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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Jesus and the Syrophoenecian Woman: Failing to Rise to Our Highest Ideals

Every year about this time, the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman appears in the Catholic lectionary. It is a jarring story. In it, Jesus is not egalitarian. In his speech to the Syrophoenecian woman, Jesus does not meet modern expectations of fair and equal treatment, he does not celebrate diversity. In fact, if we are going to be strictly modern about things, when Jesus calls the woman a "dog" he proves himself to be, let's be honest, a racist hate criminal. 

Here is the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman. You have been warned: 

Gospel Mk 7:24-30

Jesus went to the district of Tyre.
He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it,
but he could not escape notice.
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him.
She came and fell at his feet.
The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him,
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed
and the demon gone.
I am sorry to have to expose the savior of the world as just another deplorable, but such is the calling of a self-righteous age. 
 
But what could this story mean? As I mentioned, this story has appeared in the lectionary before, appearing right around this time of year. So I went back a couple of years in my journal. In 2019 when I had reflected on the story, I had a different kind of reaction. Perhaps it is because I had not yet attained the higher altitudes of our ideals. My mind had not yet expanded, my head had not yet split, I had not yet devoured the heavens. I offer up here what I wrote, unedited except for typos:

2/14/19. What does this mean? Jesus really was going to deny this woman and her child his help because she was not Jewish? Did he know she was going to say this? I think not. I don't think (?) he was omniscient while on earth (I think all this was from the Father, and his closeness with the Father gave him great power and understanding, but not exact identity, not all power and not all knowledge in any given moment.) Maybe this is an insight into how Jesus saw his own limitations. He knew he could not alleviate all suffering for all people during his time. He had to focus on the Jews, to fulfill God's covenant with them, and then his grace would be displayed to the whole world. But in that moment, the woman's faith proved to Jesus... something. What? That her child could be saved? No, he could have saved her with a word regardless of her faith. That saving her child would not be pearls before swine? Jesus could have healed all sickness, cured all disease, but he didn't. Why? Because he is a sadist? Of course not. Because wellness in this world was not his mission. Man is fallen, that is the story of Genesis. Our bodies slouch toward death, our minds toward the ditch. The law proves we are none of us fit to bear it. The point is humility. We must be humble before God can save us. What a powerful image this story becomes! Jesus would have to leave this woman and her daughter unhelped, his whole mission on earth to finish the story about how man's pride would take him all the way to murdering God himself, and how even then God could forgive if only man would humble himself. When the woman showed her humility, all this became unnecessary to save her: her humility opened the way for faith, and her faith saved her and her daughter. 
 
That was 2019. Just two years ago I was justifying Jesus's hateful statements! But now we know better. We do not want humility. We demand purity. And on that score, giving up one's life for his friends didn't help Lincoln, and it doesn't help you, either, Jesus. 

It gives me no joy to say this, but I must deem Jesus's legacy as: Problematic.

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