First Mennonite Church
November 6, 2016
Story: The Syrophoenician Woman
Text: Matthew 15:21-28
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Technology has given us great advantages in communication. Instant text messaging works amazingly fast and efficiently. There is group texting when you need to communicate with a “bunch of people” at the same time. What is more, you can attach pictures, videos, screen shots, all when doing this. But one added element when communicating is the use of emojis. Emojis are symbols not only of human emotions but also of a wide range of other things, which you can use to express emotions as you write.
Let me tell you that although the intended use of emojis is to help communicate clearer your feelings, just as it is with every kind of communication method, it fails sometimes. About two weeks ago I was responding to an email from the Conference Minister to all of the conference board members about a place for next year’s board retreat. The place she found, however, does not serve coffee nor meat in its meals. So, when I responded I wrote these lines:
Thanks . . . for searching and finding this place. Looks good.
Not much of a vegetarian, but can manage. Oops!
About a week later, there was an email from another board member. He was sort of reprimanding those who are “hard to accommodate.” My emoji did not communicate that I was not serious about what I said.
When Jesus is portrayed in movies he is shown as having a somber and stern-looking face. He barely smiles and his voice is gravely serious. In the movie JESUS, starring Brian Deacon as Jesus, he sternly rebukes his disciples in the KGV.
“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”
In most of the movie Jesus is portrayed as a serious and stern man, but when he meets the children he smiles and talks friendly with them. The image of a stern-looking Jesus in movies is possibly derived from the flat prose we find in the Gospel narratives. There are only a few exceptions where the Gospels tell us Jesus weeps or is sad or angry. We do not read anywhere that he laughs or having fun. Later, I will make reference to this lack of emotion registered in the Gospels.
This short story of Jesus and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is like a summer honey comb. Just like each little hexagonal cell drips with rich, sweet, golden fluid, each aspect in this story is rich with meaning and teaching elements (didactic material).
The story itself ends with Jesus performing a miracle. But before that happens and the way Jesus manages himself in this story is not only intriguing but somewhat troubling. Jesus’ attitude at the beginning of this story raises difficult questions. Why is he so indifferent and even offensive to the poor woman? Is he really cornered and forced to do something he did not want to do or should not do? Is his intention through this incident to teach his disciples that changing view point is not only possible but sometimes even necessary, or that God is not bound to cultural prejudices, nor religious or theological definitions?
In Matthew 10, verse six, Jesus gives his disciples a clear instruction regarding their primary and almost exclusive objects of outreach. “Go nowhere close to Gentiles, but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus tells them. But here in chapter 15 we find Jesus clearly breaking that rule. And as we will see, that is not the only rule he breaks. In the gospel of Mark we are told that Jesus goes to this gentile region not only to escape the opposition he is having, but with the desire that no one would recognize him. Jesus wants to go incognito, yet the moment he steps in town a woman approaches him and his disciples. She is a Canaanite woman. She is a native of the land. And she follows Jesus and his disciples crying for help, but Jesus shows himself completely indifferent. He keeps walking down into town but the annoyed disciples cannot help but request that he should send the woman away.
Here is something rather interesting: the woman has a legitimate reason for her persistent call for help. She is desperate for her daughter’s wellbeing. The daughter is demon-possessed and needs to be freed. The woman is very respectful in her address. She calls Jesus “Lord, Son of David.” The woman pleads. She does not demand nor does she challenge Jesus’ power to grant her request. She pleads, “Have mercy on me.” Yet, with all the politeness and pleading, Jesus shows himself untouched.
Have you ever felt abused or powerless even when you have been doing all the right things to get something? When I was in seminary, Lilian needed to get an Indiana ID. She had already gotten her SS card. So, we went to the DMV office. When the clerk saw us come to her desk and without even opening Lilian’s passport and other supporting documents, she looked at Lilian and said, “You have to get a certified translation of your passport before I can do anything for you. Unless you get that I cannot help you.” I stepped in and told the clerk that the passport is in the English language and that proper names cannot be translated. She almost gave in, but then she pushed toward Lilian the documents and said, “When you get what I am asking you, you come again. Next!” Lilian went to the seminary registrar and asked her to check her passport to see if there is something she could not read or understand. Then Lilian told the registrar of the incident. Lilian was advised to go back and if the DMV clerk makes the same demands that she should ask to talk with the office supervisor. We went again the following day. When Lilian stated the reason for her visit the clerk said, “Sure, let us start.” This public servant moved around in a wheelchair. So, when it came for her to make photocopies of the documents, she had some trouble reaching up to the far corner of the copy machine scanner. It was then that the clerk who had refused to grant the ID request the day before came to help. When she saw the passport the attending clerk wanted to photocopy, she turn and looked at Lilian. “Oh, she was here yesterday but I said she could not get her ID. I was just kidding,” she said.
When Jesus finally speaks, he tells the woman, “God’s gift through me is not for you. It is only for those like me.” Upon hearing that, the woman kneels before him and begs, “Lord, please help me!” But what comes next from Jesus’ mouth sounds demeaning and even plain racist. “Woman, it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus breaks away from his typical character. He has always been nice and friendly especially to those of lower social status. But here, Jesus is almost unrecognizable. It is here that makes us wonder, was Jesus only being sarcastic? Could it be that because of the narrative form his mood is left out? Maybe if there was an aemoji with a wink in Jesus’ eye it would have given us a hint of that. Yet, the crudeness of his analogy does not deter the woman. Without resentment and in fact somewhat accepting her humble position, the woman pushes her case to a new level. “Yes, Lord,” the woman responds, “Puppies do eat. Puppies eat the crumbs the children drop. If your coming here is because your fellow Jews are rejecting God’s heavenly bread, is it not fair that the puppies eat the crumbs?”
Jesus cannot help but exclaim, “Woman, great is your faith!” And the woman’s daughter was healed at that very moment.
Now let us collect the honey dripping from this story. This story can remind us of situations when we felt left out or not belonging to “a family event” or friends’ circle. Although Jesus is in the town of the woman, the woman is left feeling as not belonging. But in the end we find that God’s grace is not bound to explicit or tacit rules. God’s grace reaches even to those who are outside the prescribed group of beneficiaries. On the other hand, have you ever believed that a certain person or group of people is not entitle to something you enjoy? That is what the disciples thought. They concurred with Jesus that the Syrophoenician woman was not entitled to receive a miracle. Yet, we can only wonder, what did the disciples think of Jesus when they saw the woman getting what she had been pleading for? Did they say, “Oh, Oh! She got him! She outwitted him badly!” What lessons did they learn?
Another lesson we can learn from this passage is humility. When someone proves you wrong in your views or arguments, how do you respond? Do you insist you are correct when down in your heart you know you are wrong? Do you discredit the person who corrected your views? Jesus expressed admiration for the woman’s faith and rewarded it. Peter on the other hand might have remembered the day Jesus called him a man of “little faith.” And there is a great difference between Peter’s way and the woman’s way of making their request. Peter said to Jesus, “If it is you, Lord, command me to walk on the water over to you.” Jesus said to him, “Come.” And even when the command was given, Peter doubted and feared; thus he began to sink. The woman, however, from the beginning shows confidence in Jesus’ power. She did not say, “If you are the son of David, heal my daughter.” She instead said, “Lord, help me! Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” She had a great faith indeed.
One last bit of honey! Jesus said the dogs get the crumbs. Crumbs represent the leftovers, food that inadvertently falls from the table. Obviously, crumbs are not the main dish. It is not what we set on the table to our guest. So let me ask you, who gets the crumbs of your time, money, abilities, love, attention? In church, who gets the crumbs of ministry? In your family and among your children and grandchildren, is someone getting the crumbs of your affection or attention?
This story should make us search our heart and ask ourselves, “In my life do I give my loved ones the best of myself or do I give them the crumbs? Do I give God my whole being or am I giving him the crumbs?’
I want to invite you to give God only the best. I want to encourage you to give God your whole being. And may we hear from God what Jesus said to the woman, “Man/woman, great is your faith!” Amen!