It is absolutely wonderful to be here on what I really do think is my last Sunday with you all! Never say never, but there really is no other date in the diary (in the foreseeable future)!
Well, the gospel reading we had today is one that has caused some controversy over the years. And I have to say, I’m not convinced that the language of the King James Bible has helped us today…
It has of course been greatly influential on our history and poetry, but I sometimes feel we need to hear things in a more modern way, and so I’m going to give you again the passage that was read, but in a way that hopefully makes it a bit clearer.
The reason for this, is that some people have concluded that Jesus is racist and sexist in this passage – he calls the foreign woman ‘a dog’! Let me be clear: he is absolutely not being racist or sexist, but our cultural distance from the actual event hides that fact somewhat.
So here goes. What you are about to hear is a terrible translation from the Greek, but I hope it gives you an idea of the actual meaning:
- Jesus, who is a big fan of the England football team, went over to Germany (I should probably say Spain, given that it’s the final of the Women’s World Cup, but Germany came to mind given our long sporting rivalry!) There, a German woman, wearing the colours of the German football team, started shouting for help.
- She said “Help me kind Sir, honourable Englishman”.
- The disciples said “Get rid of her, she is annoying us and she supports the German team. We all know the rivalry between the England and Germany football teams!”
- Jesus said “I was sent only to England supporters”.
- But she threw herself before him and blocked the way. She begged him, “Help me, sir!”
- He said, with a kind smile and a twinkle in his eye “Is it right for me to give my time and energy, which is meant for the England supporters, to you, a supporter of our great rivals, the German team?”
- She replied “Yes it is!”. She recognised his smile and playful tone. “Because even when England win against Germany in the final, we still know that we came second in all the world”.
- Jesus answered with a smile “You have huge faith and have shown it. I will heal your daughter”. And her daughter was healed instantly.
How does that make you feel? In that light, I hope, you can see this is not a rude encounter, but one in which a total outsider is commended and rewarded for her faith. (I also hope my ancient Greek teacher never reads that translation)!
Jesus meets this woman, who is from absolutely the worst possible background. She is a Canaanite, Syrophoenician, gentile! The worst kind of person! The Kings of Israel had a long history fighting these people.
And yet she comes to him, showing amazing faith. This Jesus is someone from outside of her community, outside of her comfort zone. Yet she reaches out to him. It is like a true supporter of the Labour Party deliberately choosing to go to the Conservatives for help – and showing the Conservatives lots of respect at the same time!
Jesus’ first response is as much to the disciples as it is to her. The disciples see her only as a problem, and as an outsider trying to break in on their nice day. “Send her away! She has nothing to do with us!”
Jesus says what they are thinking “I was sent only to Israel’s people”.
The woman comes and stops him in his tracks. She is going to chase the Lord, knowing that if you really want something, you will ask, you will seek, and you will knock. This is general life advice: people who really want things make big sacrifices.
Jesus, with a smile, tests her. Clearly she recognises him as Lord – she uses that word – but Jesus, to use an awkward phrase, plays “devil’s advocate” with her. He says “Should I take the bread for the children of Israel and give it to a dog?”.
She recognises that he is being provocative, and she recognises that he is inviting her to argue with him in an intellectual game. Yes, he has called her a dog, but that is the word all Jews used for non-Jews at that time. Jesus is using a great teaching method, that when your professor argues with you, making the opposite points, it forces you to think and argue and develop your own ideas, and it allows for ideas to be tested and developed.
So she responds with a wise smile, recognising the game Jesus is playing with her. “Yes Lord, but even the dog gets the crumbs that fall from the children’s table”. And Jesus was so delighted with her answer, he healed her daughter.
So what do we take away?
- The woman passionately believed in a God of abundant blessing. If the Jews were blessed, then God would give them so much that everyone else would also be blessed. In my analogy, if England won, then Germany would still be delighted, as they came second in the entire world! Silver medal – better than no medal! The leftovers on the table would be so much that those down below will also get food! God is seeking to pour out blessing – but he also looks for a faith response!
- This women is from the outside, with no right to the blessing, sees and understands God better than the disciples do. She knows that the God of the Jews promised to bless Abraham and through Abraham the whole world. The disciples are so insular and self-obsessed, they miss the mission of God to bring the whole world back to him.
- We also see that Jesus invites the woman to engage, to chase, to argue with him. We see him giving her some barriers, but she leaps over then. She really believes Jesus can give her the answer she wants, and she won’t let the disciples, or being called a dog, or being from the wrong ethnic group stop her getting the healing she wants for her daughter.
This woman is an example of the kind of faith Jesus loves. It isn’t very English, it is about chasing, pursuing and hounding the Lord. Do we, when we pray, really beg God for a response? That is the kind of faith he invites us to have! When was the last time we wrestled in prayer, begging God for an answer? Wrestling in prayer, worshipping him and submitting our lives and our desires to his will?
Because this is the heart of it: this might be the last time I preach here at St Mark’s – unlike last time, there really is no further date in the diary when I am scheduled to be here. So let this be the message I want everyone to hear:
We are like the disciples. We say to people “go away, you are annoying us, you are from the wrong group, you make us unclean”. Yet Jesus is clear – no person can defile you. The problem is in your own heart, not in a different person. And each one of us carries that problem. We call it sin.
Sin leads to death. We can’t avoid that. But Jesus died – and rose from the dead. So first of all we must submit ourselves to Jesus. We must metaphorically die, letting our desires go and laying our hopes on the cross.
Then, we receive forgiveness and begin to let him live his life through us.
Sometimes he will pick up your desires and use them for his glory; sometimes we will have to let them go. That can be painful – death is always painful. But by dying to Jesus and letting him live through us, we bring God’s rule to this earth. We are no longer our own property, we become agents of God’s Kingdom.
So my desire for everyone in this church, and for myself, is that we learn to daily die, to repent and turn from our way to the way of Jesus, and let Jesus live through us.
And then this Syrophoenician Canaanite woman can be a guide to us: to seek the welfare of others with a passion. To pray and worship fervently, with real faith, believing God wants to answer and change us and our situations.
Let us pray:
Father God, we thank you for Jesus, who died and rose from the dead.
We thank you that in him and through him we too can have life.
We repent of our selfish ways, and ask that you will live in us and through us. We give our lives to you. We ask that you will let us be agents of your Kingdom on earth.
Help us to love you and trust you more. Help us to pray with greater passion and urgency, and to know you want to answer us and lead us ever closer to you.
In and through the name of Jesus our Lord,