Proper 15, Year A
Given this morning’s somewhat surprising story about Jesus’ interaction with a Canaanite woman—or a Syrophoenician woman as the Gospel of Mark’s version would have it—I thought it might be fun and enlightening to listen in on an imaginary conversation between the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as they get together—socially distanced of course—to discuss whether or not to include this challenging incident in their narratives. Let’s see what they have to say.
MARK: So, Matthew, what about that story about a snarky Jesus telling off the Syrophoenician woman — are you going to include that in your Good News?
MATTHEW: Are you kidding, Mark? What does Jesus being rude to a woman asking for help have to do with Good News? How would it square, for example, with my beautiful beatitudes? How would it sit with Blessed are the merciful for to them mercy will be shown, or Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God? Or, even worse, the one place I was going to put that story was right after the passage where Jesus tells his disciples that it’s what comes out of the mouth and not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person. I can’t have something like “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” coming out of Jesus’ mouth when he’s talking about a person as a dog. Are you kidding? And, anyway, it was a Canaanite woman not a Syrophoenician woman. Get your story straight, man.
MARK: That’s fine, Matthew, call her what you will. If you want to call her Canaanite to evoke the people who lived on the land before the Israelites arrived, the land that was promised to Father Abraham many years ago, go ahead. Generations from now, I bet scholars will use that as evidence that you were trying to appeal to a Jewish audience. As for me, I’m going to call her Syrophoenicean, because that’s the part of the Roman Empire that she was from. So, chalk one up for the Mark-was-writing-for-a-non-Jewish-audience theory. Boy, is this going to be delightfully confusing when readers in centuries to come try to unravel all the similarities and differences in our stories. And I understand Luke is writing a narrative, too, and that he’s borrowing from our stories, and mixing in other stories he’s heard and jumbling all that up into his own version of events. What a nightmare! I sure hope I can look down from heaven and watch and listen while readers to come try to unravel the ambiguities and confusion of three parallel but unique, even contradictory, takes on the same events.
MATTHEW: Ha ha, Mark, you’re right. There’s some fun to be had there. Maybe people will ultimately decide to simply use our stories as the focus of gentle meditation, loosely holding the different versions in their minds and hearts and allowing God’s love to shine through even amidst the many complexities. And it’s not just us three writing, I heard that Thomas is writing and some guy named John is planning to write, though it could take him a few years, and there are others, too. There will be plenty of food for thought and controversy, that’s for sure.
MARK: Food for thought and controversy, indeed, Matthew. But, for now, let’s figure this thing out about the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman. To include or not to include? I’ve got the same problem with the preceding passage in my narrative about things coming out of a person’s mouth making them unclean. So, I’m pretty much in the same situation as you are.
MATTHEW: Well, Mark, look at it this way. If we do include that story, people are going to try to finesse their interpretation and say, after wrangling with the Greek of our original texts, that Jesus was comparing the woman to a nice family dog, not just to some stray dog in the street. So, therefore, he was being sort of kind rather than just flat out rude.
MARK: Or, get this Matthew, they will say that Jesus was helping the woman to deepen her faith or sharpen her wits by creating resistance. First he ignores her cries for help. Then, when his disciples ask him to send her away, he says he came only for the lost sheep of Israel (and thus not for her). Then she kneels before him and begs again and he pulls out that unfortunate line about not throwing the children’s food to the dogs. But then, the woman’s faith in your story or her wit in my story trip a switch and Jesus decides to heal the woman’s daughter. People will say it’s a good thing that Jesus was so unsympathetic initially because it forced the woman to dig deeply and find her brilliant one line retort about the dogs eating the crumbs from the master’s table. Jesus’ reluctance to help is kind of like a Roman drill sergeant obliging his troops to do an extra set of 50 push ups in order to build their strength.
MATTHEW: Oy! Mark, that’s terrible. Here this woman is begging for mercy and Jesus puts her to the test before he will help her. Have you read the beginning of my narrative? Right at the beginning I have Jesus quoting scripture: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. And now I’m going to have Jesus, the one some are calling God incarnate, putting a poor desperate women to the test just because she not an Israelite? That doesn’t make any sense. Have people forgotten do to others as you would have them do to you, or love your enemies? Maybe I should repeat those lines a few more times in my book so they sink in better.
MARK: Hold on, Matthew, I think we can salvage the situation and keep our snarky Jesus story, discomforting as it may be. How about this: Jesus undertook his ministry, thinking that he was revealing the breadth and depth of God’s love and God’s presence to his own family of the house of Israel. That makes sense right? He’s the Jewish messiah, the so-called son of man, sent to the Jews to fulfill God’s promise of salvation. But Jesus’ message is so compelling and his healing power so great, that even non-Jews hear about him and call out to him for mercy. At first Jesus is a bit put off by this. It seems like a distraction from his essential mission. But, eventually Jesus begins to see and experience, as he does in our story about the woman, the dogs and the crumbs, the overwhelming passion, faith and desire of many non-Jews. In some cases the non-Jews seem to be more enthusiastic about him and his message than many from his own community. So what happens ... ?
MATTHEW: Eureka, Mark! Jesus changes his mind! Of course, even the Son of Man, maybe especially the Son of Man has the ability, has the necessity, really, if he is to fully share our human experience, to learn and grow. And that’s what he does in this story. He observes and feels the faith of the Canaanite woman and he opens his heart to her and, by extension, to all those people whom he had originally considered outside the scope of his salvific mission. And that’s the theme that Paul picked up on in his ministry to the Gentile’s: God’ abiding and abounding love for all of God’s children regardless of race, or color, or language, or country of origin.
MARK: Bingo, Matt! We certainly don’t have time to go into the complexities of Paul’s theology today, but we can remind ourselves of what God said years ago through the prophet Isaiah: “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. And my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
MATTHEW: You are the man, Mark! The Canaanite woman is going in my book. I can already hear the reverberations through the ages. If Jesus can grow and learn to accept and care for those who are different than he is, then his followers can, and are really obliged to do, the same. To love all people, and all of creation really, in just the way that they have been loved—with an unbounded and unconditional love. And all people means all people, no matter where they are from, no matter what they look like, no matter what language they speak. That is Good News!
MARK: Bring it, Matty Boy. That’s the message. Love one another—every other—just as you have been loved. Point final as they will someday say in a country called France. Period. End of story. The Syrophoenician woman is going in my book, too. High fives all around.
MATTHEW: Shalom aleichem, Mark.
MATTHEW: Aleichem shalom, Matthew.
Amen.e to say.