Sunday’s sermon: Lydia: Woman of Means and Message

Text used – Acts 16:11-15

  • So throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of various women of the Bible, right?
    • Met women we’d never met before
    • Met women who didn’t even have names
    • Met women in difficult circumstances
    • Met women whose choices weren’t their own
    • Met women whose stories have been misunderstood and/or misrepresented for centuries
    • Met women from both the First Testament and the New Testament
    • Some of them, like Hagar and Tamar, were women who met God unknowingly or even unwillingly in the midst of their circumstances. Some of them, like Bathsheba and Vashti, were women who may not even have been aware that God was even speaking through their actions and their faith. Others, like Shiphrah and Puah and the Syrophoenician woman, like Rahab and Huldah, were women who actively and passionately sought to do God’s will.
    • But last week marked a bit of a turning point for us in that it introduced us to a category of women we hadn’t really encountered yet: women disciples.
      • Last week: Mary Magdalene = first of the women who was a devoted disciples of Jesus Christ
      • This week: continue the trend with Lydia
        • Similar to Mary Magdalene in that she’s a woman of means (which we’ll talk more about later)
        • Different from Mary Magdalene in that she is a Gentile convert
          • Didn’t grow up a Jew (as Mary did)
          • Never actually met Jesus (as Mary did)
  • So let’s dig into the short and somewhat obscure story of Lydia.
    • Context: book of Acts
      • Written by Luke (same as the gospel) as a conversation between himself and a reader (Theophilus)
      • Probably written sometime toward the middle to end of the 1st (70-90 C.E., possibly a little earlier)
      • History book of sorts → version of history of the early church
        • Church growing in numbers
        • Church growing in geography
        • Church growing in theology
        • Scholar: A number of studies have demonstrated that Acts is best read as a genre of ancient historiography, itself quite fluid in form and function. Luke’s narrative is a selective account of what happened – a “history” shaped and signified according to his personal theological beliefs and pastoral purposes. … In the case of Acts, Luke selects and arranges a series of events that he narrates for his reader(s) in order to give meaning to the church’s mission and message as a history that accords with God’s redemptive plans for Israel and the nations.[1]
      • And in the context of this “historiography” of the early church, we meet a lot of people in their midst of their coming-to-faith moments like today’s story with Lydia. → most of them Gentiles
        • Peter stayed near Jerusalem to spread the gospel among the Jews while Paul took Jesus’ good news on the road among the Gentiles → Acts mostly follows the journeys of Paul and his helpers (with a few off-shoot stories mixed in)
          • Get a taste of those journeys in the opening part of our Scripture reading this morning – text: We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city in Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony.[2]
            • Troas = port city on the western coast of the Aegean Sea (modern day Turkey)
            • Neapolis = port city on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea (modern day Greece, just 10 mi. south of Philippi)
            • Samothrace = island in the Aegean Sea about halfway between Troas and Neapolis
    • Setting for today’s story
      • City: Philippi in Macedonia (modern day Greece just inland from the north shore of the Aegean Sea)
      • Even more specific: the banks of the river … why?
        • Text: On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered.[3]
          • Scholar gives us even more clarity about this location: In this case the term designates a marginal location outside the city gates and beside a small river on the southern edge of town. … That Paul only supposed this was a place of prayer may well symbolize the insignificance of a Jewish presence within the city.[4] → So in the telling of this story, the author of Acts is making it clear to us that Philippi is a thoroughly Roman city, not a Jewish city like Jerusalem.
        • Before moving on – important line that we cannot ignore in that verse: “We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered.” → We cannot ignore this verse because it shows us once again that women were, in fact, included in the life and learning of the early church without objection, without obstruction, without needing to meekly sit and absorb that learning like a silent sponge. Paul and those traveling with him specifically sought out that place on the riverbank and initiated the conversation “with the women who had gathered.”
          • No mention of men by the riverside → in Paul’s eyes: women were just as worthy of hearing and acting on the gospel message as men → So the next time someone tries to tell you that women only have a silent and subservient place in church, you can talk to them about Lydia’s story!
  • Lydia’s introduction = interesting – text: One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.[5] → Let’s break this down a bit because there’s a lot here.
    • Lydia was “a Gentile God-worshipper” → We’re told straight up that Lydia is a Gentile, and her purported home of Thyatira (an ancient Greek city located in modern day western Turkey) reinforces this identity. But there’s also some ambiguity and mystery in this designation. How does the author know Lydia is a God-worshipper? Is there something about her that telegraphs her spiritual leanings? Or is this knowledge that was added after the fact?
      • However it happens, Lydia being a “Gentile God-worshipper” puts her in solid Scriptural company → other Gentile God-worshippers:
        • The Syrophoenician woman (whose story we read 3 wks ago)[6]
        • Cornelius (Gentile who summoned Peter to his home and was converted along with his entire household)[7]
        • In fact, many of the people Jesus encounters and heals throughout the gospels – the ones who first recognize and name him out loud as the Son of God – are all Gentiles.
    • Lydia was “a dealer in purple cloth” → This can be a difficult cultural designation for us to grasp nowadays when we can drive over to JoAnn Fabrics and buy thousands of different kinds of purple cloth. (Literally: quick search on JoAnn’s website for “purple cloth” = 5841 results!) → ancient method for dying cloth purple was vastly different than today (Smithsonian article[8])
      • Purple cloth = “Tyrian purple”
        • Made by boiling thousands of marine snails in giant lead vats
        • Valuable because it was such a difficult color to produce
        • Valuable because it was a color that, unlike many other colors of dye at the time, didn’t fade → stayed bright and vibrant
        • Purple cloth was the color of exceptional wealth and royalty until well into the 19th century, so the fact that Lydia was a “dealer in purple cloth” meant that she had significant means and connections throughout society and probably even throughout the Roman empire.
          • Note: it said “dealer in purple cloth” → means she was more than just one of the women working in the production process → “dealer” indicates ownership which indicates status and power
          • Scholar: Purple clothing was destined for the rich and royal in the Roman world, where it symbolized power and influence. A merchant in purple cloth, then, is someone who rubbed shoulders daily with society’s rich and famous. Luke’s use of Lydia’s personal name in his story may well indicate her social prominence.[9]
    • As Lydia listened to Paul’s teachings, “the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message” → Once again, we see God at work in and through someone before they even realize there is work to be done.
      • Actually prefer NRSV translation of this portion of the text: “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” → better expresses the Gr. here
        • Gr. “opened her heart” = pretty literal → “opened up completely, explained, interpreted” + “heart” → Something about this translation makes it clear just how active God is in Lydia’s conversion experience. It is God who opens Lydia’s heart to interpretation and explanation, to God’s own good news through Paul’s witness. It feel like there is some special work that God has for Lydia to do, so God is making sure that Lydia truly takes in the message of the gospel – that she takes it to heart (literally) and lets it bring about a change in her.
        • Gr. “listen eagerly” = also very active and evocative phrase → “listen, heed, understand, learn” + “turn one’s mind to, pay attention to, cling to” → There’s a level of devotion and wholeheartedness in this phrase that’s hard to fully capture in English. Lydia didn’t just half listen to Paul while she continued to chat with the other women down by the river. She refocused her entire being on what Paul was saying. She probably turned her whole body and face to him, but more importantly, she turned her spirit toward his message, drinking in the joy and promise of the gospel like a stream of living water.
  • Fruits of Lydia’s conversion experience are swift and obvious – text: Once [Lydia] and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.[10]
    • First fruit = obvious: Lydia and her entire house are baptized, potentially even on the spot right there on that very riverbank → Lydia was so moved in her faith by the message of the gospel that she had to act.
    • Second fruit = Lydia takes Paul and his companions into her own home – home that eventually becomes the spiritual center for the entire city of Philippi, presumably with Lydia as the local spiritual leader once Paul has moved on[11] → This is significant considering the population of ancient Philippi around the time of Paul’s visit was roughly 10,000.
    • Modern day fruit of Lydia’s conversion = powerful reminder for us → Lydia’s story is definitely a reminder of the true role that women played in the development and furtherance of the early church – a role of inclusion, significance, and leadership equal to those of their male counterparts. But more than that, Lydia’s story is a reminder that the message of the gospel reaches past any and all barriers we might try to construct – barriers based on gender, economic status, social status, or anything else. The good news of the gospel – the truth that Christ died for us and rose for us to bring us God’s everlasting love and untarnishable grace – reaches each and every one of us where we are (wherever we are!) and bring us all to the same, level place in God’s eyes: beloved child. Nothing else matters. Amen.

[1] Robert W. Wall. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 2002), 12-13.

[2] Acts 16:11-12.

[3] Acts 16:13.

[4] Wall, 231.

[5] Acts 16:14.

[6] Mk 7:24-30

[7] Acts 10.

[8] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/in-ancient-rome-purple-dye-was-made-from-snails-1239931/.

[9] Wall, 232.

[10] Acts 16:15.

[11] Wall, 235.

Sunday’s sermon: Mary Magdalene: Woman of Misrepresented Devotion

Text used – Luke 8:1-3; John 20:11-18

  • When I was a kid, my grandma had a grand total of 3 VHS tapes at her house that we could watch.
    • All Dogs Go to Heaven[1]
    • Dot and the Whale[2]
    • Beauty and the Beast[3] → But it wasn’t Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast.” It was some minor production company’s version. It was animated like Disney’s, but it wasn’t embellished with all the musical interludes and anthropomorphized household items. It was short, and it followed more closely to the original version penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve. But that wasn’t all. It also included two or three other, very similar tales that came from other countries.
      • E.g.s[4]
        • ITALY: Zelinda and the Monster = tale in which the beast is depicted as a fire-breathing dragon
        • CHINA: The Fairy Serpent = tale (which probably comes from an originally Indian version) in which the daughter is given in marriage to a snake
        • RUSSIA: The Enchanted Tsarévich = sort of a mash up of all of the above in which the daughter asks for a rose and ends up falling in love with a winged snake monster
      • Now, you have to remember that Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” hit theaters when I was in 2nd grade, and it was (and still is) incredibly popular. So of course, that was (and still is!) the version that people know best. The version that people remember. The version that people retell. BUT …
        • Significant differences between Disney’s version and the original fairy tale that comes out of 17th France
          • Original tale = rich man on a journey stumbles upon a remote castle and picks a rose for his youngest daughter from the beast’s garden → beast catches him and gives him a choice of giving up one of his daughters or giving up his own life → father chooses to give up his daughter
        • (As you can surely imagine) significant differences between Disney’s version and the versions that have been told throughout the centuries in other cultures
        • But still, Disney’s version of Belle’s story is the one that people know and accept as “The Story” (capital T, capital S). It carries vague threads of the “real” story – the original story – but it is also undeniably its own fabrication.
  • And so today we come to the Scripture story of Mary Magdalene – a woman whose “real story” has been all but lost in others’ fabrications; a woman whose story has been tangled and warped and manipulated throughout the centuries; a woman whose story is inextricably interwoven with the story of the early church; a woman whose true significance we cannot ignore.
    • Lots of different versions of Mary Magdalene’s story have emerged throughout the centuries → 2 most prominent ones
      • FIRST: story of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute → Scholars agree that this portrait probably originally stemmed from the proximity of Mary’s introduction – which we read from the beginning of Luke 8 – to the story of the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar who anoints Jesus’ feet at the end of Luke 7.
        • Woman with the alabaster jar: woman described simply as “a sinner” by the text → approaches Jesus as he’s sitting down to dinner → washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them with costly oils → This woman has always been portrayed as a repentant prostitute (though we should note that it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in Scripture either). And directly following her story at the end of chapter 7, we’re introduced to Mary Magdalene at the beginning of chapter 8.
        • Confusion reinforced by Pope Gregory the Great in one of his sermons in 591 C.E. – scholar: Pope Gregory solidified Mary Magdalene’s reputation as a former prostitute in one single paragraph. He also linked together the “sinner” from Luke 7…, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene. He formed, consequently, what many scholars refer to as the “composite Magdalene.”[5]
          • Finally cleared up by Catholic Church in 1960s → doctrine to separate the persons of the “composite Magdalene”
          • Pope John Paul II attempted further clarification by officially reinstating Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles” (a title that had originally been given to her by the early church fathers in 2nd century)
        • Still, this portrait of Mary Magdalene remains a misconception that has stood the test of time.
          • False depiction of Mary’s character has been immortalized by countless artists including names as prominent as Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, and van Dyck
          • False narrative perpetuated by popular culture such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s depiction of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar[6], Martin Scorsese’s depiction of her in The Last Temptation of Christ[7], and Mel Gibson’s depiction of her in The Passion of the Christ [8]
          • This myth even persists in our own language! – English term magdalen = (by definition) a reformed prostitute
        • And yet, according to Scripture and early church accounts, this thread of Mary’s tale is, indeed, a false thread. There is no actual evidence to back up this story. So poor Mary Magdalene has spent centuries maligned with no chance to give voice to her own truth. Hear me today, friends: Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute.
      • SECOND: story of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife → While we cannot solely credit American novelist Dan Brown with this particular storyline, he certainly did his part in its viral distribution with his wildly popular novel The DaVinci Code.
        • Published back in 2003[9]
        • Made into a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks in 2006[10]
        • Dan Brown’s story heavily inspired by book Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Christ and the Shocking Legacy of the Grail written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in 1982[11]
        • And while this particular storyline – that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus Christ’s secret wife who was pregnant at the time of Christ’s crucifixion and was smuggled out of the Holy Land for her own safety and gave birth to Christ’s child somewhere in Europe … while that particular storyline certainly made for a compelling read and a thrilling movie, there is very little actual historical evidence to support any of it.
          • Scholars have found a handful of accounts in early Christian history that speak of Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples who did have some sort of special, intimate relationship with Jesus → But it is quite a leap to go from those references to secret-wife-pregnant-with-the-child-of-the-Son-of-God. Again, poor Mary has no chance to set her own record straight in the face of this inventive fantasy.
  • So then who was Mary Magdalene?
    • Following Mary Magdalene through Scripture can sometimes get confusing → so many Marys!
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary, the mother of Jesus
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary of Bethany (who is the sister of Mary and Lazarus) … You see why it gets confusing!
    • Mary Magdalene = someone who experienced Jesus’ miraculous healing – text (Lk): The Twelve were with [Jesus], along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out)[12]
      • Scholar (some historical clarification): The New Testament describes men and women afflicted with demons as having various diseases and pains, uncontrollable seizures and convulsions, unusual strength, self-inflicted wounds, illness, and blindness; teaching deceitful doctrines; being mute, violent, severely tormented, crippled, insane, naked, or ostracized from society, and yet – after encountering Christ – acknowledging him as the Messiah.[13] → So the general diagnosis of “having demons” basically covered any and every ailment – physical or mental – that wasn’t easily and obviously explainable such as blindness due to some sort of accident or illness due to ingesting something spoiled or inedible. As Scripture gives us no other indications as to Mary Magdalene’s afflictions, we can only speculate, but we do know that she was ill, and Jesus healed her.
    • Mary Magdalene = woman of means – text (continues): Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out), Joanna (the wife of Herod’s servant Chuza), Susanna, and many other who provided for them out of their resources.[14] → This piece is arguably both one of the most important signs of Mary’s significance and the one most often overlooked or forgotten.
      • Gr. “provided for them out of their resources” = combination of word “serve, take care of, support” (word = root for our modern-day term deacon) + word “property, possessions” → The wording makes it clear that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and the unnamed others were providing for Jesus and the rest of his disciples financially. They had means which, in the culture at the time, also undoubtedly meant that had position – a respectability, some sort of societal standing and influence.
    • Mary Magdalene = “the apostle to the apostles” → Our 2nd reading from the gospel of John is truly Mary Magdalene’s shining moment in Scripture.
      • Mary Magdalene = only name mentioned in every single gospel as the first to find the tomb empty (which, by the way, also means she was the first to go and pay her respects … before anyone else, Mary came) → runs to get Peter and “the other disciple” (mysterious unnamed “beloved disciple” present only in John’s gospel) → Peter and the other disciple saw that the tomb was empty, didn’t understand, and “returned to the place where they were staying”[15]
      • But Mary Magdalene stayed. She stayed in the garden. She stayed in that space of unknowing. She stayed in that space of discomfort. She stayed in that space of grief. And in that space, as she wept beside the now-empty tomb, Mary Magdalene was the first person to encounter the risen Christ – her beloved Teacher and friend who knew her and valued her enough to call her by name: “Mary.” And from that space, Mary Magdalene was the first person to deliver the good news of the gospel: “I have seen the Lord.”
        • Reason Mary was and is again called “the apostle to the apostles” → “apostle” = one who is sent → Mary was sent to the disciples to deliver the good news of the resurrection, and from that initial declaration, the disciples sent the good news out into the world.
        • Even evidence that between Mary’s status as one of Jesus’ closest disciples and supporters and her role as the first apostle, Mary had a role in the development of the early church that was so prominent, it rivaled even Peter’s[16]
    • Last paragraph from Karla Zazueta’s essay on Mary Magdalene from Vindicating the Vixens (because she sums it all up so perfectly): We have examined, erased, painted over, and added new brush strokes to the canvas of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, nor Jesus’s lover, but a loyal female disciple, patron of finances, participant of prophecy fulfilled, and a necessary passive and active witness of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. She was the first to the grave, the first to see the risen Lord, the first to testify the news of his resurrection, and the only woman to consistently appear in all the lists of women disciples. Let us stand back, observe, and remember this new portrait of Mary Magdalene – a portrait based on biblical fact, not folklore. Her portrait is complete: Mary Magdalene is honored and revered as the first messenger of Christ’s resurrection – the apostle of the apostles – declaring, “I have seen the Lord!” She saw and she proclaimed: He is risen. He is alive! … For Mary Magdalene, we say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

[1] All Dogs Go to Heaven, directed by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Dan Kuenster (Goldcrest Films International, 1989).

[2] Dot and the Whale, directed by Yoram Gross (Yoram Gross Films, 1986).

[3] Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Walt Disney Pictures, 1991).

[4] https://www.pookpress.co.uk/7-variants-of-beauty-and-the-beast/.

[5] Karla Zazueta, “Mary Magdalene: Repainting Her Portrait of Misconceptions” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 257.

[6] Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Norman Jewison. (Universal Pictures, 1973).

[7] The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese (Universal Pictures, 1988).

[8] The Passion of Christ, directed by Mel Gibson (Icon Productions, 2004).

[9] Dan Brown. The DaVinci Code. (New York: Anchor Books), 2003.

[10] The DaVinci Code, directed by Ron Howard (Columbia Pictures, 2006).

[11] Michael Baigen, et al. Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Christ and the Shocking Legacy of the Grail. (New York: Delacorte Press), 19892.

[12] Lk 8:1b-2.

[13] Zazueta, 265.

[14] Lk 8:2b-3.

[15] Jn 20:10.

[16] James Carroll. “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” from Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/. Posted June 2006, accessed Aug. 17, 2021.

Sunday’s sermon: The Syrophoenician Woman: Woman of Frantic Hope

Text used – Mark 7:24-30

  • The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. This is, quite frankly, a challenging and all-around uncomfortable story.
    • A story that portrays Jesus uncomfortably
    • A story that hits uncomfortably close to home in a lot of ways
    • But it’s also a story that’s crucial to the development of Jesus’ ministry.
  • So let’s dive right into this story this morning. I think it’s best if we tackle the uncomfortable aspects of this story before we do anything else so this discomfort doesn’t get in the way of our learning and understanding.
    • Story hits close to home in some uncomfortable ways → ways that have to do with who the woman is – text: The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth.[1] → So “Syrophoenician” is your Jeopardy word for the day, right? Basically, it just means that this woman who approached Jesus was a woman from the Roman city state of Phoenicia in the province of Syria. Geographically, that also means something especially significant to Jesus and his followers: she’s a Canaanite.
      • Actually called a Canaanite woman in a lot of translations of this text (probably because Syrophoenician doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue so easily!) → Now, we’ve spent the summer going through stories of some of the women of the Bible, and up to now, those stories have come from the Old Testament – the First Testament – and many of them have dealt with Israel’s long, difficult, contentious history with the Canaanites.
        • History full of conflict and conquest and bloody back-and-forths between the two nations
          • E.g. – Rahab the prostitute, whose story we read about 6 weeks ago, was a Canaanite → helped Joshua and the rest of the people of Israel ultimately destroy her home city of Jericho as they began their occupation of the Promised Land
      • Amazing thing: woman’s “otherness” doesn’t keep her from approaching Jesus when she learns (despite his best efforts) that he is nearby – text: Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. … She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter.[2]
        • Woman’s “otherness” is uncomfortable (and we’ll explore why a little bit more in a minute) → But I want us to pause for just a second in this moment in the story and sit with the uncomfortableness of this moment, too, because it’s crucial to the story. This woman – this mother – loves her daughter so much and is so desperate for her daughter’s well-being that she seeks out this Jewish teacher and healer and begs him to work his miraculous healing for her daughter. I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage, the scene that plays out in my mind isn’t a calm one. It isn’t a safe one. It isn’t a logical, practical one. It isn’t a tactful, emotionally neutral scene. In my mind, this scene is a scene fraught with high emotion and frenetic energy. This woman is desperate, and she holds none of that desperation back as she beseeches Jesus to heal her little girl. → witness this desperation in the language of this passage
          • Gr. “fell at his feet” (when she first approaches Jesus) = prosepesen = root of the word “prostrate” → So the woman isn’t just kneeling meekly at Jesus’ feet. She has literally thrown herself down flat to the floor with her face and her tears in the dirt to beg for Jesus’ help.
          • Gr. “throw the demon out” = very forceful, evocative word – means drive out, expel with emotional connotations of disdain and rejection → So not only in the woman clear in her abject desperate need by throwing herself down at Jesus’ feet, she’s also abundantly clear in her desperate desire for this affliction to be as far removed from her beloved daughter as possible … and permanently.
          • You see, this woman is so abundantly raw and real in her interaction with Jesus. Her protective, sacrificing, do-anything-for-my-child mother love is on full display as is the frantic nature of her hope. And to be in that moment with her – that moment when she throws herself down and begs for her daughter’s wholeness and healing – is uncomfortable for us because it makes us examine our own lives … our own relationships … our own faith. Would we have the courage to do what she did – to prostrate ourselves at the feet of another? Would we have the capacity for such openness in the face of our own worry and fear? Would we have the faith to believe that Jesus could actually do what we asked?
      • Woman’s identity and circumstance are not where the discomfort in this story stops because after her desperate request, we have Jesus’ wholly unexpected and uncomfortable response – text: [Jesus] responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”[3] → Yes, friends, you heard that right. Jesus just called this desperate woman – this love-driven mother – a dog. UNCOMFORTABLE.
        • One scholar that I read this week was very succinct, describing Jesus as “caught with his proverbial compassion down”[4]
        • Another scholar clarified the point further for us: [We] need to understand that [Jesus] is being a Jewish man of his time. … Hardly anyone in that house in Tyre would wince or gasp when they hear this Jewish teacher speak in this way to this woman. She is a Gentile. Centuries of bad blood, and probably a social caste or two, lie between this woman and her Jewish neighbors.[5] → This is that history that we mentioned when we talked about this woman being a Canaanite. That’s a history that may have slipped past our 21st century understanding, but it certainly didn’t slip past Jesus’ 1st century understanding.
          • Before you ask: Yes, “dog” is as bad as it sounds → Apparently, in an attempt to soften the uncomfortableness of this passage – and, more specifically, the uncomfortableness of Jesus’ first words for this woman – some scholars have tried to explain away Jesus’ chosen terminology in a wide (and wild!) variety of ways. But the Greek is the Greek, and the word is blunt and undeniable and harsh. It is not ambiguous. It is not endearing. There is no hidden meaning. Jesus’ first words for this woman are a straight-up insult. And that’s uncomfortable for us, right, because Jesus is supposed to be all those wonderful, comforting, compassionate things that we want him to be all the time, right?
            • Declares the love of God for all … right?
            • Proclaims God’s peace and grace for all … right?
            • Opens wide his arms and gives himself even unto his life for all … right?
            • Yes to all of those things because, as Christians, we believe that Jesus was fully God, embodying all the love and grace and forgiveness that God wants to give to us. BUT as Christians, we also believe that Jesus was fully human – that he took on every aspect of humanity in order to redeem humanity’s broken relationship with God. And in this passage, we definitely encounter the more human side of Jesus. So we have to sit in the uncomfortableness of that and ask us why it makes us so uncomfortable.
              • Especially difficult question in light of the way that we have treated women just like the Syrophoenician woman → Throughout the centuries, immigrants – those of undeniable “otherness” in language, in customs, in appearance, in belief – haven’t exactly been welcomed into this country with open and compassionate arms.
                • Admitted, yes, but for work details … for substandard housing and slums … for jobs that don’t pay enough to keep a family fed let alone clothed or housed or medically cared for … for forced separation at the border and filthy and derelict refugee detainment centers and children in cages and years and years of waiting for just a small modicum of safety, security, hope
                • Admitted, yes, but not welcomed … not made a part … not belonging … held always at arm’s length
                • Is that maybe why we find this passage so uncomfortable? Because we recognize Jesus’ initial response all too well?
  • Fortunately, this initial, harsh rejection isn’t the end of the Syrophoenician woman’s story. – text: But she answered [Jesus], “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.[6]
    • There is a tenacity in this woman that we cannot help but admire. There is a cleverness that is strengthened by her humility. There is a resolve that, while this Jewish teacher whom she has sought out has deemed her worthless, she knows she still has worth enough.
      • With tenacity and cleverness, she takes that insult that Jesus just laid upon her and turns in around
        • Uses it to describe herself
        • Uses it to teach the Teacher a lesson: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” → Even those who are on the outside deserve a chance. Even those who are wholly other deserve a glimpse of God’s grace and glory. Even this frantic, desperate, Canaanite mother deserves hope.
          • Important to note: I don’t believe it’s her humility that Jesus is rewarding when he informs her that her daughter has been made well. There are plenty of people throughout the gospels that display some form of humility with our around Jesus without the same result. What spurs Jesus to action is her faith. Even though she is not a Jew … even though he has treated her poorly and insulted her … even though (in other gospel variations of this story) the disciples have tried to physically turn her away, this woman believes enough in Jesus’ divine ability that she persists. Her hope is frantic and her faith is steadfast, and for that, Jesus grants the request of this love-driven mother.
          • Related important note: This could easily devolve into a conversation about whether or not someone’s prayers are “good enough to be healed” or someone’s faith is “strong enough to be healed,” and friends, that is a dangerous and slippery slope. Much damage has been done by the Church when it comes to people’s health – mental and physical – by declaring that if your faith is “right,” any and all of your afflictions can be healed. And while I deeply wish that prayer alone could heal all ills, we know that’s not the case. Illness – mental or physical – is not a punishment from God. Illness – mental or physical – is not a shameful badge that marks your faith as not good enough. The good news of the gospel that we proclaim as Christians is that Jesus came to show us all that God’s love and grace alone make us “good enough.” Period. No exceptions. And if medication … or treatment … or counseling … or any other modern medical intervention is what we need to live into the best, healthiest version of our Good-Enough-In-God selves, there is nothing wrong with that.
    • Scholar gives us another take on a lesson we can learn from the Syrophoenician woman’s encounter with Jesus: Perhaps this woman might act as a reminder of the radical boldness required of those who would petition God. How can our praying, in general, become more daring, more creative, or perhaps even – following those examples in the [First] Testament and this woman – more argumentative?[7] → Clearly this woman’s relationship with Jesus isn’t perfect, but still, she approaches the Savior with boldness. She approaches with hope. She approaches with full belief and trust. And she makes space for us to do the same. Amen.

[1] Mk 7:26a.

[2] Mk 7:24-25, 26b.

[3] Mk 7:27.

[4] Amy C. Howe. “Proper 18 (Sunday between September 4 and September 10 inclusive – Mark 7:24-37 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44.

[5] Karen Pidcock-Lester. “Mark 7:24-30 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 206.

[6] Mk 7:28-30.

[7] J. Barrie Shepherd. “Mark 7:24-30 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 211.