School started this last week for my children. I need you to humor me, so … Can I get an alleluia?
As a mostly stay at home dad during those three months, it was a long summer. And it was made even longer because for some reason only known to God, all of my friends on Facebook were posting cute pictures of their children heading off to school A WEEK BEFORE MY CHILDREN STARTED SCHOOL.
I can tell you that those pictures weren’t cute. They were very annoying.
My oldest child started middle school this week. Middle school is a different can of worms than elementary school. As a former youth pastor, I knew this. But there’s a difference between knowing this and knowing this.
I got introduced to parenting a middle schooler on the first day when my son came home after having a big fight with his best friend. Apparently, his best friend was teasing him about some girl.
Now, I like my son’s friend a lot. In fact, I’ve often considered him our fourth child. And I know this is typical middle school behavior. But man, when this boy came over and started teasing my son in front of me and my son became visibly upset, something inside of me wanted to burst. I was careful to hold it inside, but I had this mixture of sadness and anger. I told his friend that my son needed to do some chores and so couldn’t hang out.
It’s hard to explain this thing inside of me that wanted to burst. My wife is often the Momma Bear who protects her children. It was like the Father Bear inside of me wanted to roar at this kid. Part of me wanted to defend my son by yelling at his friend to stop being a jerk. Fortunately, I was able to tame my inner Father Bear.
And I know it wasn’t rational. It was an emotional reaction. To say that I wanted vengeance is going too far, but that isn’t too far off. Maybe I hoped for karma. As in payback. Like, this behavior will come back to bite you eventually.
Honestly, I feel a bit icky inside telling you this story because I’m not proud of my gut reaction. I love my son’s friend. He’s a great kid. And I know my son isn’t innocent when it comes to teasing. But I tell you this story because I’ve come to realize that I need to be honest about my humanity – in all of my goodness and in all of my failings. I want to be honest about my anger and my desires for karma and for vengeance – the shadow side of myself – because it’s only when we are honest about those emotions and desires that we can learn to manage them in healthy and productive ways. When we bury them deep inside of ourselves, they are prone to exploding in unhealthy and destructive ways.
This honesty about our emotions may be uncomfortable and lead us to be vulnerable as we share them. I struggle with this, but I think being honest about our emotions – even the ones that might seem shameful – is the way of becoming truly human.
Take a look at our passage from Isaiah, for example. I struggle with this passage because Isaiah says that God will come to save God’s people, which is good, but that God will save with “vengeance, with terrible recompense.”
I bristle at this vengeful view of God. I much prefer the non-violent and non-vengeful God that Jesus reveals. The God who calls us to love all people, including those we call our enemies.
But it’s important to know the political context of Isaiah. He lived during a time when the Assyrian Empire utterly destroyed the nation of Israel. The Assyrians were brutal. They killed men, women, and children. They exiled survivors into their empire, forcing them into slavery.
If I lived during Isaiah’s time, I would probably hope for the day when God came as a Father Bear with vengeance to protect God’s children from the Assyrians. In this passage, Isaiah seems to think that the only way God can save is by violently defending God’s people against God’s enemies.
Isaiah writes this down, and even though I bristle at Isaiah’s desire for vengeance, I can understand it given the political context of his day.
But there’s something even more important going on in Isaiah. Because the book of Isaiah doesn’t end with chapter 35 that we read today. It ends with chapter 66. You may remember that during Advent and Christmas we often read from the later chapters of Isaiah. These are chapters where God does not save through a violent warrior who is going to defeat our enemies with God’s vengeance. Rather, Isaiah progresses to envision a Suffering Servant of God who saves not only Israel but all the nations with nonviolent love. The Suffering Servant doesn’t want to suffer for the sake of suffering. But the Suffering Servant knows that God doesn’t want us to respond to violence with more violence. Instead, God wanted the Suffering Servant to model a different way of being in the world.
But the only way to be different from a world that is full of fear, resentment, prejudice, and desires for vengeance is to be honest about when and how those emotions infect ourselves. The book of Isaiah moves through desires for vengeance into radical nonviolent love because it is honest about those emotions. It’s only when we bring our fear, resentment, prejudices, and desires for vengeance out into the open that we can examine those emotions and manage them in healthy ways.
Our New Testament passage reveals that Jesus had to learn this lesson, too.
Jesus traveled with his companions to the region of Tyre. Tyre was in Gentile territory in the province of Syria and Phoenicia. It was a long way from his Jewish homeland.
We aren’t told exactly why Jesus went to Tyre, but the story gives us some clues. When he arrived, he went into a house “and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice.” It seems Jesus went to Tyre because he needed a break. He wanted to escape the constant demands in his home country for him to teach or perform miracles.
But his fame traveled far and wide, even to the remote region of Tyre. The story tells us that a woman broke into the house and begged Jesus to heal her daughter. Mark emphasizes the fact that this mother was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.
To say that this woman was a Gentile would have been enough to designate her as “other.” But to say she was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin is almost excessive. It designates her not just as an “other, but an “other-other.” Mark wanted his readers to know that this woman is not one of “us.” She is one of “them.”
And how does Jesus treat this woman who desperately comes to him in hopes of a miracle? He treats her as an “other-other.” She begs him to help her, but Jesus responds as a Father Bear protecting his children from ravenous dogs, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I came across some Bible scholars this last week who attempt to make Jesus’ statement not sound so bad. They claim that in the original language, the word Jesus used for dog actually means a young dog. So Jesus was calling her a puppy, which apparently they think makes Jesus’ statement okay.
But I’d like to run an experiment: This afternoon, I’d like all the men here today to go to your wife or your sister or your neighbor and address her as a puppy dog. Let’s see how that goes over. I suspect it won’t go very well for you.
But more to the point, dogs in the Biblical world were not cute and loyal pets. The Bible always portrays dogs as opportunistic scavengers. Dogs were not pets, they were pests. They were a nuisance.
Jesus told this woman that he came first for the children of Israel. In this moment, he thought of this woman as a dog. She was like an opportunistic scavenger who was trying to take food from the children of Israel.
Now, if I were this Gentile woman and Jesus called me a dog, I think I would have responded by calling him a jerk! I might have tried to burn him back by saying, “If I’m a Gentile dog, then you are a Jewish pig!”
But that wouldn’t have helped me or my daughter. Instead, she responded with vulnerability, humility, and maybe even with humor. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
If she responded to Jesus’ insult with another insult, their hearts would have been hardened against each other. But instead, this woman found a third way. This third way was the way of nonviolence that softened Jesus’ heart. This other-other woman taught Jesus that even those we label as dogs are welcome to feast at God’s table.
I believe Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Sometimes Christianity has emphasized his divinity at the expense of his humanity. But Jesus was fully human in that he was born into a particular culture at a particular time in a particular place. That culture gave him many positive things – including the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself. But that culture, like all human cultures, including our own, also tended to give him a tribal mentality that created an identity of us against them. Jesus had to deal with this shadow side of his culture. He had to speak this cultural prejudice out loud so that he could begin to manage it. And he needed someone like this woman to show him another way. She showed Jesus that God’s table was big enough for everyone, and everyone – no matter your race, nationality, religion, politics, gender, or sexuality – is invited to feast at the table.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorite stories in the Bible because it’s one of the few stories that I can actually identify with Jesus. So often the story we tell about Jesus is that he was perfect in every way – he loved and sacrificed to the fullest extent. And then we are called to follow him. Well, for me, that has proven to be impossible. In my walk with Jesus, I stumble, I make mistakes, I don’t love my neighbor, let alone my enemies, as well as Jesus did.
And that’s why this story matters to me. I have been formed by cultural prejudices. I have said and done some pretty mean things to people in my life. And you know what? So did Jesus. And like Jesus, and like Isaiah before him, when we put our shadow side out in the open, we can learn to manage it in healthier ways.
And the even better news for me is that this story reveals that we are not defined by the worst things that we have done in our lives. I don’t know about you, but as a husband, a parent, a son, a brother, a pastor, a neighbor, and a friend, I’ve often needed to hear this message. Jesus was not defined by this moment when he said hurtful things to this vulnerable Syrophoenician woman. And none of us is defined by the hurtful things we have said or done to others. Because of God’s eternal love for the Syrophoenician woman and for Jesus, they were both able to move beyond Jesus’ hurtful words. And because of God’s eternal love for us, we are able to move beyond the hurtful words we have spoken and the hurtful words that have been spoken against us. We are not defined by them.
We are defined by divine grace.
We are defined by divine forgiveness.
We are defined by divine love. May you trust in that love today and forevermore. Amen.