|The Syrophenecian Woman - Prophet to the Messiah|
Have you ever just had it?
Here’s why I ask: I took a moment to try to trace where Jesus has been up until now, and when I looked back, I noticed a pattern. I noticed that almost every incident of healing, preaching, teaching, every single place he goes, every little thing he does, begins with some variation of:
the crowds pressed in on him,
there were so many people there he had to teach from a boat to keep from getting crushed by the clamoring throng,
he went up a mountain to pray and the crowds followed him,
he took a boat somewhere and the crowds figured out where he was going and beat him there on foot,
his fame spread,
people came from far and wide,
there was no room to move in the house so they cut open the roof to lower a guy down,
the entire city was gathered outside his door,
“Jesus, how could you slip away like this? Everyone is looking for you!”
so many were gathered there was no longer room for them,
sick, pleading, hanging on his every word and the hem of his robe,
and on and on and on.
When he sneaks off to pray he is hunted down. When he tells people to keep their healing a secret they spread the word so that Jesus can no longer go down the streets in town, and has to stay in the country and have the people come to him.
The only place in the first six chapters of Mark where it says Jesus is “alone,” adds “with those who traveled with his disciples,” as though a modest group of 20-30 is as close it gets to solitude.
So this story begins with a tired and cranky Jesus, who hasn’t been alone in many months, it sounds like, probably not since returning from his stark 40 days of excruciating aloneness in the wilderness right after his public debut.
Now Jesus is going on a get-away. And in my mind, I imagine Jesus is SO looking forward to this. Climbing the stairs of the bus in the pre-light of early dawn, bag in hand, sunglasses on and hat pulled low, incognito, he turns and waves to Peter, whose unflagging internal clock of a fisherman designated him the chauffeur of the hour.
Then he takes an empty seat by the window and rides that sucker right out of town, and doesn’t flinch for a second when it rolls over the line that divides Jewish territory from Gentile. He sinks down in his seat and sighs, maybe letting a smile flit across his lips. Just coming off of the argument yesterday with the Pharisees about crossing boundaries, he trounces across one himself for a much-needed breather.
Now, granted, he might not ever really be alone, at least not much. But it must feel different, heading into territory where no self-respecting follower of God would follow you- Jews are not treated well here, it’s no secret, nor do they look on the inhabitants of Tyre with anything that could be mistaken for respect or affection. God only knows what people will think when they find out where he’s gone.
Jesus’ secret vacation.
He’s going to camp out a few days in a nice Gentile home, where those clamoring for him will not find him, and those around him don’t much care what he’s got to offer, since whatever it is is not for them anyway. So he’s off the hook, a little bit, for a few days. He’s got no other agenda than to just relax. To get away. Not to have to be on or care or be aware of others and their needs. for. a. few. days. Jesus is having a me party.
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know that he was there. Mark says.
Dropping his bag, his body registers all the fatigue in his muscles and brain, all the tension in his back and shoulders, and standing up tall he feels the knot in his stomach gradually relax.
Finally, a little peace.
Not so fast, Jesus.
Because into this house of escape, this place of peace, tracking him like a bloodhound and crashing he me-party, a Syrophenician woman comes. Barging in the next afternoon, she looks at him with that hang-dog look. She comes with her needs front and center, and she sees him in this place he was hoping not to be seen.
And she asks, begs, Jesus. Please heal my daughter.
But cranky Jesus is done.
Did we mention that? And she must be noticing it, right? How can she not? She must be noticing and just blatantly ignoring all the signs. He’s in sweat pants for crying out loud, and he clearly hasn’t shaved. He shuffles to the door in slippers with his second finger still jammed in the pages of the half-open novel that had been resting on his chest while he dozed, and his hair is smushed down in the back from the lazyboy by the window he’s just pried himself out of. He’s not here to work, lady. And nobody else is expecting him to, thank you very much. They’re putting toast and juice on the kitchen table next to the paper and leaving for work, leaving him blissfully alone.
But here stands this woman. What is she even doing here?
This is king of the Jews, remember? Messiah to a needy enough people. This salvation clearly has a recipient already, and their seemingly relentless hunger and bottomless need haven’t given him a moment’s rest for weeks. It’s in his face 24-7; he’s got enough on his plate with the children of God and their hungry, whining mouths to feed. So he tells her as much.
Get off my back, lady. Or rather, Dog. (Not pet, by the way, literally dog). “Let the children be fed first, ok? It’s not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” Subtext: There is only so much of me to go around. Other Subtext: I got nothing for you. Please go away.
But this remarkable Gentile woman, this unyielding, tenacious mother, whose daughter has struggled and suffered in her arms day in and day out, is not about to be put off so easily. She crossed the line by coming to him at all; she’s not scared into retreating by an insult couched in a metaphor.
True, very true. She answers, nodding. Good point, there, sir. But, surely, you must admit, that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table, do they not? she asks, fixing him with her steady gaze.
And she’s got him.
Because truth be told, all he has left at the moment anyway is crumbs.
When this extraordinary woman answers him back, this Gentile to a Jew, this woman to a man, this pleading needy one to a famous, foreign teacher, invading his vacation and slapping him awake with her brazen response, she ceases being a pest and suddenly becomes a prophet.
In the stunned silence the words of the prophet Isaiah hang in the air around Jesus and reflect back at him in her eyes,
The Lord God says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ (Is. 49:6)
And without taking his eyes off her, he slowly sets down the novel on the table and sees her. Really sees her.
Wow. he says. For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.
And she heads home and finds it to be absolutely true.
And Jesus has learned a thing or two in the process.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? James asks, several decades later, when the church had begun to be the church with each other in some form, and Christians are seeking to live out the truth they had come to know in the life and death and resurrection of Christ.
And how beautiful it is, that this course correction Jesus experiences in the presence of God in the presence of the Syrophenecian woman happened as it did, for the church to look back and see. How striking the words of James sound on this backdrop, that see favoritism and exclusion as anathema to Jesus Christ, and contrary to the gospel. Because in our weakness and exhaustion, when we’re phoning it in and not really seeing others at all, we behave the same way Jesus did.
And even the courage of the Syrophenecian woman’s reply doesn’t break out of the stereotypes and barriers they both simply accepted as fact. As the way things are. How life is. Never occurred to them to see it otherwise. Never occurred to them to act otherwise.
And we pause on the face of God, incarnate and human, with skin tone and native language and regional accent and ruling economy and undisputed customs… God incarnate facing in his humanity all the human unspoken messages he has absorbed growing up in a particular time and place just like the rest of us, about who is good and who is bad, who is worthy of respect and who is not, who is more important than whom in this stratified, and divided world, where we fiercely guard what we have, and there is only so much to go around.
And even from inside this warped worldview, where these two stand on opposite sides of an impermeable barrier that everybody accepts and nobody questions, when she calls him on his compassion, he sees her. And suddenly none of the rest of it matters – what’s real is their shared humanity and his distinct divinity, and the love and healing and wholeness and abundance of the Kingdom of God, in stark clarity, and for all. Even for the two of them standing right there.
A few days later, Jesus leaves and goes, “by way of Sidon,”-which is in the exact opposite direction- driving the "scenic route" through Gentile territory quite a ways before finally turning back towards home. He takes in the sights and sounds with new eyes and ears, stopping along the way and sampling the food and the music and the flavor of the foreign city streets, stretching his legs in peace and filling his lungs with air before he dives back into the sea of needy people just over the border in Jewish territory.
And while he is there they bring him a deaf mute man. But this Jesus is not the same Jesus who left on this vacation. He belongs to all, and all belong to God. Without hesitating, he pulls the mute Gentile aside, and like his Father/Mother God breathing life into the Adam, and his Spirit hovering over the waters at creation or giving voice to our wordless aching prayers, he sighs deeply.
Be opened, he says. Let there be life.
And the man is healed. Which is to say, he can hear and speak again, but he can also be a person with people, part of the us that surround him instead of alone and cut off. No longer is he just his disease or disability - which he never really was, but it wasn’t until Jesus acknowledged that with his outlandishly intimate and fearless fingers in the ears and spitting and touching of the tongue move that anyone else saw him any other way - he is now wholly restored to his humanity, to community, to life. And for that moment, in that place with those people, it is as it should be. A foretaste of eternity.
Hey you guys? Please, don’t tell anyone, ok? – he asks them, weakly. And the more he said that, Mark tells us, the more they spread the word. And the spreading sounds different here than back home- no arguing about whether he’s from God or a dangerous blasphemer, wrestling with Messiah expectations, or insisting this is that kid who grew up down the street. Instead they give just a refreshingly pagan assessment of the situation: This man does everything right. They say. He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak! And there you have it.
Jesus waves his goodbye to the foreigners who are also his own, and ambles back to the rented convertible. Tossing the bag of spiced nuts someone had given him onto the passenger seat, he sets out for home.
A little wiser. A little more awake. A little more connected to the needs of all humanity (his own included) and a little more in-tune with the abundant life of God for the whole world. Rested, perhaps, and with a deeper sense of just what this is all about.
What he himself is all about.
And the story of God continues.