Just close your eyes and imagine this story. Jesus went away to a region in Tyre to get away from everyone. Maybe he’d been walking all day, his feet were dirty and sore, his back was killing him, all he wanted to do was find a comfortable bed and take it easy for a while. While he was imagining the wonderful foot wash and nap he was going to have, a woman approaches him. Not a Jewish woman, who knows her place, who would have known better than to talk to a Jewish man in public, but a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician at that, a woman so very far outside of Jesus' neighborhood. This story shows us a Jesus that we may not want to like, but this encounter that we read this morning between Jesus and this particular woman is an encounter that changes Jesus’ ministry.
Now this woman who in her time and place had no right to speak to Jesus, or any man, just by opening her mouth and speaking, makes a claim on Jesus’ time and power. Jesus recognized her, she’d approached him before about healing her daughter, and I think he wished she’d just go away and let him rest. So as soon as she said something to him, he barked back at her. We've all done that ourselves, I know I’ve done it. So hot and tired, so sore and thirsty, or even just at the end of your patience, anybody bothers you and you're quick with a curse. But just by responding to her, even in the cruel way he did, Jesus affirms that she is there, he affirms her presence. This is a profoundly counter-cultural encounter. But Jesus, tired as he may have been comes up with the worst insult imaginable at the time.
“I’ll feed the children before I feed you,” and then he called her a dog. Now the reason this was so awful was that Jewish home would never have a domestic dog in it. Remember last week we talked about things impure and unclean? Dogs were unclean, impure. He insulted her and everyone she was related to with that one. Her comeback was quick. She gets right in his face and reminds him that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. This is quite a show of verbal sparring, not unlike some we've heard recently. But with that, Jesus has been bested. Jesus heals her daughter, and eventually went on to heal the deaf man. Jesus doesn’t get the rest he's been seeking however.
What we have here is a classic literary tool filled with wordplay and juxtaposition. The writer of the gospel sets this up so that there is opposition between the “children”, who in this story are the Jews, and the “dogs,” who are the Gentiles. The woman in this story showcases not only her debating skills, but her faith. She dares to take his metaphor and turn it back on him. “Children get fed before the dogs? You’ve got that right. But even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs; even the pets get the scraps that fall from their master’s table!” She is arguing that even on his own terms, there should be something from him, some scrap of grace, for someone like her who comes to him in faith. She challenges Jesus.
This is all to say that her role in Jesus’ mission is utterly important. It is her willingness to engage Jesus, to challenge and question him that causes him to see that it is not just the Jews that he has come for, but the Gentiles as well, for all people. She calls him to the mission of inclusivity. Where the traditions of the elders and the religious law could see only an outcast, Jesus finally sees the woman’s heart of faith. He heals her child. From this point on Jesus does not hold his saving power in reserve but expands the circle of God’s mercy to include those once considered outsiders. Jesus opens himself to the whole world in mission. He welcomes all who put their faith in him. It is at this very point that Love wins.
This is a story of Jesus' change of mind. Previously Jesus thought his work was only with the Jews. She challenged Jesus and he changed his mind. I think this portrait helps us to see Jesus’ full humanity. I think this shows us that Jesus is moved to mercy, Jesus is in fact affected by the affairs of our lives, this story reveals Jesus’ compassion and true humanity.
The result of this encounter is that there are no outsiders. Jesus opens himself to the whole world in mission. The woman in this story encountered Jesus and challenged him to include all people in his mission. Therefore, God’s love and mercy are available to each and every person. There is no one outside of the circle of God’s love and mercy. These are powerful words. But do we take them seriously? Do we even believe them? First and foremost this means that you are not outside of God’s love and mercy. In a world where you have to be good enough, fast enough, slender enough, rich enough, to share in the rewards of our culture, it is nearly impossible to believe that you already receive God’s love and mercy without having enough of anything. In a world where you can change anything about yourself, a nip and tuck here and there, a new wardrobe, an extreme makeover, there is nothing you can do to make yourself any more desirable to God. In a world where you can be an American Idol, you can dance with the stars, you can show yourself off in America’s got talent, or even be a Super hero, right here in God’s midst, who you are is just right, just enough for God’s love and mercy.
The woman in our story today challenged Jesus to expand God’s mission to you and to me, but it is up to you and to me to respond to God’s love and mercy in ways that will bear fruit. Our response to God’s love and mercy will bear fruit when we act in the same way Jesus acts in this story. When we make room in our lives for those who are not ordinarily a part of our circle of friends, like the woman Jesus encountered, we do bring to the center those who are on the margins, we do encounter differently those we don’t like very much, we bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God, and we participate in bringing that Kingdom closer.
I think that's what we hear in the reading from James. It is a combination of faith and works that is our response to God's love. It is not just faith, it is not just works, it is the balance of both that is our response to God's love. Do not ever be mistaken that there is a particular amount of faith gets you closer to God, in into heaven, or whatever reward it is you want. Do not ever be mistaken that serving others without regard for yourself gets you a seat next to Jesus. It is entirely the other way around. God loves you, no matter what. God loves you, absolutely and abundantly. God has faith in you. God is working on your behalf. That is what the Syrophoenician woman shows us.
That is why we are who we are, that is why we do what we do, we respond to God's call, God's call of love, God's call of mercy, God's call of compassion.
All are loved, all are welcome, in this place, at this table, we must remember that whether we think we are worthy or not, all are welcome, we must remember that whether we agree or disagree all are welcome, we must remember that whether we think others are right or wrong, we are all welcome. Love wins.