Do you ever have those days when you really have to stick at something, to show perseverance, when you would much rather simply give in! I have had one of those last week when I had to sort out our television licence.
We got a reminder that payment was due. So, I went online and spent a great deal of time working through a questionnaire only for the web site to freeze. I stopped, had a few nasty thoughts, made a cup of tea and tried again. Exactly the same result.
I tried once more and eventually reached the same point. I was beginning to think that by now I would have been charged for 3 TV licences. Finally hidden in the small print I found a contact telephone number (they obviously didn’t want to deal with real people). An hour and a half later after several press one for, press 2 for the problem was solved.” Perseverance won the day!! But I had been very close to saying: “Blow it let them take me to prison for non-payment.”
Didn’t take no
The lady from Syro Phoenicia in our gospel reading today showed perseverance. She certainly didn’t take no for an answer. However, she wasn’t dealing with a web site but with Jesus. She refused to accept his first answer to her request and persevered, challenging his response and her plea was granted.
On our Reader training, we had been studying this piece of Scripture. Our tutor suggested that I might have an affinity with this woman as I was often prepared to say “Just a minute – I don’t agree with that.” As he pointed out she is one of the few people openly to challenge Jesus. When her request was refused she didn’t just give up. In today’s language she would probably say “Hang on a minute Jesus – let’s look at this another way.”
This incident of the meeting between Jesus and the woman from Syro –Phoenicia is often quoted as a significant one in the ministry of Jesus.
Why – first let’s look at the background. Jesus was in Tyre a prosperous port north of Galilee, a busy bustling centre of trade. It was a fortress town with a natural harbour and a maritime tradition second to none: the sailors from Tyre were among the first to navigate by the stars and no longer had to cling to the coast to make their voyages. They circumnavigated the Mediterranean and even reached the shores of Cornwall. Tyre was a meeting point of many nations. But more importantly it was Gentile country with a history of antagonism to the Jews, and Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi, was making quite a statement by visiting the area.
He had gone there to find some peace and quiet away from the threats posed to him by the Scribes and Pharisees and away from the great crowds which followed him every where in the region of Galilee. He wished to spend time alone with his disciples to prepare them for what was to come. It was a deliberate time of withdrawal from his ministry a time to find solitude, refreshment and strength for the future.
And yet even here he could not escape those who needed his help.
Anything to be rid
St. Mark tells us that the woman who came seeking help for her daughter was of Greek origin and came to the house in which he was staying. Saint Matthew recounting the same story describes her as a Canaanite woman. But whatever she was certainly a gentile. In Saint Matthew’s account the disciples get very annoyed about the woman and ask Jesus to send her away for she keeps crying after us. You can imagine it – a group of men seeking time out together being disturbed by a pestering woman. They even say “Give her what she wants so that she will go away.” Anything to be rid of her.
The woman had obviously heard of Jesus. She had recognised who he was and knew of his ability to cure people. And for the sake of her daughter she was prepared to push herself forward and make a thorough nuisance of herself. Despite the rebuttal by the disciples she was determined. She fell at the feet of Jesus, and repeated her plea for help for her daughter.
Jesus’ reply takes us aback – it seems very harsh. First let the children eat all they want – for it is not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs. Was he really comparing the woman with a dog? In those days the dog was not the well loved pet as it is today. To the Greek, the word dog meant a shameless and audacious woman. To the Jew it was equally a form of contempt used for gentiles. It seems almost unbelievable that Jesus would address anyone in this way.
Yet, if we look closely at Jesus’ reply we see that he is not saying outright that he will not help her but he is saying that first the children must get all they want, for it is not right to give their food to the dogs.
It would make an enormous difference how Jesus said this. We all know that it’s not always what you say but the way that you say it that gives something a totally different slant. If I ask a child quietly “What are you doing” it is a very different question than if I put on my best schoolteacher voice and demand “What are you doing.” So how Jesus spoke has a huge bearing on the nature of his response.
Tongue in cheek
Apparently, according to what I have read, and I have to take the word of others as I cannot read the gospel in its original language, Jesus was speaking slightly tongue in cheek and the woman recognised this. Jesus used the dimunitive, affectionate word for dog which meant a lap dog rather than a wild street dog and the woman understood this. Hence her reply: “Yes Lord but even the dogs which sit under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
In those days there were no knives and forks or table napkins. People ate food at the table with their hands and then wiped them on bread which was then thrown along with scraps to the dogs of the household. She was acknowledging that the Jewish people had first claim on the gospel, on the good news of Christ. They were the first to witness and receive his healing and life transforming powers. But surely there was also some left for others.
Jesus recognised her faith, her understanding, her persistence and her trust. He granted her request, telling her that because of her faith, her daughter would be healed. And she was.
So why is this story so important?
Because Jesus goes out into the gentile world for the first time – away from his natural habitat, away from the people who knew him, away from those with whom he had an affinity of race, creed and culture.
By doing this he shows that he is not just the Saviour of the Jews but of all people, regardless of gender or race. It shows that the love of Christ is for all and Jesus, by his visit to Tyre and his treatment of this woman, makes this abundantly clear.
As always when I read some piece of Scripture which is a story set in times long past, I ask what it has to say for us today. Or rather what it says to me – and I could be mightily wrong – but I think it shows that we, like Jesus, have on occasions to move out of our comfort zone, out of the situations in which we are at ease and make the good news available to others.
As a church it means welcoming all those who come through the doors and going out in friendship and faith to meet those who never enter. Meeting with those who will question or challenge what we say. It may mean offering differing forms of worship, such as we have done during the pandemic, or new approaches to outreach.
As individuals it means being willing to share our faith with all those we meet, those with whom we appear to have little in common as well as the people we like.
But it also means being like the woman in our gospel story, trusting, persistent, not giving up when our faith is challenged. It means that when we find that things do not go quite as we wish, we do not turn our back on Jesus and walk away, but keep asking the questions and trusting in Christ.
Let us pray that we, like the Syro Phoenician woman, recognise Jesus, worship him, keep our faith when we may not receive the answer we would wish and trust in his will for us.
Perhaps, this week we should pester Jesus – who knows what might happen?
“Perseverance” was delivered by Margery Spencer at St John and St Mark’s on Sunday 5th September 2021. It was based on Mark 7: 24-37.