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Sunday, August 12, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

Nevertheless, She Persisted!

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 146
Mark 7:24–35

In the story of another, may we meet You. By the life of another, may You shape us. With the companionship of another, may You guide us.

Living Stones: Pray Now Weekly Devotions


A few years ago when the war in Syria was especially intense I recall the evening news clip of Syrian refugees making passage through Hungary to Germany and other host sites in Europe. Before the world were faces of Syrian children draped over the weary shoulder of parents, waiting for safe passage. The mothers and fathers of the children in the squalid encampment in a below-ground plaza by Hungary’s main train station were seeking freedom and safety for their little ones. They, along with so many refugees from war-torn regions of our planet, continue to take their life in their hands for the possibility of safe passage to places of refuge such as Greece, Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. As I watched the families at that time and so many families in these days who are seeking safety, whether at borders or in shelters, I thought of the passage we read today.

The mother in Mark’s Gospel was also a Syrian mother, living more than 2,000 years ago. She was seeking safe passage for her daughter. In this biblical scene the child had an unclean spirit, was possessed by a demon, and we can imagine the desperate mother is at her wit’s end, reaching for any small shred of hope to escape the hell she has been living in. Though our twenty-first century world may dismiss the idea of demon possession, of unclean spirits inhabiting the vulnerable, it is still around: society casts off those who are at risk, the mentally ill and very sick. And when it shows up in our own families, it can be simply terrifying.

It is certainly uncanny that this non-Jewish mother in a region outside of the Jewish-inhabited world would find an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. But the word was out on him. He had been stirring up quite a reputation in his home region, raising the child of a synagogue leader, Jairus, from death; healing a woman with a flow of blood; casting out demons from a man who was possessed not by one but Legion. Healing, exorcisms, and even walking on water, this man, Jesus, was a phenomenon. After all of this, he immediately, as the Gospel of Mark is wont to prescribe, goes toe-to-toe with the religious leaders on dietary laws. Contrary to strict dietary protocol he declared all food clean, stating, as we heard in the Gospel lesson last week, that the evil in the human heart is what defiles a person.

So with his ministry in lock-step time, packing as much in as is humanly and heavenly possible, this man, Jesus, needed a break! The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus left his home region of the Galilee and went away to Tyre, out of the bounds of the Jewish area and into Gentile Syria. Did Jesus go to this region to escape the crowds? Mark’s Gospel says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” OK, he tried, but the gospel writer almost jokes with the reader: “He could not escape notice.”

We don’t know how long it takes, but quite quickly this Syrophoenician Gentile woman comes into the house, bows at his feet in deference, and begs this Jewish man to cast out the demon from her daughter.

We pause. Any of those who knew Jesus up to this moment would assume his response would be to step forward and heal the child. The face of the mother, the possessed child, and his having just declared a clean palate by redefining dietary laws, wouldn’t a woman from a people who were considered unclean be in line for the mercy of God that this rabbi declared? Wouldn’t the gift of healing be extended to Gentiles as well as Jews? What about the request coming from a woman? Well, maybe that warranted a bit more consideration.

This is a loaded situation for Jesus. Though he has healed an outsider—the Gersasene demoniac, the one with Legion demons—and though he has healed the child of Jairus, the temple leader, in this instance the response is different. Though all factors conspire to have him heal this child, unlike Jairus, she is not a Jewish male of high status who can speak openly to Jesus in public. Though the Syrophoenician woman has played by every rule in the book, we have to assume it is because she is a woman approaching a strange man on behalf of her family that Jesus sees this as an unacceptable act. He not only refuses her request but levels an insult in, says Women’s Bible Commentary, a “disdainful metaphor, which compares her and her daughter to little dogs who are not to be fed the children’s bread” (Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 269).

Back to that scene in Hungary. The evening news showed the refugees confronting the police. A man steps out of the crowd there in a foreign land and looking squarely in the eye of those who were corralling the people speaks the word: “We are human too.” Yes, indeed. Into a freighted situation, out of desperation, from the depth of vulnerability comes the clarion cry: we are human too.

The mother of the possessed child does not cave. She compounds what might be seen as shameful, pushy behavior by boldly contesting Jesus’ metaphor. “Although she is a Gentile she prefaces her response with a very pious and exalted title of address to Jesus, ‘Yes Lord,’” she says, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’” The woman’s brilliant response subverts wrath into disagreement; it allows the priority of Jesus’ mission to his Jewish kin to stand but asks for inclusion of Gentiles in the scope of God’s reach. In essence, the woman said to Jesus, “We are human too.” She is the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark to best Jesus in an argument. She is an outsider, a woman, and a non-Jew. Nevertheless, she persisted!

What is Jesus’ response? He collects the crumbs and delivers the full loaf: “For saying that,” he says to her, “you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” The radical reach of God’s liberation of those in bondage to the demons of exclusion—the exiles in the land, the orphan and imprisoned, the broken ones and the broken system—are countered by the messianic abundance of radical inclusion. As Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza states, “The gracious goodness of the God of Jesus is abundant enough to satisfy not only the Jews but also the Gentiles. The power of the realm of God liberates not only the ‘children’ of Israel but also the woman-child,” the one who is healed of a demon. Her mother went home and found her lying in bed, the demon gone.

The power of those who are vulnerable and often silenced does not stop with the biblical text or with those who spoke out at a train station in Hungary. I recall reading Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World. Justice Sotomayor is the first Hispanic and third woman to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Her very moving life narrative takes the reader from her life growing up in a Bronx housing project through her undergraduate student days at Princeton and her years as a law student at Yale. Justice Sotomayor recounts many moments when she, like that Syrophoenician woman, faced the seemingly insurmountable odds of confronting the world of prejudice, self-doubt, sexism, racism—all that often result in crippling those on the margins. In her book she speaks of many moments when she confronted oppression, broke the silence about her upbringing, her family, her aspirations for a just society. One story that is especially poignant takes us to an evening when she was beginning her job search as a senior in law school. She went with a friend to a recruiting dinner hosted by a well-respected law firm that did corporate and international law practice. She describes the scene: eight or ten Yale law students at the table. She is introduced to the partner conducting the interview. Sonia’s law school friend introduced her as Sonia—Puerto Rican—from the South Bronx—a Princeton grad before Yale.

Almost without a pause the partner at the table asked her whether she believed in affirmative action. She replied guardedly, “Yes.” From there the barrage of questions from the partner-lawyer were unleashed. “Do Princeton and Yale have affirmative action programs?” Yes, of course they do, she replied. “Do you believe law firms should practice affirmative action? Don’t you think it is a disservice to minorities, hiring them without the necessary credentials, knowing you’ll have to fire them a few years later?”

Sotomayor was stunned by his comment and she retorted, “I think that even someone who got into an institution through affirmative action could prove they were qualified by what they accomplished there.” The partner looked at her skeptically and leveled the last blow, “Do you think you would have been admitted to Yale Law School if you were not Puerto Rican?”

Adrenaline flowing, “It probably didn’t hurt,” she said, “But I imagine that graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton had something to do with it.”

She noted that an awkward silence descended upon all, “spreading like a stain to the other end of the table” (Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World).

Sonia Sotomayor persisted. And like that woman 2,000 years ago, her passion for justice thundered across the field. Whether issues of affirmative action, the human face of children and parents fleeing war-torn regions of the world, whether someone whose religious or political views deeply conflict with ours, the call of Christ is toward radical inclusion. Even the very Son of God, the one whose own assumptions about his ministry were expanded, relishes expanding the welcome table for you to have a place at it, for those who wonder if they have a future or their children have a future to have a place, for all of us to have our rightful place.

The call of Christ to us for this time in history is to ensure that the human community be awash with peace that passes all understanding. The radical activity of Christ for this time is that we would look out from positions of privilege and when met with moments where we feel very uncomfortable, we, like Jesus, would undo our chauvinism, by God’s grace.

This church and our life together gives way to the unexpected here on Michigan Avenue—the absolutely unabashed, bold, awakened faith that gathers to a greatness the bold witness of the Syrophoenician woman. It stands with the Syrian man at the Budapest train station who declared, “We are human too.” It celebrates the reaching welcome for the Syrian refugees by the German community. It steps forward with a clear vision for racial justice as Justice Sotomayor modeled. Your words, your action, your conviction, your unquenched thirst for peace and full loaf on this planet. Only the One who loves this world so much exceeds all of these acts by sending a child, Jesus, to draw all of us to Godself. And for this we give God the glory. Amen.