Taking Jesus to School

a sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost

No matter how many times I read the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, I can’t help but think that Jesus wasn’t being very Christ-like when he compared the Syrophoenician woman to a dog. But before she was able to get his blessing, she had to take Jesus to school.

I don’t know about you, but after reading today’s Gospel lesson it sure sounds like someone got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Man! No matter how many times I read this passage, I can’t help but think that Jesus wasn’t being very Christ-like when he compared the Syrophoenician woman to a dog. Okay, he was tired, I understand that. I know that when I’m tired, I say things that I wish I hadn’t said. But she only wanted what was best for her daughter.

Part of being human – and Jesus was fully human, just as he was fully divine – is that we’re not always at our best. We are emotional creatures whose perceptions and responses change with our mood. This is especially true when we’re tired or when we’re confronted by situations that make us uncomfortable. And nothing makes us more uncomfortable as when we meet someone who is different from us – someone who looks differently, or lives differently, or believes differently. Too often, our first response is just like Jesus’ was. We lash out and say mean things, or we separate ourselves from “the stranger” or “the other guy.”

At the same time, the woman couldn’t have been more respectful. She approached Jesus reverently, worshipfully. She begged at his feet. And she recognized that he was a holy man who had a special relationship with God.

This story makes us uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. First of all, it challenges our notions of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, the healer and teacher, the compassionate one. Jesus, the one who always takes the side of the lowest members of society. Where was that Jesus that day?

Second, it challenges our notions of the woman. She was a gentile, not a Jew. She wasn’t a member of Jesus’ tribe, so to speak. She was an outsider, not a member of the church. She was probably used to being ignored or scorned, but this had to hurt.

Finally, it challenges our own preconceived notions of the Church in general. Whether we like it or not, Christianity has a bad reputation among many people in our country. Some see the Church as a narrow minded institution, filled with people who are simply unable or unwilling to accept people whose views differ from their own. And if I am honest, I have to admit that even though I consider myself more open minded than our brothers and sisters in more conservative denominations, I still have my own beliefs that I believe are right, to the exclusion of everybody else.

This is why the woman’s response to Jesus is such a blessing. She recognized something that even Jesus himself didn’t understand – not yet, anyway. She understood that God was working through Jesus, and that God’s love not limited to any one person, or tribe, or race, or gender, or way of life. She recognized that in spite of Jesus’ rather limited view of his own ministry, God’s love was for the whole world. She takes Jesus to school, so to speak, turning his insult into a teaching moment, and shows him that his ministry, and ours, is intended reveal God’s love for the entire world, regardless of person, or tribe, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation. Her faith not only heals her daughter, but it also causes Jesus to recognize that God has chosen more than just his Chosen People of Israel. God’s mission for Jesus is to save the entire world.

And I think that is the most important lesson we can take from today’s story. That no matter how right we might think we are as Christians or as Episcopalians, our mission is to push out beyond our preconceived notions of who God is or what God wants, because God is so much bigger than we can even imagine. Our mission is to reach out beyond our familiar ideas and comfortable beliefs to find God beyond the boundaries of our ideas or the walls of our church. To reach out to the vast majority who look, or act, or believe differently from ourselves, and engage with them on their terms. Our mission is to meet them where they are and bless them, just has God blessed that woman that day.

In the end, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman changed him… for the better. It expanded his view of his own mission and ministry to encompass the entire world. And by expanding his view of his own mission and ministry to include the her, he modeled what a mature person of faith does when confronted with a reality that doesn’t fit our preconceptions. By setting aside his own customs and traditions and accepting and blessing her, he teaches us how to set aside the customs and traditions that prevent us from accepting those who are different from ourselves. Only then will we be able to fully embrace God’s mission for us in the world.
Thanks be to God.


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