September 7, 2003   Shirley Macemon
the Syro-Phoenician Woman

Mark 7:24-37


I want to know how to reconcile the Jesus that ate with the poor, healed the sick, held women in high esteem and understood that people are more important than rules and traditions with this character who hides himself away, who calls the mother of a sick child a dog--a vile racial insult, telling her that she, and by implication her daughter, are outside the race and religion of people he was sent to and that his resources must be expended for the Jews first.

I've heard lots of suggestions which frankly don't satisfy. "Jesus wasn't really serious ... if we could have seen the look on his face we would have known he was joking"... "He was testing her faith, or that of the disciples"... Or that calling her a cur, a dog wasn't really racist or demeaning. (Yea, right...)

Jesus' actions, by the way, might have been typical and expected of any other observant Jew of the era. Jewish men didn't talk to women in public, and didn't talk to women of other races--perhaps ever. Even taking that into consideration, the trouble I have with all of these explanations is the same trouble I have with the story in the first place. Just as the view of Jesus doesn't fit into Jesus ministry that we know, these explanations try to bend the scene away from the text or what we know of first century customs. So, whatever else, I'm left with more questions than answers in this scene.

The woman herself may not have found anything out of the ordinary in Jesus' treatment of her. She may have expected, and come ready for Jesus' response. She wasn't a Jew before the encounter, or as far as we know, didn't follow Jesus after the encounter. But her child--her precious daughter--was dangerously ill. "Possessed by demons" could have described a host of symptoms that local healers had given up on. She was willing to break with tradition and step outside the racial and social order. She begged Jesus to help her daughter. I can imagine her elbowing her way in, engaging Jesus with her plea, taking up the imagery he used to drive home her need.

She engaged him, they formed a relationship of a sort. And the rest, as they say, is Gospel. Jesus' ministry and healing once again broke the bounds of racial and religious prejudice. Jesus' persistence in loving and healing God's children--no matter what the racial or religious background - called healing down for this precious daughter.

God's love is not just for the Jews, cannot be kept within the boundaries of Israel, the first century Jesus movement or even within Christianity. The love and healing power of Christ cannot be held behind closed doors, or kept locked up for only "true believers", no matter how hard we might try. God's grace and love is for all of God's children. Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman bantered about the crumbs under the table, but Jesus' healing was not "left over" love or grace--none of God's love is second-class love. We all--Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, are recipients of God's first class love. How can we as followers show any less for All the children of God?

Fred Craddock, my favorite Tennessee bible scholar, homiletician and pastor of the Cherry Log Christian Church in the mountains of North Georgia in tells the story of a missionary sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home.

His missionary society wired him the money to book passage on a steamer. So, this young missionary journeyed to the port city. It was December of that year. Port cities are always full of interesting and fascinating sights and sounds, but in this particular place, he discovered that a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live. Many countries wouldn't even let them come to port--most countries wouldn't let them stay for more than a few days. These particular Jews, anxious to be off the crowded conditions of their ship, were staying wherever they could find, in attics and warehouses and basements all over the port.

On Christmas morning, the young missionary sought out an attic where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, "Merry Christmas."

The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, "We're Jews."

"I know that," said the missionary," What would you like for Christmas?"

In utter amazement the Jews said again, "We're Jews."

And again the missionary responded, "I know that. What would you like for Christmas?"

Convinced that he was either crazy or possibly genuine, an elder answered, "Pastries. Melt in your mouth pastries. Good pastries, like the ones we used to have in Germany."

So the missionary went out. He searched high and low, and bought out every fine bakery he could find of their best pastries. He bought as many fine pastries as he could for all the Jews he could find staying in the port. He used all the money his mission society had sent for his return passage home.

Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States.

As you might expect, his superiors wired back. "What in the world did you do with the money we already sent?" they inquired. This, or course, was long before the day of email. Transoceanic telephone was impractical. Wires took some delivery time and some reply time. The young missionary sent his reply.

"I bought Christmas pastries for Jewish immigrants here in the port city."

He waited for the reply. His superiors wired back, "What in the world possessed you to buy Christmas pastries for Jews? They're not Christians. They don't even believe in Jesus."

He wired back: "Yes, but I do."

Not the crumbs from under the table, but God's first class love. That's the example we have from Jesus.