The Syrophoenician Woman shows Jesus the Way

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Mark 7.24-30

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Sartre said “hell is other people.”  This week we have seen images and read news reports about the hell that is other people.

For a generation the phrase “asylum seeker” has become a dirty word.  We forgot the Jews that we turned away from our boarders as they fled the Holocaust before the Second World War, and David Cameron wanted to turn away all but a handful of those fleeing Syria (a nation that Britain and America have destabilised in an area we deliberately kept in turmoil for decades.)

The moral cowardice is staggering: a government unmoved by people in desperate need, heeding only a public outcry – it’s profoundly depressing.

But what is the Christian response?

Reflecting on how many Syrian refugees should we take, Giles Fraser wrote in the guardian this week: “…why not all of them? Surely that’s the biblical answer to the “how many can we take?” question. Every single last one. Let’s dig up the greenbelt, create new cities, turn our Downton Abbeys into flats and church halls into temporary dormitories, and reclaim all those empty penthouses being used as nothing more than investment vehicles.”

Giles quoted Emma Lazarus’ famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to illustrate than an open door can build, not destroy nations:  “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Our Bible reading also talks about a foreigner in need, and a foreigner who does not receive a warm welcome.  This story from Mark’s Gospel is a fascinating one.  Jesus is becoming famous in Palestine, people wanting healing, people wanting to hear his teaching, and the Pharisees wanting to trip him up, were all after him.  He escapes into the region of Trye and Sidon, Gentile country (the modern day Lebanon).

If you read this passage as a literary work it is unique in the Gospels.  In every other story like this (scholars call them perecopes) the words or deeds of Jesus are the climax – but in this passage it is the woman’s words that are the climax:

Jesus calls her a dog, but the turning point is when she replies to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

As we look at the harrowing images of the lengths refugees will go to to escape violence and how they are turned away, the words echo down the ages “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The question of Jesus harsh words to the woman have provoked much debate:

We must wonder why Mark decided to records this event – it doesn’t portray Jesus is a very good light – he calls the woman who comes to her in need a ‘dog’ – ‘for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!’

Up to now Jesus Ministry has been to the Jews only, so he thought foreigners (Gentiles) would not bother him.  But a woman comes up to him in distress, a Gentile woman, her daughter is ill, and she begs Jesus to act.  And Jesus seems astoundingly and uncharacteristically rude.  He is often rude to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocritical religious authorities of his time.  But this is the only place in the New Testament where he is rude to someone in need.

There must be a good reason for including this bizarre little story, in the middle of lots of rather exciting tales of miraculous healings.

Some scholars have tried to reinterpret the Greek, but if anything ‘dog’ was a bigger insult in first century Palestine than it is today.

Some scholars have suggested it was a test of the woman’s faith.  But that too seems cruel, and beneath the loving Jesus we read of in the rest of Scripture.

He seems to me that Jesus meant what he said.

The idea of the incarnation is a complicated doctrine, but whatever our interpretation of it, Jesus was fully a human being.  Jesus was not God walking around in disguise.  Jesus has to learn, like any of us, and Jesus had to learn his mission.  Being brought up a Jew it is quite probable that up to this point Jesus thought his mission was to the Jews only.  This Gentile woman comes along, and he dismisses her – she is not part of his plan.

But then the most startling thing of all happens:

Jesus allows himself to be corrected.

He realises that his mission is not only to the Gentiles, but to all people, this poor woman and her daughter included.

Jesus definition of moral responsibility is expanded to include the foreign woman.

Perhaps Mark recorded this story because it was a turning point.  God spoke through this Gentile Woman.

Jesus allows a woman to correct him.  The Rabbis of Jesus’ day would never teach a woman, never talk theology to a woman, some would not even look at a woman.  Yet here and elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus teaches and talks, and even allows himself to learn from women.  Other Rabbis would never allow a woman to win an argument over them in public, it would be instant disgrace, their ability would be discredited.  Yet Jesus knows what is right is more important than what looks right, so he allows himself to learn.

Perhaps even more shocking is that Jesus allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile!  Gentiles were those who were of no religious significance, who were seen as unclean, and in error.  But Jesus is open to learning not just from the learned Rabbis in the Temple, where he discussed the Law as a young boy, Jesus is open to hearing from God in all people.  Even in those others hated, even in those who would tarnish his image by even speaking to.

We all need to learn from Christ’s humility, and be ready to lean from those we, or others, disdain.  And live as Christ lived, a life of love.  We need to expand our definition of moral responsibility, it is more important today than ever, as we see those fleeing Syria.

The idea of hospitality is at the heart of Jewish and Christian ethics.  The ethics of our Jewish roots are summarised in the two words “remember Egypt” – the Jewish people are called to remember when they were poor slaves, oppressed, exploited, who fled seeking asylum in the Promised Land.  Remembering the past we must today care for the poor, oppressed, exploited, those who flee seeking asylum

This week Justin Welby quoted from Leviticus, saying we must “break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves.”

This is our challenge, in our personal interactions and in our national life.


Death & the Life Eternal

A sermon by Trevor Donnelly

2 Kings 2.1-14; Galatians 5.1-25; Luke 9.51-62



As most of you know, my father died very recently.  I wondered if I should mention it in my sermon, and risk getting emotional (and we are Anglicans, so that would be terrible!) or should I ignore it and maybe that would be the ‘elephant in the room’ (this is a big building, we could probably fit an elephant in here without too much trouble, in fact an elephant would be less conspicuous than an emotional Vicar!).

     While I was trying to make up my mind I came to Morning Prayer, and had a reading all about toil and death.  I went home and listened to one of my favourite radio programmes, The Infinite Monkey Cage (with Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince who discuss scientific issues of the day) the title of this weeks show “What is death?”  I thought I’d look at the set readings for today for something life-affirming and cheering: our readings begin with the death of Elijah (Margaret talked about this last week) and then the young man who wanted to bury his father! I thought I could look at what was current in the news for sermon inspiration, and found the top story to be Nelson Mandela nearing the end of his long and inspiring life.

     So  my first sermon after some ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of my father, which in turn followed a stretch of compassionate leave earlier in the year after the death of my mother is all about death!

     I am reminded of the words that Oscar Wilde put into the mouth of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent… may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”?

     You are not quite sure if it’s ok to laugh at that!  Well I think it is.  At the end, my father was lying on his bed, not able to talk.  I was on one side of the bed, my brother, Glenn, on the other.  My father tried to say something.

     “Do you want the blanket off?”  I asked.

     He shook his head.

     “Are you too warm?”  Asked my brother.

     He shook his head.

     I tried “Are you too cold?”

     He shook his head.

     Glenn said, “Do you need some pain relief?”

     He shook his head.

     “Do you want the window open?”

     “Are you thirsty?”

     Then I noticed the corners of my father’s mouth start to lift, and his shoulders start to shake.

     “Hang on,” I said, “are you laughing at us?”

     And he was!  Even at the end, in the frustrations of not being able to communicate there was laughter.  There were tears too at times – but laughter to the end.

     When we turn to our readings today we find a distinct lack of humour or gentleness.  A man wants to follow Jesus, but first wants to bury his father.  Jesus says ‘let the dead bury the dead.’  As someone who has just taken several weeks off to bury his father, Jesus words seem unbearably harsh.

     Scholars debate this story – it seems too cruel to be literal.  Jesus was all about teaching love – it does not seem very loving to leave a dead relative unburied in order to go off on a teaching trip.  Indeed the 10 Commandments insist on honouring your father and mother.  Was Jesus using hyperbole, exaggerating his demands to make a point?

     Or was, as some have suggested, the father not dead yet (some have even suggested that his father was perfectly well) and the young man putting ordinary family commitments ahead of following Jesus…  ‘One day,’ said the young man, ‘when my father is not around to be shocked, I will follow you.’

     Jesus was clear that the demands of the life of faith should be central to our lives, and if our families try to prevent us from expressing our faith we may need to choose faith over family ties.  But I simply cannot believe Jesus would be that harsh to a grieving man.

     From my recent experiences in Belfast I have encountered a lot of religious comfort.  None of the chaplains who visited the hospice or the minister who took the funeral quoted this story.  What I did hear, however, were much more traditional religious beliefs than I am used to.  I have talked to Presbyterian chaplains and the Baptist minister who conducted my father’s funeral.  All spoke with great certainty about heaven.  To them faith was primarily about finding a way to survive death.  This certainty and version of faith is something I cannot share.

     I’m a liberal, and I find it hard to believe in miracles, and surely the greatest of all miracles is surviving death.  I find it hard to accept the idea of life-after-death.

      Perhaps my problem is that I have a bit of an obsession with science.  I find it hard to believe things that cannot be scientifically proven, or at least scientifically investigated.

     Heaven seems too-good-to-be-true.  We want to believe that we will see our loved ones again, so we chose to believe it, not because it is true, or even likely, but because the alternative is too gloomy and depressing.

     How can heaven fit into a reductionist, scientific world-view?  Some people find comfort in Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Einstein, in a letter to a bereaved friend, wrote: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”  Einstein tried to comfort his grieving friend with the belief that being separated from someone by time was really like being separated from them by distance.  The past still exists, and so our dead loved ones still exist; it’s just that we, poor linear creatures of time, cannot step back in time to visit them.

     (This was a serious attempt at comfort, he was not trying to be humorous.)

     Einstein does not propose ‘heaven’ just that the past is not lost.

     Can other scientists offer us any hope?  I have said that an afterlife seems very unlikely, but one thing that science tell us, especially quantum science, is that the extremely unlikely can also be true.

     John Polkinghorne is both a theologian and a scientist and has had many different thoughts on life after death, including the only explanation that could satisfy my rationalist tendancies.  As a scientist Polkinghorne explained that our thoughts are basically ‘software’ in the ‘hardware of our brain.’  So basically our brain is like a computer and ‘who we are,’ our ‘soul,’ is a bit like Microsoft Office.  It’s not quite the same as a computer because the way we think forms neural connections and how we run the software helps shape the hardware (but, in computing terms, an emulator could overcome this).

     Polkinhourne suggested that if God knows us in our entirety then every neuron could exist in God’s memory, and have continued life in God’s memory after we die.  God’s memory would be a virtual world – indistinguishable from a physical world.  Maybe this world is simply God’s imagination, if you are God there is no telling what your mind can do…!

     It’s a neat idea, but I can’t say it answers all my questions or is fully satisfying.  The truth is that I don’t know what happens after we die.

     The Bible is vague about the afterlife, it speaks in poetry and metaphor.  Sometimes it speaks of ‘the grave’ is a land of shadows beneath the earth; sometimes you can reach heaven by flying off in a chariot or building a huge tower…

     The best and truest answers to all our questions about eternal life is found in the reading I have not mentioned yet.  In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians he describes the ultimate goal and reward of the life of faith:

     The fruit of the Spirit “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     Our faith is not about what happens after we die.  Jesus clearly believed in life after death, but that was a tiny part of his teaching, which was almost all about how we life this life, the one life that we can be certain of.

     And when we die?  Who knows?  We will be in the hands of God, and there is no better place to be. 

     I want to see my parents again, but the better way to honour them is to try and keep alive the best of their values in my own life: faith, kindness, humour (humour even in the face of death).

     Or as St. Paul puts it, let our life and our faith be about “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     I close with a prayer:  O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, the evening comes, the busy world lies hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.  Amen.