This summer, in our readings from John and Paul especially, we have considered our outward appearances. Both John and Paul have reminded us that we are ambassadors or representatives of God. As a result, the world often judges God by what they see in us. We should not be too surprised by such an understanding. After all, we have pithy little statements about making good “first impressions” and the like. It is hard, sometimes, to think of oneself as an ambassador for Christ, but Paul and John and other authors in the Bible remind us that such is one of our callings.
This week, however, Mark had us focus a bit internally. While we should always be concerned about the image of Christ that we project (Am I loving my neighbor as myself? Am I loving God with everything that I am), part of our ability to be good ambassadors or representatives is our recognition of our need for God’s saving grace in our lives. In other words, before we can become good representatives of Christ, we need a healthy humility. What do we mean by this and why?
Consider the Syrophoenician woman from this weekend’s readings. Jesus is anything but the warm fuzzy redeemer we all probably imagine. He is on a Sabbath. He is trying to get away from the pressures of His ministry. And so He seeks a household outside His normal stomping grounds. But such is His fame that the woman with the possessed daughter has heard of Him. And He is in her town! Though the Jews were required to remember that men and women were created in God’s image, the other ANE peoples were under no such restriction. This lady’s culture would have droned into her its understanding of her place in life. She had no business approaching, let alone expecting anything from a man, especially a foreign man. Yet she approaches Jesus, a man of reputation, a man considered a prophet of God. Who would not were they in her place? Those of us who are parents can understand her desperation. What would we not do for the safety or welfare of our children?
And look at compassionate Jesus’ response. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little dogs.” What a jerk! She just needs a bit of help, help well within His means.
And instead He blows her off!
Admittedly, Jesus’ use of the word first in the answer gives us some hope for later, but why on earth would he insult her and deny her request?
But look at her response. In Mark’s Gospel account, this is the first individual to engage Jesus about His work. The Syrophoenician woman does not contest the fact that the children should be fed first. Heck, she does not even fuss at Jesus for seemingly insulting her suffering daughter by labeling her a little dog. She recognizes that He is a prophet to Israel first, but she presumes to instruct Jesus and us about the role of a good master. "Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs get the crumbs from children." Better than Jesus’ disciples (remember, Jesus fed with the loaves and fishes a chapter earlier and they missed its importance), the woman understands that the Jews have priority over the Gentiles, but that the priority is for the purpose of saving the Gentiles.
More amazingly, she tells Jesus in effect that she is not asking for a feast. She does not need to go to Johnny’s Steakhouse or the Hungry Pilot or Mo Brady’s. Her needs can be satisfied by the crumbs from God’s table. His saving power is so great that His crumbs can save! And Jesus does just that. He rewards her faith and her humility by healing her daughter, and her story has been recounted now for countless generations.
The Syrophoenician woman serves for us a stark reminder of the humility we should all have before God. We cannot compel God to do anything. Though this lady’s culture would have taught her any number of formulae and superstitions to get certain benefits out of the gods that they worshipped, she recognizes that Yahweh cannot forced to do anything. Similar to the humility exhibited by Job, this lady reminds all believers of our ultimate fellowship with every other human being whom we encounter. None of us deserve any special treatment. As James remarked this weekend, none of us are deserving of any partiality.
Yet it is this humility which gives rise to the attribute of God which we value the most: His mercy! The Syrophoenician woman understands that she does not deserve Jesus’ intervention. She understands that He cannot be forced to work a miracle for her daughter. But she also understands that if He is so moved, even His briefest offer of mercy will satisfy her need. And so her great humility leads to God’s mercy. Jesus rewards her humility and answers her fondest prayer. Her little dog has become a little daughter of the saving God. And you and I are fed as we read and watch the story unfold.
Brothers and sisters we live in a world that tries hard to convince us of our self importance and self worth. We are captains of our own ships, masters of our domains. We do not need anybody to save us. We can lift ourselves up by the bootstraps, thank you very much. Yet how in charge of our lives are we really? Our material goods can be taken in the blink of an eye. Lifetimes of items can be destroyed a tornado, fire or flood; the prospect of an easy future can be shattered by an unexpected job loss or serious disease or a stock market crash; the sense of companionship can be turned into the fear of isolation by the surprise rejection by a loved one. All these, and countless others, can happen in the blink of an eye.
But God requires us to humble ourselves. We are called to throw ourselves at the foot of His cross and admit our need of Him. Like the woman in our story this weekend, who was willing to become like a dog to try and save her daughter with a crumb, we are called to humble ourselves so that we can become His disciple. And the Gospel news is that whoever exercises such a humble faith will receive the bread and mercy of God!
Brothers and sisters, do you see yourself in the story of the Syrophoenician woman? Have you approached God in humble faith? Or have you been, instead, arrogant in your faith? Have you been angry, like Jonah, because God has refused to work the way you demand of Him? Or, have you been confused like His disciples, unwilling to receive His teaching (say 9:35-37; 10:44 for example) and thus seemingly not even getting His crumbs? It is a hard lesson with which to struggle, with which to examine oneself internally, to be sure, but then the rewards of such a lesson are so much better than just His crumbs! The rewards of such a humble faith are the call to His feast. And if His crumbs are so amazingly wonderful and restoring, can you imagine His feast?