Preached on 6 September 2015 at St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, Tacoma, WA
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year B
Which do you think was more shocking to the disciples – and to Mark’s first readers, for that matter – that Jesus pretty much called the woman a dog or that he ended up helping her? To our sensibilities and our image of Jesus, calling anyone a dog just doesn’t seem to fit. This is one of those passages that invites a lot of discussion and speculation about what was really going on.
Maybe Jesus was testing her to make sure she was worthy. Except Jesus doesn’t do that with other people. Maybe this was a turning point in Jesus understanding of his own ministry; that Jesus was learning and discerning as he went along – which fits with being fully human. Maybe God uses her to reveal to the disciples the boundary-breaking nature of Jesus’ mission.
And who was the woman? She is often assumed to be poor, destitute even, and on the margins. But the text doesn’t say that. Jesus and the disciples have traveled to gentile country. This is her neighborhood. Hers is the dominant culture, the ruling power. She may be poor, but she may be wealthy. As we know, when your child is suffering, wealth and power don’t matter – a parent does everything in their power to help their child.
Did Jesus change his mind? Did he choose to heal the little girl? Or did it just happen as if it were beyond his control? The reason I ask is because Jesus responds to her reply, saying, “For saying this, you may go (or go home happy in some translations). The demon has left your daughter.” It reminds me of the woman with the hemorrhage who is cured simply by touching Jesus’ cloak.
The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is paired with the healing of the deaf-mute man. After opening his ears and releasing his tongue so that he could hear and speak clearly, Jesus ordered him to tell no one. And he yet he told everyone. Each of them couldn’t help but speak the truth; to tell their story.
Our reading from James also inspires discussion. With cries of “works righteousness” it is often held up in contrast to Paul’s assertion of justification by faith alone; you can’t “earn” salvation with good works. Others interpret James to be saying that good works are a natural outcome of a true faith. If your faith isn’t manifested in how you live your life, it is no faith.
The commentaries focus on the first part of the reading; the part about not showing partiality. Evidently that community still thought that wealth and status and good fortune were signs of God’s favor; that God was pleased with you and “liked you better.” He reminds the community that God “has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.”
When they dishonor the poor, they dishonor God. It is in that context that he admonishes them that they cannot claim to believe in Jesus and at the same time neglect the poor among them.
Now, for some people, this is all very interesting and it can be fun to delve into the text and the context and the discuss or dispute the various interpretations. However, Holy Scripture is the Living Word of God. It is not simply an ancient text written for and about an ancient people in a distant land. It speaks to us in our own time and place; not as a static word, but as a living, dynamic word. Our context, our history, our experience combine to give new understanding and meaning to our Scriptures.
While not everything in scripture has something to say to our times, I find that today’s readings seem to be particularly relevant.
What is the Living Word of God speaking to us this morning?
Pick an issue – there’s certainly no shortage of them.
On this Labor Day weekend, we might think about what it is speaking to us about increasingly large gaps in income, in wealth, in access to education and health care and good jobs.
Or we might ask what it is speaking to us about the millions of refugees streaming across the Mediterranean and the Rio Grande – to our borders and to the borders all across Europe. These are refugees from war, violence, oppression of various kinds – religious, ethnic, racial, and so on.
And then there are the migrants trying to escape deadly poverty. Refugees and migrants alike risking their lives to seek safety.
Then there’s the Public Square. What is the Living Word of God speaking to us about the public discourse we hear from our leaders and especially from the candidates who are asking for our vote? What about what they say about each other, about the people, about the poor, about the alien, about war and the policies they favor (or the lack thereof).
Racism. Gun violence. Climate change. The degradation of the environment. Corporate profits. Philanthropy. Hospitality. Care for the elderly and the children. The list goes on and on.
Perhaps you prefer to consider something more individual, like a new situation you’re facing in your life or a decision you have to make.
Choose an issue.
What do you hear the Living Word of God speaking about it?
Perhaps it’s from the Proverbs reading. The Wisdom Literature is more than advice to the individual. It is intended to form the character of society, especially the leaders. These few verses we hear this morning speak volumes:
A good name is better than wealth.
God is the maker of us all; rich and poor alike.
Those who sow injustice will reap calamity; those who are generous are blessed – they share what they have with the poor.
Do not rob the poor or crush the afflicted at the gate.
Or maybe it’s James – do not show partiality between rich and poor. Following Jesus, a living faith, manifests in good works, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Perhaps the courage of the Syro-Phoenician woman to speak the truth of her life to Jesus and the disciples, to not back down when he insults her, gives you the strength and courage to be true to yourself, to speak the truth of your life; even to call God to account.
The Good News is that Holy Scripture is the Living Word of God. It continues to reveal the nature of God and guide us in our lives. It’s important to remember, though, that God always reserves the right to do something new. We see it over and over again in scripture.
God breaks through the boundaries and meets us on the other side.
Thanks be to God.