The response of the world to this crisis has been mixed. Turkey has already resettled 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Jordan has been flooded with them too. But European countries and the United States have been slow to respond. The official word from the Icelandic government last week was that they could accommodate 50 refugees … 50. Seriously Iceland … 50?
This week’s gospel reading shows us a similar desperation and a very rude response by Jesus. In the village of Tyre, which is located in modern day Lebanon and just west of the Syrian border, Jesus enters a house and is hoping not to be discovered. But when word gets out, a Syrophoenician woman comes and throws herself at his feet in humble prostration to beg him to heal her daughter of a demon. Jesus responds in a manner which is shocking: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s right … he not only refused, he called her a dog.
There are scholars who want to refine and clean up Jesus’ intentions and words here. They will tell you this was just a case of Jesus testing the woman’s faith. I’m not buying that. I’m not buying that primarily because it doesn’t do justice to the text or to Jesus. I have trouble believing that the Son of God, who has shown mercy to others, is going to proverbially kick this woman when she is down. That posits a God who is sadistic and cruel – one just waiting for us to be in a vulnerable position so he can stick it to us and test our faith. I rather can find myself understanding this through the lens of Jesus as fully human. If we look at the progression in the Gospel of Mark, we cannot understand his response to the Syrophoenician woman as a typical response to a Gentile in need. Two chapters ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac in the region of the Decapolis. He didn’t have a problem healing him … so why this response to this woman in particular?
I think Mark gives us a clue at the beginning of the reading. “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.” Why would he leave Galilee and go to the ancient land of Phoenicia? Perhaps, he wanted to get away from the demands of his ministry. He needed a break. He was exhausted. I don’t know about you, but when I’m exhausted, I get a little cranky. Who knows? Maybe his blood sugar was low too! No matter … he didn’t want to be detected for a reason – he likely needed a break. But that was not to be and I think we can gauge the difference in Jesus’ interactions with the Gerasene demoniac and this woman by who initiated the contact. If you recall, the Gerasene demoniac ran up to Jesus, bowed down before him and the legion of demons begged Jesus to be left alone … because Jesus had tried to cast out the demons. From the way Mark tells this story, it appears that Jesus is choosing to engage with the demon possessed man. The man does not ask for anything but to be left alone. In contrast, the Syrophoenician woman makes a demand on Jesus asking for her daughter to be healed. She might not have asked for herself – but a desperate mother will do anything, even endure humiliation, for the sake of her child. Jesus is not in control of this encounter – she has been the agent of action on him not the other way around like it was with the demoniac. She has inconvenienced him and intruded on his private time and he responds rudely. Notice too, that after she gives her retort, Jesus ends the encounter abruptly: “For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.” This is no Hallmark moment and Jesus doesn’t commend her faith or say anything to her other than her desire had been granted. He still seems a bit cranky.
I think it no coincidence that Jesus has a similar encounter with the man who is deaf and mute. He returns to the Decapolis and “they brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.” Who are “they?” Honestly, we don’t know, but now we hear a group (they) are begging Jesus to heal another person. The word begging is link here – both “they” and the Syrophoenician woman beg Jesus on behalf of another. This time Jesus complies and in one of three points in Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus speak in his native language of Aramaic: Ephaphtha! Be opened!
It seems to me these two stories together are telling us something of the nature of ministry and of Jesus’ growing understand of who he is. Rather than clean up Jesus and make excuses for him, I’d rather hold that Jesus did not come into his ministry having all the details worked out. Unlike Athena who sprang fully formed from the mind of Zeus, Jesus is human and his own self-awareness and understanding of what it means to be Son of Man and Son of God is evolving in his own lifetime. He knew the prophesies about Messiah coming to the Children of Israel, but he didn’t quite realize until this encounter that the world, the others beyond his own people, would come to him and yes, make demands of him. He realizes he cannot control when or where the needs of others will arise and when and where he will need to respond. Ephaphtha, to be opened, is a statement not only for the deaf man’s ears and tongue, but also of Jesus’ heart to embrace a new understanding of what the demands of a hurting world will place at his feet.
This is also true for each and every one of us. Today’s admonition from James reminds us that faith without works is dead. Turning a blind eye when the needs are in front of you does not honor God and makes our faith a sham. The Gospel shows the demands of a hurting world are not always going to show up when it is convenient for us. They will come at us when we are tired and cranky – when we believe we have nothing left. It is in these moments where we are called to remember it is not ourselves we proclaim and it is not the power merely within us that will respond but that God will supply what we need to act. Our call is to be opened, ephaphtha! Be ready to see the need and respond.
The Icelandic people did just that this week. After their government said they could only take 50 refugees from Syria, two people went onto Facebook and called Icelanders to action. “Who knows? We might be welcoming your next doctor, or a baker, or a drummer for your band!” Over 10,000 Icelanders heard the call and promised to open their homes, provide for the needs of the refugees, teach them their language, help them with jobs – whatever it took to help their sisters and brothers in need. This is the Christian response! This is being opened to the possibilities in faith instead of fear. This is what we are called to do and to be for the sake of the world … and the next Aylan.