April 30, 2023

Have you ever come across troubling passages in the gospels that you either choose to ignore or make excuses for what happens in the account?  

Particularly if the thing that troubles you is something about Jesus; something that shows Him as less than tranquil, less than divine, less than perfect; something that, at first look, shows Him to be nothing other than human.  

I believe these troubling passages are incredibly instructive, if we take the time to sit with them until we are able to get past our first reactions, beyond our discomfort and ask the question: why on earth are such troubling accounts are included in the gospels?  

I mean, after all, if Jesus is God and God is the epitome of love, then what are we to do with passages that may not seem all that loving and Godlike!

Think about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman. (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30)

Jesus comes across as incredibly harsh.  

He initially ignores the woman’s pleas for help.  

He compares her to a dog. 

At the end of the troublesome exchange, the Lord does heal the woman’s demon-possessed daughter but man, it sure takes a lot to get Him to that point!  

Or so it seems…..until we look at the passage in context.

Jesus has just been engaged in a conversation with the Pharisees (aka religious leaders) about the law.  

Interestingly, Jesus tells the ‘holy men’ that they care more about religious laws made by humans than they do about the commandments of God (Mark 7: 6-9; Matthew 15:7-9),and calls them all a bunch of hypocrites!  

Jesus and His disciples then go to Tyre, one of the leading Phoenician cities, where many displaced Canaanites had settled following the Israelite conquest. It’s the place where the woman in the passage lives. 

The woman: Syrophoenician and Greek; probably a member of the ruling caste that the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great, had established throughout his Macedonian empire.(336BC-323BC)

She has three strikes against her according to the Pharisees: she is a foreigner, a Greek, and a woman, for heaven’s sake!

Nonetheless, the woman was probably not used to being ignored or to hearing the word ‘no,’ especially from a non-Greek!

Perhaps that explains why she felt she could argue with Jesus. He was the only One Who could heal her daughter, and if push came to shove she would do whatever it took!

In the account, the woman seems to be the strong one, much like the woman in the parable of the persistent widow. (Luke 18:1-8)

Jesus appears to be a rigid, self-righteous rule follower, not unlike the judge in that same cited parable.  (Luke 18:1-8)

But is that true?

I know…some folks interpret the account to be about one of Jesus’ ‘bad days’ when the crowds are just getting on His last nerve.

Others think He and the woman are engaged in lighthearted banter, though I see nothing lighthearted about such harsh language and rejection in a time of maternal crisis.

So, I wonder…what if there is something else?

What if, based on what has just occurred with the Pharisees, Jesus is attempting to teach us by mirroring how the religious leaders ignored and rejected those in need, those who weren’t ‘one of them?  They kept their distance from those who didn’t measure up, and withheld love and healing from the ‘unwashed masses’ 

After all this is what their ‘holy rules’ commanded.

When Jesus behaves this way – the expected way a holy leader would take – the way of human rules – it makes us uncomfortable.  This is Jesus, after all!

We are relieved when He changes course and heals the woman’s child, and by doing so offers both mother and child an opportunity for new beginnings with hope. Thank goodness!  Jesus is Back on Track!

But wait, what’s the teaching?  

Could it be that we ‘church people’ often ‘follow the rules’ at the expense of offering healing and new beginnings? We decide who is worthy of our care and concern as we hide behind ‘the rules?’We, too, reject and ignore those who ‘aren’t like us’? Even if we ‘serve them,’ we oftentimes don’t accept them into relationship beyond whatever handout we choose to provide.

If we are truly honest in our self-assessments, I imagine we can all identify our own rigid and self-righteous behaviors and human ‘holy rule,’ following, be we progressive or conservative. 

We focus on the like-minded when it comes to relationship building and tacitly seem to ignore the divine commandments – God’s holy rule – to love and care for all the world in Jesus’ name.

How uncomfortable it is to look in the mirror of this account!

But, there is hope!

As the scriptural account continues, a ‘different’ Jesus emerges: a Jesus Who: 

doesn’t follow human rules!

acknowledges desperate faith. 

came into the world to heal and make whole without exception.

ignores human imposed boundaries in order to be in loving relationship with all.

came to bring life not death. 

casts out demons and fills all with faith-filled peace beyond human understanding.

So, ….as I read this story, the message I receive is clear: human rules are just that: human and not necessarily in accordance with God’s ‘rules.’

Human rules are often grounded in human attempts to establish order and hierarchy; established to keep everyone on the same page; written without consideration for God’s constantly expanding commandment to love. Human rules often claim to be holy – but how do they measure up against Christ’s teachings? (Matthew Ephesians 2:15-22)

The woman in the account was desperate to get to Jesus.  

Because Jesus chose the law of God’s love, rather than the human rules of judgment and exclusion, she and her daughter experienced a healing love beyond human understanding.

So, more wondering!

How many folks do we turn away, who are desperate to know Christ?

How many folks do we say are not good enough to be a part of us, to serve alongside us, to lead us just because they don’t measure up according to our rules?

How many folks have felt the pull to ‘come and see’ and then been ignored, marginalized, and/rejected?

How many come to us in faith to be part of the body of Christ, only to leave, having their faith crushed by bitterness at the hypocrisy they have experienced?

This scriptural account is troublesome because its teaching is so revealing – about us!

Also, perhaps, because we are, at times, among those who have been subjected to the human ‘holy rules’.

But here’s the good news! 

The resurrected Christ is among us in the power of the Spirit.

This Christ is the God of new beginnings – not just for others but for all of us – and we CAN live into this lesson and claim the truly holy rule of God’s intentional love. 

This love is manifest in embracing the ‘others’ rather than rejecting them. 

This love doesn’t ignore need, but recognizes and fills it.  

This love embraces all. 

This love heals all.  

This love brings us an unfathomable peace as we make our way home to that place where all are healed and whole – all in the name of Jesus!

And to God be the glory!  AMEN.

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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