Fr. John Allison
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
September 5, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
This story we hear today of the Syrophoenician woman echoes the need, the hope, for God's mercy and an end to suffering that is at the core of human experience. We suffer, a loved one suffers. We cry out for mercy. "Have mercy on me, Lord. Help me." Those are the words Matthew has this woman speak in his version of this story and as I picture the scene I imagine something similar coming from her mouth as she kneels at Jesus feet. “Have mercy on me, Lord. Help me.” I’ve heard similar prayers of desperation and hope from others and even spoken them myself. This woman’s plight is one in which we share.
But Jesus does not give her the answer we expect, the answer we need, at least not at first. Indeed, he refuses her. And not only refuses her but insults her, and by implication, her people: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And so, where does that leaves us, Gentile believers, like this poor woman, who, at first glance at least, fall outside of Jesus' stated purview?
We know that ultimately Jesus heals the woman's daughter. We know that, ultimately, though Gentiles, God's mercy is with us in Christ, in spite of the implication in Jesus’ words that he is here for a particular group. Our reading from the Letter of James explores a similar distinction in calling on the community to treat rich and poor alike—to love your neighbor as yourself no matter who they might be. And so, the question looms in our readings today as to who is in and who is out? It’s not just a question of Jew or Gentile or rich or poor; in our world it may be a question of skin-color or nationality or sexuality? Who is in? Who is out? Who is worthy of God's grace? Who is called? While it's easy for us to say all are worthy, all are welcome, the stark reality is that that isn't always the case in the Institution of the Church or even in our own personal lives. Even in Jesus' day that wasn't the case, and certainly by the time Mark and James were writing what we might today call identity politics divided the early Christian communities. And, I don't think I would be too far afield in saying that similar questions continue to divide the Church to this day. Who is in? Who is out?
The Gospel of Mark, perhaps more than any of the other Gospels, highlights that tension quite clearly in the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees. Our passage today begins just following Jesus’ teaching as to what defiles a person. We heard it last week and I won’t go into the details but, if you remember, he is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat, as was the tradition of the elders. Jesus explains that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, literally makes the person unclean so as to not be able to participate in worship, but, rather, it is what proceeds from the heart and comes out of the mouth that makes a person unclean. This, of course, is just a snippet of a larger argument but, essentially, Jesus is pushing up against the boundaries that had been so vehemently enforced by the Pharisees.
Today, this theme of pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable is further opened, quite literally when Jesus and his disciples cross between the land of Israel and Gentile territory. We’re told they cross into the region of Tyre, a land that was known as being traditionally hostile to Jews and figuratively this Gentile woman represents all that is immoral, godless, and ritually unclean by traditional Jewish standards. Jesus’ interaction with her redefines the boundaries of God's mercy, extends the boundaries beyond the border of Israel. This Gentile woman, though unclean by traditional Jewish standards, is not defiled by what goes into her mouth. She is made clean by the faith that comes from her heart, that issues forth in her humble acknowledgment of Jesus’ power to save, to heal. She is Gentile and, yet she recognizes Jesus—something at this point that many of disciples even have trouble grasping.
What this woman recognizes is the overflowing abundance of God’s blessing, the fullness of God. There is enough for all. And she asks for it—boldly, even though she’s been told it’s not for her. She knows God’s love is larger, more expansive, than the tradition of her day is able to acknowledge.
God’s mercy in Christ is not bounded by human category, and we see this exemplified in the plea of this desperate woman. She is a creature made in God’s image and called, as are we all, to return, to live into the gift of God’s love. This is the very same message James offers when he reminds us of the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself—no matter who they are. “Mercy triumphs over judgement.” And this message still has the power to surprise us as it must certainly have surprised Jesus’ disciples when he blesses this woman and heals her daughter. True faith, deep faith, is persistent and extends far beyond any one group or people. God continually enters new territory, breaks boundaries that divide. As the body of Christ in the world, as the Church, in receiving the gift of mercy we are called to share God’s mercy. We are called to make a place at the table. That’s what we acknowledge every time we come together in thanksgiving around this table.
We don’t say it too often anymore but a favorite part of mine in the Rite I Eucharistic Prayer, is the Prayer of Humble Access. It begins, and I’m sure some here know this by heart, “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O’ merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in thy manifold and grant mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”
Like the Syrophoenician woman, we are not worthy, we’ve done nothing to deserve God’s gift in Christ. And yet, in humbling ourselves to receive God’s blessings we are invited into unimaginable bounty, not just crumbs under the table but a true feast. That feast is a gift but a gift that has with it a responsibility. As the letter of James reminds us faith withers and dies when it is not realized and made incarnate in our actions, in the Christ-inspired work of feeding, healing, restoring relationship—of serving one another. We may start with words of faithfulness but those words quickly become empty when they don’t lead to action.
In his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguishes between cheap grace and costly grace. “Costly grace,” he says, “confronts us with a call to follow Jesus; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and contrite heart.” That call is inescapable. “Those who receive the gift of grace are also to accept the call of the giver. Grace then is a call to discipleship and God no more rescinds the call than revokes the grace. These two constants, gift and call, are signs of God’s unbounded faithfulness, which is unaffected by anything we do, and, at the same time, never ceases to call us back to our own faithfulness.”
God’s gift of mercy and call to discipleship, call to be learners of God’s ways as well as doers, are unceasing and, if we keep the eyes of our faith open, they are ever surprising. Are you ready to be surprised? What are the boundaries that we put around God, and where does God surprise us when He reaches across to offer the gift of love? What are the boundaries that we are called to cross in our dealings with one another? The Syrophoenician woman knew. May we all be so bold in recognizing God’s all-encompassing love. May we all be so bold as to embrace a living faith that is fed and given life by our love of neighbor—no matter who that may be. Amen.