Today we are listeners, almost eavesdroppers, on a once in a lifetime story about Jesus. We are at the edges of the room while some impertinent, totally unclean person – a woman – and a Gentile – slips in and bows down at Jesus’ feet. Think about her courage! She overthrows all societal rules, written and unwritten, to present herself to Jesus. Jewish men, as Jesus is, do not talk to women in public. Jesus’ ministry, for now, has been among Jewish people; he and his closest friends are Jewish. In addition to all of that, Jesus is trying to get away from the crowds; he wants some time alone, to be a secret presence for just a while.
This brash woman is breaking all of the rules. She bows to Jesus, as if he is her Lord. She knows of his healing power, and she is risking everything for the sake of her daughter. She might be thrown out of the house, punished, for her desperate act. She is a mother and will do anything so that her daughter can be healed. Her daughter has demons, probably epilepsy, and the woman begs for the healing of her daughter. She begs to Jesus, at his feet. Would we be so brave?
Jesus replies in a typical putdown of the time. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “You tell her Jesus,” we want to cheer. “Get her out of here! She is a woman and a Gentile and does not know her place.” You see, Jesus has replied to her begging with a traditional Jewish insult. “The children” are the Jewish people, to whom Jesus thought he was ministering. To call Gentiles dogs is the insult, common at the time. Jesus is saying that it is not fair to take himself and his message from the Jewish people and to give it to the unworthy, to the Gentiles. “What putdown,” we think. “That’ll teach her.”
But a once in a lifetime event takes place. This woman stands up for herself and for her daughter. She comes back to him with a fact about dogs and children; she uses Jesus’ own words. “Even the dogs (puppies) under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In that moment, in those words, the woman demonstrates exactly the kind of faith that Jesus has been promoting. She shows up at a societally inappropriate place and time, puts herself at the mercy of Jesus, and dares to speak – and speak back to – a Jewish man in public. What comes out of her heart/intellect is faith in Jesus. This is exactly the message that we heard a week ago. It is what is in our heart that matters; we are not unclean from things of the outside. From this woman’s heart is faith in Jesus and in his healing power. This woman and total outsider, “gets it.” Those of us cheering and jeering on the side? Maybe we still do not understand. When Jesus turns this woman away, she comes back and wrestles with him. Her sparring with God is very rabbinic; this is exactly what we are supposed to do with God. She wins in a masterful match with Jesus.
We are witness to the only time in the gospels that Jesus loses an argument. Jesus “loses” to a woman and a foreigner, a societal nobody. The woman wins. In that very moment, we win, too. We are drawn from our self-righteous edges of the story into the very middle, the very heart, of Jesus’ message. Jesus’ once in a lifetime moment shows us again that faith is of the heart. Faith in Jesus takes courage. We may have to break some rules of etiquette, human rules of “right-ness” that do not matter. We have to be vulnerable, willing to show our faith, to our Lord. We lay ourselves bare and broken at his feet, following the Syro-Phoenician woman’s example. Our faith in Jesus, not in ourselves, saves us. Jesus listens. He heals this woman’s daughter the moment he sees in the woman a pureness of heart, her true and spotless faith. Jesus keeps his word. His message of God and his own healing power is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles, the powerful and the powerless. No matter who it is who lives out, and lives into, his message, that person is healed. Faith and God’s grace alone heal us.
Even outsiders. Even women. Even people we do not like. Even, thank God, US.