TEXT: Mark 7:24-37
… a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit … heard about [Jesus], 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” (Mark 7:25-27).
Yikes! Can your day get much worse than hearing the Son of God call you a “dog”?
Let’s be honest: in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is shockingly unkind.
This poor Gentile woman comes to him seeking help for her afflicted daughter, and Jesus—our Jesus—gives her the brush-off!
“Look, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. You’re not my department! I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. I only have time for my fellow Jews. That’s why I came—to help them. It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs like you.”
Then—right away, just like that—she comes back at him, saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And Jesus is amazed.
This Gentile woman sets him back on his heels. No matter how insignificant she appears to Jewish eyes, she is willing to argue with God himself! She will do whatever it takes to obtain healing for her beloved child. And in this way, she assumes her rightful place in the Kingdom. Jesus gives her what she asks for.
“For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Or—as Jesus says in Matthew’s rather more detailed version of this story: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28).
So, a happy ending, but … This passage is unsettling, isn’t it? Jesus’ behaviour here seems so unlike him. Where is our loving, compassionate Saviour? Where is the kindly “Good Shepherd” so familiar to us from religious art and children’s Bibles?
What happened here? Did the Syrophoenician woman change Jesus’ mind? Did her clever answer open his eyes to her humanity? Did this encounter alter Jesus’ plans for his own ministry?
My inclination is to answer “yes” to all those questions.
Yes, she changed his mind.
Yes, she caused him to see her as a fellow human being.
Yes, because of this Gentile woman, Jesus suddenly realized his mission was to all of humanity, and not only to the Jews.
And yes … I know the questions that come next: if Jesus was God incarnate—the Word made flesh—how could anything change his mind? How could any mere mortal reveal something new to him?
Here’s what I think: I believe Jesus was fully God—but I believe he was fully human, as well.
And—despite the inherent paradox—being fully human, being human as we are human … Well, that necessarily involves limitations. When you say, “I’m only human,” you’re pointing to a universal truth about the human condition: real human beings have real limitations. A huge one is death. God is not mortal as we are. God cannot die. But all human beings die—and Jesus died, also.
As the apostle Paul put it, “he became obedient unto death—even death upon a cross” (Philippians 2:8-18).
If God in Christ was so completely human that he could actually die as we die … then, surely—just like us—he was capable of changing his mind, and adapting to new circumstances. Capable of changing direction, when necessary. Altering his course, when required.
This gospel passage—short though it is—provides enough meat to flesh out at least a dozen sermons … or maybe one very long sermon! But this is a blog post.
What I want to focus on here is this business of change. Changing one’s mind. Altering one’s course. Adapting to changing realities. Daring to risk new ways of thinking and doing. I believe we see Jesus doing all of that in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.
She really shook up his world. To me, it looks like—before their conversation—Jesus conceived of himself as a purely Jewish Messiah, come to save the children of Israel. And it makes perfect sense that he would think that way. That is precisely how he would have been raised to conceive of the Messiah. Yes, he was and is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Make no mistake about it: I do believe that to be true!
Even so, if Jesus was authentically human as well as authentically divine, he must have been capable of learning and growing. In fact, he would have had to develop and expand his capabilities. Otherwise, he would never have crawled out of the manger. That is the paradox—the divine paradox—of his Incarnation.
I can’t pretend to understand how that works. But then, if I could explain it, there would be no paradox—and no mystery about our mysterious God.
Admittedly, there’s a lot that looks paradoxical to me that seems to make perfect sense to others—like “jumbo shrimp” or “fat-free sour cream.” However, when it comes to understanding God … I think we have to understand that we don’t understand what we can’t understand … if you understand what I mean.
In our gospel passage today, it sure looks to me as if Jesus genuinely changed his way of thinking.
And that’s fortunate, isn’t it? If Jesus hadn’t changed his mind about his mission, he would never have said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). He would never have instructed his followers to spread his message “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Without this change of mind—and change of focus—there would be no Christian faith as we know it, and no gospel hope for Gentiles like me.
Change is seldom comfortable. I guess that’s why change is rarely welcomed—especially in church! We have our tried-and-true, familiar, pleasant ways of doing things. And I suspect that many of us really do think of church as a “resting place”—or even a “hiding place”—where we can reside untroubled and untouched, even when the rest of the world is being shaken to its foundations.
Trouble is, refusing to change—or ignoring the imperative for change—spells certain death for any organization that exists in the real world. And that includes the Church of Jesus Christ.
Friends, we are in a time of significant and radical change. We notice it all around us. I notice it most, I think, whenever I try to do something new on my computer … or try to figure out my iPhone! Too often I am confounded by things that are supposed to be easy (and are, if you’re in your 20s).
We also notice significant and radical change in our church life, don’t we? Most obvious—in too many North American congregations—is the profound (and always escalating) decline in attendance. In many settings, churches are dealing with significant changes in worship format. All of which means we are being presented with a choice: we can adapt to new realities … or we can complain bitterly and wallow in resentment because the floor has dropped out of our comfort zone.
But here’s the thing: change is inevitable. The changes that present themselves as obvious today are far-reaching, and jarring—and, for the most part, we did not choose them. Very often, they are not the sorts of changes we would have wished for.
However, they do present us with an opportunity: an opportunity to continue the worshipping life of our congregations. Even, perhaps, an opportunity to finally join the 20th century … now that we’re well into the 21st! Or even make a quantum leap toward the 22nd.
Of course, none of us can truly imagine what that future might look like, or anticipate everything it might entail. Certainly, we can expect ever-widening distance between old and new worship forms. Hymnaries will continue disappearing from pews as ever-developing technologies encourage worshippers to look up as they sing. And pews will continue to disappear along with stained-glass windows as worship spaces evolve (and perhaps even move out of dedicated “church buildings” entirely).
I suspect that, in the not-too-distant future, pulpits and lecterns and all the rest of our familiar liturgical trappings will become as uncommon as pipe organs are today—not entirely extinct, but rarely encountered outside an ecclesiastical zoo.
I must confess, as I write this, I find myself well outside my comfort zone. Looking around for a Syrophoenician woman, I don’t immediately see one, at least not in my home congregation … but there certainly is a Spirit of change in the air.
Do you sense that Spirit, too? Let’s do our best to embrace it.