The reign of God proclaimed in Jesus Christ names our complexities and heals our realities by establishing a new order that prioritizes those who, in our world, are last and challenges those who are first.
Vicar Matta Ghaly, CSJC
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23 B
Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
My family in Christ, Grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The desperate mother of a sick child meets a compassionate road rabbi with the power to heal. This ought to be the beginning of a plain sailing story on God’s mercy in healing a helpless and sick child. But no, the reality of these two – Jesus and the mother – who they are, where they were born, to which side of the border they belong – complicates their encounter.
In our gospel reading, Jesus crosses the border into the Roman province of Tyre, a port city for urban elite Phoenicians and a center for culture, and trade and wealth. Tyrians were proud landowners, and in their fields, labored the Jews of Tyre as peasants. Being the property owners, Tyrians claimed most of the agricultural proceeds for themselves and their children, leaving very little for the Jewish communities that worked the land, communities that often suffered famines as a result of this inequitable distribution.
Given Tyre’s reality and its treatment of people who sounded and looked like Jesus, his own Jewish kin, I wonder how Tyrians received this poor Galilean as he made his way through their streets. How did they react to this villager from the south; his walk, his clothes, his beard, his side locks, his accent – did they stare? Or glance with the corner of their eye?
On the other hand, there is the Syro-Phoenician mother, who although a native of Tyre, a Semite herself, is described by Mark as an Ἑλληνίς, a Hellenized gentile, a Greek speaking woman – cultured, educated and privileged. She is prominent and has authority, and she is also a desperate mother with a sick daughter who no amount of money will heal. In her anguish, she breaks protocol, and shamelessly enters the house where Jesus is staying, the house of Jewish peasants, the kind of people who worked on her property yet were never fairly recompensed. She enters and bows at his feet.
Can you feel the tension in the house? All of their realities, their differences, the opposing interests of their people – their gender and class, race and religion, ancestries and histories – all of their realities are present in that moment.
In his world, she – as a gentile and a woman is among the least, and in her world, he – as a poor Jew and a Galilean – is a nonentity.
The complex dynamic between Jesus and this woman doesn’t neatly fit in a clear black and white binary – oppressor and oppressed. Both of them are simultaneously marginal and privileged, both of them are victims and beneficiaries of an unjust system – yet both of them and their people are set apart and against each other by the world.
In the midst of all this tension, this mother makes a seemingly simple request; heal my daughter.
Yet in response, Jesus names their reality and its inequity – It is not fair he says, it is not fair that the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the children of the prophets, the children of the covenant and the promise, the children who have long waited for a messiah, the children who in Tyre often eat second, if anything at all – it is not fair to them, let the children eat first and have their fill, why? because God – as James tells us – chose the poor of the world to be heirs of God’s kingdom. Unlike the social order that people were accustomed to in Tyre, in the Kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus, the first will be last, and the last will be first.
Jesus is not testing this woman or her faith.
Jesus proclaims to this woman God’s reign, a reign that reverses our law and order kind of world, that turns the peasant into a child and an heir, that prefers the hungry and oppressed to the one who sowed injustice, who robbed the poor, who crushed the afflicted, who must now wait like a pet dog until the children are fed.
Now we can take issue with Jesus’s word choice and I certainly do, or we may choose to excuse his French, but I am more intrigued by this woman and the choice she has to make between her status as a wealthy gentile who maybe just got insulted by someone way lesser than her, and her sick daughter who needs to be healed. And church, I don’t think it is a fair choice, but it is a real choice – like many choices we have to make in our lives.
She answers back “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
What this woman reiterates back to Jesus, suggests to me that she took a risk and leaped into God’s reign, a reign that might change her priorities, or turn her into a guest when she is accustomed to being the host, or put her through awkward moments with unfamiliar neighbors, or open her eyes to uncomfortable disparities, or name injustice and demand repentance and change.
This mother says yes to the reign of God, and God says a deeper yes to her, and God’s healing power works a wonder.
She, herself, is healed through the proclamation of the gospel, through repenting from complicity in injustice, through putting first and prioritizing those who were deemed last in her world. And the healing of God overflows to her daughter too, who is freed and liberated from whatever and whoever held her in bitter bondage.
Who do we prioritize and who do we neglect, disregard and overlook in our families, communities, in our society? Who do we feed last, after we, and our children, and people who reflect us eat first? Who do we seat by our side and who do we seat below our feet?
This gospel story touches on the very thing that James reminds us of by asking “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” do you let your mind and heart move you differently with bias towards people and still claim to follow the Way of Jesus?
Now, knowing our reality, a reality that conforms to the world but not to the gospel of Jesus Christ, knowing all of that, do we want a different world? or would we rather avoid complexity and discomfort, and keep at our business-as-usual kind of world?
Are we willing to be opened by the Holy Spirit to see, and hear, and speak our brokenness, and be healed, and in our healing, watch the world around us be transformed.
Beloveds, I pray you say yes to the Holy Spirit, like the unnamed Syro-Phoenician mother. I pray you let the proclamation of God’s reign this morning, and the depth of God’s love and healing, available to you in this meal, challenge you, convert your heart and transform how you act and walk in the world this week. Let it name whatever reality you may have neglected or avoided, whatever reality complicates your world and turns it upside down, and maybe keep you up at night. Let it inspire you to ask in every decision, who am I prioritizing right now? How can I act differently according to my calling as a follow of Jesus? Let it drive you to act in love and prioritize, and put first those who are often last to receive, last to be fed, last to be loved in your world, and believe me, believe the gospel of Christ, you will be healed and your heart will be transformed. Amen