Last year Emma Senn brought home this school assignment: interview your pastor. Among the several questions I was asked to answer was: “Who is your favorite character in the Bible and why”? My answer: “The Syrophoenician woman - because she is the only person in the Bible to win an argument with Jesus.”
The Syrophoenician woman from today’s gospel is a nameless foreigner, different from Jesus and his disciples in culture and religious practices, and an enemy of the community of which they were members. And yet Jesus chooses to enter her territory because, as we so often forget, he was an itinerant preacher. He did not remain within his community of origin, traveling throughout his life, meeting, and telling stories about strangers along the road, showing us that the only way to understand someone completely different than ourselves is to meet them, and the only way to meet them is to venture into the unknown.
Right now, it is more dangerous than usual to travel. Despite added safety precautions, exposing ourselves to the very air that other people breathe can be life-threatening. On the other hand, many Americans have never chosen to travel outside of this country. This may be because the United States is extremely large and diverse and has so many beautiful and interesting places to explore that it’s possible to travel constantly and never see all of it. But I have also heard multiple people express a narrower idea of why it’s not necessary to leave this country, suggesting that there’s no need to travel when you live in the best and most enlightened place in the world.
I have trouble believing that Jesus would agree with such a perspective, given that he belonged to a race long considered to be God’s chosen people - yet he deliberately chose to carry his message beyond its geographic and theological boundaries. Still, based on today’s gospel, it appears that even Jesus needed a reminder that it’s easy to forget the privilege we carry with us - because in today’s reading, we see Jesus exhibiting behavior that looks suspiciously like racism.
We know from the context of the story that Jesus has been going around the country, preaching, healing, and interacting with all kinds of people. He is clearly tired and travels to a fairly isolated place, hoping that no one will bother him there. But at the very first house he comes to a woman asks him to heal her daughter, who has a “demon.” Now, it’s not completely clear why Jesus initially refuses to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, but it’s certainly reasonable to think that it’s because of her race and religion. And he doesn’t just turn her down, he suggests that she is less than human by calling her a dog. Jesus does exactly what his apostles will later tell members of the fledgling Jesus movement not to do. He makes a distinction between himself and the woman. He judges her. He dishonors her. He shows partiality. What are we supposed to do with that?
I think we’re supposed to remember that Jesus was human, and it is passages like this one that remind us that he was fully human. Jesus was a person of his time and, as countercultural as he was in many ways, he was still an itinerant Palestinian Jew living in an occupied country who was regularly harassed and mocked. Why should he make time to help the child of a rich foreigner? After all, his people have problems of their own. Let her people take care of her. It seems likely that if Jesus made this choice his disciples would have accepted his rejection of her; certainly, many of Jesus’s followers today would not only accept it but cheer for it.
But that is not who Jesus was – and, by reacting to his initial rejection with humility and courage, the Syrophoenician woman reminded him of that. Instead of demanding he heal her daughter, she acknowledged her own inability to help herself and indicated her willingness to trust Jesus – despite the fact that he was of a different race and gender than she was – and despite the fact that he had insulted her. She responded to his challenge by reminding him that she was nothing more or less than a human being. And it was her humanity that reminded Jesus that the salvation he brought from God was for everyone – even pushy, non-believing outsiders.
This story has always been a comfort to me. Primarily, because the story of the Syrophoenician woman tells us that while religious orders created by men may decree that women should be punished for speaking their minds, Jesus said no such thing. It also demonstrates that even Jesus could become weary and quarrelsome, sometimes needing a reminder that liking your neighbor and loving them is not always the same thing. But this past week during my own travels, I met my own stranger who taught me the deeper importance of this tale for those of us trying to navigate the rough waters of living together in love during the fearsome times are experiencing.
Gary and I spent our time away in New England and discovered that they have a different attitude toward COVID, one that sometimes made it hard to tell if the people we encountered were for or against vaccines, masks, or just didn’t understand or think about COVID or the D variant at all. One day we went to one shop that had a pretty strict mask policy. As we were wrapping up our purchase, I made a remark to the salesperson, Hannah, that rested on the assumption that she was pro-vaccine and pro-mask – an assumption that turned out to be wrong because she turned to me and said clearly, “I am not vaccinated, but I am going to get it tomorrow even though I don’t want to because everyone keeps telling me I’m a stupid idiot and I’m tired of hearing it.”
I immediately felt stupid (for assuming) and irritated (because I have trouble understanding the antivax view) and prepared to launch into a lecture about why she should get vaccinated. Instead, I paused, and found myself instead asking her why she didn’t want to get vaccinated – and I listened. Although she talked a lot about not trusting the government and believing that certain people in power are invested in having people get vaccines for their own reasons, and other ideas that I don’t agree with, what I heard was fear. She was simply afraid to get the vaccine- and it became clear to me why I was there. My job in that moment was simply to help her work through her fear – and once I knew that, I had no desire to argue or get angry or to care if she liked me. I could just love her for what she was: a human being.
I reminded her that even though it was true that people on both sides of the argument probably had agendas, that it was regular people – doctors and researchers - who had worked so hard to develop the vaccine so that others could get better. I helped her remember that most people don’t have agendas; we’re just all trying to do our best, like her. I told her that I thought it was not stupid, but perfectly normal to be afraid. I admitted that I don’t know much about medicine or the vaccine but the one thing that I do know is that God is present – and that God would be with her no matter what.
This is the other lesson of the Syrophoenician woman – the lesson I so often forget. If we get an opportunity to help someone, we try – even if we expect to be dismissed or disparaged in our attempt. That is what faith is. That is what faith does. It is not our knowledge or ability or the power of any ruler or child of the earth that heals. It is God alone who can set free the prisoners, heal the afflicted, lift up those who are bowed down, and frustrate the way of the wicked – and God will do this. Our path is to follow the example of the Syrophoenician woman – to be strong and not fear. Here is our God, with us – just as God was with Hannah - who received her vaccine without fear the day after we met. AMEN.