I was at Sam’s Club not too long ago, trying to make the crucial decision as to whether or I I wanted 25 pairs of socks or 40. Just as I was about to walk away without purchasing socks (because really, I couldn’t justify that many socks) the woman sharing the aisle with me stopped me. “Excuse me” she said. And right then, right with those two words, I could feel myself tense up. I was prepared for what I don’t know, but for some reason I expected the worst. “Have you purchased shoes here before?” Phew…that was a close one. I said that I had, but only for my daughter and then I was about to move on. With my guard down, she continued “I know this may seem a bit strange, but um…” and she paused, “see, I’m a Christian and sometimes the Holy Spirit stirs and tells me to talk to people. And I feel like I need to talk with you to see if you know about Jesus and know that he is your Savior.” And I smiled, patted her on the arm and said “I do know that. I’m a pastor.” We chatted briefly and I commended her for being a good evangelist and then we both were on our way. And to think, I almost missed this interaction. I had my guard up thinking she had cruel intentions and it turned out that she wanted to let me know about Jesus. It wasn’t a bad day to be at Sam’s. For me on that particular day, that woman was going to the Syrophoenician woman to me.
When I went to my preaching convention, I heard one of our speakers talk and preach on this text and she started by asking “If you were going to share the good news of Christ with the world, would you share this story?” And at first glance, it’s easy to respond with a hearty “of course!” Just look at all the good news in this scripture for today: the demon was cast out of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and the deaf man with a speech impediment had his ears opened and tongue released. This is the Jesus we know and love. The Jesus who cures people. Who notices those on the margins and says “come to me, all who are weary and burdened.” This is a feel good story about how Jesus cures people, right? Another example of who Jesus is and what Jesus can do. So, if you were going to share the good news of Jesus Christ, would you share this story? And if so, what do we do about that Syrophoenician woman? We can’t just skip over her. Her story is in the Bible for a reason. The author of Mark wanted people to hear this for a reason.
See, if we look and read closely, the Jesus we encounter in this text isn’t the Jesus we normally hear about. Instead of referring to this Gospel text as the story of the Syrophoenician woman, we should probably title it “the time Jesus changed his mind” or even “Jesus learns a lesson about feeding people.” It’s easy to want to skip over Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman because it’s one of the few times when Jesus was just flat out wrong. The text is subtle, but it’s there. Jesus says 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.” Jesus calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog. Not a cute “wittle” puppy. A dog. Worse than that, he most likely called her a derogatory slang for a female dog.
I know it’s hard to believe. And I understand the temptation to soften up this translation. After all, this is our Lord and Savior we’re talking about; surely he didn’t actually say this, right? No matter how much we try and avoid it the truth is this: Jesus called the woman a dog which was considered an ethnic slur at the time. It’s a strange interaction. Jesus has all the power in this interaction. The Syrophoenician woman didn’t approach Jesus with a sense of entitlement, she approached Jesus as a desperate mother, looking to have her daughter healed. And maybe, just maybe this great healer she had heard about would help her daughter. She was desperate. Why did Jesus say what he said? He was implying that his feast, his message, his ministry was only for his people: the Israelites. It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus says, to take a feast prepared for his people and give it to the dogs, give it to those who are less than.
And instead of walking away, mad or grieving, the Syrophoenician woman says (paraphrasing) “sir, even the dogs get a little something. Even the dogs eat crumbs.” What she is saying is “you may think I’m a dog, but even I deserve to eat.” And something miraculous happens. Jesus changes his mind. It is the only time in the Bible where we hear of Jesus changing his mind. It is possible that our Lord and Savior who is both fully human and fully divine made a mistake. And what changes Jesus’ mind was this woman. The thing is, Jesus got caught up in labels, in only seeing her gender and skin color, only seeing her status in life and wanted to turn her away. It was the Syrophoenician woman who taught Jesus that all people are entitled to God’s grace. Sometimes grace comes from some of the most unexpected places and unexpected people.
Who will be the Syrophoenician woman to us? Who is going to come into our midsts that we will be anxious to brush off but instead will speak a reminder of God’s love to us. Who is an outsider that we often may want to shoe away, distance ourselves from, or even outright not welcome that is actually trying to bring us the good news of God? Will it be one of our food pantry recipients who makes the bold decision to no longer be relegated to the basement? Will it be a single mother who is struggling to get by and be accepted but is self conscious of her baby that cries during service? Maybe the person to show us the love of God will be a lifelong member of this congregation who finally feels confident enough to say “I’m gay and God loves me anyway.” Will it be an African-American teen just looking for a place where he can hear the good news instead of being labeled a “thug” or a “punk.” Who will walk through these doors, be ignored, and we will have missed hearing about how God gives crumbs to not only those we think don’t deserve crumbs, but God gives crumbs to all of us. Crumbs are all we need. We only need a slight taste of the promise to believe and be changed.
When we say “all are welcome” do we really mean it? Or do we just mean that you are welcome if you look like us, if you dress like us, if you speak like us? Would we actually make room in our pews and in our hearts for someone who was black, or gay, or hispanic, or undocumented, or poor, or someone who was not well mentally or physically? Or would we just tolerate it for a few Sundays until they got the non-verbal message that this place really isn’t for them? They would leave and we would miss the opportunity to have Christ love us through the stranger. What a loss for us. Hebrews 13:2 says “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Surely if Christ can change his mind and admit he was wrong, we too can do the same. Who will be the next stranger to walk through these doors anxious to share the good news with us? Are we so busy preoccupying ourselves with the idea that only certain people belong within these four walls that we are missing the stranger throwing crumbs at us? If Jesus can change his mind, certainly so can we.