Healing – Sept 9, 2018
Today is a day for healing. Today we hear at least 3 stories of miraculous healing in our Gospel. Two of the instances are obvious. Working backwards, a deaf man receives back his hearing and with it, his voice, so he can speak plainly. It follows the healing of a little Gentile girl through the persistence of her mother. The third healing miracle is less obvious but also incredibly important. It is a miracle wrapped up in and amongst the healing of the little girl. To recognize it, we need to explore Jesus’ interaction with this determined, even heroic, woman.
Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus setting out from around the Sea of Galilee. There he has been teaching and healing and there he has been arguing with the Pharisees. Just before our healing stories today, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees for transgressing the law, specifically purity laws, lived out in the ritual of handwashing. And so today he travels to the region of Tyre, a coastal area and more importantly, a Gentile area. Jesus goes there to get away… to get away from the arguing perhaps, and from the crowds. His mission is to the Jews, a point he’ll make clear shortly, and so it makes sense to go to a non-Jewish area to get-away. The story clearly says Jesus did not want anyone to know he was there. Unfortunately, his strategy doesn’t work, for his reputation has spread further than he realized. A woman of the area immediately hears that he has arrived in town and she loses no time in going to him to beg for healing for her demon-possessed daughter.
Jesus is not in the mood. He could have just politely asked her to leave, but instead, he articulates his Jewish mission in a rather rude and exclusive fashion, saying: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not a very nice way to express his mission of teaching and healing to the Jewish community, but it is clear. And, to be fair, it does actually leave the door open for something else, something more. Jesus doesn’t say the dogs don’t get fed, or shouldn’t get fed, just that they come after the children. That said, it is not nice to compare this forthright woman with a dog. How ironic that just after having an argument with the Pharisees about purity laws, and effectively setting aside such laws, a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin now transgresses those boundaries. And it annoys Jesus.
Calling this woman a dog is an insult, meant to be degrading, but more importantly, it highlights the critical undercurrent in the story. That is, the division between Jews and Gentiles and the animosity between them. The Gentiles, particularly of the cities like Tyre, were wealthier than the rural Jews who had to export their produce to keep the cities fed and likely resented the economic disparity. There was no love lost between these peoples of differing socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race and religion, not to mention the gender difference in this story. With such distinctions and tensions, it took a lot for this woman to approach Jesus. It took her single-minded desire for healing for her daughter.
This heroic mom’s love for her daughter has her ignore whatever emotional impact the insult brings. Instead of shrinking back in hurt or offence, she fights back with her intellect, her determination and her wit. “Sir,” she replies, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She turns a “demeaning metaphor to her advantage,” and by responding with a saying of equal power to Jesus’, she ends an argument barely begun. As one commentator describes, “This retort reverses the prejudices on both sides of the debate.” And “Jesus, who usually overwhelms his opponents, allows the Gentile woman’s reply to stand.” “The miracle,” the commentator goes on, “is the overcoming of prejudice and boundaries that separate persons.” (NIB, 611) Jesus acknowledges that the woman is right, not in so many words, but by fulfilling her request: “For saying that,” Jesus relents, “you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Having got what she wanted, the woman then returns home to find her daughter healed. The miracle of healing of the little girl may have occurred at a distance, but part and parcel of her healing is the healing of division and prejudice between peoples. And that healing occurred face-to-face, between the Jewish Jesus and a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin, representatives of their respective communities.
Some days it seems like there are divisions and prejudices to numerous to mention in our world today. Our world is as stratified and segmented as ever. The needs of the so-called 1% always seem to trump the needs of so many more who struggle to make ends meet. The economic disparity is often tied with a range of other divisions: in politics, in immigration status, in gender and sexuality, in ethnic and cultural diversity, and the list goes on. But I have to admit that the divisions of particular interest to me at the moment are close to home, here.
Next weekend we celebrate 60 years as a parish, exactly 10 years after the 50th anniversary celebration. 10 years ago, The Rev. Mark Loyal attended those celebrations, but it wasn’t long after, less than 3 months later, that he was removed from his pastoral ministry here at St. Andrew’s. He was terribly ill and his removal was necessary but still, many were shocked and hurt by the events. I believe a division occurred in and around that time. I’ve heard it described as a source of division between the 2 services: 8am and 10:30am, though it also transcends it. I wonder what it will take for that division to heal? 10 years is a long time. I wonder if our act of coming together next Sunday, in one service at 9:30am, to celebrate our 60th, could be a moment of healing? I wonder what else is needed, what face-to-face encounter could occur between representatives of their respective communities?
If we believe the good news of God in Christ, particularly as expressed in our Gospel stories today, we believe that healing can come. I believe because I was blessed with an experience of healing this week. It came in a meeting with a parishioner with whom I’d had a conflict. Such conversations aren’t easy, but God’s promise of healing makes it worth the discomfort and the effort. The critical moment came when she quietly exclaimed “I think that’s it.” “What’s it?” I asked. “I wanted you to be my friend,” she explained. It turned out that the conflict had come about because of our differing expectations of our relationship. Unexpressed and unacknowledged expectations are very commonly the source of conflict… with a priest, among parishioners and indeed just through life. She wanted friendship where my role as priest and pastor makes that difficult. I can’t properly fulfill my responsibility as pastor and priest to this community if friendship is top of mind. “What if,” I asked, “you thought of me instead as a mentor, teacher, spiritual leader, priest, and pastor?” Those relationships are different from “friend,” but no less important or meaningful. Indeed, with clear, common expectations, a rich and purposeful relationship is more likely to be more life-giving for everyone. More importantly, it enables us move forward together in common cause, in response to God’s call to a greater mission.
In our Gospel story today, there is no warm and fuzzy moment. Nobody hugs it out. Jesus doesn’t even commend the woman’s faith, as he does in Matthew’s version of this story. The reality that there is no love lost between these people’s might even remain, and yet there is no denying that healing still occurred. The demon left the little girl as 2 people came together in a common mission that transcended the division between them. Jesus went to the area to get-away, “to be alone, not to engage in mission.” (NIB, 611) And yet mission found Jesus anyway. Jesus was responsive to God’s call to a mission of healing, even with people outside his core, familiar community. And that’s what really matters. God’s miracle of healing came, even without any warm fuzzies. God’s purpose of renewed life was served, even though nobody hugged it out.
It is an important lesson for us. We tend to want warm fuzzies, even if an underlying brokenness remains. We tend to want a facade of good feelings, even when we are not working in common cause. What if we chose the reverse? What if we focussed on what matters most in and for the parish, as part of God’s kingdom, like our determined mom today focussed on getting healing for her daughter? What if we focussed on our common mission as disciples of Christ together here at St. Andrew’s, and let go of whatever has held us back from fully engaging with one another? What if our best, most vital days as a parish are ahead of us, in the next 60 years? Isn’t that possibility worth more than whatever hurt we harbour, whatever division we have experienced, whatever expectation has gone unmet? Working in and for the kingdom of God on earth, like we pray for week by week, holds great promise of life abundant for all. So let’s focus on that.