6 September 2009

THE SYRO-PHOENICIAN WOMAN  

Many years ago, when I was about 19, I was sitting on the veranda of our Priory in Penhalonga reading a book. Behind me I heard the sound of children playing. I looked up and saw they were African children and thought “Good heavens, they sound just like ordinary children.” Then I was shocked, to realise that all my life I had not thought of African children as ordinary children, but as something less. Thus began a journey out of racism which has not yet finished. An outrageous thought changed my life. I wonder if something like this happened to Jesus when he spoke with the gentile woman.  

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  

For years and years I have wondered what I would say if asked to preach on this passage. Now the time has come. What sense can we make of some of the most unpleasant words Jesus ever spoke?  

One approach would be to say that Jesus is indulging in the typical teacher’s behaviour, typical perhaps in a Middle Eastern context. He is testing the woman to see if she really wants what she is asking for. Will she put up with being insulted for the sake of her daughter’s cure? Does she need to pushed to find out what she really wants? If that is so then the woman comes out of the story very well. To call her and her child ‘dogs’ is very insulting, yet she puts up with it. She doesn’t argue about it. She shows a real humility - not I hasten to say - a humility that rejoices to grovel on the ground but a humility in which her love for her child makes her ignore any amount of insults to her own dignity.  

Whether that justifies Jesus’ language is perhaps still in doubt. In the Harry Potter stories Harry is very badly treated by Professors Snape and Umbrage. Through this he eventually learns to control his temper sufficiently to take on Voldemort. That doesn’t excuse the bad treatment.

Another approach to this story is to recognise that Jesus was, at the time he met the woman, simply an unreconstructed racist Jew. That is not surprising. He was human, took on human flesh in a society which was notoriously convinced of its own superiority. He was Son of God and had ideas of God and human kind which certainly drew upon and developed the very best ideas in the Jewish religion. Yet he had never really seen that God sees all men and women equally and the gentiles beyond the law were as beloved to God as those within the law. Paul had to learn that lesson. The Christian church of the first century had to learn that lesson. Jesus learned it first and, just as it was some children who first showed me the evil of racism in me, so it was a gentile woman who showed Jesus that racism had no place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus learned because he listened. He allowed one of the deepest prejudices of his life to be changed in a moment. He would never be the same again and nor would the movement that he brought into being.

Put like that it sounds quite simple and, in a way, it was. The simple things are often the hardest things to do. Listening seems an easy thing to do and most of us probably think we are pretty good at it. We do a lot of it here. Mostly we listen only with half an ear. We listen, thinking what we are going to say. We listen thinking how much we disagree and so we fail to hear much of the unspoken things that are being said. We listen maybe to the words but we don’t let the words enter us and truly disturb us. If we did they would change us, as Jesus was changed.

There is much of real profit that a preacher can draw from this story. We could return to the woman herself and reflect on her humility, or rather her passionate love for her daughter that made her put up with insult and mockery in order to get her healed. How often do we fail to pursue good ideas because we do not care enough to put up with mockery? Or we could return to Jesus and think how he listened and ask ourselves how we should be listening today? What are the issues in our Community, in the Church or in the world that we are not listening to properly, because prejudice blinds us and hardness of heart prevents us? Instead I would like to take a different path. When Jesus listened to the gentile woman he was converted and we were converted with him. Conversion sounds a frightening thing. It can be painful, disturbing; it can turn our lives upside down in a most uncomfortable way. Yet really it is wonderful. For when we allow conversion to take place, God comes into our lives in a way we had not known him and the world looks suddenly different. Isaiah describes just this in today’s reading:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;  then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.  

Conversion is something each of us instinctively avoids, even those who have embraced the monastic virtue of ‘conversion of life’. In fact it is a way into joy. If there is anything good about growing up in a racist world, it is the joy of discovering it is wrong.  

Then there is another question. In all the competing voices that call out to us inviting us to change where do we find the authentic voice, the voice of God?  I cannot answer that definitively but James in today’s epistle gives us at least one answer that we ignore at our peril:  

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  

God speaks to us through the poor. The Prophets in the Old Testament spoke in defence of the poor. Jesus told us “blessed are the poor”. The Church has made the option of the poor the priority in all the choices we must make. In all things we must listen to the poor. Paul reminds us in Corinthians that it is the foolish God speaks to, not the wise. As we seek renewal in our Community we need to be careful not to listen too much to the rich and powerful, to the impressive and well informed. For God chose what is low and despised in this world to reveal his will. Jesus found that in his life. Maybe we can, too.  

Nicolas Stebbing CR