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.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
“Name a time that you felt welcome or a time that you felt unwelcome.” That was the question that Pastor Laura asked at our first welcome ministry task force meeting. As those of you who were here last Sunday know, we’re rolling out a new welcome ministry here at Bethlehem. We have brand new name tags for everyone to wear, and a beautiful new “Welcome to Bethlehem” door on which to hang them. We have stickers and magnets for people who are visiting. We have a welcome bench, and designated welcomers whose job it is to pay attention and look for people who look like they are new and might need someone to talk to or to answer questions they have. Many of those new practices are things that stemmed from the answers that we had to Pastor Laura’s question – name a time when you either felt welcome or felt unwelcome.
My answer to that question was about a time that I felt very welcome. I had recently moved to Washington DC and I decided to go to this church downtown. I had heard about Luther Place from a number of my friends who told me I should go. “It’s an awesome congregation” they said. “They’re super involved in social justice issues, the sanctuary is gorgeous, and the pastors there are amazing.” So I decided to check it out. It took me about an hour to get there with a combination of walking and taking the Metro, and when I arrived I was excited but nervous. Even as an extrovert, stepping into a new place where I don’t know anyone is still a little daunting. I was greeted warmly at the door, given a bulletin, and found a seat (which thankfully was not the seat of a regular member, or at least no one came and asked me to move). One of the pastors came to introduce herself to me and we had a brief conversation and then it was time for worship to begin. During the passing of the peace people again were very friendly, but it’s what happened after the service that cemented this experience in my memory. I was approached by a man in his late 20s, early 30s, who introduced himself as one of the leaders of the young adult ministry at the congregation and asked if I would like to go out to lunch with him. A poor grad student being offered a free lunch? Umm yes please! We went around the corner to a Chinese restaurant and had a really good conversation and some great food after which he thanked me for coming and said he hoped that I would be back sometime soon. I left feeling very full, both stomach-wise, but also spiritually and socially. I had been fed by my interactions that day and it was a great feeling.
I’m sure that all of you have similar experiences, maybe not necessarily at a church, but experiences of being welcomed in a way that made you feel comfortable and at ease. I’m also positive that you all have had experiences where the exact opposite happened. Where you walked into a situation and immediately felt like you didn’t belong. That is the situation that the Syrophoenician woman in today’s story found herself. But before we get there, let’s back up a little bit and set the scene.
Like most women in the Bible, we do not know this woman’s name. All we are told is that she was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin and she had a daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit. Now to us sitting here today that sentence doesn’t convey a lot of information. But to the people listening to Mark’s gospel it would have set off a whole slew of warning bells and implicit understandings of the scene that was unfolding. First of all, she was a woman. That right there branded her as a second-class citizen. Women were considered to be property, something to be bought by husbands and sold by fathers. And then we have the fact that she approached Jesus, a man she didn’t know, in public, without the escort of another man. A huge no-no in Jewish culture. Then there’s the issue of her ethnicity. We’re told that she was a Syrophoenician, which meant that she was a Phoenician from Syria; she was a member of the people who inhabited the land before Israel’s arrival. These people were considered to be inherently wicked and dangerous. She was also a Gentile. Some translations say that she was a Greek, but either way it meant that she was not a Jew. She was not a part of God’s chosen people. And finally, she had a daughter who was possessed by a demon which meant almost certainly that she had been ostracized by her own community. Yet despite all of these strikes, and we’re well past three at this point, she somehow mustered up the courage to approach Jesus and beg for his help.
And what is his response? Well this is where the story gets a little uncomfortable for those of us reading it. We see the very human side of Jesus. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! Wow, this is one of the more cringe-worthy things that happens in the gospel texts. This woman finds the courage to approach Jesus knowing full well all of the social barriers and norms she is breaking, and this is what she gets? This encounter has to be at the top of this woman’s “times I didn’t feel welcome” list. Now some scholars have tried to soften this word by saying that Jesus was referring to a loveable and cuddly puppy. But that’s not the word that Jesus uses. The word he used translates into … well it translates into a word not suitable for polite conversation. Besides that, he’s also singling her out as an outsider with his words. The children, in this case, are the people of Israel, God’s chosen people. She is a Gentile, not a Jew, therefore not entitled to food that is intended for the Jewish people.
Now to be fair to Jesus, we are reading this through our own 21st century lenses. We find what he said to be quite scandalous, and what’s interesting is that those present for this exchange would have also found it scandalous, but not for the same reasons. Simply by responding to this woman, Jesus was breaking all sorts of rules both written and unwritten, he made himself ritually unclean, he responded in a way that was completely contrary to what society dictated. Jesus’ response then seems to be caught in this awkward in-between place. He knows that this woman is a Gentile, an outsider, and a foreigner, and tells her he cannot help her; a response that is definitely what we expect to hear from Jesus. But he also still acknowledges her, he engages her in conversation which wasn’t at all what was expected from a man in his position at that time in history.
Now if I were her I most likely would have just cut my losses and gone off to lick my wounds. But not this woman. She will not be deterred. She is tenacious and brave and undaunted. She is driven by love for her daughter and offers up what has to be one of the best and quickest comebacks in history: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The response is so quick and so clever that it causes Jesus to do a complete 180 and he responds by telling her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
This represents a turning point in the Gospel of Mark. Up until this point Jesus had primarily been concerned with ministering to the Jewish people. If we look at what he said to the Syrophoenician woman again, we see that Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first.” He doesn’t say, “This food is for the children only,” so his response isn’t so much a “never” to this woman, but rather a “not yet – I have other priorities right now.” But this reminded him the immense hunger in the world for the type of love and healing that only he had to offer – a hunger that was not limited simply to the Jewish people. All people were, and still are, in need of the radical grace and forgiveness of God.
This story also highlights the dangers of accepting the world as it is as opposed to living into the world as it should be. We see that even Jesus could be temporarily blinded by the rules and social norms of his time regarding who was in and who was out; who was deserving and who was not. But when we look at the ministry of Jesus as a whole, we hear his message that the grace and love of God is something that is meant for all people.
So often we can have our vision limited by the pressures of society. A society that tells us who we should associate with, who we should be friendly and welcoming to, and who we should shun, who is undeserving of our love and kindness. This story breaks open our hearts and reminds us that the love of God has no limits. It is intended for, and given to, all people, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, regardless of their ethnicity or background, regardless of any of the divisions that we have artificially created amongst ourselves. And it gives us a vision of what the world might look like if we lived into that radical inclusion. If we lived into, and helped create, a world where all were welcome. A world where when we encountered someone new, our first thought wasn’t “does this person belong here?” but rather was simply one of joy at this opportunity to engage with another beloved child of God. I have my doubts as to whether or not we as a society will ever be able to get to that point. But the church stands as a shining beacon of hope as a place where this way of life might truly come to fruition. A place where every single person who walks across that threshold might experience the unconditional love and healing grace of God. A place where we don’t need to work to find or make a place for ourselves, because that place is already waiting for us. I truly believe that the church can be that turning point, that nexus of change, where we break the boundaries the separate us from one another. A place where those who hunger for love, community, healing, hope, justice, or whatever else their spirit might be in need of may be fed at the abundant table of God. A place where we can not only boldly proclaim “All Are Welcome,” but also live into that in word and deed. Amen.
Image Credits: https://matthewlevy.me/describe-a-turning-point-in-your-life/, http://meganandtodd.us/ceremony-reception/, https://mmalick.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/jesus-and-the-syrophoenician-woman/, https://www.erarta.com/en/museum/collection/works/detail/G081009103/, https://quotefancy.com/quote/890352/Pope-Francis-God-s-love-is-unbounded-It-has-no-limits, https://progressiveconflictsolutions.com/all-are-welcome-here-serving-with-love-and-acceptance-since-day-one/