These verses we have just heard from Mark’s gospel are special ones to me. On their surface they are “just” stories, among numerous others, of miracles performed by Jesus. I particularly like these two healing stories because of what they say about Jesus, what they say about God, and what they say about you and me.
What these verses say about Jesus, to me anyway, is something that is very disagreeable to any number of people. I (and others) understand Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman to be an instance in which Jesus learns something, in which he grows in his compassion for others. The text is startling: a woman, like so many others in scripture, asks Jesus to heal someone she loves most in the world, her daughter. And Jesus says no. The woman is a gentile. He responds with words that mean, in essence, “Why should I give away what I have not to my own community but to others?” He says it a lot less politely, though - he compares his own community to deserving children and hers to dogs. The woman doesn’t directly challenge this; she simply adds that she and other dogs are always waiting under the table until those beloved children might drop some scraps. She lets Jesus know that she’ll be waiting around and grateful for crumbs. And he tells her that, for saying that, he has been moved to heal her daughter. She can go home and find her well.
As I’ve said, there are many people who don’t like this interpretation of the story. Jesus, they say, has nothing to learn. Jesus is perfect - is perfection itself. He may be fully human but he is, more importantly, fully divine, and his every word and action must be understood in that context. If Jesus said no to this woman, it was only to test her faith - a test that she passed. He didn’t expand his compassion in listening to her response; he only expanded her ability to persist in her belief in his ability to heal. She does not prevail; he prevails.
I’ve said that these verses are special to me for what they say about Jesus, and that rests in the former interpretation of the text, the one that understands Jesus as learning something from the Syrophoenician woman - as being instructed by her in a way that grows his compassion. This doesn’t make Jesus imperfect; it means that God continues to work in him, too. The Messiah who prays to God in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup might pass from him is the one who always wants God’s will to be done. Jesus is always growing - that’s not heresy but Good News. He was not a passive stone throughout his ministry but a living and responding rabbi - a teacher and a learner - and it was those things he learned that later gave him the compassion, in the very midst of his execution to pray to God that his killers would be forgiven. The Christ that can grow is the Christ of infinity - infinite compassion, love, mercy - all exhibited most clearly in the final movements of his earthly life. The Christ who can grow is the Christ of limitless boundaries; the Messiah who can grow is the Messiah of a universe that is expanding, not contracting – God’s universe. I have great appreciation for this healing story for what it says to me about Jesus.
And for what it says about God. God is the creator of all people (as we also read in our passage from Proverbs). God is in relationship with all humanity. The temporal power of the day was Rome’s - a power defined by political boundaries and maintained through violence. God’s realm has no boundaries. A woman native to Syria and living in Phoenicia is a full member of it. God’s love is infinitely expansive. God remains compassionate and merciful. And as we read in the 18th chapter of Genesis, God also has heard instruction in compassion and mercy from a mere mortal, when Abraham bargains God down from smiting the inhabitants of corrupt Sodom, reminding God that even a handful of righteous people there would make obliteration inappropriate. God is always ready to engage with any of us in an argument about mercy and compassion Jesus has everything in common with his heavenly parent.
And then we have this passage’s commentary on the nature of humanity - all of God’s beloved children - commentary on who we are, and who we might become. Indeed, if Jesus can grow and expand, so can we - so ought we. To grow in compassion and understanding in any situation is divine work, even the work of the one whom we worship this morning. We who strive to be like him, then, must strive to change and grow. Our compassion is never complete. Our knowledge and understanding are never complete. Our ignorance isn’t sin, our perfectionism is. Our ignorance is just our opportunity to grow. Our perfectionism is our belief that we can understand everything, be complete in our compassion, master all that there is to be achieved. In his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman, we see Jesus confronting his ignorance and refusing perfectionism. He lights the pathway for us, showing us what honorable and holy work it is to change one’s mind, grow one’s compassion, to question, to listen, to continually expand our circle of love.
I got back just a day and a half ago from a two week trip to the Balkans with twenty students, and these verses from Mark have a particular resonance for me this morning in the light of that experience. We were in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia to learn about how, if at all, religious communities there were contributing to post-conflict reconciliation and sustainable peace-building, there in countries where religion was the only difference between warring communities that were all south Slavs. Christ’s opening to someone from another religious and national community was a powerful analogy for me there.
We learned in the former Yugoslavia not about “ancient hatreds” (as the media proclaimed during the war of the 1990s) but of recent, 20th century atrocities, so-called “ethnic cleansings”, and nationalism, nationalism, and more nationalism, often suturing a country’s dominant religion to its cause. If it is Jesus’ project to grow in compassion and understanding towards those outside his community, it must be ours as well.
We heard from people who were very certain that they had perfect clarity of perspective on the violence, the wars. My own historical knowledge of the region is miniscule, but I knew enough to understand that their facts were wrong and their perspective biased. I understood why - they and their families had suffered terribly. We heard from other people who simply began their comments by saying, “I am biased, of course - my father ended up in a mass grave”, or “we were driven from our homes at gunpoint and lost everything.” It is always good to be aware of when we are not neutral.
What would it mean for us to “be opened” – “ephphatha” to anyone to whom we feel quite righteously that we should not be generous to? Jesus overcame that impediment. How do we?
In a situation such as the western Balkans, where each national community can claim victimhood, how does reconciliation begin? It can only happen, I now think, especially in the Balkan wars when all groups let go of the idea that only they were right, and that other people have their own right-ness. Croats “cleansed” Serbs from northeastern Croatia, so Serbs shelled Dubrovnik in southeastern Croatia. People died all over the please, more than 100,000 in Bosnia alone. Reconciliation doesn’t mean that you say the other group is right, but rather that you understand that they feel as right in their perspectives as you do in yours. That’s where it starts.
And this isn’t easy. “Forgive and remember,” we heard from one activist who, along with her family, continues to suffer very much from the wars of 20 years ago. Forgive and remember. Forgive, so that you can be freed up to live, and even to live together. Remember, because not remembering your dead is a kind of obscenity and an invitation to repeat past errors. It’s not that suffering simply doesn’t matter anymore - it must always matter. The dead must always matter. What a challenge to live honestly and well in the present without letting go of loved ones lost, a home, a way of life lost. What a challenge to be reconciled, to admit to others’ loss and suffering, without letting go of your own.
And what a challenge to pursue justice when so much and so many have been irretrievably lost. Justice, it occurred to me in the Balkans, cannot be retributive, cannot be past-looking, or cycles of violence will never end. Justice must be forward-looking. It is not easy to bring combatants together to discern together what justice can look like in a common and shared future. We all still want to settle injustices from the past - our own injustices. It is a just relationship in the present and future that is within our control, and discerning that together is critical. Jesus becomes forward-looking in his relationship with the Syrophoenician woman; his focus is on their relationship in the present and future, not the past. I don’t know if the religious communities of the former Yugoslavia can lead the way in reconciliation, but that is my prayer.
Jesus is opened by his conversation with a woman, and the next thing he does is continue deeper into gentile territory to heal again. He cures the hearing of a deaf man saying, “Be opened!” Jesus knows what that’s like.
He invites us to experience it, too - to make ourselves vulnerable to the people and histories we feel very entitled to dislike, and to deny the generosity of which we are capable to keep what we have from the undeserving. Christ is our example and our guide in how to grow in compassion, how to extend our generosity, and how to be opened. Jesus knows what that’s like.