Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Whole Megillah: A Sermon on the Book of Esther

Hamentaschen are triangular-shaped pastries that are traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim."Hamantaschen" is a Yiddish word meaning "Haman’s pockets." 

For our Jewish friends, the scroll of Esther is inseparable from the celebration of Purim, a carnival-like festival. Esther is a melodrama—a drama that is told with exaggerated characters. There is a hero (or in this case a heroine, Esther) and a villain (the evil Haman.) As with all melodramas, the plot appeals to our emotions and the audience gets involved by booing and hissing and shaking noisemakers whenever "he-who-must-not-be-named's" name is spoken. Very often melodramas also have some PG-13 parts and this one is no exception: if you were seeing it performed at the Hanover Theater you’d find it pretty tame, but hearing it read in Church, from the Bible, might surprise some people and even make a few blush. Unfortunately, most Christians are not nearly as familiar with this story as Jews. In fact, the reading we heard today is the only opportunity we get every three years to remember it in our common worship and the words we heard come at the end of the play. So if we don’t remember all that preceded it, it makes little sense. Let me begin, then, by sharing a brief summary of what led to this point.

In scene one, the narrator tells us that “all this happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. It’s the third year of his reign.”  What is important to note here is that we aren’t in Israel anymore, Toto; but at the heart of the Persian Empire (modern-day Iran.) The story is about how hard it is for God’s faithful people to live in the midst of a foreign imperial power.  As it begins, the king is seated on his royal throne surrounded by political advisors, including the evil Haman. (Boo, hiss, noismakers!)

What follows is a wild, unrestrained, party. On the seventh day of this bash, the narrator tells us that the king was “merry with wine.” (This is Biblical code language for “wasted”) He commands his beautiful wife, Vashti, to come in and do a little dance for his guests wearing her royal crown. It’s pretty clear that what he is asking is that she dance wearing nothing but the crown. She refuses, and now the drunken king is furious. His advisors suggest that this cannot be tolerated because empires rely on compliance: not only is the authority of the emperor supposed to be absolute, but if people learn that the queen doesn’t obey the king, then ordinary women will stop obeying their husbands. And so they convince the king to issue an edict to all the royal provinces that “every man is master of his own house.” They also convince him to get rid of Queen Vashti and hold a beauty pageant to find a new queen.

Meanwhile in a nearby village ...there is this Jew named Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjamite.” (2:5) He has a beautiful cousin whose name is Esther. Mordecai suggests that Esther enter the beauty contest, which she agrees to do. Now part of the plot here is that while a guy named Mordecai will probably not be mistaken for an Irish Catholic, Esther can “pass” as Persian and neither she nor Mordecai see any reason to let anybody know of her religious preference. (So she doesn’t check that box on the pageant application.) Only she, Mordecai, and the audience know that she is a Jew.

We have now met all of the key players in those first two scenes, and the story is underway. Let me speed up the plot a bit here: Esther wins the contest and becomes queen. She becomes an “insider”—but only by keeping her identity a secret. Remember that. In the meantime the evil Haman (boo, hiss, noisemakers!) is promoted and becomes the chief advisor to the king. Haman loves power and hates the Jews. Whenever he walks out in public, he expects people to bow to him. Mordecai refuses to do that, however, and Haman decides to show Mordecai who is boss by introducing a bill that will basically enact a holocaust and kill all Jews in the empire.

Esther, however, is now in a position to expose the evil Haman and his plot to kill her people, and she does just that. Her actions save her people, and change the course of history. We heard the end of the story today: as in every good melodrama, good triumphs over evil and Haman gets what is coming to him. Listen, then, once more to the words we heard earlier:

The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.

And that’s what Purim is all about, Charlie Brown! That is the whole megillah. That’s why it’s a time for feasting and for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. This year Purim will begin at sunset on Saturday, February 23. If you have an opportunity to attend a Purim celebration, I encourage you to do so.

Well, what do we do with this story that is over 2500 years old and set in a culture very different from our own? Why did we say “the word of the Lord/ thanks be to God” when we heard this reading? Out of habit? Is there in fact a word of the Lord here for us or not? And if so, what might it be?

Because this is the Bible, we claim that this scroll tells us something about God, although interestingly enough the name of God doesn’t appear; not even once. Except for Mordecai, none of the characters are particularly religious, including Esther. Yet in another sense, God permeates the story. “Perhaps you are in this position for a reason,” Mordecai tells his cousin, Esther, at a key point in the play. Esther speaks up not because of some big mystical experience, but simply because she’s in a place where she can make a difference. In a very dangerous world she does the right thing by acting bravely and compassionately, at great risk to herself. There’s another vignette that I didn’t share today in my rush to outline the plot: early on in the story the king has one of those sleepless nights where he is tossing and turning until he can’t take it anymore. He finally gets up to read a book, which turns out to be some old police reports: “The Book of Memorable Deeds.” (Sounds like something out of The Princess Bride, doesn’t it?) In it he discovers that Mordecai had reported two eunuchs who were plotting to assassinate the king. No proclamations were made and no royal medals were awarded, but Mordecai can’t easily be “disappeared” because he’s now on the king’s radar. The rabbis suggest that God is the one behind that sleepless night; that this is precisely the kind of subtle way that God influences this world.

The narrator may be suggesting that God is at work in our lives—behind the scenes—even when we don’t know it. And that we are put into certain situations for a reason. And that there are no coincidences. As Christians we might ascribe all of these things to the work of the Holy Spirit, who has a knack of getting us where we need to be and sometimes even causes us sleepless nights that stir us to action. I wonder if some of us might even say that the God we encounter in Esther is closer to our own experience: discerned through hints and guesses more often than speaking in a clear voice at a burning bush or blinding us on the road to Damascus or Worcester.

Because this is the Bible, this story also suggests something about the human condition. The Book of Esther knows that it’s a dangerous world out there, especially for those without power: women, religious minorities, the poor. So this Purim play is about the challenges of trying to be faithful in the midst of imperial power; about obedience to God rather than the rulers of this age. It’s about the cosmic struggle against the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. It’s easy to put all of the evil on a villain like Haman (or Satan or Hitler or Osama bin Laden) but only very rarely does real life unfold like a melodrama. The most insidious evil usually involves at least fifty shades of gray.

Some of you have perhaps read Three Cups of Tea or The Kite Runner. If so, you know that melodrama or not, the world of King Ahasuerus is very real. The whole idea that Vashti is put away because she had the audacity to disobey her husband’s obscene request is pretty repulsive, but unfortunately not so farfetched even today in Iran. And maybe not so farfetched for anyone living in an alcoholic, abusive relationship either. As for the rest of us, it may be true that we have come a long way, baby. Even so, we still deal with sexism that dehumanizes both women and men. Perhaps you’ve seen the stir caused recently by the latest geisha girl lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. And a friend of mine posted recently on Facebook a response from our Secretary of State to a question from a reporter who asked her “who her favorite fashion designer was.” Hillary turned it back on the reporter and asked if that was a question that was regularly asked of men in government. Of course it is not.

This past week we began our interfaith Bible study on Genesis and one of my Jewish friends who teaches Sunday School teaches the children from a very young age to do as the rabbis have done for centuries: she invites one student to comment on a Biblical text, and then the next student comments on both the text and the comment, and then the next student comments on the text and the two comments; all the way around the room. This is, of course, standard operating procedure for rabbinical interpretation down through the centuries. Walter Brueggemann has noted that we Christians like to give closure to our readings and interpretations, but “it is recurringly Jewish to recognize that our readings are always provisional, because there is always another text, always another commentary, always another rabbinic midrash…” inviting us to live more fully into the questions. 

So I think it really is ok to finish reading Esther and ask a really big question like “is this the kind of world we want our daughters and granddaughters to grow up in?” (And "is this the kind of world we want our sons and grandsons to grow up in?)

I found myself reading a lot of feminist criticism on this text this week, both Jewish and Christian. There is some debate about whether Vashti should be considered the true heroine here; that maybe it is better to stand up against “the man” even if it gets you killed. Maybe. For her own part, Esther compromises—maybe even in some way she has to compromise some of her own integrity in a world that is far from ideal—to act for the greater good. Aren’t these often the kind of ambiguous moral choices you and I face as well, both as women and men? 

I don’t have much more to say about that, except to share these comments along with the story itself and then pass it all along, hoping that it might generate further conversation and maybe even argument, that may yet lead us to new possibilities and new insights. But I do think this is the pathway that may potentially lead us to say and mean that this is a "Word of the Lord" - thanks be to God!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Capable Wife

This weekend's Old Testament reading comes from Proverbs 31:10-31. Our associate is preaching this weekend, so I have the week off (as far as preaching goes!) But by request, I am reprinting (unedited) a sermon here that I preached six years ago when I was in the midst of a sermon series on Proverbs. The parishioner who requested this arrived for her very first time at St. Francis when I preached this sermon, and according to her it is my best ever (which I think may be a polite way of saying that it's been all down hill since then!) In any event, since all the news is abuzz with talk of Jesus' wife, perhaps this is timely...
Honestly, I can’t believe I got myself into this predicament. At some point over the summer I noted that the lectionary had us reading from Proverbs three weeks in a row in September. And so I said to myself, “wouldn’t it be cool to do a little series on Proverbs this fall?”

I like sermon series for two reasons. I like that it gives all of you a “heads-up” about what text is coming, so that there seems to be an increased percentage of people who come to church having already looked over the text. It is so much easier to preach on texts that people have already been reflecting on throughout the week—even if they have not yet been able to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them. Second, to be very honest, it makes my own sermon preparation a lot easier because it lets me focus in on one book for a while, rather than jumping from Mark to Paul to the Old Testament.

So that’s what I was thinking when I made this plan. But I don’t think I actually read all the texts—or at least I didn’t look closely at the text for today. What man in his right mind chooses to preach on a job description for a capable wife? Believe me if I wasn’t committed in writing to preaching Proverbs today I would have so punted on this one and preached on the gospel instead! But here we are.

Now before I say another word, let me be clear that I have definitely been very fortunate and am truly blessed to have found “a capable wife” who is without a doubt “more precious than jewels…”

So where then does my anxiety come from? Well to begin with, I think about the email that’s been going around from an article published in 1955 in Good Housekeeping Magazine. It’s called “The Good Wife’s Guide” –maybe some of you have seen it. It says among other things that a good wife:

  • Will have dinner ready for her husband when he comes home;
  • And that even before that, she’ll make sure her make-up is fresh and a ribbon is in her hair and the house is uncluttered and that the children have been cleaned up; 
  • And that the good wife must listen to her husband and not question him and that she should remember how hard his day has been.

 We don’t need to have seen that email recently to know it is the world that some of us remember—whether from first-hand experience or from watching our parents or grandparents relate to each other. Most of us (and I dare hope all of us) are pretty glad that the world has changed in this regard. Here’s the thing, though. While there is no doubt that the Bible emerged in a patriarchal world—the fact is that the text before us today may be a lot less sexist than 1950s America. We need to step back, and hear it in its own context and I think if we do that we’ll find there is “good news” here, quite frankly.

To begin to get there we might think of the role of women in traditional societies to this day—or in farming societies. Do you know Willa Cather’s book, O Pioneers? It takes place between 1883 and 1890 in Hanover, Nebraska. The eldest child of Swedish immigrants, Alexandra is stronger and more resolute than either of her brothers in that story. When she inherits the family farm she adopts innovative farming techniques that lead to great prosperity for the family. More than those techniques, however, it is Alexandra’s resolution and determination that leads to their success. She is a strong, capable woman.

Now remember that the original audience for Proverbs would have been adolescent boys. The sages—their teachers—are trying to share with them the wisdom about what gives life meaning. I don’t want to pretend that this is a feminist text exactly, but I do think the portrait being painted is much closer to Alexandra than to June Cleaver. The sages tell their young male students that if they wish to find joy in life they should marry strong, capable women. I picture an older man—who after fifty years of marriage still worships the water his wife walks on. They’ve had their ups and downs to be sure but their love is strong and mutual and he’s telling these young men that their lives will find meaning and purpose if they find such a life-partner.

Notice all the action words in this text about doing and making and working. The “capable wife” here is absolutely not passive! In fact, the word for “capable” in Hebrew is the same word that is elsewhere translated as “strong.” There is also an awareness of and compassion for the poor. In other words, a capable woman has the same qualities as a capable man: they care for others, they take care of their families, and they love the Lord.

Israel knew of all the ways that men could misuse their power to lord it over women. They knew of David and Bathsheba, of Annon and Tamar, of Solomon and his harems. Yet here, while it’s true that the vision is idealized, the advice is to find a capable wife and to honor and respect and love her. The answer to the rhetorical question about who can find such a woman is that you can if you look: and you should look in order to enter into a relationship of mutual respect and trust.

It is distressing to me that within the Christian Church there are ways of reading the Bible and the tradition that claim to be focused on “family values” but are really nostalgia for the 1950s dressed up with a quote or two of St. Paul’s taken out of context. It becomes a “pious” way to deny women leadership in the world, in the church, and even in the home—and then call that Christianity.

The facts, however, testify to another reality. In spite of how the Church has sometimes tried to change the way we view her, the Biblical accounts are clear that Jesus’ mother wasn’t meek and mild. Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah, Deborah, Esther—these and other women of the Old Testament were strong, capable women who clearly shaped Mary’s faith as a Jewish mother. So too, I think, perhaps this hymn in Proverbs 31 shaped both Mary and her son as well. Jesus wasn’t afraid of strong, capable women. And no Church that claims him as its Lord should be either.

Time and again in the gospels Jesus breaks social convention by doing what no Jewish male of his day was supposed to do: speak with women in public. When he speaks with a foreign woman at the well, remember that she challenges him on a theological matter about his own vocation. (Is he sent for all the world or just his fellow Jews?)  He rewards her chutzpah. When Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha is busy in the kitchen getting supper ready, Jesus doesn’t send Mary to the kitchen to tell her that is where her place is. He does exactly the opposite: to “sit at one’s feet” is a way of talking about being a student, a disciple. Jesus is suggesting that Martha would be better off sending out for pizza and joining the conversation. In the New Testament, it is St. Paul who says that in Christ there is neither male nor female. It is St. Paul who names women as co-workers with him in spreading the good news.

The Bible—including this Wisdom tradition and the Book of Proverbs—comes out of a specific social and cultural and political context. That context is no doubt patriarchal. But it is truly amazing to me how time and time again the gospel breaks in to challenge convention—to challenge the gender roles, to challenge the status quo and to point toward a still more excellent way.

If I could have, I would have, punted on this text. Because at first reading it still may sound sexist—or at least overly idealized. (And that may be just as bad because who can live into such a “Wonderwoman” job description fully?) Yet as I said I can picture some old guy who knows full well the flaws of his wife as she knows his. But as he tells his grandson to look long and hard to find such a woman it becomes obvious that he truly does believe in his bones every word about how capable and wise his life-partner is. He wants his grandson to know that joy. He knows that men don’t get stronger by trying to make women feel weak. He is not unaware of his wife’s flaws, but he loves her—and the eyes of love are forgiving eyes.

The sages knew that true wisdom is about building up all of God’s people. And Jesus knew it, too: when he took a child and set that child in the center of a bunch of nitpicking adults who were acting like two-year olds. In a culture that honored the old and dismissed the young (which by the way may the exact opposite of our culture) Jesus pointed them to a child. And really I think it is part of the same trajectory. We don’t make ourselves better by knocking others down. The Church as the Body of Christ is about raising all of God’s people up to the full stature of Christ. It’s about all of us becoming more capable, more alive, more strong, more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Would that the Lord would put his Spirit on all the people!

This weekend we baptize Hannah Payton Lowery. We receive her into the household of faith. We welcome this little girl into the Body of Christ. And we do so in a community where she can look around as she grows up and take note of so many strong, capable women. She will see that girls can be acolytes, and lay readers, and priests, and bishops. For goodness sake—as she grows up it will be perfectly normal to pray for Katharine, our Presiding Bishop. And maybe six years from now when we are electing a new Presiding Bishop she’ll ask the million dollar question: mommy, can men become Presiding Bishop, too?

 © The Rev. Dr. Richard M. Simpson, September 24, 2006, Holden, MA

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mrs. Jesus?

It's all over the news and social media: did Jesus have a wife?

A friend of mine, a pretty good New Testament scholar in his own right, has commented on Facebook: 
... for Christians Resurrection is the defining action/miracle/fact. Whether or not the historical Jesus was married has always been an argument from silence. The Gospels (and Paul) display on interest in the subject. His culture (1st Century Judaism) held marriage in high regard. He was not Greek. So I imagine the topic was simply irrelevant to the writers of the New Testament. It is an interesting historical question but throws no new light on faith, or even the practice of celibacy.
I agree with him, mostly. Certainly for Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus and then what happens on the third day is at the core of our proclamation of the "good news."  We are an Easter people. 

It is also true that as a first-century Jew, Jesus would have held marriage in high regard. I remember my own professor of New Testament saying in seminary that the argument from silence can cut in both directions, but that it would have been very unusual for a first-century Jewish male to NOT be married, and that if Jesus was not married it would more than likely have been mentioned. So, he concluded, he probably was. This was more than twenty-five years ago, so none of this is really "breaking news."

The only place I really disagree with my friend here, however, is that it at the very least re-frame not only questions about the practice of celibacy but about Christian marriage and even more especially about the full inclusion of women in the life of the Church. If Jesus was married (and if his wife was a disciple) then it definitely challenges the notion that only celibate males should be priests, as is still argued by some. 

Professor King herself notes that this fragment does not "prove" that Jesus was married. And it is pretty unlikely at this stage that we will be able to uncover any solid evidence that would do so. But I think it's usefulness is more in inviting a conversation and in checking out the energy such a possibility generates within us, especially if we are practicing Christians.

What if Jesus was married? Does that anger us? Frighten us? Make us feel even more connected to his humanity? If he was married, how would that change our understanding of him? How might it challenge our understanding of marriage? And if the whole idea of this possibility offends us, what does that say?

As a married priest, I certainly am not offended or even surprised. I suppose that all things being equal I'd probably be glad to learn that he was, but that even if he wasn't it helps to remember in reading the Gospels that we are not reading a biography and most of his private life is not shared with us in any of the canonical Gospels. The focus is on his public ministry. And the cross.

And, of course, the resurrection.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


An edited version of the sermon preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Francis Church. Sermon text: Mark 7:(1-23) 24-37  

In the first twenty-three verses of the seventh chapter of Mark - last weekend's Gospel reading - there is a dispute between Jesus and the religious authorities. He has been teaching in and around the Sea of Galilee, about 100 miles north of Jerusalem. In the very first verse of the seventh chapter of Mark, a group of Pharisees and scribes arrive from Jerusalem. They are not coming all the way to Galilee to become his disciples. They have been sent to discredit and ultimately to silence him. By way of analogy, think nuns on the bus and Vatican officials.

First-century Judaism was diverse, complex, and contentious. (Sounds a lot like 21st century Christianity, doesn't it?) A whole bunch of debates were going on within Judaism about the future of Judaism. So what is happening in the seventh chapter of Mark is not a clash between “Jews” and “Jesus” but a highly emotional argument among Jewish people. The truth is that the scribes and Pharisees didn’t agree on everything themselves, but they were allied in their shared commitment to put a stop to this rabble-rousing rabbi.

The conflict is over how to interpret and apply the Holiness Codes from Leviticus. What does it mean to be an observant Jew? The official interpreters of the tradition had elaborate rituals and rules about what you could eat and how you could eat and with whom you could eat. (And similar rules about keeping the Sabbath holy.) These were all part of the “tradition” that seemed to have a clear mandate in the Book of Leviticus. Yet Jesus (or more precisely) Jesus’ followers have been routinely violating the purity laws and rituals around eating; at least that is how the authorities see it. They refuse to wash their hands, not because they are against hygiene, but they are pushing the envelope against those who see themselves as the arbiters of what is acceptable. 

So an attentive reader would be wise to ask why? Why are Jesus and his friends always “rocking the boat?” Why does this guy without any theological credentials challenge the theologians and engage in debate with them and escalate the conflict? Didn’t Jesus’ mother teach him that you get more bees with honey? The short answer is that Jesus is constantly pointing out to the scribes and the Pharisees that their application of the Torah is selective and therefore hypocritical; that they have blinders on. That it may work for them, but they make the faith harder on others than it needs to be by missing the forest from the trees. At one point Jesus famously notes that the Sabbath is for people, not the other way around. 

It is interesting to me that Jesus and his followers—from the perspective of outsiders—see as obvious what the insiders with their vested interest are blind to. And I think that’s critical to grasp. These Jerusalem elites are not bad people. But the rules they make work for them; not Galilean fishermen. In those first twenty-one verses of chapter seven Jesus is surrounded by powerful people trying to intimidate him into silence. Yet he stands his ground, and won’t back down.  He is a prophetic figure speaking truth to power, to people who literally have blinders on and can no longer see what really matters. 

Anyone who has ever tried to speak truth to power knows how exhausting that can be. So Jesus needs to get away from it all. He needs a little Sabbath himself. As we heard today he heads about forty miles north; crossing over the border into what we would call Lebanon today. He crosses into the region of Tyre and Sidon, knowing that the Jerusalem leaders will not follow him there because it is Gentile territory, and their theology of purity keeps them from stepping foot into such a place. So he is presumably safe there. 

The evangelist is very clear: he slips into a house “because he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. He’s trying to find some peace and quiet. “Yet,” Mark tells us, “he could not escape notice.” This unnamed woman who finds him there is yin and yang with Jesus: he is male, she is female; he is Jewish, she is a Gentile.[i]  So we should also notice what Mark has done as a shrewd gospel writer: he has just turned the tables on us. Jesus is now completely in the opposite role that he was a few moments ago. In the first half of Mark 7, he was the outsider—the one without social power. But now, by comparison, Jesus is the one with all the power. 

And what is interesting is that he seems, at least momentarily, a bit off his game and one might argue as blind as the scribes and Pharisees when in that position. Maybe that is what being in a position of relative privilege does to us; it makes us myopic, and even blind. Just a short time ago, Jesus was arguing for a more compassionate reading of the Torah, for a “kinder and gentler” Judaism, if you will. Yet now he sounds almost like those very scribes and Pharisees with whom he was arguing. He calls this woman a “dog.” There’s really no way around that, even if his insult is an indirect one. 

Essentially he is saying that he has to set priorities in his ministry and that he hasn’t got time or energy to waste on casting out the demon from her daughter, because he has to use all of his limited resources to focus on the children of Israel—the very people, by the way, whom we just saw were chasing him away. It’s understandable, of course—especially if Jesus has just attended a time-management seminar or a course on “learning to say no.” He’s setting priorities and putting first things first: Jews first, Gentiles second. 

But this woman refuses to stay invisible. She persists. Maybe even she is a little bit annoying as the truly desperate usually are. She insists on being heard because she is a desperate mother with a sick child. The tables have indeed been turned on Jesus, and she bests him in a theological debate: “even the dogs get some crumbs.”

Now some people don’t like this gospel reading because they want Jesus to never be shown in any way other than bathed in heavenly light. A self-respecting gospel writer like John would never give us a story like this. But Mark isn’t John, or even Matthew or Luke. Mark is so focused on the humanity of Jesus that he doesn’t have a problem with portraying Jesus as tired and cranky. Perhaps he is in fact just baiting her, helping her to find her voice. Either way, she is the star in this encounter because she refuses to back down. And clearly Jesus appreciates her chutzpah. So he says to her:  “for saying that…the demon has left your daughter. Go home and see for herself that she is now well.” 

We have a fascinating case study here that I think is very relevant to our daily lives. There are no doubt times in our lives when we should “stand our ground” as Jesus does in speaking truth to power. But in this situation, he is open to seeing his own blind spots. I’m going to let the second half of this gospel reading stand on its own since I spent so much time leading up to this encounter, except to note that Aramaic word Jesus utters as he heals this deaf man with a speech impediment immediately after his encounter with this Syrophoenician woman: Ephphatha, that is: "be opened." Jesus shows us how to not be afraid to enter into a conversation and ultimately to open our hearts and minds to the other. Because you don’t grow spiritually (or in any way) with clenched fists and your eyes closed. Be open. Jesus really listens and really hears this woman this woman to speech and it’s pretty obvious that she has spent most of her life being silenced and made invisible. Hearing her story changes his theology; it changes him. And of course it changes her, too. 

Think for a moment what this suggests about prayer. I don’t think Jesus means for us to be passive and pious people, but like this woman to cry out for justice, to push back, to engage, until we find our voices. Jesus can handle that, as he shows here. We need more Christians with the kind of chutzpah this woman shows, because it leads to deeper faith. What would happen if we engaged in that kind of conversation more often—in our prayer lives and with one another, in our homes and workplaces and at church? What would it be like for us to let go of our agendas and certainties long enough to be truly open? Ephphatha. Open to speak our truths and to hear the truths of others. I submit to you that it is not weakness to do this, but a giant leap of faith. For when we engage with others in this way, the healing power of God truly is unleashed. Reconciliation is possible. 

Mark shows us a fully human Jesus, and a fully human Jesus shows us how to be more human; and ultimately how to be instruments of God’s peace in a broken world.  

[i]  We might notice that this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman echoes Old Testament encounters between Elijah and the widow of Zarepath (1 Kings 17:8-24) as well as the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4:18-37).