Where are her daughters? ©Suzanne Grimmett
Many years ago I had an experience that made me realise some of my own blinkered view of the world. I came into adulthood as an educated white woman in a teaching career. I had not even noticed that in the public square I was used to being habitually treated with respect. There were a few exceptions, but generally it was just the way the world was.
It was only after a day when I found myself running late for an appointment in the city that I was rudely awakened to the fact that this experience of respect was not universal. I had been delayed mucking out our horse stable and had lost track of time. This left me running for a train in my dirty horse-riding clothes and no time to fix my hair. The first thing I noticed was on the train where people got up and moved away from me. Fair, I thought. I probably did stink of the stable. But then there was an issue with my ticket questioned at the station. Later as I queued to buy a drink at the shop, the staff served everyone else before me. Finally, when I was crossing the road, the difference in the behaviour of people toward me became too difficult to ignore; despite the fact I was crossing at the green walk sign, a car drive right up to me as if to hurry me along as I was walking and yelled at me to get off the road you #!*$-ing #!$#.
This encounter was a comparatively small issue since I had the means to present myself differently the next time I went out and could continue to move in circles of comparative privilege. But I have continued to reflect a lot about what happened and how it felt. How much are we blind to the reality that respect, dignity and support for the means of living a flourishing life are not handed out equally? Sometimes our privilege can leave us deaf, unable to understand the cries of the oppressed or the profound wisdom they can teach us about the nature of our society. I have thought how the perception and judgement of others, their prejudices and their fears, so often can label someone as “other” – someone who can then be discriminated against and reviled. I think of this whenever I hear stories from people diverse in gender or sexuality of their exclusion in the workplace or in faith groups. I thought of it the other day when I saw many people walk through a check out and the only woman who was stopped and bag searched was Aboriginal.
Are we prepared and open to hear the wisdom of the oppressed, even if it reveals an uncomfortable truth about ourselves or our church or our society? It is interesting that the startling story we heard today of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman is followed immediately by the healing of one who is deaf, and the command of Jesus is ‘Ephphatha’, or ‘Be opened.’ Do we have ears to hear and a spirit that is open?
It could be literary irony that the story of the ears of a deaf man being opened is preceded by a story where Jesus’ ears seem to be firmly closed against the cries of a foreign woman. The text makes quite sure that we know that she is a foreign Gentile and a woman, restating both in different ways. When she asks for Jesus’ help, he responds with an abrupt and seemingly heartless rejection; “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Calling her a dog is not a unique expression to Jesus- it has cultural and religious precedent, which is what makes it a nonsense when people try to justify or make inoffensive what Jesus says here. Jesus is being a Jewish man of his time in this statement. There are centuries of bad blood, not to mention distinctions of gender, social caste and the weight of purity laws that would be present in this conversation. In many references in the Hebrew scriptures the term “dog” is used to refer to opponents, enemies, or non-Jews in general. In the New Testament, Paul uses this term in his letter to the Philippians, warning early Christians against opponents of the gospel (Phil. 3:2). In Revelation, John will refer to those outside the gates of the city of God as “dogs” (Rev. 22:15). Rather than being horrified that Jesus used a label like this, I think we may be encouraged that his cultural and religious context afflicted even Jesus was afflicted with a kind of deafness.
But Jesus goes further. Not only does he listen to the woman’s plea, but he shows a receptivity to the wisdom that has been born in her oppression. Here we need to exercise care. Some interpreters have praised the woman for her humility, for her acceptance of her lowly role, as a symbol for the way all Christians are to relate to God. Though humility is indeed a virtue, there is also danger in this line of interpretation, if it reinforces self-abasing patterns of female behaviour. Too often Christian teaching has turned self-emptying into self-negation, and made self-abasement a twisted form of righteousness. The witness and wisdom this Gentile woman offers is quite different. She is empowered to stand and speak, claiming Jesus’ aid because in her words, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus does not tell her it is because of her faith but rather because of the wise answer she has given him, that his mind is changed and her daughter is healed.
Many will be concerned that I am saying that Jesus has had his mind changed by this woman helping him to hear something new. Jesus is moved to act beyond the boundaries of convention for the sake of compassion. And the Gospel writer of Mark shows this move from the ministry first to the Jews, but now opening up to all of the world by nestling this story between the feeding miracles. There is the feeding of the five thousand where twelve baskets of bread are left over- pointing to the twelve tribes of Israel. The story that comes after today’s Gospel text is the feeding of the four thousand, where seven baskets of bread are left over, representing the seven Gentile nations that occupied the Promised Land during the time of Moses. The movement indicated by this fascinating conversation about bread and dogs is one where Jesus allows his own status and religious heritage to be challenged by a Gentile, and he lands firmly on the side of inclusivity. There is space at the table and bread enough for all, both Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. After weeks of John’s Gospel talking about the bread from heaven, we now are reminded that all are welcome to eat at the table, because Jesus crosses boundaries to make us all one body.
This hospitality is the way of healing. The courage of the Syro-Phoenician woman enables her voice to be heard and her daughter to be healed. Jesus shows us the way of not allowing our pride or belief systems or prejudices to be barriers to the hungry being fed and the captives to be set free. If we are open, we can allow Jesus to heal even the parts of ourselves that are unattractive or wounded or broken. But we can also follow Jesus in allowing our hearts to be changed by the wisdom of the oppressed or downtrodden. Would we be able to hear like Jesus did if this Gentile mother were to speak to us?
I would like to close with a reflection- a dramatic monologue I have adapted from a sermon by US Pastor Paul J. Nuechterlein. He asks, if she were here today, would the Syro-Phoenician woman say something like this?
My daughter is many. She is within you, broken and weeping and raging. She lives homeless on your streets. She is incarcerated for drug use in your prisons or discriminated against for the colour of her skin. She is the gay, bi or trans person who moves town to escape abuse, can’t come out to their parents or feels shut out of their faith community. She is the woman denied her freedom in Afghanistan. She is the veteran returning from war and left isolated and alone with the legacy of trauma. She is the refugee who fled terrible violence yet is denied the means of living in a safer land. She is the earth groaning under the pressure of climate change and environmental degradation.
She seeks healing, liberation from the demons. Where do you see my daughter?
Sisters and brothers, know your strengths and use them for healing. My strengths were a clever mind, verbal dexterity, and an iron will. My request was granted because I used my gifts in the name of healing. Sisters and brothers, claim your strengths, honour them, and use them. What are the gifts you have been given for healing?
Sisters, brothers, don’t back down in the face of injustice. Persist. In my persistence I was heard. Where will you struggle relentlessly for the healing of my daughters?
Where you sit in privilege at the expense of others, I invite you to listen to my daughters who suffer the lack of privilege. See it and find ways to not cooperate with it, to stand against it, to dismantle it. I was a pagan and a woman. Jesus, compared to me, was a person of privilege. By the rules of his world, he should have turned me away. He did not. Instead he later gave up his privilege on the cross, letting himself be declared unclean, in solidarity with me and all others who are ignored, excluded, or defiled. Follow him. Follow him that we may be healed and together live in the grace of God’s one human family.
 Feasting on the Gospels–Mark: A Feasting on the Word Commentary . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
 (adapted from Paul J. Nuechterlein, Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, 2012)