5 September 2015

Repentance - a Sermon about Jesus, the Syrophoenician Woman, and Refugees

Scripture:  Mark 7:24-37
Windsor United Church
September 6, 2015

I want to talk this morning about the Syrophoenician Woman.  The woman who approached Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter who had an unclean spirit.  And Jesus insulted her, and said “no.”  This is a difficult story.  Jesus does not come off in a very flattering light.

Let’s take a few steps back.  Up until this point in his ministry, Jesus had been hanging around the Galilee region – the area around the sea of Galilee which is located in the north of the modern-day country of Israel. Jesus had been teaching and healing and performing miracles; and he had attracted a crowd of followers as well as his inner circle of disciples.

At the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus leaves the region of Galilee and heads north-west to the region of Tyre.  This is on the shores of the Mediterranean ocean, in the modern-day country of Lebanon.  More importantly, for our story this morning, Jesus has left the land of the Jewish people, and is traveling among the Gentiles – the non-Jews.  We aren’t told if his disciples have travelled with him or not – as far as our narrator is concerned, Jesus and the woman who approaches him are the only two characters in today’s story.

And so Jesus has traveled to a foreign land, and he enters a house, trying to escape notice, we are told.  I wonder why Jesus was trying to escape notice?  Maybe his reputation for wisdom and healing and miracles has followed him, and he is looking for some peace and quiet.  Maybe he stands out as a foreigner – looking different and sounding different and with different customs.  We aren’t told why he doesn’t want anyone to know that he is there.  But he isn’t alone for long.

Enter the Syrophoenician woman.  Somehow she knows that Jesus is in that particular house.  Somehow she knows that he is able to heal her daughter.  And so she enters the house, and falls down at Jesus’ feet, and she begs Jesus to heal her daughter.

Now this would have been a highly unusual occurrence.  First of all, it is a woman approaching Jesus – in the culture of the place and time, it would have been unheard of for a woman to approach a man that she wasn’t related to.  Secondly, we are told that she isn’t Jewish – she is Greek and follows different beliefs and traditions.  Why did she think to approach this Jewish healer to ask him to heal her daughter?

I can’t help but wonder about this nameless woman.  What was her story?  Why was she the one to approach Jesus to beg for healing for her daughter?  Maybe she was a widow with no other family to request the healing.  Maybe her family had abandoned her and her daughter due to her daughter’s condition.  Or maybe she was just so desperate for a miracle that she was willing to cross the cultural and societal boundaries.  We don’t know.

So there she is, at Jesus’ feet, begging for a miracle that would heal her daughter.  And Jesus says no.  Well, not quite.  He insults her by calling her a dog, and tells her that because she is not Jewish, she and her young daughter are not deserving of a healing miracle.

Wait, what?!  This sounds so unlike the Jesus that we normally hear about – the Jesus whose message was of unconditional love.  Jesus, the perfect son of God.  Think of the Jesus that we sing about in our hymn books – Jesus, friend of little children.  Jesus, lover of my soul.  Jesus, priceless treasure.  Jesus, teacher, brave and bold.  Jesus, joy of loving hearts, the fount of life, the light of all.  Is this the Jesus who would insult a woman begging at his feet?  Is this the Jesus who would refuse healing to a young girl?

And that is why the title of this sermon is “Jesus had a bad day.”  Maybe he got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning.  Jesus was fully God, but Jesus was also fully human; and in his first response to the Syrophoenician woman, his human nature is shining through.  According to the human culture of his time and place, she probably shouldn’t have approached him.

Some theologians have tried to explain Jesus’ response by saying that he must have been testing the faith of the woman.  But if that is the case, then why aren’t we told that.  There is no verse in the text that says, “Jesus said this to test her faith.”  Without evidence, I have difficulty accepting this explanation.  Other theologians have tried to explain her response by saying that he wasn’t really insulting her – dogs are pets, after all.  But further analysis of the language used shows that the word “dog” probably had a meaning closer to the derogatory and insulting word in modern English for a female dog that I’m not going to repeat here.  Jesus wasn’t calling her a cute little puppy.

If the story ended here, we would be in trouble.  Why would Jesus, friend of little children, insult a woman and her daughter this way, and then deny them healing?  And why would the author of Mark’s gospel include this story that doesn’t show Jesus at his best in his re-telling of the life of Jesus?  Why not jump straight to the punch line?  Why not jump straight to the healing and leave out the dialogue?

It is what happens next that is amazing.  After being insulted, and after being denied the miracle that she so desperately longs for, the woman doesn’t leave.  She argues back.  She argues back to Jesus, a man with so much more power and privilege than she could ever dream of having.  She reminds him that God’s love and God’s healing isn’t limited.  Healing her daughter, or anyone else from outside of the Jewish faith, won’t diminish the love and healing available for those on the inside.  She reminds Jesus that God’s kingdom is one of abundance, not of scarcity.

And Jesus listens to her.  Jesus tells her that he has healed her daughter.  She leaves the house where Jesus is staying, and goes home, and finds that her daughter has been healed.

All through the Old Testament, the history of the Jewish people, there have been prophets who have come forward.  These were women and men who were led by God, especially in times when the kings and leaders and people had forgotten or turned away from God’s commandments.  They would speak to the kings and leaders and people through words and actions, calling on them to repent and change their ways, to turn back to God.

I believe that the nameless woman in today’s story was speaking with a prophetic voice.  She saw wrong, and she spoke out against the wrong.  In our world, we so often operate under the assumption of scarcity – there isn’t enough to go around, so if I give what I have to those people then there won’t be enough for me.  This prophetic woman sees Jesus slipping into this way of thinking, and she calls him on it.  She reminds him that God’s kingdom isn’t limited by scarcity.  There is always more than enough to go around.

And Jesus hears this prophetic voice, and he repents.  Repentance is more than just saying that you are sorry.  Repentance is being sorry, but then also changing your ways to correct what was wrong.  Repentance is living in to the apology.  Repentance is changing your ways so that they are lined up with God’s ways once again.  Jesus hears the prophetic voice, recognizes that his original answer was wrong, and he changes his answer and his actions so that the woman’s daughter is healed.

And that, to me, is the heart of this story.  That is why the full story was included in Mark’s telling of the life of Jesus.  Jesus was modeling repentance – he recognized that he was doing something wrong; and rather than stubbornly persisting in his ways, he was able to change his course of action.

As I was preparing this week’s sermon, I couldn’t help but think of the current situation with refugees trying to escape war in Syria and Iraq to make it to Europe and beyond.  There was that gut-wrenching, heart-breaking picture of a dead toddler, Aylan Kurdi, on a beach in Turkey that went viral this week.  There are stories of boats overturned in the Mediterranean Ocean, refugees waiting in train stations, journeys of hundreds of kilometers on foot.  And at the same time, our own country of Canada is accepting 10,000 fewer refugees per year than it did just a decade ago.  In the past decade, over 100,000 refugee claimants have been detained and then deported from Canada.  Jesus said no to a healing requested; he repented; and a young girl was healed.  Canada and other countries have said no to requests for refuge and asylum; we haven’t repented; and the bodies of babies are washing up on beaches.

I’m not going to preach party politics from the pulpit; but the Christian message is a political message.  Jesus taught us, through words and actions, that the core of God’s message was to love God and to love our neighbours.  We are to love our neighbours, even when they don’t look like us.  We are to love our neighbours, even when they don’t sound like us.  We are to love our neighbours, even when they have different customs than us.  We are to love our neighbours, even when they have different beliefs or religions than us.  We are to love our neighbours, even when they have a different social standing than us.  We are to love our neighbours, period.  The world says that if we help those people and their children, then there won’t be enough for us and for our children.  God’s kingdom says that there is always more than enough for everyone.

And so my question for you today is how can we take the message from today’s gospel reading to heart?  How can we be like Jesus, and not only recognize when wrong has been done, but then to take concrete actions to correct that wrong so that our actions are lined up with God’s teachings?  How can we live the gospel message today here in Canada, in Nova Scotia, in Windsor, in our communities, in our churches?