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“Woman, Gentile, Mother”

Proper 18 Year B – September 7, 2003

The Rev. Philip R. Taylor, Deacon

Free Episcopal Church

RCL Lessons: Is 35:4 – 7a

Psalm 146

James 2:1-17

“The devil has gone out of your daughter.”

Mark 7:24-30

24He left that place and set out for the territory of Tyre. There he went into a house and did not want anyone to know he was there; but he could not pass unrecognised.25At once a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him and came and fell at his feet.26Now this woman was a gentile, by birth a Syro–Phoenician, and she begged him to drive the devil out of her daughter.27And he said to her, ‘The children should be fed first, because it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.’28But she spoke up, ‘Ah yes, sir,’ she replied, ‘but little dogs under the table eat the scraps from the children.’29And he said to her, ‘For saying this you may go home happy; the devil has gone out of your daughter.’30So she went off home and found the child lying on the bed and the devil gone.   [1]

How about that Gospel lesson?  Both Mark and Matthew (Matthew 15:21-28) tell us this story in slightly different ways, and neither of them makes us feel very comfortable.  There are many issues here too, like the issues of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, like who is worthy, like God being the God of all, Jew and Gentile alike.

This is a story in the life of Jesus that we, at first glance, wish were not there.  We are confronted with a view of Jesus that is troublesome at best.  Jesus sounds remarkably like one of us!

Throughout the history of Christian reflection on this passage, all sorts of attempts have been made to soften or explain away the harshness of Jesus towards the woman in the story.  But there it is in black and white, even set apart in red in some Bibles to make us extra uncomfortable.

What about another translation?  No that doesn't help either.

Jesus still appears harsh, the woman persists in her faith, Jesus responds to her faith, and the child is healed, no matter the translation.

Because the story presents us with difficulties, however, is no reason to retreat, or to make excuses for Mark, Matthew, or Jesus.

The difficulty of this event, as presented by Mark and Matthew, can actually be our invitation to explore, to climb into the story, to visit with this version of Jesus who sounds so much like us.

As the story begins, Jesus and his friends are outside the borders of Israel, in present day  Lebanon, seeking rest, reflection, and perhaps re-creation, away from the stress of preaching, healing, feeding the multitudes, and confrontations with the authorities.

Then a gentile woman confronts them.  Because she is a woman, she is less than equal in that society, Jewish or Gentile.  Because she is gentile, she is considered unclean and even despised by some of her Jewish neighbors.

But her daughter is possessed, a euphemism perhaps for mental illness.  Therefore, finally who confronts Jesus is not just a woman, not just a gentile, but also a mother, the mother of a sick child, a mother in pain over her inability to help her daughter.

It is here that I want to stop and dwell a few moments, at the point of contact between Jesus and the mother of a sick child. Upon the initial contact, Matthew says, "But He did not answer her a word."

Frederick Beuchner writes in his book, Telling The Truth, “Before the Gospel is a word, it is silence.”  The silence of Jesus in Matthew’s version catches us off guard.  The silence becomes the companion of His look, His stare.  Perhaps T. S. Eliot says it best, "Christ is the still point of the turning world."

What is Jesus thinking in that moment of the initial encounter?  The truth is we really do not know.  We only have his words.  Matthew says He offered the woman, the gentile, a theological statement, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.'

Mark leaves out the theological statement of exclusivity but both Gospels have Jesus respond to the woman with a typical Palestinian riddle, 'It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.'  Jesus is speaking to the woman, to the gentile.  She, however, answers Him as the mother of a sick child.

In a classic and even humorous Palestinian response, she gives as good as she has gotten, ‘Ah yes, sir,’ she replied, ‘but little dogs under the table eat the scraps from the children.’

And now it happens, Jesus recognizes her faith, the faith of a persistent mother with a sick child.  He sees and hears no longer a woman or a gentile, but a mother who wants her little girl to be well again.  And at that precise moment, the girl is healed, the mother is vindicated and we are able to see Jesus as one of us, as brother, as friend, as fully human and fully divine.  The mystery of the Incarnation appears right there in the space of these few verses from Mark and Matthew in this troublesome and incredulous story.

Who is it that shall come to us in our moment of rest, reflection, and weariness?  Who shall come to us and we will see only, female, male, foreigner, non-believer, white, black, Hispanic, right-wing, left-wing, straight, gay, catholic, protestant?  Who shall come to us broken and in pain and we shall not see the real person, the father, the mother, the daughter, the son, the sister, the brother, the Christ?

Perhaps our learning from this lesson is that when we finally see the real person, it is at that moment that our eyes are opened.  Perhaps it is when we are eyeball to eyeball with a real live person, in the same sort of pain we have known, that all the silence and all the rhetoric becomes Gospel.  Perhaps it is then that the child in us and the child in them are healed.

“So she went off home and found the child lying on the bed and the devil gone.”



[1]The New Jerusalem Bible. 1995, c1985. Includes indexes. (Mk 7:24). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

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