Just like all of us, Jesus needed periods of rest. And by now, the only way he was going to get that was by going away, by going to places outside the boundaries of Israel and Judea, by physically propping a “Closed for Business” sign between himself and the persistent crowds. So he went up to Lebanon, to the city of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, an ancient city, originally founded by the Phoenicians, the people who gave us the alphabet. And yet, even there, immediately he is approached by a woman of the area, who falls down before him at his feet, a position of both worship and pleading. It’s also a wise position, strategically, because it is impossible—and incredibly rude– to ignore someone who has thrown themselves at your feet.
This woman is an outsider on three important levels. First, she is a woman, approaching a strange man whom she does not know. Second, she is a Gentile, of Phoenician and Syrian heritage. Third, the inhabitants of the region of Tyre were typically prosperous, as it was a busy trading hub with a highly lucrative economy as compared to the poorer agricultural area from which Jesus came around Galilee, and so its inhabitants were often looked upon with resentment by their neighbors.
So Jesus responds in a way that is not exactly welcoming—maybe it’s the exhaustion talking. Or maybe he is a little resentful of her forcing herself upon him as he is seeking some peace and quiet. So Jesus tries to turn her away, and he even implies that she and her people are dogs, fit only to cringe outside the doors of the children of Israel. And maybe Jesus, fully human and worn out and frustrated, hopes that like a dog she will slink away.
But the love this woman has for her daughter, and the fear this woman has for her daughter, has led her this far in powering through all the obstacles of race and gender that should keep her completely powerless. Perhaps she anticipated that this Jewish holy man would reject her, as expected, and had prepared her counterarguments with that probability in mind.
“Maybe I am a dog, sir,” she responds, humbly, refusing to be thrown off by any attempt to provoke her. “But even dogs are grateful to accept whatever scraps and crumbs fall their way.” And in this way, she draws Jesus up short, and leads him to reconsider. He himself has just gotten finished arguing that nothing on the outside of a person can make them unclean. And now, standing before him, is living proof of exactly that message.
What we see here is that Jesus really is fully human, and that’s vitally important for us. We have hope because God became fully human in Jesus, and Jesus, just like us, got frazzled and hungry, mourned for his friend Lazarus, and got tired and frustrated. That’s the reality and the comfort of the incarnation when we take it seriously. Jesus emerges from this encounter, just like his tempting in the wilderness and his baptism, changed. He has been reminded that God’s love for the world shows no partiality and admits no lines of division. No one is outside the bounds of God’s grace. No one.
The Syrophoenician woman reminded Jesus and reminds all of us, every single day, to be opened to a crucial reality—a reality still coming into being due to our own resistance and fearfulness. A reality that therefore can never be repeated enough to break through our human tendencies to exclude those different from us. That challenging reality is that God’s reconciling, healing love truly has no limits.
God’s love is a generous, abundant love. God’s call is a generous, abundant call to all. This reminds us that our discipleship too must be open to all. We don’t exist as a community of faith merely for ourselves or for those who are similar to us. We exist as a community of faith to serve as disciples and witnesses to the world outside these doors, both when we are acting as a community and when we are acting as individuals. Even when we think no one is looking.
Being open to the movement of the Spirit of God in our lives is the foundation of salvation and discipleship, but it’s also scary. It means being open to God’s will wherever it may lead us, and we like to be in control of where we are going. It means being open to being surprised. It means being open to acknowledging that God’s ways are not our ways of exclusion and setting people up for failure. God’s ways are always about regeneration of heart and spirit, embracing the vulnerability of being open.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts prayers and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.