September 6, 2015

A woman came from Syria and fell at the feet of Jesus—and begged him to save her child.

    The identity of the woman in today's gospel is a little more complicated than that, of course. She finds Jesus in a region called Tyre, just to the northwest of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his active ministry. Depending on the translation, she is "Gentile," "Greek," or a "Canaanite" in her religion. And in terms of national origin she is "Syrophoenician"—likely a native of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria.

    But to simplify all these labels of national, religious, geographical, and ethnic identity, let's just say this: A woman came from Syria and fell at the feet of Jesus—and begged him to save her child.

    We don't know how she got to Tyre, or why. Tyre is in modern-day Lebanon, between Syria and Israel, and along the Mediterranean coast. Was she fleeing something in her home province of Syria? Was she weighing her options about whether to cross into a country that may or may not welcome her, or whether to set out across a potentially deadly sea? We don't know what fears and hopes drove this woman whose daughter needed help and safety. 

    But we do know that a woman came, somehow, from Syria and fell at the feet of Jesus—and begged him to save her child.

    In today's gospel passage, Jesus is not exactly in a position to offer hospitality or healing. First of all, he's pretending not to be home. The gospel tells us that "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there." He's exhausted after a long season of healing the sick, driving out demons, and feeding the hungry. He just wants to close the doors and draw the curtains.

    Also, Jesus believes that there simply isn't enough of the kingdom he proclaims to go around. There's only so much food and shelter and medicine, and Jesus has to play fair and have his priorities. Jesus tells the woman from Syria at his feet, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." By "the children," Jesus means his own people; by "the dogs," he means this woman and her child.

    This Syrophoenician woman may be at Jesus's feet, but she doesn't take his dismissal lying down. She answers him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." In the face of rejection and insult, the woman who has come from Syria knows she is worthy, and she doesn't ask for much. And, in response to her challenge, Jesus announces that this woman's child has been freed from the demon that had held her captive.


    Other mothers and children who have come from Syria never find the welcome, the freedom, the healing, the salvation that they are looking for. When they risk rejection, when they risk death, when they set out with faith and fall at the feet of their international neighbors, they don't find refuge.

We don't know the name of the woman in today's gospel or the name of her child, but here are some other names we can remember: Rehan, Ghalib, and Aylan. Rehan was a woman who came from Syria. She was Kurdish, and she and her family had been living first in Damascus and then in another town attacked by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. She and her family fled to Turkey, then tried to get to a Greek island in a boat after paying smugglers several times. Eventually, they hoped to reach their relatives in Canada. Ghalib was Rehan's five-year-old son. Aylan was three years old. All three of them died this past week, when their dinghy capsized in the Mediterranean. Their father was with them, and survived.

    A woman came from Syria and fell at the feet of her neighbors—and begged them to save her children.

    We may not share a border or a sea crossing with the many refugees coming from Syria, but they are our neighbors. Because we're finite human beings, it's easy for us to fall into the patterns of Jesus himself: to close our doors and act like we're not home, to talk about what's fair and unfair, to give our resources in measured amounts because there's only so much to go around. But the story of Rehan, Galip, and Aylan should shock us, and even shame us, just like the Syrophoenician woman's retort to Jesus. Are there not a few crumbs, is there not a bone, that we could throw to people like Rehan and her children, people the world shoves under the table?

    I wonder whether this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman shifted Jesus's heart and approach to ministry. Just when he was exhausted and empty, here was a cry that demanded his response. But Jesus must have known—and already knew—that he couldn't meet all the world's needs on his own. He needed a fuller spirit, a broader body, a wider kingdom. He needed all of us to join him.

    And the kingdom is at hand, even now, with healing, with welcome, with salvation. Doctors without Borders is treating disease and securing clean water for people regardless of national origin. Refugees Welcome is matching refugees with homes in Germany and Austria. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station in Malta is sending its rescue ship to save people crossing the Mediterranean in boats that are unsafe. The kingdom is at hand, with its indiscriminate offers of health, hospitality, and salvation.

    And many of us will give our time, our voice, our money, our compassion, our skills to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, even though the numbers don't seem to compute. The Syrian Civil War has displaced over 7 million people within Syria, and over 4 million Syrians have taken refuge with Syria's five close neighbors: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. (Our gospel passage is set in modern-day Lebanon, a country where today 1 in 5 people is a Syrian refugee.) 

We here in a landlocked state on another continent may feel that we are so far away, and have only so much to give to our own neighbors and children. But ultimately, Jesus's ministry isn't just about digging ever-deeper into our own pockets for crumbs, or about utterly depleting ourselves as individuals. Even Jesus didn't hold up very well with that approach to ministry. The kingdom is more about belonging to something that is everywhere and eternal; that is actively healing, welcoming, and saving this world; that is intimately part of each of us who gather around this table, needing crumbs ourselves.

    People are coming from Syria and falling at the feet of the Body of Christ—begging us to save their children. Our children. How will the living Christ, to whom we all belong, respond to the people who have shown up at our door—uninvited, perhaps, but in deepest need of our welcome?