fbpx
Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Whose Property is Always to Have Mercy – Br. James Koester

Play

Br. James KoesterIsaiah 35: 4 – 7a; Psalm 146; James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13) 14 – 17; Mark 7: 24 – 37

I love this story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from the Gospel of Mark! I love it in part, because I get to say the word Syrophoenician! Just throw that into the conversation next time you are at a dinner party and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can almost hear the urgency in Mark’s voice, as in just six verses he tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to the church of my youth, and it calls to mind growing up at St. Mary’s, Regina. It is from this passage, among other sources, that Cranmer created, what some of you will remember, as the Prayer of Humble Access, or the Zoom Prayer, as a friend of mine calls it:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.[1]

But mostly I love this story because it shouldn’t have happened! There is a hint of the forbidden. We see Jesus acting out of the box. He shouldn’t be where we find him today, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point.

 

Imagine for a moment a map of the Middle East. Now on you map, locate the northern border of modern Israel. Once you have found that, move your attention toward the north just ever so slightly and about 20 miles north of the border, right on the coast, stick a pin into your map. That’s Tyre. Now do that again, moving north about 20 miles, and stick another pin into your map. That’s Sidon.

Both Tyre and Sidon are important, and large cities in modern Lebanon, and their importance stretches back for centuries. Both of them are mentioned several times in Scripture, and not always favourably! And that is important for us to remember. Located just outside Israel, then and now, Tyre and Sidon were regarded not simply as foreign, but as pagan, as Gentile. Their people were considered outside the covenant of Israel, and thus they were not part of the Chosen Ones of God. This marked them, at least for the Israelites, as the enemies of God’s people, even the enemies of God.  As the other, the foreign, the pagan, the Gentile, the enemy, they were beyond God’s reach. And yet today, that is exactly where we find Jesus. … [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre.[2]

We are not told why Jesus went to Tyre, but we are told that [he] entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.[3]That’s the line that intrigues me: He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.There are all sorts of reasons that Jesus might not have wanted people to know he was there. Perhaps he was looking for some privacy. Perhaps he came for some solitude. We know from the earlier chapters of Mark that Jesus comes to Trye having had a busy and challenging time. He has been preaching, and teaching and healing, and has had several encounters with the Pharisees, and slowly but surely the dividing line between those who accept his teaching, and those who don’t, are becoming clear. He is exhausted, so he slips out of townas it were, to a place where no one will know him, for a break, a rest. What is significant is that he goes where he shouldn’t, and does what he mustn’t: [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre.He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. And that’s why I love this passage.

We honour and acknowledge Jesus for many things: as teacher, as preacher, as healer, as Messiah, as Lord, as Son of God. And here we see him, even if at first reluctantly, as breaker of rules. Jesus goes where he shouldn’t, and does what he mustn’t, and shows us that God can be found even where we think God isn’t, or can’t, or won’t possibly be. And that’s why I love this passage. 

[A] woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.[4]

It is this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman that gives us one of the most riveting, and indeed offensive, images in all the gospels, at least for me. Mark tells us something of the desperation of the woman who comes and bows at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal her daughter. Matthew’s language is ever starker: Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’[5]But rather than responding with compassion, Jesus responds with disdain. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ [6]

We know something these days about calling people, especially women, dogs. Think for a moment how offended you were when he who must not be named, recently referred to a woman as a dog. It is incredibly offensive now, and it was incredibly offensive then. The difference is that in today’s gospel, the woman is able to turn the tables on Jesus: But she answered him, ‘Sir,even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’[7] In doing so the Syrophoenician woman yanks open the doors of God’s mercy, and suddenly in the very place where God wasn’t supposed to be, wasn’t supposed to act, wasn’t supposed to be known, we know and see God’s merciful, saving, and healing presence. Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.[8]

We all have places, secret places, private places, lonely places where we assume no one can find us. We go there sometimes simply to escape, but sometimes we go there to hid: to hid from others, to hide from ourselves, even to hide from God. We go there to hide from embarrassment, from shame, from guilt, and we think that no one, even God, will find us in our hiding place. Yet even there God reaches forth and touches us, heals us, and restores us.

I love this passage, because it is so unexpected, and I need to hear its message over and over. But it’s hard to hear. It’s hard to hear Jesus refer to people, especially this woman, as a dog. It’s hard to hear Jesus respond to her desperate cry for help with disdain. It’s hard to hear, because I too have those places where I think Jesus should never go. I too have those places where I think God cannot possibly be. I too know those people who I think are beyond Jesus’ merciful, saving, and healing touch. I too have people who I think are not worthy of Jesus’ saving presence. And sometimes that place, that person, is me. Sometimes that place, that person, is another.

This is not an easy story to hear, but I so desperately need to hear it, both for myself, and for all those places where I think Jesus shouldn’t, Jesus mustn’t, Jesus can’t, Jesus won’t act. This is not an easy story to hear, but we so desperately need to hear it, both for ourselves, and for all those places where we think Jesus shouldn’t, Jesus mustn’t, Jesus can’t, Jesus won’t act.  I need to hear this story, we need to hear this story, over and over in order to remind us that no one: not me, not you, not anyone, not even those whom we regard as dogs, is ever beyond Jesus’ merciful, saving, and healing touch. And Jesus reminds us of that today. I need to hear this story, we need to hear this story, over and over, in order to remind ourselves that no place, within, or outside, is ever beyond Jesus’ merciful, saving, and healing touch. And Jesus reminds us of that today.

We live in a world, and in an age, that tells us there are people, and places, where Jesus shouldn’t be, Jesus mustn’t be, Jesus can’t be, Jesus won’t act, and that’s a lie, and this story smashes that lie. I love this story because it smashes the lie that I am not worthy of Jesus’ love. I love this story because it smashes the lie that you are not worthy of Jesus’ love. I love this story because it smashes the lie that there are people and places far beyond the reach of Jesus’ love.

This is an incredible story, and I love it, because in just seven short verses Mark smashes the lie that there are people and places who are beyond Jesus’ love. This is an incredible story, and I love it, because in just short seven verses Mark proclaims the truth that everyone, and I mean everyone: you, and me, and the person across from you, and your neighbour across the street, and your neighbour across the world, is worthy of Jesus’ merciful, saving, and healing touch.

We live in a world, and in an age, and in a culture, that tells us lies. One of those lies is that there are people who are beyond Jesus’ love. And this story smashes that lie. And I love it. We live in a world, and in an age, that needs to hear the truth. One of those truths is that all people are worthy of Jesus’ merciful, saving, and healing touch. And this story proclaims that truth. And I love it. I love this story because it reminds me that everyone, everyone is worthy of Jesus’ merciful, saving, and healing touch. And I love it! I love this story because it reminds us that there is no place, no place which is beyond the reach of Jesus’ merciful, saving, and healing touch. And I love it!


[1]Canada, Book of Common Prayer, 1962, page 83 – 84

[2]Mark 7: 24a

[3]Mark 7: 24b

[4]Mark 7: 25 – 26

[5]Matthew 15: 22

[6]Mark 7: 27

[7]Mark 7: 28

[8]Mark 7: 28

 

Support SSJE


Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.

Click here to Donate

8 Comments

  1. carol carlson on August 5, 2019 at 18:56

    Loved your insights, Br. James, and would only add this tidbit: Mark tells a stark and riveting story, but it’s Matthew who ups the ante considerably in this tale, the only time Jesus ever loses an argument. In his version, the ‘Canaanite’ reminds us that this is not neutral territory – Jesus is now among the ancestral enemies of Israel. Then the woman’s response to Jesus’s nastiness also ‘corrects’ Mk’s version by altering ‘the children’s crumbs’. For Mt, they are ‘the crumbs that fall from the MASTER’S (or, ‘the lord’s’) table’. They don’t belong to the kids; rather, the table, the bread, the crumbs, the kids, the dogs, the whole shebang belong to the Kyrios, the master or lord, whose real identity we can all guess…… Both versions are wonderful, but I love the way Mt ratchets up the strangeness, the danger, the iconoclasm – and the smart and desperate theology of this marvelous woman.

    And I love your ‘he-who-must-not -be-named’ . This is a prescription for a tiny act of resistance to a man crazed with the need for attention; and is literally true in my parish, because my lectors refuse to offer up this tribute to such a man; so that for the first time ever we pray for ‘the president’ instead of giving him a name. What a sad and horrible situation! But we are living in sad and horrible times and must take our inspiration where we can get it and witness however we can. Thanks for the encouragement, on all fronts.

  2. Frankie Pang on August 2, 2019 at 15:45

    I have to say this story gave me a hard time until I was guided to Matthew 15:21-28 which equates Israelites for children and Gentiles for dogs. This Caananite mother is a smart, tough woman.

  3. Sally Baynton on August 2, 2019 at 09:29

    I love this story because it reminds us of the “humanness” of Jesus. How often do we think of Jesus being tired? Of Jesus wanting to go away?Last week, one of the messages was about interruptions. This woman was an interruption, wasn’t she? But she was steadfast as most mothers on a mission to save her child would be. I love this story because it “smashes the lie” that Jesus wasn’t fully human! And, I too, “love it!”

  4. Connie on September 13, 2018 at 19:11

    I have noticed previously that whenever I hear a sermon about this story, the sermon makes it about Jesus and his mercy, or the need for faith in general. The real point and hero of this story, however, may be to be the mother, who is willing to suffer humiliation and allow herself to be called a dog, in order to save her child. She is the one who comes up with the analogy that changes Jesus’ mind. There seems to be an assumption that any mother would do the same, that her self-debasement is a natural part of parenhood, but that is a stereotype that ignores her humanity. Parents frequently give up on or reject troubled or sick children. in real life. It is the mother in this story who teaches Jesus a lesson in in unconditional love, acceptance, humility, and unbelievable bravery. Why wouldn’t that be the essence of rhis story?

    • SusanMarie on August 2, 2019 at 07:32

      Connie, I agree wholeheartedly with you. It is the mother in this story who teaches Jesus a lesson. I recently took a class taught by a New Testament scholar. He — and the book we used — affirmed the idea that this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman was a turning point for Jesus and his ministry. She challenged his own understanding of his mission and how far and wide he must go with his message of love and bringing forth the kingdom of God. It’s long been comforting and helpful for me to know that Jesus had things to learn as well. Yes, he was partly divine, but the human part of him had to grow and develop and stretch and learn. And he was willing to learn from others (very human, very humble). Perhaps God the Creator placed this woman right in the path of Jesus to help him make this turn. Thank you for your insight.

    • margo fletcher on August 2, 2019 at 07:32

      I think the mother is God. God pleading with God if you will for the healing of all. The eternal dance of the Trinity.

      • Joe Stroud on August 2, 2019 at 09:44

        Margo Fletcher, thank you for that insight. The eternal dance of the Trinity. . . . . I literally got a chill down my spine as I read your post.

      • Connie Kimble on August 2, 2019 at 11:45

        Margo, thank you for that comment. I have always related to this story, and am ever ready for the crumbs. So grateful for a creator GOD who moves among His people through the trinity to heal and love and edify.

Leave a Comment