A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 6, 2009 (Proper 18, Year B)
Do you take “no” for an answer? It usually depends upon the question, of course. But some people accept it when they’re told there aren’t any rooms left at the Hilton and others push and create a scene until the manager magically finds an available room. When it comes to getting help for her demon-possessed daughter, the Syrophoenician woman in this morning’s reading from Mark refuses to be denied. If only she was around when Mary and Joseph were told there was “no room in the inn.” I have a funny feeling they would have ended up in the honeymoon suite. We don’t know if this was her personality or whether it was borne of desperation. But her daughter needed healing and this woman was not going to take “no” for an answer. Even if that was precisely the answer she first encountered.
As she throws herself at his feet and begs Jesus for a cure, Jesus says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” A curious phrase but a way of telling her that he came first to the Jews and the Gentiles would just have to get in line and wait their turn. The “food” of the Gospel is meant for the children of Israel, not the Gentiles.
And at first glance this doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know. The one who says “I am the good shepherd” and “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The one who welcomes the outcast and sinner; the one who heals the sick and lifts up the downtrodden. Suddenly this Jesus is shooing away a woman in need and comparing her to a dog in the process. What’s going on here? As a child might ask, “Is it opposite day?” That sounds like a bad shepherd to me.
The reality is that this exchange was even more audacious than it appears. Besides the fact that she just barged into the house where Jesus was trying to get a little R&R, in the culture of ancient Palestine, women didn’t address men – they could speak only if first spoken to. And beyond the gender issue she was the wrong race, the wrong nationality, and the wrong religion. A Gentile, Syrophoenician woman approaching a Jewish man? It’s scandalous! Mark stresses that this woman had not one ounce of Jewish blood in her. She was as outside as an outsider could possibly get.
In a word, this non-Jew defines the Jewish concept of chutzpah. We use the word as meaning “nerve” – either positively or negatively. The classic example of chutzpah is the man who, after being convicted of killing his parents, throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he’s an orphan. That’s chutzpah. But the original meaning was exclusively negative and could be translated as “insolence” or ‘impertinence.” Which fits right in with the brazen woman who demands that Jesus heal her daughter.
But back to Jesus. Most preachers really wish he hadn’t said this thing about throwing the children’s food to the dogs. And it’s tempting to ignore his response to this woman. Maybe focus on the story that follows the account of the Syrophoenician woman – the one about the healing of the deaf man that we also heard about. There’s no controversy there; not a word about dogs. But as much as we wish it would, the passage just won’t go away. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In the context of Mark’s gospel – which was written to a Gentile Christian audience – the whole notion of Jewish particularity is debunked. Jesus decidedly did not come to just one group, even if he was born into it.
My take on this whole exchange, and I’m by no means alone here, is that Jesus is mocking the Pharisees’ approach to faith. He had just challenged the group who had come to condemn him for allowing his disciples to eat without first ritually washing their hands – we heard that passage last week. And here he is demonstrating just how absurd it is to put up boundaries between groups of people. So Jesus is engaging in a bit of hyperbole, which he often does to prove a larger point. Something he couldn’t have done if he’d simply healed the woman’s daughter and sent her away.
What’s truly radical is that through this exchange, Jesus makes clear that he came not to a small, exclusive religious group but to the entire world, regardless of gender or nationality or race. His is a gospel of extreme inclusion. And as James reminds us in his letter, we have a role to play here. One that hits so close to home that it’s uncomfortable. If a nice, young, attractive couple shows up at St. John’s wearing Talbots clothing and toting a couple of well-behaved children, chances are they’d be heartily welcomed. Someone would tell them about the great Sunday School program here; they’d be ushered into coffee hour; people would engage them in conversation and encourage them to become regular parishioners.
But what about the homeless woman who wanders in the front door wearing a filthy polyester dress? What kind of welcome would she receive? She’d no doubt be given a bulletin and a smile. But what about that invitation to coffee hour? What about helping her to find the resources she needs to escape the indignity of poverty? I’m not judging anyone – I’m often guilty of the same offense; of distinguishing between groups of people. But James’ letter and Jesus’ words and actions bid us to continually strive to shatter the barriers of division among people. It’s a work in progress for all of us.
But I also think we can learn a lot from this Syrophoenician woman. Because sometimes we need to be a bit pushy in our prayer lives. Sometimes we should refuse to take “no” for an answer. The meek may well inherit the earth but that doesn’t mean sitting idly by and letting life happen. We could all use a bit of chutzpah in our approach to God. Jesus tells us “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Which is great. But sometimes we need to ask boldly or seek thoroughly or knock loudly. Persistence in prayer is a virtue. It’s okay to be the squeaky wheel. Because the moment you refuse to take “no” for an answer is often the same moment that God opens the door and beckons you in.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009