15th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 5 September 2021

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | Mark 7:24-37

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of imagination and abundance.

Today we have a gospel story that’s both beautiful and a little disturbing. We have the story of this woman who comes to Jesus asking him to help her daughter. And it’s a beautiful story because it’s the start of a great expansion in the Gospel—in Mark, this is where Jesus’ message starts spreading beyond Jesus’ own people. It’s a great story for Labor Day weekend when we celebrate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Labor Movement—there’s some of that going on here. It’s a beautiful story because we get to see this woman’s amazing persistence and imagination, and we get to see her need met in the end when her daughter gets help from Jesus.

But the story is also a little bit disturbing because of the way Jesus responds to the woman at first. It kind of sounds like Jesus calls her a dog. It kind of sounds like Jesus doesn’t think she’s worthy of help because of who she is and where she’s from. To be honest, the start of this story is not a good look for Jesus.

Even the part where Jesus does help the woman’s daughter may be a little challenging for some of us, because it looks like maybe Jesus changed his mind because of what she said. It looks like for a minute there, maybe this woman understood Jesus’ mission better than Jesus did. And even though our faith teaches that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, it’s strange to think about how Jesus might have sometimes needed people to teach him or remind him of a truth like this. This story can challenge us to consider what we mean when we say Jesus was really and truly a human being, and not just God playing dress up in a human suit and pretending to have limitations. (For my church nerds out there, that would be the heresy called Docetism, where God only seems to be human in Jesus but isn’t really.)

But maybe if we can imagine Jesus learning to walk like other babies, learning carpentry from Joseph, learning how to read the Torah from teachers in the synagogue, maybe it’s possible to imagine that in this story Jesus learns something he hadn’t yet realized about how far God’s love could reach through him. There are other ways you could understand what happens in this story, and it’s okay to disagree, but I think this woman was one of Jesus’ teachers.

I think that in this story we see Jesus doing a very human thing we’ve all done—making a snap judgment about who belongs and who doesn’t, who is worthy and who’s not. And then I think Jesus does something we’ve also done as humans in moments of grace—he really hears another person, and he expands his view of who belongs in God’s vision, who is worthy of love and healing.

But whether or not we think this expansion of the mission beyond the Jewish people is unexpected news to Jesus at the time, it has a huge impact. In the version of this story in Matthew, Jesus specifically says he’s only sent to “the lost sheep of Israel” before his conversation with the woman. Most of us would not be included in Jesus’ saving mission if not for the expansion that starts here. This moment is where the Great Commission starts, Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations.

This moment foreshadows the stories in the book of Acts where the Gospel is heard in all languages, where the Holy Spirit comes to foreigners and outsiders, where our friend St. Paul makes epic journeys to preach Jesus far and wide. This Syrophoenician Greek woman continues the legacy of some Old Testament prophets who envisioned a world where all nations would be included in God’s saving work. She’s a prophet of a new era, a new possibility. This story is a turning point for something profound, something wildly new, something abundant in Jesus’ ministry and the coming life of the church.

The new era begins with this woman’s persistence and imagination. She is bold enough to voice her need in the first place and to keep on asking even when Jesus says no. And she is creative enough to use Jesus’ own words to imagine a situation where she gets what she needs.

When Jesus says it’s not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs, the woman takes that image and runs with it. She thinks about how children eat at a table. She knows that even the dogs have to eat somehow. She imagines how much food falls off the table when children feast. And there’s her answer—even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall. When Jesus says the children get to eat bread and implies that the woman and her daughter are dogs who don’t get to eat, this woman fills out the scene. She adds a banquet table that Jesus hadn’t mentioned, where the children are eating and the dogs under the table get to eat too.

This woman paints herself and her daughter into a picture that was framed to exclude them. Her move here reminds me of the work of an artist named Titus Kaphar. A lot of Kaphar’s work deals with the legacy of racism and oppression in American history. Some of his artworks are re-creations of historical artworks. These original artworks either excluded Black and Indigenous people or included them in a demeaning way. Kaphar sometimes re-creates artworks like this with imaginative revisions that change the meaning and the focus. His versions put the spotlight on what’s happening with the nonwhite figures.

He has one piece called “Enough About You.” And the original painting was of Elihu Yale (the guy whose money started Yale University) with some colleagues at a table. These wealthy white men are up front with their powdered wigs and their elaborate outfits, and behind them in the background is an enslaved young Black boy who seems to be there serving them. Kaphar re-created the painting, but with some changes. He added more depth and detail to the face of this child who was in the background. He placed an ornate picture frame around that child’s portrait. And he crumpled up the rest of the painting to blur the figures of Yale and his colleagues. Kaphar took the representation that was given and then made these imaginative changes to create a different vision, a vision where the child in the painting is treated as fully human and worthy of attention. 

I think this is the same kind of creative work that the Syrophoenician woman does when she claims Jesus’ attention for herself and her child.

And I think maybe she’s claiming more than just crumbs to eat. The beginning of our story says that the woman heard about Jesus, but it doesn’t say what exactly she heard. I wonder if she heard the story from the chapter before of how Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. I wonder if she heard about how everyone ate as much as they wanted, and then there were still twelve baskets of broken pieces left over. This was a feast so abundant that the crumbs that fall are still twelve whole baskets of bread. If the woman in today’s story knew about that, then maybe she was claiming so much more than crumbs. Maybe she was claiming a feast for herself and her daughter, a feast that she knew could exist in God’s abundance. This woman was a prophet of possibility.    

And I think we need her story today, when so much of the word seems impossible, when we’re dealing with so many crises and wondering if we have enough of what it takes to face them. Will there be enough doses of vaccine for the whole world? Will we find enough stamina and wisdom to get through however much longer the pandemic lasts? Will there be enough time to heal the climate before it’s too late? Will there be enough housing and food to take care of all the people displaced by flooding and fires and war? Will there be enough money to fix what’s broken? Will there be enough love to go around? Will there be enough hope to keep trying?

Today’s story doesn’t give us a simple answer to those questions, but it does give us an invitation to expand our imagination and consider new possibilities. The story invites us to see the picture differently, to seek out new ways of finding enough for everyone, to claim a feast for people who get treated like dogs.

Sometimes we might need to do what Jesus does in this story—really listen to someone and change course. This story invites us to pause and hear those around us who don’t think their needs are being met and who are calling for change. It invites us to slow our judgment down and rethink what’s possible, even when the people asking might sound too loud or too angry or too impatient to us at first. I believe our savior Jesus gives us a beautiful pattern here for how to listen and move forward differently.

The Syrophoenician woman also gives us a model for how to be persistent and creative to get needs met and help people see new possibilities. Sometimes we need to do what she does and expand the picture so that more people get in on the feasting. Sometimes we need to renegotiate what’s possible. We need this woman’s imagination today. If you’ll forgive the pun, we need this woman’s dogged determination today. Her ability to claim God’s abundance in the midst of denial and scarcity gives us strength today.

Friends, I pray that you go forward in that strength this week. I pray that you take this story with you into whatever challenges you face right now. Receive God’s blessing:

            May God your maker hold you in abundant love,

                        may Christ your redeemer feed you with the crumbs that become a feast,

                                    may the Holy Spirit lead your imagination in ever-expanding visions of plenty, now and always. Amen.

A photo of “Enough About You” by Titus Kaphar.