When I was in 10th grade, I went on a one week trip to Haiti with our priest and our parish youth group. That trip was my first experience of really stepping out of my own culture into one that was radically different. One significant difference between Haitian and American culture became apparent the first day we were there and went to the market in Port au Prince to do some shopping and I paid asking price for a pair of sunglasses. I wondered why the merchant looked rather disappointed, he took my money. I later learned that you are never expected to pay the asking price in Haiti. Asking price is set unreasonably high with the expectation that you will haggle back and forth with the merchant to a reasonable price. But being an American teen ager, I did not realize that. So I paid more than I had to and he missed out on the fun of haggling – for that is part of it for Haitians – it is a fun social interchange as well as an economic exchange.
A few days later we were up in the mountains to see a school our church was helping to expand. Our church and others in our area were also raising money to pay the staff of the school. When our bus arrived in the village, a group of the village children met us. When we got off they swarmed us, and each was selling something. The little boy who latched on to me had stones. They were shiny quarts of some kind. He began by saying “Pour vous Mademoiselle… $1.” I said, “No merci”. So he went down to $.75. And I said “No merci,” again. But he was not deterred. He walked right alongside me for quite a way on the road, offering a better price to each of my “No mercies” It broke my heart to put him off, but we had been advised not to buy from the children, or they would never leave us alone. I knew this little boy’s life was already much better because of the school project my church was funding, but saying no to his bright face as he sought to haggle with me was still hard. He finally gave up when I said “No merci” to his price of $.05, and turned back toward his home.
Later that day when we returned to the bus, he was there, waiting for me. But this time he simply smiled and handed me one of his shiny stones and said, “Pour vous, Mademoiselle”. I said, “No, No.” and tried to give it back but he would not take it and said, “un petite cadeau pour vous – a gift for you.” I was left speechless. As our bus drove away he stood there smiling and waving, and I clutched his rock, with tears in my eyes. I had not expected to receive a gift, but then when you step out of your own comfort zone into a place of newness lots of things happen that you might not expect.
Our Gospel lesson this morning is case in point. The gospel writer tells us “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” I wonder what Jesus was expecting went there. Tyre is a coastal region outside the boundaries of Israel, in Gentile territory. Jesus had to cross boarders – both physical, social and cultural to get there. Perhaps Jesus was looking for a place to get away for a bit of a respite from the crowds, as we are told “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” But his fame had spread, even past the boundaries of his own country, into this land and among its Gentile residents. He was known to be a healer and exorcist, and so people took notice wherever he went.
A woman of Syrophoenician origin approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. He does not rise willingly to this task. During our study of this passage at our Vestry meeting on Monday we noted that the region Jesus chose to travel too, Tyre, might well have matched his mood and state of being after all the healing and teaching he had been doing – Jesus was tired so he went to Tyre! OK I admit that pun is a bit tired itself! But whether he was tired of something else was going on with him, when this woman approached him he is uncharacteristically reluctant, and more than a bit rude to her. He tells her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. “ In other words he is saying that he is a Jewish healer and rabbi so he needs to preserve his power for that community, not wasting it in Gentile territory.
But the woman is not willing to take no for an answer. She counters his words with her own – turning his metaphor on its head, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. “ Her words seem to bring him up short, for suddenly Jesus changes his mind. Suddenly his vision is enlarged – he has come away for some rest from engaging the pain of the world. But he finds that in being forced to face that pain – even reluctantly- in the life of this woman and her daughter, he receives the gift of witnessing profound faith outside the Jewish nation. Connection is made here. Grace flows, even where Jesus did not expect it.
I love this story because it shows me that even while Jesus pushed others to change and grow, he sometimes had to be pushed to change and grow himself. That is good news for us – Jesus gets what it is like for us when we think we are certain about how life is but then our travels or our encounters with others from another place push us to expand our vision.
This Gospel passage shows me that when we allow ourselves to be drawn outside our comfort zone and move beyond the places that are familiar to us, God may surprise us. God may expand our vision of what faith is and of how grace works. God may open us to other ways of seeing and doing things, and may fill our hearts with love and faith expressed even across boarders and lines of difference.
It seems to me that this story is uncannily timed in our lectionary – for here we meet a Syrophoenician- that is a woman of Phonecia who was born in Syria. We meet this woman in the gospel the same week in which we have been deluged with news stories and images of the thousands or people fleeing their homes in Syria, and neighboring countries to seek refuge in Europe. These people trying to reach refuge in Europe – who are among the estimated 60 million displaced by hunger and violence around the globe – are not unlike those fleeing from El Salvador and other Central American countries – seeking save haven for their children as their entire sense of normalcy has been turned on its head.
Our first reaction in times like these maybe to think – just as Jesus did – that we must carefully guard and protect our finite resources to care for ourselves and our own people. But if we can let the plight of these 60 million touch us, we will come to see that the human family is put in jeopardy when we cling exclusively to protectionist thinking.
At first Jesus did not want to look into the face of the Syrophoenician woman- who had dared to pursue him even when he had referred to her and her daughter as dogs. But because of her persistent faith he was pushed to turn, to see her and to hear her. And this Gospel story is passed to us so that we will do the same here in our own day. We are called with Jesus to look into the face of the suffering in this world and to hear their pleas.
Last week, in the Daughters of Abraham Book Group – which brings Muslim, Jewish and Christian women together – one of my sisters said, “We have to come to understand that we are all refugees in this world, depending on the love and grace of God to provide for us each day often through the hands of others.” I think that bears repeating (read again)
In an e-mail to me this week a member of our parish asked:
Has our national church come out with a statement of any kind about the Syrian refugee crisis? I’ve been reading about some of the European countries’ responses, but not much about the US. This may be a crazy idea, but could our church or Diocese sponsor some families here in MA?
In part my response was that we need to keep asking even the seemingly crazy questions to ourselves and each other so that faithful action can arise among us. I would love it if our Global Outreach Committee would join with me to plan a forum to engage more of us in conversation on this!
Jesus, pushed to enlarge his vision then reached out the loving hand of God, to heal a daughter whose life was broken. We are given chances each day to do the same. Dare we believe that when we move out of our comfort zone and ask what we can do to relieve the suffering of others, God blesses us too? God blesses us through the riches that those we welcome in God’s name bring with them. Sometimes it’s unexpected – un petit cadeau- like a small shiny stone. Other times, it’s courageous and living faith shared even in the face of deep adversity. We don’t want to miss out on sharing in these gifts. Do we?
In thanksgiving for the Syrophoenician woman. Amen+