I always feel a bit bad for the man healed in the second half of today’s gospel story: It seems hardly anyone ever notices him—he’s always upstaged by the incredible encounter that precedes him. That story, of the Syrophoenecian woman, is startling to me because it seems to reveal a particularly unattractive side of Jesus: instead of the compassionate teacher of so many beloved images, we get a dose of ancient ethnocentrism, religious exclusivity, even ancient sexism. What would you say about a man who calls a woman and her sick daughter from an ethnic group other than his own a “dog”— even if, as scripture scholars might point out, he might have used a word more like “puppy”? Would any of us here allow a stranger to refer to our sick loved one that way?
What’s even more incredible about the story is that it’s not the woman who is the “foreigner” in this case: It’s Jesus who is outside of his homeland; he’s the migrant, the outsider, the foreigner, traveling through Gentile lands and Gentile cities, presumably to preach to Jewish communities there. And yet, when a local woman, a native, hearing of this outsider’s healing power, comes asking for help for her child, Jesus insults her in a way that would make Donald Trump blush—except The Donald would have to repeat the insulting things he said about Mexican immigrants on the other side of the Rio Grande.
The sheer outrageousness of Jesus’ reaction to her request makes this woman’s response all the more intriguing to me. It would be easy to imagine her (and I can imagine myself) reacting in kind: “Then go back to where you came from, you self-righteous jerk. While you’re at it, maybe you should also go … <insert language too strong for a Sunday morning>.” You get the idea. I, for one, would understand that reaction.
But instead of being reactive, this woman gets creative, transforming Jesus’ insult into an argument in her favor. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And her creativity surprises Jesus—he even applauds her argument—and her daughter gets healed. And, arguably, so does Jesus, who at least has a new understanding of his mission.
Creative, rather than reactive: What a gift this ancient woman could give to this constantly reacting world. I think I caught a glimpse of her this week as I read stories of other migrants and foreigners, all those thousands gathered in Hungary, trying to get West. In the midst of all that reaction against them, even as they were insulted by having numbers written on their arms, or lied to about where the trains were taking them, or surrounded by police in riot gear, as if they were criminals, and not victims and refugees desperate to save their families, thousands of them showed her creative spunk. They didn’t riot or fight or throw rocks, they just started walking again, along the highway, a sea of people making her argument with their bodies: We are people, too, and we deserve at least the scraps from Europe’s table. And before you knew it, the busses came, and they had won their argument, at least for now.
Creative, rather than reactive. What would it be like if we were able to employ her wisdom in our own efforts to engage the problems of the world? How might our politics be different? How might our creativity guide our response to racism or sexism, or to violence or homelessness or hunger or poverty, if we could sidestep the reactivity that is so baked into our culture of instant responses on Twitter, or Facebook, or the 24-hour news cycle. What would that look like? It might reveal as surprise that heals the world.
How about in our personal lives? I’m hoping I’m not the only one here who has a relationship or two so locked in patterns of reaction—old arguments, bad habits, hurt feelings—that it’s sometimes hard to imagine things any other way. Does anyone else have a relationship like that—maybe at work, or with a family member? Maybe like that man in the second part of today’s gospel, we discover that our reaction is so strong we are not really able to hear that other person anymore, or we find that we are no longer able to speak in ways that allow us to be understood. What would it be like to pause in that next encounter, to remember this ancient woman, to allow our reaction to pass, and to discover a creative response?
Perhaps with Jesus and the Syrophoencian woman, and the man who could not hear or speak, we would be surprised by the healing God is longing to reveal to us.