The Syro-Phoenician woman

syrophoenician womanA woman from Syria needs help. How do those capable of giving that help respond? Do they feel her pain, or dismiss her because she is ‘different’ in some way? This was what happened 2,000 years ago, and what is happening today…

This was part of the lectionary passage for the day, but was of course very appropriate (and challenging) given the refugee crisis at the moment. It’s worth noting, as I was asked after my sermon, that the situation in Turkey is a very challenging one for Syrian refugees, with terrible conditions in the camps, Turkey’s refusal to grant refugee status (which led to members of Alan Kurdi’s wider family being refused their visa application to Canada), and that Amnesty International criticised the camps in a report late last year. A good article exploring the background is ‘Why has the refugee crisis become so bad?‘ Archbishop Justin’s speech in the House of Lords also outlines some of the problems.

This passage itself is a challenging one, with Jesus initially acting offensively towards the woman, and so has generated a lot of debate. I particularly found the Tyndale commentary on Mark by R Alan Cole (1989) helpful. I wanted to get people thinking about the passage, so talked about a couple of different interpretations. I did worry how people would find this approach, but actually was told that people found it helpful!

The Syro-Phoenician woman; Readings: Isaiah 42:1-7; Mark 7:24-30

Do you like having your photo taken? Are you OK with looking at photos of yourself?
I was taking a wedding recently, which was very well recorded, with 2 photographers and a videographer. So, as well as the formal photos that were being taken before and after the service, there were lots of informal shots of people. And, if you don’t like your photo being taken, it’s those informal shots that you’ll probably struggle with the most; the ones that catch you off-guard, half-way through a gesture. There’ll be photos where you struggle to work out exactly what is going on, or why you’re looking quite like that. And sometimes with that sort of photo, you’ll work it out. But, there might be one or two photos taken over the years where you have absolutely no idea why you look like that, and perhaps even no idea what’s going on.

Well, this passage from Mark’s gospel is a bit like one of those photos. It’s a snapshot in the middle of the action and people have turned it this way and that trying to work out what’s going on. But, the problem is that at least some of the detail that we’d really like to see is just off the edge of the picture.

So, what have we got?
Jesus has just had another major argument with the Pharisees. He has told them that it isn’t things that go into a person that makes them unclean, it’s things that come out of a person, the evil thoughts and desires that they have and act upon, that make them unclean. It’s our thoughts, words and actions that damage ourselves and others. Jesus has then repeated all that for his disciples, who haven’t quite got the point!

Then, as we heard at the start of our reading, Jesus tries to slip away. He heads out of the Galilee region and up to near Tyre, into what is now Lebanon. It was a trip of about 30 miles, so probably two or three days walking. It was a mixed area, with some Jews, but mainly Gentiles, that is, anyone who wasn’t a Jew.

Jesus stays there in someone’s house. We aren’t told who, or how he knew them. They were probably Jewish, as otherwise the rest of the story doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s probable that they were people who had come and heard Jesus preaching already, or perhaps relatives of one of his disciples. We don’t know; it’s one of the many details that are just out of the picture.

And then, he is confronted by someone, a desperate woman in need.
And then, for some reason, he’s extraordinarily rude to her, calling her a dog, dismissing her plea. Only once she has come back with a clever reply does he tell her that her daughter has been healed. It’s not the most comfortable of stories, it’s probably not one that we heard in Sunday school!

So, what’s going on here?
One of the interpretations of this passage is that the woman gets Jesus to change his mind. The argument goes that Jesus has, like we all do, picked up his attitudes from those around him, sees the world through that perspective, the perspective of a Jewish male living in 1st century Palestine under the Roman occupation. And, from that perspective, a Gentile woman wasn’t someone who he would be spending any time with, particularly when he has gone away deliberately to spend time with his disciples. So, he gives her a standard, dismissive, answer, and prepares to go on his way. But, her answer, this interpretation goes, gets him listening, gets him thinking, changes his mind and leads to the healing of her daughter and, as we read on, to continue his mission to Gentiles as well. Jesus has his mind changed because he listens, and many benefit from God’s grace as a result.

I’m fairly sure that this isn’t is what is going on here. I’ll say why in a minute. But, I think that it’s good to hear different perspectives, good to hear different understandings, to help us think about what we believe and why, to help us encounter the grace of God in other people, to help us recognise God’s love in different guises. And I think that this perspective has an important challenge for us to hear. Are we uncomfortable with Jesus changing his mind because we don’t think Jesus could or should ever change his mind? Do we think that Jesus could ever be confused, or unsure, or tired, or a bit grumpy, or have a bad night’s sleep, or have a joke, or fail to get a joke or get something stuck between his teeth, or look a bit ridiculous even for a second? Long enough, that is, for a daft photo to be taken of him, if cameras had been invented! The sort of photo that we cringe when we see ourself in it, or makes the front page if you’re a political leader.

Because, if we are uncomfortable with that, then perhaps we haven’t grasped as clearly as we might that Jesus was fully human, as well as fully God. And that means sharing our humanity and through that showing us God’s saving love for each one of us.

Now, I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, because Jesus has already been outside Jewish areas, in chapters 5 and 6 and healed people. Jesus has already taught and healed people from across the region in chapter 3, probably including non-Jews, Gentiles. And, also, Jesus would have known, better than we do, passages like we heard from Isaiah.

The prophet Isaiah spoke about the Servant of the Lord who was coming, who would be full of God’s Spirit and would bring God’s kingdom. And Isaiah tells us what God’s kingdom will look like; it will be full of justice, freedom, righteousness and it will be a light to the Gentiles. There is no limit to God’s call and God’s mercy.

So, if the passage from Mark isn’t about Jesus changing his mind, what is it about?
Mark’s gospel was written for Gentiles, for non-Jews, by a Gentile, possibly in Rome itself. One of the repeated refrains in the Old Testament is for the Israelites to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, and were rescued by God and so to treat people in the same way.

Is this passage doing the same thing for those first Christians? Is it a reminder of they could be treated and how Jesus treated them differently? So, an encouragement to treat people with compassion and respect.

So, I think that a better interpretation of the passage is this:
Jesus has talked to his disciples about what makes someone clean or unclean. It’s their attitudes, their actions that’s important. And then, confronted with someone who is different, to whom they have been taught not to respect, to barely see as human, Jesus holds up a mirror of the disciple’s attitudes towards this woman. Do they nod when Jesus calls the woman a dog, prepare to move on, not giving a second thought to her little daughter? So, then what do they think when the woman answers back and Jesus heals her daughter? Does another glimmer of God’s love and grace for all break through? Does their lack of compassion, their failure to recognise this person too as made in the image of God cause them to think again?

At the moment there is another major cycling race going on, the Tour of Spain. It’s a 3 week event and many of the best road cyclists in the world on competing. One of the leading contenders was Britain’s Chris Froome, who won the Tour de France and was going for a very rare double. On Wednesday it was the hardest day of the race, with 6 major climbs, adding up to over 15,000 feet of ascent. Before any of them, Froome crashed, but got back on his bike and finished the stage. But, he struggled all the way, finishing more than 8 minutes behind the winner. He was criticised by some people saying that he should be ashamed of how bad his performance was. Until it was revealed that he had been riding all day, for 80 miles and 15,000 feet of ascent, with a broken foot.

And that one detail shifts how we see things. It shifts the story from being one of a failing champion, to one of a champion showing his courage and determination to beat 143 other riders, with a broken foot.

It’s those details that matter, that make all the difference. Seeing things as they really are. Seeing people as people, made in the image of God, more similar to we are than different.

This week, it seems that the detail that has really mattered, that has really shifted how people see things, is that terrible photo of a small boy, Alan Kurdi, drowned as he and his family tried to escape from the war in Syria. It is this detail that has woken people up to the terrible events that are happening across Europe and further afield.

What can we do about that? Donate. Perhaps to ACT Alliance, a group of Christian charities some of whom are working with refugees. Contact our council and MP. Sign a petition online. Pray. The charity Home for Good is looking for foster carers for unaccompanied refugee children. The group Knit for Peace will be sending scarves, jumpers and so on to refugee camps shortly.

Archbishop Justin said about this:
“We cannot turn our backs on this crisis. We must respond with compassion. But we must also not be naïve in claiming to have the answers to end it. It requires a pan-European response – which means a commitment to serious-minded diplomatic and political debate, but not at the expense of practical action that meets the immediate needs of those most in need of our help.”

We need to do both. More widely, how do we treat people who are different to ourselves?
What are our attitudes to those who are different from us?
How can we show God’s grace, God’s love and compassion?
In what ways do we need to hear the challenge to listen to and respect others?
In what ways can we be a light to those around us?

Let’s pray again the Collect [for the 14th Sunday after Trinity]:
Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Amen.


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