During the past few weeks, we have read passages with dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Jesus would say something that would catch their attention, and from the rest of the discussion, we discern the Jewish leaders stopped listening and missed what Jesus was really telling them. I have the same problem with today’s Gospel reading. There is a part of this passage that just catches me off guard and even though I continue reading, my mind is still trying to wrap around that one part.
A woman comes to Jesus and asks Jesus to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon. We expect Jesus to show love and compassion and say something like “because of your faith, your daughter has been healed.” But, not this time. Jesus responds with what could be described as a very human response instead of the divine response we expected. Jesus tells her “let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This is the part I have difficulty with, and perhaps you do as well. This one part of the story somehow dominates this particular passage and presents us with a difficult question to answer. Why did Jesus say something so harsh to this woman? Why did Jesus call her a dog. Scripture doesn’t answer our question and biblical scholars, while they offer several different reasons, don’t seem to agree with each other. The truth is no one knows why Jesus answered this way.
Some scholars have written it was because she was a woman and in the ancient world, requests such as hers should have come from a man. Some others say it was because she was a Gentile and not a Jew. Some say it was because the people of Tyre were wealthy Gentiles and the Jews who lived there were oppressed by them.
Some others downplay this response of Jesus’ saying it was not as offensive in its original context as it would be today. And still others say it was because Jesus’ ministry was for the Jewish people, not the Gentiles. Some scholars suggest that Jesus said it out of mental exhaustion, after the crowds had followed him all day, and yet others say that the Syrophoenician woman’s response to Jesus changed him, and helped Jesus realize his ministry was for the Gentiles as well.
Like I said, biblical scholars offer many reasons, but seldom agree on any one, and they are all seem to be little more than speculation. But maybe, just maybe, there is a reason. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the people hearing this story in ancient times, in the shoes of the Jewish people, and if we look at some of the different theories biblical scholars have suggested, specifically the ones about the request coming from a Gentile woman belonging to the people who were oppressing the Jewish people, then perhaps Jesus’ response is exactly what the hearers of this passage in ancient times would have expected. Perhaps the original audience in ancient times could buy into this and accept it because they understood the culture they lived in and we don’t.
With all the divisions we have in our own society, I can envision the same thing happening now. We, in this society, label groups of people. We identify them by their appearance, by their beliefs, by their political affiliation, by their sexuality, by their nationality, and by their beliefs. We dehumanize the ones who are not like ourselves by labeling them something other than people, something other than brother or sister, something other than fellow child of God. And while we who live in this culture understand what these different labels mean and who they refer to, someone reading about us 2000 years from now may not.
Our first Scripture reading from The Letter of James points out another way people divide themselves, by financial resources. The Letter of James takes its name from James, the brother of Jesus who became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. The letter was directed to Jewish Christian congregations. Americans, for the most part, seem to idolize wealth and wealthy people, especially those who have made money on their own instead of inheriting it. James warns the ancient Churches about this.
But, I think it is a shame that I get stuck on Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman’s request and not on the healing Jesus provides. I think the real story is that Jesus healed the woman’s daughter even while she was a Gentile and not a Jew, even while the request came from a woman and not a man, and even while she was from the class of people who were oppressing the Jewish people living in Tyre. I think the real story is that God’s love and healing are available to all people, even those who we may not like, as the original Jewish people hearing this story did not like the Gentiles, or Syrophoenicians.
Later in our Gospel reading, we hear about another healing story. This time it is a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. The text doesn’t tell us if this man is Jew or Gentile, but most scholars agree he was Jewish. Jesus takes the man aside, away from the crowd and heals him. His ears are opened and his tongue was released, and even though Jesus ordered the people not to tell anyone, they proclaimed this healing zealously.
But there is more to this healing than just physically restoring this man’s hearing and speech. In ancient times, and perhaps still to some extent today, physical impairment was viewed as a consequence of sinful behavior. People who suffered from deafness, blindness, or withered limbs had little if any status in society. They were outcasts who were often banned from the social and religious institutions of those days. People were afraid of physical differences, and they didn’t understand birth defects as we do today. When Jesus healed this man’s hearing and speech, he also restored him to the community.
Our Gospel reading points to the universal love God has for all people. We are all God’s children and are called to love each other as we love ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we are Jew or Gentile, white or black, conservative or liberal, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, God loves us all and we are called to love each other as well. Jesus came into this world and gave his life so all humanity could be in relation with God and with each other.
As we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, we will be joining Christians all over the world in proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus died for us and Jesus was raised for us. Through Jesus we have life, abundant life, eternal life. Jesus calls us to love God with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our souls, and all of our strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Pope Francis, joining the Eastern Christian Churches and the Council of Churches of which our denomination is a member, proclaimed last Tuesday the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation”. A prayer was passed out last Monday at a worship service for New Castle Presbytery and I would like to share that prayer.
Let us pray:
All- powerful God,
You are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
That we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace,
That we may live as brothers and sisters,
Harming no one.
O God of the poor,
Help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
So precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
That we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each living thing,
To be filled with awe and contemplation,
To recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love, and peace.
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