A couple of months ago I was out on my early morning walk. The sun was not quite up as I headed down Meadow Lane and turned left on Borden.
I don’t remember now what was on my mind that morning as I tried to pick up my pace and turn my walk into more than just an easy stroll. I do recall I was walking with my head down when suddenly through the still dim morning light I was picking up words on the sidewalk. Every couple of yards or so someone had written an encouraging message. It occurred to me then that there had been a 5K run on that route the week-end before. There had been no rain since then so the messages were still there, clearly written for one person in particular, but left behind for all the rest of us to enjoy as well:
“You Go Girl!” “You can do it!” “You are awesome!”
Written in colorful sidewalk chalk, this went on for blocks. And the funny thing was with every passing encouraging word I felt my spirits lift and my pace pick up just a little more. It didn’t matter, somehow, that the words weren’t meant for me. It didn’t matter that they were ‘left over’, crumbs even, from someone else’s important day. Still, they fed me. They were enough to completely turn my day around.
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus in conversation with a Syrophoenician woman. What we know if her is this. She was a Gentile. She was a mother. And she was persistent — driven, no doubt, by a great love for her suffering daughter. Clearly she would go to whatever lengths were necessary to get her child the help she needed. So with courage and tenacity she crossed all kinds of barriers and went to one she had heard could make the difference she was desperate for. She went to Jesus.
Only the conversation that follows is not one that you and I who are so accustomed to thinking of “Gentle Jesus” would think we would hear now. Indeed, I have read every commentary on my shelf this week and I still have trouble comprehending how or why this conversation begins in the way that it does, with Jesus’ refusal to simply give this understandably desperate woman what she came for. And I have little way of beginning to understand or explain why it is he goes so far as to imply this woman and all of her kind are ‘dogs’ — as I understand it, then and now, a profound insult in that part of the world. Somehow I am not made that much more comfortable by those who assert that the words on the page give us no way of knowing Jesus’ tone or facial expression. Maybe his tone was kind and a smile played on his lips as he said it, but if that were the case, surely it would have helped if the one who recorded this story would have told us so then.
So I have to say that since I don’t really fully understand, I do find myself tempted, once more, to jump to the second healing story in this week’s Gospel. It’s taking some effort for me to stand still in this one and to try to comprehend and accept the implications of what we know is so: that the gifts Jesus brought were not meant first for the Syrophoenician woman or her daughter. And that the gifts Jesus brings were not first meant for the likes of you and me. He was sent for the children of Israel.
Even so, if we stand still in the story before us for a while, the gifts are still more than we can comprehend. Indeed, the wonder of this story is that Jesus engages in conversation with this woman at all — and with a woman who is a Gentile at that. And the wonder of this story, particularly in that time and place, is that the woman does not back down. Perhaps it is so that there was something in Jesus’ demeanor which invited her to challenge him. Or perhaps she was simply driven by great love. Finally, the wonder of this story is that the woman knows that even the crumbs of God’s goodness and power would be more than enough. That just a little bit of the gifts of God go a long way. That even just the crumbs from God’s table are for those who receive them like a feast which will change the world.
It is so very true of course. I see it in the place I am serving every single day. In the experience of how simply standing still and listening to someone can change the course of a conversation. Just crumbs, really. In seeing one of our own who had not been with us in a while return to worship when members of the congregation took the time to send a collective sympathy card when his mother died. Only crumbs, if you think about it, with a first class stamp attached. In the kindness of a staff member who walked a young couple looking for a place to have their wedding through the building — and how they couldn’t get over his hospitality and now are thinking this may be just the church home they have been looking for. Just crumbs. It doesn’t take much, it seems, not if it comes from God’s table.
A few months ago on my morning walk I was surprised by ‘crumbs’ left behind. They were not meant for me at all. I even knew there were not meant for me, but left over, they fed me still. It seems to me the power of God is like that, too. It just doesn’t take much to change everything. And even if they were not meant for us first, it doesn’t much matter now for still we share in them, too. By God’s grace and power the gifts of God are ours. And what a wonder that is.
- What do you make of Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman? Try to put yourself there at the table as it develops.
- Does it make any difference to you that the gifts of God were not first meant for Gentiles, for you and me? Why or why not?
- Can you think of times when just ‘crumbs’ have made all the difference? In your life, your family, your community, in the life of your congregation?