Last week we heard the gospel story about the washing of hands – about how ritual washing put people inside or outside the accepted understanding of ritual cleanliness. Jesus argues with the Pharisees, who were shocked that the disciples were eating without washing their hands. This made them unclean as understood by the rituals of the oral law – the tradition. This was different from the written law (the Scriptures), but it held equal weight. Jesus argues that it was what emerged from within that made people unclean, rather than the other way around: things from the human heart such as greed, envy, pride and malice – these are the things that defile.
Today’s Gospel reading stretches the theme of inner and outer acceptability. First of all, Jesus is on foreign soil: he is outside his familiar territory. This is yet another attempt to get away from the crowds. Here he meets a desperate mother with a very sick child. She is an outsider to Jesus as she’s a native of Phoenicia in the Roman province of Syria, and possibly also an outsider in Phoenicia as she’s described as a Greek. To Jesus she is a gentile, and his understanding is that gentiles are not part of his job description. He appears to be very rude to her, using the abusive term ‘little dog’ or ‘puppy’ – possibly slightly less insulting than plain ‘dog’, but probably only marginally so. Dogs were scavengers in Jesus’ world, not household pets – to call someone a dog was very insulting: it was commonly used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. – outsiders
So Jesus has placed this woman on the ‘outside’, in a remarkably similar way to the Pharisees’ placing Jesus and the disciples on the outside in the previous passage. This woman, too, was ritually unclean – she too failed to follow the rules on handwashing and so on. So, when she argues with Jesus, she is challenging him in a very similar way to Jesus’ own argument over the hand washing. This seems to be a very dramatic moment: the woman is, unknowingly, holding Jesus to account, challenging him to follow his own teaching, to put his beliefs into practice.
Christians find this very hard to accept: if Jesus is God’s sinless Son, what’s he doing behaving like a racist?
There seems to be no easy answer to this question, and scholars are divided. Some argue that this woman changed Jesus’ mind, others that he was merely stating what he understood as his mission, making an exception out of a sense of compassion. What is clear is that, within the story told by Mark, this woman, this foreigner, this Greek, this outsider, understands Jesus’ authority and power. She is prepared to fall at his feet in order for her daughter to be healed. Later in the Gospel, Mark tells of another Gentile – this time a centurion – who recognises Jesus as God’s Son at the scene of the crucifixion.
All in all, there’s a pattern here: God is not limited by human boundaries, and takes no heed of who is clean or unclean, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, who is of the correct race or faith. God acts where God wills. This is a pattern of inclusivity and generosity.
We know there was a church in Tyre, where this story takes place, in the very early years of Christianity. Perhaps it all began with this woman – maybe she became an apostle to her own town. But it’s also possible that she remained a Greek, believing in the various Greek gods. We will never know what happened to this woman, who seems to step out of the darkness into the light for a short while, before disappearing back into the shadows.
There is a story about John of Beverly, recounted by the Venerable Bead, the great historian of the earliest days of Christianity in England. There was a young man who was mute and scabby. The skin on his head was in such a poor state that his hair couldn’t grow. St. John of Beverley healed the man, who grew a fine head of hair and found the ability to speak, and offered him a place in his own family. This would have meant a safe and stable life for the healed man, but he declined and chose to return home. There is, in this story, no hint that anyone owed anything – the healing was freely given and gladly accepted, and the healed man walks away – back into history’s shadows.
And so, we can see that, no matter what the Syrophoencian woman did next, it didn’t really matter. God blessed her where she was, Jesus healed her daughter and all was well. This generosity, from God who freely gives, is called grace.
And so we have a very radical story – someone of a different religion having found God, having been the recipient of God’s mercy, having had their prayers answered. What might this mean for us, residents of Blackburn – we who live in a town with many followers of Islam. This passage suggests that God hears them, answers their prayers, even though they call God by a different name. They, like us are beloved of God, recipients of God’s grace.