Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5, 2021

Sergio Rodriguez
Pastor for Community Ministry

“But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.””- Mark 7:27

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

The Syrophoenician woman never gave up on God’s healing mercy for her daughter. Jesus initially dismissed her pleas as incongruent with the plan of salvation. Nevertheless, the woman believed God’s goodness triumphs even when hidden from sight. For faith beholds grace behind faithless findings. What compelled the Syrophoenician woman to insist that Jesus heal her daughter even after he slandered her dignity? If we consider Jesus to be the Son that God gave up out of love that we may be saved, how then do we receive Jesus’ words when he tells this desperate mother, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ initial slanderous dismissal gives way to Jesus commending the faith of the women. In our Gospel today, the woman claps back to Jesus insisting that he cast the unclean spirit out of her daughter. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She transforms the insult into a moment for grace. She persists, nevertheless, with a sense of dignity and filled with faith.

This story is a stumbling block as it presents Jesus as fully human, as fully subject to the powers of favoritism and narrowmindedness. So theologians have attempted to soften this incongruity. Rev. Ernesto Cardenal insists that this Syrophoenician woman is an oppressor, a Tyrian Tyrant whose wealth is such that Jesus needed to teach her some humility. Others have midrashed this text to mean that Jesus never seriously meant to slander this gentile woman. He already knew that she had faith. So he was testing her. These answers, of course, fail to grasp the risky character of divine encounter, of meeting God face to face and demanding grace. Consider the Syrophoenician woman. This Syrophoenician woman had a little daughter. This daughter became possessed and tormented by an unclean spirit. Immediately, she heard of Jesus of Nazareth and his great work. She heard of his power to cast out unclean spirits, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and proclaim God’s coming kingdom. She knew him as a compassionate healer who saw the lowly, the poor and all oppressed by sin and death, and brought life. She came to him and bowed down at his feet. She came to him and recognized his power to bring life. To free those captive.

Yet his initial response pulled the rug right under her. “let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus compared her and her daughter to a dog, who have to wait for grace. Salvation comes first to those who have the God of Jacob for their help. Salvation to everyone who has faith, to the children first and also to the Greek as Paul says in his letter to the Romans. The Psalmist today proclaims God as the one who keeps his promise of salvation to his people. He gives justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger. He cares for the stranger, the orphan, the widow The Lord sets the captive free. From the Exodus to the Exile, the Lord has set his people free all sorts of spiritual and physical conditions oppressing their life together. This is the goodness of God in Jesus’ ministry. This is the grace that the Syrophoenician woman expected from Jesus. And yet Jesus allows for distinction plus power to mask God’s healing grace for her daughter, a gentile.

We are face to face not with the God who has made himself known in the shame, humility and pain of the cross but the God who withdraws grace. The God whose inscrutable will is beyond our comprehension because it is not based off of our ability to grasp. The God hidden in judgment and the world around us. The Deus absconditus. Hurricane Ida, flooding in the Northeast, the delta surge, the laws aimed against the dignity and agency of women, the incongruity between Christ and Christians. Any number of these events have us wonder the where, of grace, and the why, of these events. These faith-less findings. But the aggregate amount, for many it is to much to bear with patience resignation or resiliency of peace. Will God’s mercy triumph over this seeming judgment from God and men? Can we believe that God’s goodness will win the day? Or have we been so cast down by the pandemic, by our changing climate, by terror, by the rolling back of liberties that we can not persist in faith? Faith in the one who in Jesus Christ took upon himself the entire pain and sin of the world on the cross to restore our lives. To restore us through God’s grace to live in love. The Deus Revelatus.

Look at the woman. Her witness is grace for us this day. She persists. She insists. Even Martin Luther recognizes that measure of grace in her persistence. He understood that, “she had heard and embraced concerning him, and never gave up… she still firmly believes his goodness is yet concealed in his answer.” She firmly believes in Jesus as the one whose very life is lived amongst the poor, the broken, the sinners and the hungry. She insists that Jesus heal her daughter from the unclean spirit, recognize her dignity as a mother, as a believer. She insists on God’s promised word of restoration behind the incongruity of this encounter with Jesus.

She is saying, “Yes Jesus but even folks like myself who are outside the people of God and who feel the weight of injustice, sin, pain, and grief feed upon the goodness of the Lord. You are God’s grace and mercy. You are our salvation. Only say the word and we shall be healed.” What faith in God’s grace! What a struggle to hope beyond all hope. Jesus speaks to her a word of grace. “For saying that, you may go-the demon has left your daughter.” His word of grace is food indeed. Food for the journey to feed others. To persist and to insist on God’s grace. To persist and insist in the dignity of women and the least of these. “Lord, may we go but not before we eat of heavenly food, the precious body and blood of your Son, Jesus, our Savior and Lord.” Amen.