As someone who is quite committed to education and learning I find myself challenged each week by new ideas, new concepts and new learning. Sometimes I seek these things out and sometimes because of situations or experiences that arise I am forced to act in new ways and reflect on my world view. Ideally, the intellectual learning might inspire new actions but sadly this is rarely the case, so the question may be asked whether I have actually learnt anything new. Nevertheless, in my opinion these processes of learning, growing and changing are part of what it means to be human.
Which brings me to an interesting question which was raised for me in the reading of Jesus encounter with the Syrophonecian woman: “Did Jesus learn something new through this encounter?”
This may seem a strange question for some of you, because maybe you assume that Jesus was aware of everything that was going to occur before it happened because he was God’s Son. And, I have heard this passage preached in exactly this way. Jesus only referred to the woman as a dog because he knew how she would respond. But what if something else going here that we might learn from?
If Jesus was, like the rest of us, human, then it should not strike us a strange that Jesus himself learnt and grew throughout his own life. The first words of Mark’s gospel let us into a secret which is then explored in the interplay of relationships through the drama of Mark’s gospel.
Mark declares in the very first verse, “This is the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God”. The story then unfolds as a process of discovery about who knows and understands and believes this truth and who doesn’t. Or maybe to put it another way who are the insiders and who are the outsiders.
One of the ironies of Mark’s gospel is that it is more often than not the outsiders - the gentiles, the ostracised, even the demons - who recognise Jesus whilst the Jews, the insiders and even the disciples struggle to understand and to believe.
What strikes me about this story of the Syrophonecian woman is to see this journey of discovery of God’s relationship with the so-called outsiders is also a journey that Jesus himself appears to have been on.
When the woman comes into the midst of Jesus and his followers pleading for her child Jesus response is dismissive at best but at worst plain insulting – he infers that she is a dog.
This behaviour of Jesus jars against our modern sensibilities but for a first century Jewish Rabbi Jewish words are totally coherent and in context. Jesus did not need to deal with this person because not only was she a woman but she was not even a Jewish woman. His response may have been quite acceptable to most of his contemporaries.
This may upset our thinking about Jesus somewhat because we have experienced and seen the bigger story.
In one of joint churches statement about asylum seekers hoping to come to Australia it was said, “Core to the Christian faith is the principle of ‘welcoming the stranger’, and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan guides us as we seek to care for those who are vulnerable and marginalised in society. As Christians, we are called to cross the road to help, to not turn away those in need.”
This is the Jesus we believe we know, Jesus who welcomes all strangers and offer God’s love unconditionally.
Yet in this story Jesus appears to act others and so may be in a process of discovering exactly who he is and who God is calling him to.
The persistence of the woman opens Jesus eyes and heart to her predicament and he responds by offering healing, albeit in an offhand manner as the woman urges him by suggesting that even the little puppies should be welcome to the scraps on the floor.
Jesus, recognises something in the woman and the direction of his compassion flows to someone who would have otherwise not been considered even worthy of Jesus attention.
Just as the way in which Mark is seeking to open people’s minds to Jesus identity and so also God’s concern for those who seek him, whatever their ilk, so at this point in the story Jesus mind appears to be opening up to this very truth about himself and God’s love.
As a follower of Jesus, as his disciple, I find this story encouraging and challenging. Jesus the man from Nazareth was on a journey of learning, just as any of us are. I do not have any sense that Jesus had direct knowledge of all things but through his unique bond with the Father and through the Spirit was guided in that journey.
Yet I am also challenged with Jesus response. Jesus came to see and understand that God’s love was for all people, that there were no outsiders, and so as with the woman he reaches and acts for them and for us.
This raises the question for my life and for yours as we learn new things how do we respond?
How do we live honouring others for who God may have concern even when we believe they do not fit into our little group?
Let me give an example: in the conversations and articles that I have read around the issue of asylum seekers coming to Australia it appears that fear of the other and protection of what is ours drives argument. We play the game of insiders and outsiders and we decide people’s fate.
The persistence of the Syrophonecian woman in some ways is reflected in the behaviour of many refugees across the world coming to ask persistently for shelter from harm in a new country.
But, just as the presence of the Syrophonecian woman would have caused some offence among the Jewish males so long ago we struggle with the presence of people who are different who come seeking our help, who come seeking the crumbs from the bounteous table of our Australian lifestyle.
These are complex issues, yet when we consider Jesus learning about who he was, and who was in who was out, we might ask ourselves how we go about caring for those who are different among us.
And maybe we don’t have to worry about going as far afield as the asylum seeker issue to think about the issues of inclusion in the community, of hospitality and of care for others. Who is it in the congregation and in the community around you whom we need to listen to? Who is appealing to us just as the woman appealed to Jesus? Who is being persistent in asking for recognition and help?
Our faith is not a static thing as if we get faith and then that’s all there is to it. Even Jesus our teacher grew and at some level may have even changed as he drew closer to the knowledge of who he was. So too as our faith grows and is nurtured we respond as the Spirit works in us and we are drawn to the good works of God.