I haven’t done this before and so I hope you will forgive me. I preached a sermon this morning in the Cathedral that a number of people said was helpful in the current situation in which we find ourselves. So I thought it might be worth repeating here.
The readings for today were Isaiah 56.1,6-8; Romans 11.1-2a,29-32; and Matthew 15.21-28 – but it was principally the gospel reading that I felt led to preach about. So this is what I said.
It didn’t look good. For a start off she was a woman. And then she was a foreigner, not a member of one of the tribes of Israel. To cap it all her daughter was ill and she was desperate. She’d heard about Jesus and so when news reached her that he was going to be close by she decided to take her chance. It was her only chance to get her daughter well again and so she was prepared to take the risk and go out to confront him and, if necessary, beg for healing.
It didn’t look good. She meets Jesus on the road. He’s with his disciples and as she begins to shout to attract his attention she catches the hostility in their eyes. And he, Jesus, ignores her. Scream as much as she wants it makes no difference.
It didn’t look good. She hears what they say, these men who are with him, telling their Master, their teacher, to send her away because her shouting is disturbing them. But he doesn’t, Jesus doesn’t. Instead he turns to her.
But it doesn’t look good. He tells her that he hasn’t come for the likes of her, a foreigner, someone not of the chosen people, someone not of the favoured people; he hasn’t come for the likes of her. But she pleads with him, nevertheless, she hears what he says but in the voice of a beggar she pleads for mercy.
But it doesn’t look good. They all laugh, these men who are with him, when he likens her to a dog, when he calls her a dog, scavenging, filthy, fit for the street and nowhere else.
It doesn’t look good – but she’s not going to give up – and with an answer to his insult she stops the laughter, ‘yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ She couldn’t believe she’d said it, using his insulting language, making out that she was in some way subservient to these jumped up Hebrews, these ex-slaves, who were making mockery of her, a woman, a foreigner, with a sick daughter.
This must be one of the most startling and disturbing passages in the Gospels. Why does Jesus treat this poor woman in such a seemingly cruel, heartless, racist way? Why would we acclaim this as worthy of standing for as it’s read to us, why would we honour such a horrible passage with candles and with incense? This is not the Jesus we know, this is not the Jesus we love, this is a disturbing story, a horrible image, it doesn’t look good.
It’s a shock when we see ourselves in a mirror, when we catch sight of ourselves when we’re least expecting it, when we haven’t had time to prepare our best side, to pull in the stomach and straighten the shoulders and raise the chin and smile. ‘Is that me?’ we find ourselves asking, I find myself asking as I quickly look away so that I can retain the image of myself that I prefer!
There’s only one way in which I can understand this gospel and that’s as being an account of the way in which Jesus holds a mirror up to us and shows us ourselves. In Hans Christian Anderson’s great story ‘The Snow Queen’ the devil makes a mirror which distorts the good and makes all seem evil. But Jesus holds up a mirror to us in which we see the truth and are forced to confront the truth. As he meets this woman on the road he realises that he has the opportunity to change things for the good, to confront evil with truth, even in those closest to him.
It didn’t look good. The tradition was that a rabbi, a teacher, wouldn’t talk with a woman. So when this woman first confronts him, Jesus ignores her, as the law requires. The expectation was that he wouldn’t taint himself by talking to her who would, by her very nature, taint him. The disciples react as the tradition demands – but Jesus doesn’t do as they say.
Jesus continues to ignore her and speaks to his disciples; he tells it as it is, she is not of the House of Israel, she is foreign and he’s come to shepherd God’s flock, not her kind. Jesus is completely in accordance with the law. As far as those around him are concerned he’s said nothing wrong, nothing shocking.
But she’s listening and she begs, she falls on her knees before him and they despise her even more. But then Jesus breaks the convention and speaks to her in a way that sounds to us outrageously insulting but not to the disciples, she is a foreigner, she is no better than a dog – and we can imagine them nodding. But the woman comes back with strong words, so strong that Jesus responds by doing as she asks – healing her daughter and holding her up as a mirror to those who were following him, a mirror of faith, an example of faith, who challenges, discredits all those attitudes that they have.
Jesus takes the woman and by treating her as those around him expect reveals how wrong they are and how different things will be in the kingdom of which he will be king.
Isaiah, in our First Reading, speaks of a kingdom, of a vision of God’s people, that’s truly inclusive, of a holy mountain and a house of prayer in which all the nations will be at home, in which all the nations will gather. As it says at the end of the passage
‘I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.’
Her gender, her ethnicity, neither of these make a difference to Jesus, his compassion is for all. He reveals to us the true nature of God who embraces the whole of humanity because God is the creator of all humanity. God is love and that means that God loves even you, even me, even the Syro-Phoenician woman who’s prepared to break every convention and confront what’s so bad and allow Jesus to use her as a mirror of truth to confront the misguided thinking of the disciples and our misguided thinking as well, and the misguided thinking so apparent in our world.
My brothers and sisters, we’re living through very bad times. What’s happening in Iraq is evil. What’s been happening in Gaza and Israel is evil and those who attempt to shackle God to what they do, whatever name they use to call God, will answer for it. The actions of members of the Islamic State towards the Christian and Yazidi minorities is frightening, barbaric and must be stopped. The disproportionate harm inflicted by the State of Israel on the people of Gaza has to be challenged; the constant bombing of Israel by Hamas cannot continue. There’s no right in any of this only innocent victims and we must hold up a mirror to the evil and tell it as it is as the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, has done today.
But thank God for women like the Syro-Phoenician woman who teach us the truth. In the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza that we seek to support today the Hospital Director, Suhaila Tarazi, is just such a woman. She says
“We are here as an instrument in the hands of God to show the love of Jesus Christ for all people. …This hospital will continue to be a place of reconciliation, of love. The history of this hospital tells the story that we are all children of one God, whether we are Christian, Muslim or Jew.”
And we have seen images of Christian and Yazidi mothers in Iraq fleeing with their children and holding a mirror up to the evil around. These are phenomenal women, proud women and Jesus shows us in this Eucharist how we can learn something new, about truth and about our own attitudes by looking and thinking again.
The late great poet and writer Maya Angelou, wrote a powerful poem called ‘Phenomenal woman’ and it ends like this
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
For the world’s phenomenal women in Gaza, in Iraq, wherever the innocent suffer through the terror of violence and here in our own communities, we give thanks and we look into the mirror that Jesus holds up which reflects both them and us so that we can begin to ask the big questions about how we’re living and have our own deep-seated prejudices challenged as he challenged those of his disciples – because we, like them, have them.
It doesn’t look good – but when we look to Jesus we see that it, that we, that the world can be better. Amen.
And whatever you do, please continue to pray for all those who are caught up in what is happening.
Lord, wherever our brothers and sisters are suffering,
support, sustain and strengthen them
for your love’s sake.