These are the four sayings that lead to wisdom:
“I was wrong. I’m sorry. I don’t know. I need help.”
Armand Gamache serves as head and Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, serving the communities throughout that region in times of danger and devastation. Chief Inspector Gamache is the steady leader who earns people’s trust, going to the dark places where murders can be solved, staying with people through times of pain, holding space where frightening truths can be told. He has taken bullets and lost people he loves.
And he is entirely fictional.
Louise Penny has written fourteen mystery novels that include the good and very human inspector and his family, and his quirky circle of friends who have become like family. Chief Inspector Gamache is the one they look to, for direction and encouragement and truth and hope. And yes, for wisdom.
And even though the character who says them is a work of fiction, those four saying that lead to wisdom ring true.
In the first book of the series with Inspector Gamache at the center, he instructs a young detective, one who is anxious to get past the training and to the work of the job itself, by saying this:
“There are four things that lead to wisdom. You ready for them?...They are four sentences we learn to say, and mean.” Gamache held up his hand as a fist and raised a finger with each point. “I don't know. I'm sorry. I was wrong. I need help.”
Today’s gospel invites all kinds of commentary about the nature of God in the person of Jesus. Jesus goes into the region of Tyre, a place where Gentiles live – not faithful Jews. His last conversation before this, the gospel passage from last Sunday, was in Jerusalem, first with Pharisees and scribes and the crowd, and then alone in a house with his disciples. He talked then about the worry of clean versus unclean, about the mistake of elevating ritual law above God’s word. He said that piece about what goes into you cannot defile you, but that the danger is in what comes out.
From there he goes to the region of Tyre, and today’s passage tells us he enters a house and does not want anyone to know he is there. Why he’s in that region, we don’t know. Why he wants to escape notice, we don’t know. But this is Jesus, so – even among the Gentiles – of course the people know he is there.
The Bible talks with some frequency about unclean spirits, in ways that we mostly don’t, today. Whatever they involve, however they are defined and experienced, the people in the Bible who have them, or whose family members have them, are held captive by such things. The mother of a daughter with an unclean spirit hears that Jesus has come to their community. To be clear: the woman is not a Jew. She is a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. Her afflicted daughter is also a Gentile, not a faithful Jew. And remember, his troubles with the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the scribes and the temple priests notwithstanding, Jesus was Jewish. And remember also: he has just finished telling his disciples and the crowd and the Pharisees to get over their fixation on rules that would stand as obstacles to love.
The woman falls at his feet and begs Jesus to free her daughter from the unclean spirit that holds her captive.
(When is the last time you have fallen at someone’s feet? Ever?)
And Jesus, the same Jesus who has just finished telling those who follow him that it is not what goes into them that defiles them but what comes out of them – things like wickedness, and pride, and folly – that is what defiles them…Jesus says to the distressed mother begging at his feet for her daughter’s life: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
“There are four things that lead to wisdom...They are four sentences we learn to say, and mean: I don't know. I'm sorry. I was wrong. I need help.”
Biblical commentators have contorted themselves all over the place to rescue Jesus from this passage, to force him to be consistent with the compassionate and generous savior we believe him to be. After all, this is the only place anywhere in the Bible where he refuses a person who asks him specifically for healing. So maybe he doesn’t really mean it, some argue. Maybe he is having a bad day. Maybe this is a joke, and he’s actually teasing the woman by calling her a dog, by calling her child a dog (which, given the circumstances, just seems cruel). At the end of it all, though, we just don’t know why he does this.
This mother’s child is in danger, though. And so things that might otherwise be material, like manner and custom and propriety, all those things are gone for her…because her daughter is in danger. She is fearless and she is tenacious and she is insistent and, in that moment, she is a theologian. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she replies. ‘Give me something,’ she is saying, to the one she knows holds the power to heal. Nothing else matters, except that he give her something – give her child something – because she knows that that will be enough. And it is. “For saying that, you may go,” he tells her, “The demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus changes his mind. And even though he doesn’t say those four statements that lead to wisdom, at least not as written in the biblical text, we might infer them; we might overlay them on this exchange.
Today’s gospel continues after that conversation. Jesus returns to Jewish territory near the Sea of Galilee, where his followers bring him a man who is deaf and unable to speak. This time, Jesus does not refuse the opportunity to heal the person. He takes the man aside, he touches the man’s ears and his mouth, and says to him, “Be opened.”
The advice of most biblical commentaries is to tell preachers to choose one or the other of these stories. But this week, they feel like whole cloth. They feel related, as though the first informs the second. As though the first makes the second possible.
We are walking into an unknown territory in these times ahead, which may feel foreign. And with that comes the grief of change, the grief of parting after what has been a rich six years of shared ministry – for which I give you, and God, such thanks.
And with that also comes the added grief in this community with the loss of those we love but see no longer. Eight weeks ago today, our long-time member Dee Doughty departed this life, followed the week before last by beloved Gwen Johnson, and this past Tuesday by Dee’s dear husband Bill Doughty. As they join that blessed cloud of witnesses, may they be enfolded in God’s love; may they feast among the saints in light. As we walk these days ahead, I pray that we all will be guided by their faithful witness. I pray that we all will carry the legacy of their deep love for this church.
People of St. Augustine’s, we carry the great gifts of all those who have come before us, gifts that are meant to be shared with a world that starves after the practical love and honest care and faithfulness that you have to offer. You have before you the opportunity to go from strength to strength. This time ahead can be one of preparation and growth, with awareness that you belong to each other, and to God, that you have everything you need. Victor Conrado is here with us today from the Bishop’s staff, prepared to answer questions that you may have about the interim and the transition to calling your next rector. You have exceptionally gifted leaders in your wardens and vestry, and an associate rector and deacon, both of whom are strong, loving, and wise.
Be open, in this time ahead. Carry with you the humility that allows you to say those words that lead to wisdom, and mean them, when you need to: I don’t know. I’m sorry. I was wrong. I need help. Cherish and trust each other, and the God who is faithful. Take care of those who need to be taken care of. Be fearless, and tenacious. And be willing to go to those places that seem like foreign territory, knowing that God will find you there.
Perhaps it’s not strange after all that the wisdom that frames this comes from a mystery that is fiction but rings true. Maybe the writer Louise Penny is more of a theologian than she realizes or intends. Or maybe God is just showing up all over the place for us, marking the ways that will lead us forward.
Blessings on you all.
 Louise Penny. Still Life. St. Martin’s Minotaur Press, 2008.