - responding poorly in the midst of a stretch of tough days - mixed with the radical power of a woman to change him. This story allows us to see the Son of God (like the rest of us) was less than perfect. He certainly had cause to be sharp and testy.
The people of his hometown had recently cast him out of Nazareth (6:1-6). And he had also recently received word that King Herod had beheaded his cousin, friend and baptizer, John. (6:14-29). Feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fishes (6:30-44) and curing the sick well past dark (6:53-56), Jesus was exhausted when he fled the growing crowds in Galilee to the region of Tyre. So he was cast out, wiped out, and grieving as he sought rest and seclusion. "Yet he could not escape notice," (7:24) Mark's Gospel tells us.
Here at the end of his journey, at the end of his rope, this woman falls at his feet and will not let go of him. First, he tries ignoring her, but have you ever been successful ignoring someone who is clinging to your feet? He answers harshly. But, the woman persists. At this point, he responds with compassion and integrity to this great human emotion. From a distance, he heals the woman's daughter as he drives the devil out of the girl.
This foreign, pagan woman who would not take "no" for an answer was also wiped out and grieving when she came to Jesus begging him to cast out the demon in her daughter. She bore the frustrating loneliness of being the mother of a child whose disease was seen by all around her as a consequence of sin. He daughter was suffering and she knew that Jesus had the power to do something about it. In Matthew's telling of this story when faced with the initial insult of Jesus' response, she simply says, "Lord, help me." I can imagine the momentary pause in the conversation, just a split second pause, when Jesus realized what had said and done.
"Perhaps a look of incredulity - maybe a faint smile of humility as the truth dawned - came over the compassionate face of Jesus. She had won him over . . . So deep was this woman's belief that she called forth an instantaneous long-distance healing . . . But the implications of her encounter reach far beyond the moment. She was the only person in the New Testament who verbally sparred with Jesus and won . . . She was the bearer of truth to the Son God. She opened his eyes, broadened his perspective, changed him and his mission forever." (Joyce Hollyday, Clothed With the Sun, Westminister John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1994, p. 206).
While at one time, Jesus' message was only for the Jews, following this encounter, the mandate for his mission had changed. In Matthew's words, Jesus proclaims, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Continuing on in Mark 7:31-37, "Jesus continues his mission beyond Galilee by heading to Decapolis where he heals a deaf man with the words, "Be opened!" It is Jesus who becomes more open. And although the text tells us, "They were astounded beyond measure" by his healing touch, I believe the Syrophoenician woman is one who is astounding beyond measure - reaching through to the heart of Jesus like no one before, like no one that followed.
Do you ever feel as if so many people you encounter in your in daily work and life are just after something you have? "Here's the deal," they say. Or, "this is what I can do for you," when in fact they mean, "this is what I want you to do for me." We become jaded and worn out by the "Fred Ricarts", "We're Dealing" grease and glitz that surround us. Here in our church office, Janet and others of us on staff are barraged with requests for money. We too can become jaded and worn out by the constant flow and the constant needs of people off the streets of Columbus. But, once in a while, we are encountered by the "real deal."
The other day as I was leaving the office, an African-American man approached my in the parking lot. He was dressed in worn out jeans and a dirty T-shirt. My pin-headed, racial profiling mind began to churn. What did he want, I wondered?
As he walked closer, he asked, "Are you the pastor?" I stopped and answered, "Yes, I am" (Thinking --- here we go I don't have time for this!). He then asked if I knew a woman who works in a church down the street? Although he had her name slightly wrong, I guessed who he meant. Then he smiled and said with beautiful, compassionate eyes, "I thought you might like to know that she's having heart surgery. If you could hold her in your prayers, it would mean so much to her." I promised I would. With that, he was gone. Jaded and worn out, God "Astounded me beyond measure" and sent an angel in human form to remind me of my own lack of compassion in the face of need.
In her collection of short stories entitled, Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, Alice Walker offers one story entitled, "The Welcome Table." Dedicating this story to sister Clara Ward, Alice Walker tells of an old African-American woman going to church one Sunday. She begins:
"The old woman stood with eyes uplifted in her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, high shoes polished about the tops and toes, a long rusty dress adorned with an old corsage, long withered, and the remnants of an elegant silk scarf as headrag stained with grease from the many oily pigtails underneath. Perhaps she had known suffering." (Found in Listening for God, Paula Carlson and Peter Hawkins, eds., Augsburg Press, Mpls., 1994, p. 110).
As the story continues the old woman has gone to a whites only church is Georgia on a winter day. She is cruelly spoken to "Go away, you don't belong here!" and cruelly treated by all. As the reverend of the church stops her and says ever so kindly just inside the vestibule, "Auntie, you know this is not your church?" The young ushers, getting eyed by their wives, (who Walker reminds us "believe in God, mother, country, earth, and church") lift her out of the pew and turn her out on the front steps of the church. She is put out for invading their privacy.
There she stands at the top steps looking about in bewilderment. But, as she looks down the long gray highway, she sees something interesting and delightful coming. She starts to grin toothlessly, with short giggles of joy, she begins to jump around and slap her hands on her knees. Coming down the highway, at firm though leisurely pace is Jesus. Dressed immaculately, he approaches her - sometimes looking up at the sky, sometimes looking down the highway.
When he gets close, all he says is "follow me." She bounds down the steps and begins walking in deep silence for a long time. Finally, she starts telling him how many years she cooked for them, cleaned for them, nursed them. He looked kindly upon her but remained silent. She told indignantly how they had grabbed her and tossed her out of church. "Imagine," she said, "an old heifer like me." Breathing hard, she straightened up next to Jesus, and he simply smiled down at her and she felt better instantly and time seemed to fly by.
She broke the silence again to tell Jesus how glad she was that he had come, how she had often looked at his picture hanging on her wall (she hoped he didn't know she stolen it) over her bed, and how she had never expected to see him down here in person. Jesus gave her one of his beautiful smiles and they walked on. She did not go where they were going, someplace wonderful she suspected . . . They walked on, looking straight over the treetops into the sky . . . on they walked without stopping. ("The Welcome Table," p. 113).
Alice Walker ends, "The people in church never knew what happened to the old woman; they never mentioned her to one another or anyone else. Most of them heard something later that an old colored woman fell dead along the highway. Silly as it seemed, she had walked herself to death." Some had seen her that day high-stepping down the road, sometimes talking to herself, sometimes gesturing with her hands, and laughing, sometimes silently gazing toward the sky - by most definitely everyone said she was alone on the road that winter day.
To the Syrophoenician woman his words were at first harsh and insulting. But she touched his compassionate heart and in split second he realized his mistakes and changed his heart. His was the woman's faith that healed her daughter that day. To the old woman standing outside and alone on the top of the white church steps, he said "Follow me." He astounds us beyond measure this Christ of ours. He meets us when we lease expect him and most need him. Yes, he astounds us beyond measure. Amen.
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