A few days ago I got a window into the utter courage the woman in the story before us now displayed. For I surely saw its opposite. Not that I’m judging that, believe me, I am not.
Here is how it was. I spent the last week on a cruise with some of the dearest people in the world to me. It is not normally how I vacation, but then, to tell you the truth, I don’t typically vacation all that ‘well,’ if you know what I mean. (I expect at least some of you do.) The real advantage of these seven days away was that I was quickly ‘away’ and unable to be reached for once the ship left the shore, mobile phones didn’t work and wi-fi prices were exorbitant.
Now this was a first for me, but I am told that our overall experience was not unique, for as we traveled, our every need was met by an attentive staff: most of whose primary language was not English. From all over the world, these young people have come to find work and perhaps along with that, some kind of a ‘step up.’ For instance, on the first night, a young woman from Thailand served us dinner. I asked her if she had been here long. “Oh yes!” she replied. “I’ve been here four months!” And she went on to say, “I need to call my mother tonight…” Oh yes, I’m certain these last four months had felt like an eternity to her.
I especially got to thinking about the Syrophoenician woman in today’s Gospel,though, when we went on a shore excursion. It involved a trip by ferry to the mainland of Mexico where we were met by our guide, Pablo. Pablo is a young man with seemingly boundless energy, a ready smile, and a quick sense of humor. Only almost all of the time? The joke was ‘on him’ as he laughingly spoke aloud many of the stereotypes held about Mexicans — applying these stereotypes with an eye roll to himself. And oh, he was a master at it: quickly putting a group of twenty North Americans at ease. Indeed, I’m sorry to say that for the most part it was only as I looked back at the day we shared that I found myself uncomfortable.
In fact, I so enjoyed Pablo that as we were filling out our evaluations at the end of the day, I tucked $20 into my nephew’s hand to give him as a tip. I was fairly confident that such tokens beyond the initial cost of the excursion were the primary way he was contributing to his family’s support.
And yes, this was confirmed for me a few minutes later when he told the group as much, inviting us to show our appreciation for his work that day by giving him a tip. Part of his pitch was that, tongue in cheek, he spoke of a fictional society which our gifts would support — a ‘society which had been formed to keep Mexicans in Mexico — for we did not want to find Pablo in our back yard.’
And while I hope my response would be the same for any person anywhere whom God had created and so loves, somehow I felt it even more so then. For this is a gifted young man who had somehow kept twenty citizens of the United States from slipping and falling as we made our way down into caves, from bumping our heads when the ceiling was low, and from drowning as we floated through an underground river. And he is bi-lingual to boot — to the point where in a language which was not his first, he had become a master at self-deprecation, making it clear that we were somehow “above him.” He did this even as he kept us all safe and alive and as he managed to work in some interesting learning about Mayan culture, the ecosystem of a cave with a river in it that serves, still, as the main source of drinking water for the local people, and what to look for should we wish to purchase tequila to take home with us. Indeed, why wouldn’t I want to find Pablo in my back yard?
Oh yes, Pablo did what he felt he had to do. I do not judge it, even as it makes me so sad. Still, as I witnessed this in Pablo and in a number of others who took care of us on our journey this week, I realized again how very unexpected the Syrophoenician woman’s behavior was in the story before us now.
For at no point in her conversation with Jesus was she apologetic. Perhaps the purpose of her errand was such that she felt she simply had no choice, but she was, quite simply, bold. She was bold to approach Jesus in the first place — a woman in that time and place when such was simply not done. And yes, she was bold to continue to engage him even after he attempted to dismiss her because she was a Gentile. It is only at the end that she acknowledges her place in this whole social system and she says what she must in order to get what she needs. At the very end she points out the truth of her experience that crumbs may be all she’ll get, but that even the crumbs would be more than she ever had before: and more than enough to make her daughter well again.
So in the end, maybe Pablo and this woman are not so different after all?
Either way, both point to a world divided by difference and stratified by class or race or citizenship. Both speak of a world God must grieve all the time.
For in spite of Jesus’ initial response, can’t you almost sense him yearning to give her a different answer? Indeed, don’t you see how quickly he turns, finally granting this woman her dearest request? For that matter, we could be safe in presuming that the deaf man he heals in the next sentences was also a Gentile. And in the following verses we about Jesus feeding a crowd of four thousand people in that same region. Could it be that many, if not all of them, were also Gentile?
Oh yes, in spite of what appears to be his initial struggle, we hear that Jesus is, in fact, crossing racial and religious boundaries all over the place, bringing people together by sharing the remarkable gifts of God with one and all. I wonder, don’t you, what it would look like if you and I were agents of such as this in our world today? Oh, I do wonder what that would mean for Pablo and for you and for me in this world we live in now.
- What do you think? Were Pablo and the Syrophoenician woman alike or not?
- How have you seen racial or class differences play out in your world?
- What would it mean for you and me to cross the same kind of boundaries that Jesus did? What would that look like in your neighborhood? In your congregation?