On more than one occasion, standing on this very spot, I have tried to hear what Jesus is telling us in this exchange. So, I am not going to do that today. Instead, I want to focus on what we can learn from the woman in our story.
But it is not easy to keep focused on the Syrophoenician woman. I know, because I have tried.
At a service at Saint Andrew’s last Wednesday, we talked about this passage. The service is small enough that the sermon is more like a conversation, and our attention kept drifting back to Jesus and that troubling sentence about the dogs. I would say something about the woman, and someone would ask what Jesus meant by the whole dog thing. I’d say something else about the woman, and someone would offer a theory about the whole dog thing. I’d reply that I wasn’t talking about the whole dog thing right now, that I was trying to hear something different from the passage. And I’d get another theory about the whole dog thing.
But I am not giving up! So, here is what I say to any of you who are focused on the whole dog thing. I blogged on it, and the blog is available on our webpage for everyone who is interested. But today I really am going to talk about the Syrophoenician woman!
The first thing to know about this woman and the key to the whole story is that she was a Gentile, meaning she was not Jewish, not part of the covenant community. When she approaches Jesus, the holy man from Israel who comes to fulfill God’s promises to God’s people, she comes as a foreigner. That is why Jesus refuses to heal her daughter at first, and why he suggests that she and her family are not part of God’s children.
The woman knows that she is a foreigner. She knows that she does not deserve a place at God’s table. She is not asking for her rightful share of God’s blessings. She is not making demands on Jesus for which she knows she has no legitimate claim.
This woman comes, knowing that she has no right to come. She comes, trusting in Jesus’ mercy because that is all she can rely on. She comes, begging for a scrap of divine grace as a special favor because that is all she can do.
And that is true for all of us.
Apart from God’s grace and love, we are all foreigners. Apart from God’s grace and love, we are all outside the circle of God’s covenant. Apart from God’s grace and love, we have no place at God’s table.
This is the great lesson of the Apostle Paul when he says we can never be justified by what we do. We cannot make any claim on God based on our own merits. The woman in our story gets that as well as anybody else in any gospel story. That is an important first lesson.
But—this is a second lesson—the woman in our reading does not despair. She knows she cannot demand anything from Jesus. She knows that all she can do is ask for divine mercy and healing. But she can ask, and ask again, trusting that Jesus will heal her—not because she deserves it, but because that is what Jesus does.
The woman in our story relies on divine love, divine love that is limited to the deserving, divine love that spills over onto all of us, divine love that is reliable precisely because it does not depend on us, divine love that is reliable because it is divine, because it comes from God whose very nature is love.
This woman comes to Jesus begging for his mercy, and keeps begging, because somehow she knows that Jesus acts in love even when his love is hard to see. She perseveres because she knows the value of a scrap of divine mercy. She comes because undeserving though she may be, God allows her to share food from God’s table.
And that good news is just as true for us. We cannot earn justification. We cannot put God in our debt. But still we are justified. We are justified by Jesus Christ whose purpose is to reconcile us to God, to bring us to God’s table, to feed us from God’s table.
And so, like the woman in our story, we come. We come to God in prayer and worship. And on Sunday mornings we come together to share holy communion, to share the scraps from God’s table that are available to us even now, to know the grace that comes from being fed by God even now.
At the end of our reading, the woman returns home to find her daughter healed. We don’t know what happened after that.
But I cannot imagine that this woman simply returned to her old life. I have to believe that, having tasted a scrap from the table of God’s mercy and love, she was changed.
I have to believe that, the next time someone asked her for the kind of help she could give, she responded in God’s name. I have to believe that, the next time someone near her was struggling with something beyond her power, she pointed that person to the God of grace and love we know in Jesus Christ. I have to believe that she became a little more forgiving and a little more loving. I have to believe that she came to reflect God’s love a little bit better.
That is certainly what our epistle from James says should happen. James says—this is striking—“faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Faith that does not lead to love is not really faith at all.
We come to God in faith, trusting that God showers us with love and mercy through Jesus Christ, even though we are marked by sin. And, if our faith is real, if we really do encounter the God of Jesus Christ, we will be changed, little by little, into the image of that same love.
In just a few minutes, we will gather around God’s table to share in the communion of Christ’s body and blood. The Eucharist we share is a scrap straight from God’s table, a little foretaste of the heavenly banquet for which we long. I hope you all come to the altar in the spirit of the Syrophoenician woman—relying only on God’s grace and love, and therefore open to being changed by God’s grace and love.
My invitation to you this week is to let the grace and love that we share in Holy Communion reshape your life. Let God’s love flow through you. Extend a bit of grace and love to someone in your life who does not deserve it. Forgive him. Do something nice for her. One way or another, reach out in love to someone hard to love.
And then come back next week for another scrap of love from God’s table!
In Jesus’ name. Amen.