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Sermon | The next circle outward
Speaker: Joel Miller
To hear the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is to witness a transition in the making.
One of the pulls for me toward focusing on transitions this summer was personal. Maybe it had to do with turning 40 a few years ago. Or maybe it had to do with the realization that our oldest daughters are now closer in proximity to young adulthood than I am – they approaching the front door, me having exited the back door - whenever that was. Maybe it has to do with an evolving inner sense of time, more aware than ever of how this life I call my own extends back well before my birth through ancestors and geological time, and forward past my own death.
One of the responses from people I’ve talked with about this theme is that we’re always in transition. It never stops. Which is undeniably true, which, I think, makes it all the more valuable to look at the larger picture.
Am I riding the hinge between the first half and second half of life? Or is it better thought of in thirds, in which case I am now solidly middle age, which could also be split into thirds making me early middle age?
In ancient Hindu philosophy I would be in the second of four life stages, known as the householder, focused on obligations to home, family, and community. Next up would be forest dweller, less focused on material stability. More focused on spiritual practice and uncompensated service to the community.
The psychologist Carl Jung spoke of a full life being like the span of a day. He wrote: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”
Maybe my Sabbatical was an early afternoon powernap.
But I have tried to shy away from reducing transitions to just chronological life stages, and certainly away from the culturally normative ways one is expected to progress through a “respectable” life. What about transitioning away from harmful theology? What about transitioning into enjoying being in one’s own skin? Transitioning into fulfillment through gratitude rather than consumerism. What about transitioning out of unconscious white supremacy. “Transitioning” is also shorthand for folks in the process of changing their gender expression as a way of more closely aligning with their inner sense of gender identity.
All these transitions are equally worthy of attention and perhaps some way of ritually marking the journey.
It’s this type of transition that shows up with the encounter of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.
The first things to notice about this story is that it takes place far from what had been the center of action. “From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” The There from which Jesus set out was the region of Galilee, Jesus’ home area. Much of Mark’s gospel up to this point takes place in different spots around the Sea of Galilee, with frequent boat trips to surrounding villages.
On one recent venture Jesus had been attempting to get away with his closest companions, his disciples. He had said to them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Which they attempted to do.
But the crowds found them. When evening came there was a mass of people and no apparent source of food. The disciples want to send the people away, but Jesus has another suggestion. They gather what they brought, five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus took the bread, and he broke it, and blessed it, and gave it to the disciples to distribute. And everyone had enough, with plenty left over. Mark notes there were 5000 men who had eaten.
The feeding of the 5000 was a failed wilderness retreat for Jesus and company, that ends up with a lot of bread for everyone who crashed the party.
Soon afterward, Jesus goes alone to the city of Tyre, which was North and West beyond Galilee, a different region entirely. Mark writes: “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”
Retreat getaway, take two. This time keep the friends at home so they don’t attract extra attention.
So that’s the setup.
What follows has strong echoes with that previous episode. Jesus is again discovered. Only this time, rather than the Jewish crowds, it is a singular, unnamed Syrophoenician woman. This is, after all, the Roman province of
Syria, historic home of the Phoenician naval empire. Here, Jesus is the foreigner. His people still bearing generational animosity toward those conquering Phoenicians. The crowd came for teachings, this woman came for her troubled daughter. This daughter never shows up in the scene, but she is the motivating factor for why this woman broke into Jesus’ solitude to beg for healing. Jesus represented a people with generational wounds inflicted by this woman’s people. This woman is intent on finding a way of ending an affliction within the generation that follows her.
Mark writes: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.”
The exchange that follows is what attracts the most attention in this story. And for good reason. Jesus’ response to her begging is to refer to her as a dog. It was a common ethnic slur. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The children Jesus is referring to are his own people, those who had just received an abundance of bread. The dogs – her people.
“It is not fair to take the children’s bread – our bread - and throw it to the dogs.”
There are two main ways of understanding what might have been going on here. The first is that Jesus is intentionally bringing out into the open the hostility between their two people. Rather than simply respond with a Yes or No, he responds by pointing out why it would make perfect sense for him to say No. Why her request is out of step with the way she was supposed to act toward him and the way he was supposed to act toward her. All the while giving her the opportunity to be the one to name why it had to be Yes.
Jesus lobs a pitch down the middle of the plate. Will she let it go by and take a strike, or will she take a swing. And if she swings, will she hit it? Given what your people call my people and what my people call your people, why should I help you?
The other way of understanding what’s going on is that Jesus slips into the deeply worn rut of hostility, and discounts her plea as less than worthy of his attention. He is, after all, most likely exhausted. And this house was, after all, supposed to be a safe refuge from people in general, and especially people like her. This very human Jesus narrows his horizon, draws a sharp boundary in which she is on the outside.
The text has no tone of voice clues. Mark leaves no emojis after Jesus’ statement. No winks, frowns, or fireworks. And so we can’t know exactly what Jesus meant, or how the woman heard it.
We do know how she responded. She swung.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Sir, supposing you are the head of this household you’re talking about, and supposing I am, as you imply, nothing but a dog. Sir, even the dogs eat some of those bread crumbs that fall from that high and lofty table of the children. So Sir, in your great kindness, if you could spare a few crumbs for my daughter, that would be all we need. Sir.
I’m guessing at her tone, but that’s how I imagine it.
And, depending on your reading of it, Jesus either glows with pride as this bold, risk-taking child of God hits the ball over his head and out of the park. Or Jesus jolts, as if waking up and seeing her in the room for the first time. Her insistence on her own dignity a revelation of the expansiveness of gospel.
Either way, the encounter between Jesus and this woman results in her daughter being restored, one generation passing on healing to the next. Also putting that other unclean spirit on notice, the one that had come between the generations of the foreign visitor Jesus and this local woman.
And either way, this story serves as a major transition in Mark’s gospel. Jesus will directly proceed to cure a deaf and mute man, and feed a multitude of 4000, both in Gentile territory. The Syrophoenician woman was right. There is plenty of bread for everyone.
At our retreat in July – the one Kerry was a part of – the one that thankfully didn’t have any major interruptions - we talked about transitions as a series of concentric circles. Transitions are linear in some ways, moving from one thing to another. But holy transitions, when done on a soul level, are much more like moving outward to the next circle. The edges that once defined one’s life no longer hold. And as one moves, however blindly, into the next widening circle, there’s still room for everything else. Every prior thing is still included.
When a tree adds a new ring each year all the previous rings are still part of the tree. The life of the tree, the flow of sugars and minerals are in the outermost ring, but the other rings, the older ones, are what give the tree it’s strength.
Anything we’re transitioning out of is still a part of us. Childhood and young adulthood are still a part of those of us no longer there. It’s even the case for transitioning out of toxic theology or white supremacy. They’re still a part of our story. There’s no need to deny that. They’re just not where the life is anymore. Their presence as an inner ring can actually become a source of strength rather than harm.
Like Rilke, the poet: “I live my life in widening circles.”
Like those words from our membership commitment statement: “ever expanding in our time.”
Like Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, pushing out against the edges, walking together into the next outward circle.