The Children’s Bread

Sermon for Trinity 14 at All Saints

Isaiah 35. 4-7 and Mark 7.24–37

What would the Syrophoenician woman have made of the road through Hungary or the migrant camps of Calais? We know nothing about her at all except her origin, which makes her a Greek and that she had a sick daughter and that she came to Jesus because she needed help. And that her conversation with Jesus is one of the most challenging bible stories that we have. Enormous amounts of commentary have been written about this little passage in Mark’s gospel, yet almost all of it, even theology written by women, focuses on the problem of the way Jesus deals with this woman. No-one is really interested in the woman or the child – although you may recall that a while ago, I tried to retell this story from the point of view of the woman (story is on website) to see what light that shed on some very difficult words of Jesus.

What on earth is he saying in this passage? He’s certainly pretty short with the woman and her request. And he’s pretty rude. He doesn’t actually talk about ‘dogs’ – the Greek word is a diminutive and in effect he says ‘to the little bitch’. Practically none of the commentaries I’ve read wants Jesus to talk like this and all of them want to explain it away – a typical example is: “Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, then perhaps we should not be surprised to see a development in Jesus’ own recognition of God’s vision for the world. After all, the profoundly expansive notion of a kingdom that included everyone – no exceptions! – was completely and totally novel.” So he speaks to her like this because he is fully human. He realises he has made a mistake, been unjust, and changes his mind. He heals her daughter because she has shown him that he was wrong. Because she stood up to him and to the attitude expressed by one race, the Jews, to others, the Gentiles.

Which brings us to the point about being human and how humans behave. Jesus’s words are particularly ironic in context, because only a few verses earlier (in last week’s Gospel reading) Jesus has been teaching that it is the words that come out of our mouths that do the damage. He gives that long list – ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.’ All those things which, of course, never come out of the mouths of people in the civilised 21st Century society in which we live, still less out of the mouths of those in it who call themselves Christians. In this previous passage, Jesus is also teaching about the deadly effect of religious tradition, which stifles the contact between God and his people by dictating the way they can interact. ‘All these things come from within,’ Jesus says, ‘and defile a man.’ And now, a few verses later, he himself enacts a perfect example of how human speech and human tradition – ‘we don’t have anything to do with people like that’ – can prevent the grace of God from meeting the need of those begging desperately for it.

Or does he? Let us be careful. What actually happens it that, without even going to the child, Jesus heals her. He meets the woman’s need – perhaps has already met it, even before he addresses her in this strange manner. And perhaps, by addressing her as he does, he is recognising the fact that in the world they both live in, nearly everyone of his race would not be interested in this woman and her child. But Jesus is interested. Jesus does what she has asked. Jesus’s actions contradict his words. Let us be careful too, even with the words – he says ‘it is not right’, he does not say that he isn’t going to do it. Even dogs get fed. And what about the woman’s reply? It is often suggested that Jesus is testing her faith – but this never seems a likely explanation to me. Powerful faith that Jesus can and will do something to help is often a factor in miraculous healings, but never a pre-condition. What the woman actually says is ‘Yes’. She agrees with him that it is a horrible and unjust situation, a traditional rejection that needs to be set aside, so that a child can be helped.

Recently a picture of a dead child has had a profound effect on political actions relating to the great migrant movement that is taking place across Europe. Understandably, most people in our society find it easier to react to a human interest story than to grapple with the effect of massive social forces. In some ways, this is a reflection of how we respond to media manipulation. How many children have actually died before one had an effect on so many opinions? But in another, it sounds like the Christian story, doesn’t it? And response to the need of each individual is a profoundly Christian thing. We cannot deal with masses. When faced with feeding the 5,000, we often baulk as the sheer impossibility of the task. Yet each of that 5,000 can be fed by one person, as compassionate Hungarians have been showing as they bring bread and tea to the migrants on the road. Others, it is reported, hurled abuse as these invading dogs. But not everyone. Face to face with another human, humans can respond lovingly, can set aside the prejudices that so easily become traditions, the theories and theologies that actually stifle and obstruct the passage of God’s grace. Like Jesus, they can say, ‘I could behave like this – but I will not. I will act in love and compassion towards your need.’

We are shocked by Jesus’s words to the woman. But one commentator has pointed out: ‘Maybe Jesus thinks the same thing about us. He’s shocked when we treat others as if they were beneath us – since that’s what we often do.’ Maybe that is the whole point of this passage and these words. To shock us out of our complacency – about our own behaviour and our ideas about our God. To make us face up to the way we so often condemn and reject, without knowing anything about the individual people involved. To us, they have no faces, they are just a threatening mass, an invasion, an attempt to grab our bread from our children (or our jobs or our health service or our social security – or what you will). That’s how our society – perhaps even us as individuals – react to the overwhelming changes that are taking place in our world. We assume that we are faced with supporting those who will be a burden on our society. And if they are a helpless burden, does that make them less worthy of the bread they need? But shouldn’t we view these strangers like the Syrophoenician woman? Another commentary says: “she teaches us about the power of the stranger. Newcomers, strangers, people who are different from us – they stretch our perspective and teach us things about themselves, about the world, and about us.” We know nothing about her – except that she was enterprising enough to find out about Jesus and daring enough to ask for his help and intelligent enough to argue with him. I wonder how many enterprising and daring and intelligent people are condemned to migrant camps in Calais? How many of them want to earn their bread, not be given it? How many are seeking something like that lovely restoration passage from Isaiah which prophesies the end of human suffering and infirmity, the restoration of hope and justice, and the joyful return of the exiles from captivity? And what does Jesus think of what we say and what we do? He knows our human frailty and fears, none better, but he also sets us an examples of loving and compassionate actions towards the one who is begging from us.