Our gospel in Mark could be called ‘an odd little chapter of healings.’ If you look it up in any commentaries, you will find passionately differing opinions on what is going on here. The main reason for the controversy is that Jesus calls a foreign woman a ‘dog’—and it seems shocking, not very Jesus like. What I know from my own experience with scripture, however, is you have to look at the context. We peel the onion back as best we can and see what shows up.
Today we see Jesus way outside of his element. He has decided to go to the coastal city of Tyre—a bit like going from Charlottesville to the Hamptons. We are not told of any reason for him to be making this trip or who is with him. Tyre was 35 miles from his home in Capernaum and the richest port city of the Phoenicians. As you may remember from middle school social studies, the Phoenicians were the first to learn how to navigate by the stars and invent an alphabet to record their studies. This led them to circumnavigate the known world and to bring back jewels, metals, hardwoods and many types of expensive materials to trade with their neighbors. The name “Phoenicia” meant ‘Land of Purple’ because they alone extracted the royal purple dye from marine mollusks in their harbor. They were the movers and shakers of the ancient coast. There was, however, no room between the coast and nearby mountains for agricultural land, so they bought up all the grain from the poorer towns around Galilee. This caused some resentments between the poor inland farmers who were driven by the Romans, Herod’s court and the officials of Judea to give up their grain in taxes, which was sold to the Phoenicians. Due to their wealth, the Phoenician money was so stable that it was used in Jerusalem by Herod’s Temple treasury although it had the God Melqart imprinted upon the coins. There were not many Jews in Phoenicia and those who were there were sometimes referred to as ‘dogs.’ So we have rich folks who eat all the grain for bread and call Jews ‘dogs.’
This is where we find Jesus, right after the dialogue with the Pharisees about how it’s not what we eat or what laws we break but the human heart that defiles He is knee deep in an unclean land. Enter the Syrophonecian woman begging him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus retorts, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He has flipped the terminology on her, calling the Phoenicians dogs and Israel the children of the household. But she will not be dissuaded and replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” He replies basically, “Touché, your Gentile daughter is healed.” What do we make of this exchange? I believe we can learn three things about our relationship with Jesus from this short, weird encounter.
First- we see this woman’s vulnerability. Vulnerability can be defined as uncertainty and emotional exposure. She is an unclean Gentile with an unclean daughter and she’s a woman who should not be speaking to a man- a three-time loser –and she’s asking a Jewish Rabbi for help. This is a place we all know on some level—the place where you don’t want to tell anyone what’s going on because you’re afraid and ashamed. You want to hide out. This is exactly where Jesus Christ plugs in—Jesus plugs into weakness. We hear in 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Christ is attracted to our weakness. In the words of Julian of Norwich, “…we need to fall, and we need to be aware of it; for if we did not fall, we should not know how weak and wretched we are of ourselves, nor should we know our Maker’s marvelous love so fully…” It is very humbling to be made so vulnerable.
We tend to think of humility as the boring vanilla flavor next to the Super Fudge flavor of ego. But in their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz and Ketcham define humility as Mixed-upedness. This Mixed-upedness means accepting ourselves as both good and bad, saint and sinner, beast and angel. It’s the both/and of our human condition in connection to Christ. We are not a surprise to God in this condition.
For me, this vulnerability shows up the most when I am parenting and priesting. In parenting, I have had to learn that I am both a good mother and a not so good mother. Parenting is a relationship and I had made it into a job—one that I could excel at and prove my goodness. We can do that with school, work, church, sports, whatever–make it into a measure of our goodness.
In priesting, Christ is helping me learn that when I show up as my sometimes fearful, imperfect, flawed self without pretense about who I am, then I can be used by God to do “the good works that I am made to do.” There is always emotional risk and vulnerability in accepting who we are completely, both our loveable and hard-to-love sides.
Which brings me to the second point that I think Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophonecian woman reveals to us: the ideas of worthiness and unworthiness. What makes us worth God’s attention? What made her worth Jesus’ attention and the healing of her daughter? Is it that she has a good comeback and that she talks back to Jesus? This is what most of the commentaries say about this encounter—the woman got the best of Jesus and changed him. But I think it has more to do with Christ knowing her and being in relationship. Even though it sounds rough to our ears, could calling her a ‘dog’ be ministering to her on an individual basis, therefore in mercy? Could Christ be chiding her and drawing her out? Only Jesus knew how to meet her where she was and minister to her the way she needed that day. That is real mercy—meeting us in our pain knowing who we are and what we really need. We find this in the Prayer of Humble Access when we say the words, “We are not worthy so much to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property it is to always have mercy.” It is God’s mercy through Christ’s presence, not her worthiness, that is at issue here. There is nothing she could have done to make herself worthy for that healing- especially since it is her daughter who was healed who wasn’t even present. It is God’s quality of mercy within the dimension of divine love.
The Anglican blogger Churchmouse says that when one recites the Prayer of Humble Access, something happens. “Thoughts of self-aggrandizement vanish. You become an empty vessel, suddenly focusing on Christ’s Body and Blood and their significance. By the time, you finish the prayer, a sense of calm envelops you. You experience a strange oneness with the Lord.” As the prayer says, we are really unworthy to receive all that we receive from God every day and we can’t trust in our own righteousness. At the same time, we are the beloved children of God, worthy of love because He first loved us and we “evermore dwell in Him.” It’s Mixedupedness, too.
Lastly, there’s prayer. When the woman comes to Christ, she is uttering an intercessional prayer to heal her daughter. Which leads us to ask, what is prayer? Dr. Naomi Remen says, that sometimes for doctors like her, prayer seems to be the final referral; a last resort when the physician cannot do anything else to help a patient. “Well, I guess there’s always prayer.” She goes on to say that, “Prayer may be less about asking for things we are attached to than it is about relinquishing our attachments in some way. It can help us remember the nature of the world and the nature of life, not on an intellectual level but in a deep and experiential way…We move from an individual, isolated making-things-happen kind of consciousness to a connection on the deepest level with the largest possible reality…We stop trying to control life and remember that we belong to life. It is an opportunity to experience humility and to recognize grace.” Prayer is about relationship and letting go of the outcome. Can we embrace any outcome that Christ provides in his love for our ultimate good, remembering that there may be reasons beyond our understanding or vision for God’s answers to our prayers.
I’ll close with a story that Brendan Manning tells of prayer in his book, Abba’s Child.
A new priest went to visit a congregant who was ill and found a chair by the bed. He said to the man, ”I guess you were expecting me.”
“Oh yeah, the chair. Would you mind closing the door? “ the man replied.
Puzzled, the priest shut the door.
“I’ve never told anyone this, not even my daughter,” said the man,” but all my life I have never known how to pray. On Sunday, I used to hear the priest talk about prayer but it always went right over my head. Finally, I said to him one day in sheer frustration, ‘I get nothing out of prayer.’ The priest gave me a book by a Swiss Theologian and I had to look up twelve words in the first three pages. I gave the book back and gave up on prayer.”
“Until about four years ago when my best friend said to me, “Joe, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here’s what I suggest. Sit down on a chair, place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus in the chair. It’s not spooky because He promised ‘I’ll be with you all the days of your life.’ Then just speak to Him and listen in the same way you’re doing with me right now.”
“So, Padre, I tried it and I’ve liked it so much that I do it a couple hours a day. I’m careful though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she’d either have a nervous break down or send me to the funny farm!”
Two days later, the daughter called to let the Priest know that her father had died. “Did he seem at peace?” the Priest asked.
“Oh yes, but there was something kind of weird, too. Apparently, just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on the chair beside his bed.”
We can all use a rest on God’s lap. God loves you so much that he became love in a human form. And although you can never be worthy to be the unqualified object of his love, you absolutely are– through no goodness of your own and in your most vulnerable, emotionally mixed-upedness. And that is very good news indeed. Amen.