Today’s gospel reading is one of my favorite scripture stories. In it Jesus is taught a lesson about what it means to be the Messiah. And his teacher is a lowly woman.
You may remember from last week’s gospel reading that Jesus has just had yet another run in with the religious authorities, who are indignant that he and his followers do not have the proper regard for the religious purity codes, the outward hallmarks of what it means to be a faithful Jew.
Jesus and his friends have been seen not ritualistically washing their hands before eating, and eating food not prepared in accordance with Jewish kosher laws. Even worse, they have been seen eating with people who are considered unclean – like tax collectors and prostitutes.
Jesus’ reply to his critics is scathing. Purity is not determined by external factors, but by what is in one’s heart, he says.
The confrontation must have tired Jesus. He immediately goes to the region of Tyre, in what is now known as Syria. The region was not heavily Jewish. Jesus goes to a house in the town, and does not want anyone to know he is there.
Obviously, Jesus wants some time away, a chance to be by himself. No confrontations, no requests for healing, no expectations of words of wisdom. Just some badly needed time apart.
It isn’t to be. Even in those days before instant communications, word somehow quickly spreads that Jesus is in town. Immediately someone appears demanding something of him.
That someone is not even Jewish, but a Gentile woman. She comes to Jesus and bows down at his feet, begging him to heal her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. Today we would say that the girl has some kind of mental illness.
Talk about impure. It would be harder for a Jewish man to come into contact with someone less pure than this – a woman, a foreigner, and a nonJew. According to the thinking of the day she must have committed some grave sin for her child to be so ill.
And she is inappropriately assertive, since she must know that a woman of her station has no business approaching a Jewish man.
But this is not just any Jewish man; this is Jesus. And since he has just declared that none of these outward appearances are indicators of what is in one’s heart, we expect that he will treat this woman with respect, as a fellow child of God.
That is why his response to her is so shocking.
“Let the children be fed first,” he says. “For it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Let that sink in.
Jesus calls this woman a dog.
We’ve heard that insult hurled at women by men in authority today. It was no less disgusting in Jesus’ day as it is in our own.
The implication is clear. Jesus wants nothing to do with this woman. He has no sympathy for her, and feels no obligation to her.
In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus is even blunter. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says.
In other words, I am here for the Jews. You are not a Jew, so go away. Leave me alone.
It has been amusing this week to read commentaries by learned Biblical scholars leaping to Jesus’ defense, explaining that he wasn’t really rude, that he didn’t really mean what he said.
It was a word play that the woman would recognize, one said.
Jesus was just testing her to see how strong her faith really was, another suggested.
He never intended not to help the woman, another declared.
But the truth is that not just one, but two gospels tell us that this is indeed what Jesus said, and he apparently meant every word of it.
He was tired, he wanted to be alone, and he wanted to put this woman who was bothering him in her place.
The problem is that she refused to be put.
Or as one of our political leaders said when trying to silence one of his female colleagues not too long ago: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
The Syrophoenician woman is part of a long line of women throughout history who have persisted and resisted the attempts by men in authority to silence them.
Think about what tremendous courage it took for this woman to approach Jesus in the first place. She knows her place in society. She knows the rules of the culture that forbid someone like her from talking to someone like Jesus.
But she is desperate to help her daughter. And that combination of love and desperation give her courage.
We can imagine that she has tried every way she knows to get help for her daughter. Nothing has worked. Her great love for her child emboldens her to persist, to keep pushing, to refuse to walk away from even the dimmest glimmer of hope.
She doesn’t even flinch when Jesus calls her a dog.
Instead, she fires back.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
I imagine that at this point there is a long silence. Jesus must be astounded at the woman’s brashness and audacity.
But he also realizes how desperately this woman must love her daughter, how courageous she is in her persistence.
And then Jesus shows us how to graciously lose an argument.
“For saying that, you may go,” he tells the woman. “The demon has left your daughter.” And the girl is healed.
This unnamed, uneducated, unJewish woman is the only person in scripture who verbally spars with Jesus and wins. Religious scholars and leaders try to debate him, to trip him up, to get the best of him – but they always fail.
It is not the woman’s great intellect that challenges Jesus, but her persistence, courage, and love for her daughter. Because of that, the woman and her daughter’s lives are changed forever by this encounter with Jesus.
But Jesus’ life is also changed by this encounter. This woman, who started out an an unwelcome interruption and intrusion, becomes God’s representative and bearer of truth to Jesus.
She challenges Jesus to exercise his ministry in a new way, to venture beyond tribalism, beyond the familiar voices of tradition and hear a new word from God.
From this moment on, Jesus’ ministry is changed. The Gentile woman opens his eyes, broadens his perspectives, and changes him and his mission.
Jesus’ very next recorded act is to heal a man who is not Jewish. And soon he tells his disciples not just to preach, teach, and heal the people of Israel, but to go and make disciples of all nations.
What this Syrophoenician woman does is give Jesus a lesson in how to be the Messiah, not just to serve and save his own tribe, but to serve and save the world.
Thanks be to God for her, and for all women throughout history who, in the face of attempts by men in authority to silence them, have stood their ground and persisted.