Last month, my husband, Matt, helped out with Nassau Presbyterian’s Esther musical, Malice in the Palace. He was in charge of daily bible study in-between rehearsal times. The bible study’s theme was: People in the Bible who Stood up for Their Beliefs. On the third day of the program, he chose the story of the Syrophonecian woman.
Some days the kids were engaged. Some days they were not. But on the third day, as Matt told the story of the Syrophoenician woman, the kids leaned forward and started to hush each other so they could hear every word out of Matt’s mouth.
The kids were captivated, because unlike every other passage of the New Testament, in this story, Jesus is not the hero. In fact, Jesus behaves in a very human way. One might even say Jesus behaves like a jerk.
To be fair, Jesus was trying to lay low. He had just been in Jerusalem, arguing with the Pharisees and maybe he just needed a break. After all, Tyre is a beach town. Maybe he wanted to go to Israel’s version of Cape May and catch a few rays, eat a fish taco, take a little break. However, when you are as interesting as Jesus, traveling incognito becomes difficult. Even in the days before twitter and TMZ, the word got out that Jesus had arrived.
The Syrophoenician woman has a daughter who she believes is possessed by a unclean spirit. She loves her daughter and wants to help her. She has probably been to every doctor and rabbi and healer in Tyre, seeking a cure for her child. If you’ve ever known a mother of a sick child, you know there is no fiercer or more determined creature on earth. When this mother hears that Jesus is in town, she immediately goes to him.
Maybe Jesus is sitting on his beach chair with lemonade in his hand. Maybe he is praying in a darkened room. Maybe he is getting some well-deserved sleep. We don’t know. All we know is that this woman finds him, interrupts whatever it is he is doing, and falls on her knees before him.
The Jesus we have come to know and love always heals people. He may ask a few questions first, but he never rejects people. Until now.
Jesus rejects the Syrophoenician woman. He not only rejects her, but he calls her a dog.
And this is the point where the kids in Matt’s bible study started to really pay attention!
Calling someone a dog is just not okay. And when you have the human embodiment of the love of God calling someone a dog, it is REALLY not okay.
Jesus resists healing this poor woman because she is not Jewish. Until this point in his ministry, Jesus has understood himself as being called to tell Jewish people about God’s call for them. So, he rejects this woman without a second thought. She is not a chosen person. She does not belong. She does not deserve God’s healing. Especially on Jesus’ day off.
Thankfully for all of us, the Syrophoenician woman is smart as a whip and stubborn as a mule. Instead of getting her feelings hurt by Jesus’ insult, she parries with him. She replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She pushes Jesus on his definition of who deserves the love of God. She does not claim the same right as a Jewish person, but she senses something about the nature of the Jewish God, she knows that her daughter deserves healing just as much as a Jewish child would.
I wish I could have seen Jesus’ face when she replied! I’d like to think he was charmed by this woman who dared to talk back to the Son of God. Maybe he was chastened by his earlier curt reply. In any case, he tells the woman that because of her reply, her daughter will be healed. The Syrophoenician woman might have been pushy. She might have been rude. She was definitely cheeky, but Jesus saw her faith in him and her love for her daughter and it transformed his life and his ministry.
Because of that pushy lady, Jesus understood that his Father intended to expand the family of God to include all people.
When I was a kid, we did not go to church. And I did not want to go to church. Primarily, I did not want to go to church because I thought being a Christian woman meant having to wear really ugly flowered dresses with lace collars. I’m not sure where I got this belief, but to me, Christian women were passive and sticky sweet and not at all interesting to be around.
Thankfully, when I got older and became involved in church, I realized that Christian women, especially of the Episcopal variety, were anything but sticky sweet. They were complicated, diverse, strong, sensitive, and if they needed to be, they were fighters.
Perhaps the stereotypical ideal of a Christian woman for my generation was Mother Teresa. The news always showed her smiling beatifically at some sick child. But if you read about Mother Teresa, you learn that “sweet” is not a good descriptor for her. Mother Teresa truly had the spirit of the Syrophoenician woman. Mother Teresa was terribly concerned for the poor and she would do anything to help them. She would wait for hours at a doctor’s office to get medicine, she would badger local officials until they would give into her demands. She would shame world leaders into enacting more just policies. In her memoir she even admitted to having serious arguments with God, and doubts about God’s very existence.
Mother Teresa was a prickly, stubborn, big hearted woman. She was the embodiment of love, but not in the saccharine way Hallmark cards and the Lifetime channel think about love. Mother Teresa and the Syrophoenician woman shared a kind of inner fire driven by the desire to help another.
That same fire and passion is open to any of us, regardless of our gender. I see that fire in a friend of mine with Epstein-Barr virus who is fighting to get disability insurance. I see that fire in my friend who moved home to help take care of her disabled brother, despite her own painful battle with lupus. I see that fire in yet another friend, as she watches her niece battle leukemia. None of these friends are going to let naysayers stand in their way. They are going to fight to take care of their families. They are going to get the care and attention they richly deserve.
There are times when we have to stand up to authority figures. There are times we have to risk our reputations. There are times when we have to argue and fight and push and annoy. Sometimes a personal crisis brings out our inner Syrophoenician woman, but sometime the hurt of the world can, too.
Our world is so broken, and so needy. All over the news we are hearing about the 46 million Americans without health insurance. We hear about the 15 million Americans without jobs. We are hearing about the consequences of these statistics-debt and poverty and hunger and broken families. And this is just in our country!
I don’t pretend to know what the solution might be. I am not a public policy expert. I don’t even really understand the difference between a public option and single payer health care system. What I do know is that if you are passionate about these issues, if you are one of the thousands of people on Facebook this week that posted something about health care; if you want to help people in need of work, or who are hungry, or who have lost a home; tap into your inner Syrophoenician woman.
Say your prayers, tap into that inner fire and do something. Write your Congressman with your opinions on public policy. Donate money to a cause you believe in. Volunteer at the Crisis Ministry, Housing Initiatives of Princeton, or the Trenton After School program.
The Syrophoenician woman reminds us that God’s love is not just for the chosen people. God’s love is not just for the deserving. She helped Jesus figure that out and in turn received his affection and healing.
Well, guess what? We’re the body of Christ. We are called to love all those people on the edges and the fringes, too. We are called to take the lessons that the Syrophoenician woman taught Jesus and apply them to our own lives. We are called to fight for the poor and those who suffer injustice. And this, frankly, can be scary and intimidating. But when we go into those battles, we don’t go alone. Standing right next to us, beaming, is the Syrophoenician woman, urging us forward.
Thanks be to God.