So let’s recap. The first thing to remember about today’s narrative is the fact that Jesus had traveled into foreign territory, to the region of Tyre. It was a gentile region, a pagan region, not a place where a faithful Jew would travel without specific need.
And I think Jesus did have a need - he needed a break from the exhausting intensity of demand, rejection and conflict he had been experiencing among his own people.
Here’s what Mark tells us that he had been up to in the days and weeks before his sojourn in Tyre:
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus’ attempt to carve out some time for prayer was interrupted by the need to rescue the disciples, caught in a storm on the sea.
Landing on shore, (and virtually everywhere he went,) he was surrounded by crowds bringing those in need of healing.
His healing ministry was then, in turn, interrupted by conflict with the religious leadership, as he was repeatedly challenged over his disciples’ disregard of the Jewish Purity Law traditions.
He probably headed to Tyre to get a break, to recharge and renew his spirit. Entering the place he would stay, he asked that his presence and privacy be safeguarded; Mark tells us
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.
But rumor of Jesus’ power had spread through even the pagan countryside. The daughter of a local woman, a gentile of Syrophoenician background, was suffering: she was gripped by an unclean spirit and could not find rest or peace.
It’s a measure of the mother’s desperation to help her daughter that she was willing to seek out the Jewish stranger, approach him, humble herself, and ask for aid for her child.
And Jesus’ answer was to dismiss her plea: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But the woman wasn’t to be deterred. Fueled by the passion of a mother’s love, she showed both determination and cleverness as she turned Jesus’ own words back to him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And here’s the remarkable moment where the story pivots: rather than chastising the Syrophoenician mother for what could certainly be seen as inappropriate behavior, Jesus rewarded her persistence: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
When we come to this story, every “B year”in our lectionary cycle, I’m bothered by Jesus initial refusal to help the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and it disturbs me to read what certainly seems to be Jesus’ egregious rudeness to the mother.
I think, however, that there are two things going on here. One is simply Jesus’ exhaustion, the depletion of his basic resources including his patience and his compassion, but the other factor at play is his initial understanding of how the woman’s request fit into his own mission.
When Matthew tells the same story, Jesus explains that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus’ starting point is that the mother’s request falls outside of his scope of responsibility: he already has more than he can handle in teaching and healing his own people, and just can’t take on the problems of the gentile community. The mother’s persistence, however, somehow causes Jesus to pause and reconsider.
And in doing so, he broadens his vision and extends his care to include someone who is NOT his responsibility.
I love the fact of Jesus’ capacity to change his position, to be affected by the depth of love of a mother for her daughter. Unlike so many public figures in our own world, Jesus allows himself to hear feedback, to reconsider, to change and to grow.
The Syrophoenician Woman’s moment of persistence in fact sparks a turning point in Jesus’ Gospel mission. The mother helps the one who is the Chosen, but who is still living into the fullness of the vision God set before him, and to live more fully into his call.
I am also tremendously reassured, somehow, that Jesus struggles with discernment of what is and is not his responsibility, with where he should invest his energies. It’s a question I think about a lot, and I expect that you probably do, too.
Recently I read a wonderful piece by Nadia Bolz-Weber about this very dilemma, and I want to share some of what she has written. (Many of you know Nadia Bolz-Weber; we read one of her books for our summer book discussions in 2019, and she was recently installed as the first “Pastor of Public Witness” in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) Here’s how she describes the problem – and I warn you that I’m about to read a word you wouldn’t ordinarily hear in a sermon:
…when I check social media it feels like there are voices saying “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM” and when I am someone who does actually care about human suffering and injustice (someone who feels every picture I see, and story I read) it leaves me feeling like absolute shit. I am left with wondering: am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person and subsequently silence the accusing voice in my head? No. The answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do, the goal of “enough” is just as far away as when I started.
And yet doing nothing is hardly the answer.
Bolz-Weber offers us an analogy that I find incredibly helpful. She remembers an apartment she once lived in where trying to use her hair dryer when the stereo was on inevitably led to a trip to the circuit breaker panel to reset the breaker. The apartment, she observes, was just not wired to support both stereo and hair dryer on the same circuit.
And so with our own hearts and spirits, she suggests – they simply were not built to “hold, feel, and respond to ….every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet.”
Nadia encourages us to ask ourselves:
What is mine to do, and what is not mine to do?
What is mine to say, and what is not mine to say?
And then she offers us yet another wonderful analogy: “the world is on fire” she says, and we each have a bucket of water “to help with the fires.” We need to figure out where our water is going to do the most good, and throw it there. She also invites us to be “grateful for the people who are called to work on and respond to worthy issues that are not fires we ourselves are equipped to put out.” *
Jesus struggled as we struggle, facing the fires of the world. He got tired, as we do, and he had a whole lot more water in his bucket. One day in Tyre he decided that he could spare some water for the daughter of an unknown Syrophoenician woman.
May we not be overwhelmed by the fires, but rather, may we be blessed with true discernment of where to throw our water.
“If you can’t take in any more, there’s a reason”, essay published in “The Corners” newsletter, substack.com, August 17, 2021
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