Roberta Felker’s Homily from September 5, 2021

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Holy Wisdom Monastery

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 5, 2021

Wisdom 10: 15-18, 20-21; 11: 1-5; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7: 24-37

“Listen … and attend with the ear of your heart.”

~ Benedict of Nursia, Prologue to the Rule of Benedict

The wisdom literature that is the sixth century Rule of Benedict deals with “answers to the great questions of the human condition,” as our favorite modern-day Benedictine, Joan Chittister tell us.  Listening with the ear of our heart is about listening even when we would rather not hear; it challenges us to “hear in the tongue of the other.”   Could such heart’s attention be part of the reason the Syrophoenician woman held her ground?  Part of the reason Jesus changed his mind?

Today, we find Jesus crossing the boundary into Tyre, whose residents, both Jews and Gentiles, were known to Mark’s readers to be bitter enemies.  Why didn’t Jesus want anyone to know he was there?  His cousin, John, had recently been murdered.  He had just faced sharp criticism from the Pharisees about his disciples eating with unwashed hands.  He’d been on a whirlwind tour feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and teaching tough crowds.  Jesus could justifiably have been feeling fatigued and besieged – hoping to find refuge in this anonymous little house, far from home.

No such luck. The inconvenient, unnamed woman, an outsider by gender, religion, class, and nationality had obviously heard of this boundary-breaking preacher from Galilee. Unconcerned with decorum, she approached Jesus, bowed down at his feet, and begged for an exorcism for her daughter.  We can feel her desperation; she was the epitome of someone who has found herself in a tight place.

And it is here that the story makes us wince.  Jesus dealt her a callous and degrading blow in this hour of her great need, delivering a stinging epithet:  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Make no mistake:  It is clear to the woman and to everyone within earshot what Jesus is saying.

But this audacious woman, dismissed by someone she believed had the power to help her … this woman dared to match wits with Jesus. Was it desperation born of the awareness of her own powerlessness? Was it the courage of someone with nothing left to lose?  Was it – listening with the ear of her heart – that she recognized a certain abundance about the what Jesus was really up to?   In any case, she refused to respond with hostility or to shrink away in humiliation.  Jesus’ dismissive remark did not diminish or discourage her.  Rather, she reconfigured Jesus’ dehumanizing metaphor to turn the tables on him; she kept right on nipping at Jesus’ heels.  She insisted that the “dogs,” Gentiles such as herself (such as us) did not need to wait for “the children,” the Jews, to finish their food before the Gentiles could feast on the crumbs. Both could eat simultaneously.  She asserted that even a table scrap of grace is sufficient for someone like her – like us – who comes to Jesus in faith.  If this Jesus was the real thing, a morsel would suffice. Like Jacob, after his nocturnal wrestling match with the stranger, she didn’t let go without a blessing.  And like Jacob’s mysterious opponent, Jesus acceded.  What is going on here?

Some scholars try to assuage our initial shock by arguing that a literal translation of Jesus’ words – softening Jesus’ reference to “little dogs” or household pets (rather than mongrels) makes them less offensive. “Sorry, little pup – just wait your turn.” Others suggest that Jesus was merely playing the devil’s advocate, or initiating a sort of light-hearted banter with the desperate woman. Doesn’t seem like our Jesus. But neither does his apparent indifference and withering dismissal.

What if the writer ofMark preserved this embarrassing scene for good reason?  The writer shows us a very human Jesus – in the words of the theologian, Walter Brueggemann, a man who “apparently understood himself … within the limited provincial categories of Jewish Galilee.“  A man shaped, as are we all, by the conscious and unconscious biases and entitlements of our cultures, our familiar dichotomies of worthy and not worthy. But now, an outsider, a woman, has intruded and challenged the scope of his ministry. Caught with his compassion down, Jesus was called out: “Wait a minute! Don’t you get it?! This is about my daughter! Isn’t God’s grace and message for the whole world, O Jesus of Nazareth?”  Now, Jesus must respond.

Again, Brueggemann: “Would (Jesus) dispute her? Would he defend male privilege? Would he stubbornly insist that he had it right the first time: He has no ministry to the ‘dogs’?  No, he does none of that… .”   Jesus told her that her teaching, her words, had stirred his heart – and that the demon had left her daughter. 

Maybe Jesus really did think he’d come exclusively for the Israelites.  And then he met this formidable woman who overturned the power dynamic and schooled him in his own gospel!  She called Jesus to be himself, the boundary-breaker – hearing with the ear of her heart – even more acutely than Jesus – the power and expansiveness of the reign of God that he proclaimed.  Her ministry opened up the possibilities for his:  Indeed, this encounter does mark a change in Jesus’ ministry.  Immediately afterward, as we heard this morning, Jesus moved on to the region of the Decapolis, and there, in Greek territory among Gentiles, he healed a man who was deaf and mute.  The woman gave Jesus the opportunity to practice what he preached.   

In this story, we bear witness to a humanity that is faced with risk and personal disaster that come at us out of the blue.  Like the gutsy woman, we long desperately for God’s help.   We are privileged to witness this courageous woman who, like the psalmists, knew that it was sometimes necessary to remind God who God is and how God should act.  To witness a Jesus who was willing to be challenged and changed, a Jesus whose life, like ours, was a work in progress.  Who was not above allowing us to see what it meant to work out the scope and meaning of his divine vocation in all its messiness.  We are privileged to witness Jesus’ growth into the one who would lay down his life not just for those who came from the same place that he did but for the rest of us as well. 

It’s time for us to listen, to attend with the ear of our hearts. We can take our inspiration from Jesus, whose listening to the daring Syrophoenecian woman allowed him to put aside his cultural prejudices and to expand his imagination and his heart to embrace the truth that God’s love and grace and healing were meant for all people.  And we can take inspiration from this desperate and persistent woman, whose heart’s ear gave her access to Jesus’ real message – and whose refusal to be quiet about what she heard – her refusal to back down from power and privilege – urges us today to raise our voices for freedom and for justice.  And for the causes and concerns of our own hearts.

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