Thank goodness for women and men who seek justice, Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 18 (B) – September 10, 2006

(RCL) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 or Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 125 or 146; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 

I suspect that “pushy” women do an enormous amount of the work that keeps the world going. One very popular pushy woman is Baroness Thatcher of Grantham, the first woman to serve as Britain’s Prime Minister. In the late 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher was often criticized for being “school-marmish” and “hectoring.” But if she were a man, wouldn’t they admire her for being decisive and forceful?

Today’s gospel reading is about a woman most of us would probably characterize as pushy, and perhaps aggressive and obnoxious, too. Mark tells us that Jesus “went away to the region of Tyre.” Tyre was in or near present-day Lebanon, an area occupied mostly by Gentiles. Although he tried to keep his visit there a secret, word somehow got out, and a woman of the region came to Jesus seeking help for her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Mark clearly identifies her as “a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.” Mark does not tell us how often she came to Jesus with her request or what she said initially, but Matthew tells us that she cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Matthew also implies that she came to Jesus at least twice and to his disciples at least once.

Sermons on this text generally spend most of their time trying to justify Jesus’ grossly insulting rebuke to this nameless woman: “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Let’s consider two things about this comment. First, Jesus does not need us to defend him, and second, even if we wanted to defend Jesus, there’s no way to do it. However, it’s worth noting that God became incarnate not only in a person but also in a culture, and here Jesus gives voice to two of the most fundamental prejudices of his culture: Jewish men did not speak to or allow themselves to be spoken to by women in public, and observant Jews tried to minimize their contact with Gentiles. First Corinthians 14:34 expresses the standard attitude of Jewish men toward women in public places: they are to be “silent.”

By far the most interesting person in this story is the nameless Gentile woman who didn’t mind being pushy and who cleverly turned Jesus’ insult to her own advantage. There are two ways to look at her. First, let’s try to see her as Jesus and the disciples must have seen her: unpleasant, annoying, and impossible to get rid of. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” would not have satisfied her. If you put her on hold and hoped she would eventually hang up, you would have been disappointed.

Now, let’s try to see her more objectively. Sometimes being pushy, aggressive, and annoying is the only way to get things done. Sometimes in hindsight we can see that “pushy,” “aggressive,” and “annoying” were just other words for “courage,” “persistence,” and “determination,” and that is we ought to see the woman in today’s Gospel reading. She defied social conventions. In Jesus’ world, women were expected to be more or less invisible and silent, but in spite of any number of spoken and unspoken cultural assumptions, the Syrophoenician woman would not be silent and persisted in seeking healing for her daughter.

Another famous “pushy” woman was the late Rosa Parks. On her way home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and sat in the last seat reserved for “colored people.” When a white passenger boarded at the next stop, the bus driver demanded that Ms. Parks yield her seat to the white passenger. Parks refused and was arrested. But the simple act of refusing to give up her seat had a profound effect on history. It launched a boycott that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to international prominence, and it was the beginning of the civil rights movement that did so much to secure basic human rights that had long been denied to African Americans.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat may have had influence far beyond her time and country. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, reactionaries sought to reverse the process of democratization by overthrowing the Soviet leader, Gorbachev. During the tense days of the attempted coup the world watched as Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, literally stood up to tanks attempting to disperse the Soviet parliament. When asked what inspired him to face down tanks, Yeltsin said that he was inspired by Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland. When Walesa was asked what inspired him, he said that he had long admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, civil rights campaigns. When Dr. King was asked what inspired him, he said that he admired Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. Is it possible that Rosa Parks’ defiance of injustice helped bring down the Soviet Union?

It’s tempting to shout “hooray” for pushy women, but being pushy is not enough. You also need to know whom to push. The Syrophoenician woman went to the one person who could command the demonic spirit to leave her daughter and restore the girl to soundness of mind: Jesus.

This story shows Jesus in the worst possible light, so why did Mark include it? Maybe it’s in the Gospel to encourage us. Like the Syrophoenician woman, we often come to Jesus with desperate needs: we’re out of work and need a job, or someone we love is dying, or someone has just shattered our heart. Like the nameless woman, we may pray to God day and night but find no relief. But more than likely, we pray about something once or twice and then forget about it. It’s difficult to explain why God hears and answers some prayers and seems to leave others unanswered. But God seems to expect us to be persistent in our prayers (maybe even a little pushy) and come back again and again.

The final thing we should notice about the Syrophoenician woman is the nature of her request. Begging Jesus to free her daughter from demonic power was no idle, off-hand petition. The woman was not asking for a trip to Cancun or a new car: she was seeking justice.

Thank goodness for pushy women and sometimes pushy men. Thank goodness for people who defy social conventions in their quest to right wrong. But above all, thank goodness for those who kneel at Jesus’ feet day and night and pray without ceasing. Thank goodness for women and men who seek justice and will not accept “no” for an answer – even when the “no” seems to come from God.

 

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.

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