SERMON Lectionary 20a 2017
The Syro-Phoenician Woman
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
It’s been a pretty rough week in America, since the debacle in Charlottesville last Saturday, when many appalling, vicious, racist things were said, shouted and chanted. No wonder we are, as a nation, profoundly upset by them.
But on the scale of appalling, vicious, racist talk, none of the neo-Nazi clowns in Virginia had anything on our Lord this morning. What he says to the woman in the gospel is as ugly as anything they brought to the their “rally.”
It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. This is Jesus speaking to a desperate woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter. The woman is a not a Jew. She is a gentile, a pagan, a citizen of the wicked pagan city of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. Jesus spurns her. He calls her a dog. Being a polite Southern boy, I can’t bring myself to say it, but he might as well have said the n-word to her.
If anything, it’s worse than that. When Jesus calls her a dog – and we have a word in English for a female dog – he’s not talking about FIDO, man’s best friend. These are the wild dogs of the streets, living by tearing apart dead animals and licking their blood. These wild street dogs appear elsewhere in scripture, in the famous story of the wicked pagan Queen Jezebel and her fight to the death with the prophet Elijah. She ended up dead in the streets, with the wild dogs licking up her blood.
All of that is in this insult Jesus throws at her today. I can hardly believe that anything like that could ever have come out of his mouth.
So I always took it as a joke: Jesus delivered his shocking line with a wink. The woman understood perfectly and came back with that great line worthy of Shakespeare: True, but even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. And then Jesus heals her daughter as he always planned to do.
But after Charlottesville, I’m not so sure. Maybe we are witnessing Jesus learning something about his mission, learning something about the kingdom of God.
As a white Southerner of a certain age, I can remember how things were before the civil rights movement challenged our comfortable social habits at home. I can remember “whites only” drinking fountains and bathrooms, I can remember separate waiting rooms for – as we said politely – “colored” people. I remember all white schools, all white cops, all white churches. There wasn’t anything openly hostile about it, that’s just the way things were. The normal thing was to be white and to live among white people in white neighborhoods. We didn’t need to hate black people for them to be different and lower than we were. It wasn’t white supremacy, exactly, but it was white complacency. We white people surfed our wave of white privilege, and took the whole arrangement completely for granted.
Now, I’m wondering if something like that isn’t the situation with Jesus this morning. The Jews of Jesus’ day maintained a strictly segregated society. One wasn’t supposed to talk to or touch or eat with, let alone marry, outside the tribe. Doing any of those things rendered one ritually unclean and therefore unworthy to worship God. One could argue that the whole point of the Jewish law was to keep the Jews separate from everybody else and their evil, false gods. As with the Jim Crow south, the racism was in the ground water.
And then also, there was a point in Jesus’ ministry in which he forbade his disciples from crossing racial lines. Go not among the Gentiles or Samaritans, but seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This thing that Jesus says to the woman today, It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, sounds to me like a saying that might have been repeated to reinforce the boundaries between the races. God knows, we had lots of such sayings at home, none of which I, as a polite Southern boy, can repeat to you here.
My point is that perhaps Jesus’ horrible answer today is simply the reflexive racism of his time and place. Ugly as it is, it rings true to me, it is congruent with the complacent, groundwater racism of the American south, and the clown-college, Charlottesville nonsense.
If that is so, if that’s what’s going on in the gospel today, then we owe the woman a statue. Her answer – gracious, humble, noble, splendid, immortal – changed Jesus’ mind, changed the direction of his ministry, changed the whole project that became the Church. Suddenly, instantly, Jesus abandoned the obstacles of race, nation, and religion that separated them, recognized her faith as the one thing needful, healed her daughter, and went on to open the kingdom to all believers. All are invited to the feast.
I know I don’t have to tell you that that’s what Christianity is: not a tribe or a nation or even an empire, but the universal church of God. No one is left outside. No one lives on the wrong side of town, nobody is the wrong gender or has the wrong skin. All these things that seem to matter (still!) to us human beings have no meaning at all with God. The God who once chose one particular people has changed his mind and chooses all.
Did Jesus learn that today from the descendent of Jezebel? Maybe; it’s one of those things we’ll have to ask at the cocktail party in Heaven. Today, meanwhile, perhaps this story can remind us that we still have some learning to do, some assumptions to challenge, some privileges to share, some complacency to abandon, some new experiences to have of one another in our diversity.
The gospel today ends with a healing, that the woman had to fight for. Let us pray that we will have something of her courage, her poise and her wit as we seek the healing we need in America.
Let us pray.