We’re beginning a new sermon series this week: Faces of Our Faith. My hope is that this series will be instructive to us in at least two ways. One, that we learn more about some of the biblical figures our lectionary features each week. Some will be familiar to you; some may be brand new. We’ll look at James, who writes letters, and Job, who knows far too much about suffering. We’ll learn from Bartimaeus, who wants to be healed, and from a rich man, who wonders how to get into heaven. Each of these people has something to teach us, about life, about faith, about God, and even about ourselves.
My second hope is that by examining this list from scripture, we all might be compelled to consider who we would add to personal lists. Who, in your own life, has influenced who you are and what you believe? Who has encouraged you and inspired you and changed you? It might be someone you know personally—a family member or a friend; it might be someone whose writings you can’t get enough of; it might be a historical figure you’ve long admired; it might even be someone you don’t care for very much at all. The truth of life is that everyone we encounter in any way has the potential to change us and shape us. Not everyone will, but the possibility is there in our every interaction, and sometimes it comes from the people and places we least expect.
That was certainly the case for Jesus in our gospel reading today. He doesn’t go looking for this woman, this Syrophoenician woman who isn’t ever given a name. He is not looking for anyone to help, not in this moment. He is not looking for anything other than a little rest for his weary soul. “He went away,” we are told. “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” But that was not to be. He “could not escape notice.”
What follows is one of the most unattractive, unsettling moments in Jesus’ entire ministry. I also happen to think it is one of the most hopeful moments. But we’ll have to come back to that part a little later. I’m going to have to make a case for this being a hopeful moment. And that’s because, honestly, Jesus’ behavior is so ugly it’s hard to see anything else for a while.
Before we hear anything from the woman herself, the text tells us three times that she is an outsider. Jesus was in the region of Tyre, we are told. She was a Gentile. She was a Syrophoenician. All three descriptors agree: this woman is not like Jesus, a devout Jew. She is the complete embodiment of “the other.” But, in addition to everything else she is, this woman is a mother, a mother of a sick daughter, and mothers of sick children don’t care one bit that Jews and Gentiles don’t mix.
Help me, she begs. Help my daughter. Help us, please.
And Jesus, who, up until now, has fed the hungry, calmed every storm, healed the sick, and cast out demons, this time, Jesus, when confronted with genuine human need, looks at the woman and says, “No. No, I can’t help you, I won’t help you, because it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus draws a clear distinction here. Because, by children, he means Jewish folks, like himself. And by dogs, he means her. He means Gentiles. The outsiders. The others. I am here to help people. Some people, he says, but…not people like…you.
In Middle Eastern culture, especially at that time, it was a huge insult to call someone a dog. Dogs were dirty and kept outside at all times. They were not beloved pets; they were barely-tolerated nuisances. And, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, has just called a woman desperate to help her sick child by that name. People like you, he says, are not my concern. Like I said, it’s an ugly moment. For ages, scholars have performed untold amounts of interpretive gymnastics to make it sound better than it is, but the truth is, Jesus looks this woman right in the eyes and says, “Some lives matter more than others.”
Sometimes we forget that one of the central claims of our faith is that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, at the very same time. I have no capacity whatsoever to explain how this is possible. It is one of the mysteries of our faith. I cannot explain it. I can only trust it.
It is because Jesus is fully divine that he is more than a famous moral teacher. It is because he is fully divine that his suffering and death take on such tremendous meaning. It is because he is divine that resurrection is possible. And, it is because Jesus is fully human that he understands the depth of human suffering. It is because he is fully human that he knows exactly what it feels like for us to feel sad or angry or afraid or exhausted, and it is because he is fully human that he also knows what it feels like for us to laugh and love.
But a preaching professor from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, Karoline Lewis, she pushes a bit further, especially when it comes to this Syrophoenician woman. She says that, yes, through Jesus, our God becomes fully human—but not just for the sake of solidarity with the joys and pains of human life. She says God becomes fully human in order to tell us the truth about our humanity, which is almost always seeking to define God’s sovereignty—God’s power and grace, to make it small enough for us to understand it. She says, when we bristle at Jesus’ response to a suffering mother, we are bristling at our own inclinations—whether they are realized or not—we are bristling at our own inclinations to restrict God’s intent to restore life to all. In Jesus’ resistance to the woman begging for her daughter’s life, we see the ways we resist how far God is willing to go to ensure that all life—every life—might flourish.
It’s uncomfortable to be brought face to face with our worst selves, isn’t it?
Here’s something of what I mean by that.
I spend a lot of time in airports. And I am embarrassed to admit that airports do not always bring out the best in me. There’s people everywhere, and half of us are panicked because we’re running late, and half of us are panicked because we’re going absolutely nowhere anytime soon. And then, when we’re finally all at the gate, there’s the whole issue of carry-on luggage. Friends, I have to tell you the truth. I had to sign up for a Delta rewards credit card, because the competition to get on the plane early enough to get my carry-on bag in the overhead compartment before they all filled up…it was not pretty. One time I got elbowed in line, and before I even realized what had happened, I elbowed right back. And y’all—whether my bag gets in the overhead compartment or whether it gets checked through to my final destination—it’s still going to get there. There are literally no losers in that game. But I was acting as if there were, and it brought out the worst in me, every time.
It’s a silly story—a ridiculous confession—about air travel. But that same mentality shapes more of our shared life than we sometimes realize.
What we are seeing more and more these days is that we still have problems with racism. We thought we had gotten past it years ago, generations ago, but we have not. We still have problems with homophobia and the way we treat immigrants. We still have problems with folks who are homeless and folks who are hungry. When we are being honest with ourselves, we can have a problem with just about anyone that makes us worry that if “they” have access to grace and respect and humanity and love, to equal rights and fair wages and basic common dignity, then there won’t be enough of those things left over for us. When our worst selves emerge, we try to place limits on the range of God’s reach. Even Jesus does this in today’s scripture. And I’m sympathetic. I honestly am. Because the text has already told us he’s tired. Everyone wants his attention, and it makes perfect sense to me that he would be thinking, I can’t possibly fix everything for everyone. There have to be some limits.
That’s the ugly side of this story. But there is hope, too.
This woman, the one who Jesus does his level best to cast aside, when she hears the Son of God say, “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” she does not give up. She does not shrink away or bow her head. But neither does she respond with outrage or offense. She simply becomes his teacher.
“Yes, sir, well, you know what? Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Call me a dog? she says. Fine. But then you deny this—even dogs get something.
As for what happens next, we are only told that Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” We aren’t told what goes on in Jesus’ head. Or what expression is on his face. I wonder if he looked surprised. I wonder if he grew still. I wonder if he thought, “I haven’t thought of it that way before. Maybe there is enough grace to spill over from the table and feed you, too. Maybe the love of God can include you, the same way it includes everyone else. Maybe there is enough for everyone.”
In this, the Syrophoenician woman teaches him one of the most important lessons he ever learns. If you’ve never thought of Jesus having to learn things—turn to the gospel of Luke. Regarding Jesus’s childhood, Luke says, “he increased in wisdom as he increased in years.” That’s how I find so much hope in this story. Because, if even Jesus has to learn before his very best self emerges—well, then, of course we do, too. And, if Jesus can learn and change his ways—well then, maybe, we really can, too.
More than anything, I think the Syrophoenician woman teaches Jesus and teaches us that God’s way in this world will always be bigger and wider and more expansive than we think possible. Jesus assumed, for a time, that, as Messiah, he had come just for the Jewish people, that he couldn’t possibly include anyone else. The Syrophoenician woman says no. No, she says, you are here for everyone, and I am here to make sure you remember that. In this way, she becomes one of the faces of his faith.
It is my hope and prayer that we will pay close enough attention to find our own teachers, teachers who show us how our faith needs to grow, teachers who will remind us that the love of God never has been and never will be a zero-sum game. It is my hope and my prayer that, like Jesus, we will grow in wisdom as we grow in years.
It’s just a few verses later. Jesus returns from Tyre, but heads straight into Sidon, another land full of outsiders. And once again, he is not left to himself. Once again, he is approached by someone who needs healing. But what happens next is a different story. This time, Jesus takes the man, the Gentile, the outsider, the other, touches him, lifts his eyes to heaven, sighs deeply, with the same kind of breath that gave life to you and me, and he says, “Be opened.” And the man is healed.
The Syrophoenician woman? She doesn’t show up in that story. She doesn’t show up in the rest of the gospel. But she is there. She is there every time Jesus acts in a way that expands his ministry, every time he extends the reach of God’s grace, every time he looks someone in the eyes, Jew and Gentile and everyone in between, and says, Be opened. Be healed. Be whole. Be welcomed into the love of God, because that is right where you belong, and, yes, there is a place for you here.
We are standing on the very cusp of a brand new program year. So, may we ourselves be open to any possibility, even when it comes from unlikely people or unlikely places, to see the reach of God spread wider than ever before. And may we, like Jesus, be guided by the unnamed Syrophoenician woman, who insists even still today, to all who need to hear it: God’s love? It is enormous. There is more than enough room for us all.
 Luke 2:52