Syrophoenician Women

Mark 7: 24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Even today, the action of the Syrophoenician woman would be viewed as audacious. She appeared alone, at a house full of strange, foreign men, brushes aside the disciples’ efforts to keep her away, kneels at Jesus’ feet and asks him for help. In the context of the time and culture, for a Gentile woman to come to the home of Jewish men, would have been unheard of. It was, perhaps, no wonder that she was so strongly rebuked by Jesus, who in the harshest language, compared her and her people to dogs, dogs undeserving of a place in God’s kingdom. Only her clever retort, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” – convinced Jesus to comply with her request that he cast out her daughter’s demons.

The visit of the Syrophoenician woman to the home where Jesus was taking refuge was not an isolated incident. As it appears in the Gospel of Mark, it is an integral part of a sequence of events that constitute an important subplot in the gospel. Jesus had earlier fed 5000 Jews in the desert, walked on water, healed those who came to him, argued with Pharisees about eating food with defiled hands, and taught his disciples that no food is unclean. Then he goes to the Gentile territory of Tyre where he encounters the Syro woman and heals her daughter. He then, still in Gentile land heals the deaf and tongue tied man. Then Jesus feeds 4000 Gentiles in the desert. The encounter with the Syro woman is a pivotal moment in this sequence of events. It is the critical turning point in Jesus’ realization that his mission on earth was not solely meant for the Jews. Jesus, apparently, still had a lot to learn. One of the things he had to learn was that he had better start listening to women. The larger lesson however, concerned how his ministry was going to take shape. You see, Jesus was under the mistaken impression that his message of love and forgiveness and compassion was meant only for his people – people like him. He hadn’t yet realized that the healing requested by the Syrophoenician woman was meant for all humankind – even the Gentiles, even the cursed Canaanites. The Syro woman, in her effort to heal her own daughter, stepped out of the boundaries of culture and convention, and was able to reveal to Jesus a picture of the shape of things to come. No wonder she wasn’t welcome in the midst of the disciples. The future is often unsettling for those comfortable with the status quo. Yet, because she loved her daughter, this woman was willing to violate the boundaries of culture, class, and prejudice.

I’ve had my own experiences with a few Syrophoenician women. Among them was a woman I encountered while serving as the seminarian, along with my good friend Hunt, at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. I’m not sure how much Hunt has told you about St. James’, but I know that it has formed him as it did me. It is an historically black congregation, and remained almost entirely African American, until perhaps 20 years ago, when white people began to notice that the Holy Spirit was operating there in a way that demanded attention. It started with music. As you may know, Austin has a vibrant and diverse music scene – with perhaps more live music than any city in the country. The people at St. James’ decided that should celebrate their rich musical heritage with the community at large by devising a Jazz Mass that eventually evolved into a weekend of music and worship and praise called Jazz at St. James’. The event got the attention of white people who visited St. James’, looked around and thought “there is something cool going on here.” So more and more white people came and stayed. Later members of the gay and lesbian community were attracted to the artfulness, the beauty, the inclusiveness, the accepting atmosphere that could be felt there. People are so welcoming there that sometimes the passing of the peace can last longer than the sermon. The development of a culture of acceptance in a truly diverse community didn’t happen by accident. It happened under the careful tutelage of people like Ora Houston. Ora is the church’s matriarch, she has a commanding presence, the voice of a quick witted angel, and dark knowing eyes that look straight into your soul. Prominent in the larger church – active in the Union of Black Episcopalians, on the standing committee of the Diocese of Texas, with a career of political activism – she was a force to be reckoned with. Not always a welcome presence in the halls of the state capital building, she nonetheless was a frequent visitor, making certain that the voice of her people was heard.

Ora explained to me why she sometimes raised her hands to the heavens when she sang. I came from a tradition in which if you raised your hands during church it is likely that an usher will ask if you need directions to the restroom.

Once, when I launched into a tirade about the evils of Wal-Mart, Ora firmly reminded me how the existence of “everyday low prices” provided for many, the slim margin between being poor and going to bed hungry.

Ora taught me that a readiness to laugh and a willingness to cry, that a spontaneous expression of emotion, was an almost foolproof sign that the Holy Spirit was working her magic in our midst.

I also know that no reaction to our initial success at planting an Episcopal Church in Bentonville, Arkansas has meant more to me than Ora’s appraisal of our work, “Roger, you make my heart sing.”

For about a year and a half, before taking my current post in Arkansas, I lived and worked in Los Angeles. Most of the time I lived in East LA and the neighborhood church that welcomed me was the Church of the Epiphany. One of the oldest churches in the diocese of Los Angeles, Epiphany, is long past its days of prominence as a prosperous parish in an upper middle class white neighborhood. It is also well past its days of glory in the 60’s and the 70’s when it was a center of Chicano social and political activism – the kind of place where Cesar Chavez spoke regularly and gathered support for the rights of farm workers to make a decent living. The church now ministers to the needs of a neighborhood of the elderly and of recent Latino immigrants. Second and third generation Latinos having escaped the barrio, and moved to safer, quieter, less troubled communities.

On Sunday’s, Epiphany has an English and a Spanish service, but the communicants attending both services are Hispanic. The pews are relatively full at the Spanish service and almost empty at the later English service. Almost always, I was the lone white face in the congregation. The rector once thanked me for joining their church, noting that I had, “single handedly brought diversity to the parish.”

I met another kind of Syrophoenician woman there. Maria attended church every Sunday, pushed in her wheelchair, to her usual place on the third row from the front, by her attentive 12 year old son. Her husband was generally with her, although his 6 day a week job as a gardener occasionally required his labor on a seventh as well. I got to know the family well when we marched together this past spring through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, protesting a bill that was then pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that, if implemented would force her to choose between raising her American born children in the country of their birth, or taking them with her, on a return trip to the future-less village in Mexico where she and her husband were citizens. It was a march that inspired millions of people across the country and, at the same time, provoked the fear and anger of millions more. From the vantage point of her wheelchair she simply pled for the wellbeing of her children.

Another morning, in another kind of procession, (you know we Episcopalians love processions, especially one’s in which our own torch and cross bearing son’s and daughters lead the way), I again walked beside Maria. It was the festival of La Virgen de Guadalupe, The virgin of Guadalupe is revered throughout Mexico, and among Mexican-American communities as well. Even in Episcopal churches like Epiphany, there is an altar and a picture of La Virgen, so that devotees can kneel, and pray, and light candles as indication of their love for the Virgin and for God. It’s a practice that seems strange to Anglicans and was largely incomprehensible to me … until I gathered with Maria and her fellow parishioners on that festival day. The congregation collected on street corner, a few blocks from the church. It was a cool morning, still dark, with a hint of the sun’s appearance in an eastern sky framed by palm trees and the lights of the city of angels. A mariachi band began to play a soulful homage to the Virgin, as the procession assembled in the parking lot of a shabby convenience store. There was the cross, the band, the vested clergy, about a dozen faithful parishioners, the wheelchair bound Syrophoenician woman and walking in front of her, was her slight, 10 year old daughter, chin held her high, holding above her head, an ornately framed picture of La Virgin de Guadalupe. As we marched through the neighborhood, people heard the trumpets and accordions, emerged sleepy eyed from their houses, and joined the procession. By the time we arrived at the church the dozen had grown to 200 and we sang and prayed and learned to love each other and the Virgin.

A couple of weeks later, holy week was upon us – Maundy Thursday to be exact. The practice at Epiphany was for the people to come forward, sit in a chair in front of the altar, and have their feet washed by the priest. I was assisting in this process, providing basins of water and towels. Toward the end of the foot washing procession, Maria as usual pushed in her wheel chair by her son, approached the kneeling priest and asked if she could wash his feet. It seemed out of order, for this brown-skinned woman, who couldn’t even walk, to leave her wheelchair and wash the feet of a white-skinned man, her priest. However, he assented and Maria’s son and I lifted her frail body from the chair and onto her spindly knees -and she washed her priest’s feet.

The Syrophoenician women I have known were women who seldom knew their place. Women who, while they may be loved within their families, communities, – within their social network – are brave enough to step out of the place where they are most comfortable and move into places where they are not wanted. The Syrophoenician women among us are the catalysts of spiritual illumination – those who recognize early that all God’s children deserve a place at the table. If Jesus can listen – and be transformed by these voices, voices that speak from the edges of places we don’t really want to hear from – perhaps we too can listen.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Noonan, Georgia

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