15 Pentecost, Yr. B Sept. 6, 2015
Isaiah 35:4-7a Mark 7:24-37
Change of heart
The way Jesus spoke to the Syrophoenician woman makes him sound as though he got up on the wrong side of the bed. Responding to her with an insulting remark about throwing children’s food to the dogs, especially when she has bowed down at his feet, isn’t the compassionate Jesus we prefer to know. We’d rather see Jesus accepting all people, not drawing lines to choose who deserves his help and who does not.
It’s hard to imagine this scene taking place today. For one thing, Jesus just helps himself to a house in the region of Tyre, thinking nothing of using the house to get himself and his disciples away from crowds who pursue Jesus once word of his healing power has spread.
This Gentile woman, who already had two strikes against her, was fueled by love for her child to argue so persistently with Jesus. But he has kept his ministry for the people of Israel. When she continues to pester him, Jesus tells her that her words have led him to change his heart.
In the parallel passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt. 15:24)
In Matthew’s version, Jesus tells the woman it is not her words, but her faith that has changed his heart. In these stories, the women take to heart today’s reading from Isaiah: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…he will come and save you.” (Is. 35:4)
For in the interactions with Jesus, his heart indeed has been changed, and for the good. He has realized that his saving works and healing mission need not be restricted to the Jewish people. He boldly shatters a boundary in ministering to the Gentile woman.
The good news of this gospel for us is that Jesus’ change of heart has opened the way to break the chains of prejudice. If only we might learn from him, and then not forget!
Another aspect of this story offers an important lesson: in both examples of healing, the person Jesus healed is not the one who asked for healing. Instead, the girl’s mother pleaded on her behalf to rid the girl of a demon, and later the deaf man’s companions brought the man to Jesus.
The implication for us is that as Christ’s beloved in the world, we are to intercede, to intervene on behalf of others. We pray our intercessions as a community for those we love and care for. We pray for the urgent concerns of the wider world. We bring all this prayer to God.
The dire circumstances we hear of in the news can wear out our capacity for compassion. This past week, who could see photos of the drowned 3-year-old Syrian refugee washed ashore, and find the right words to pray for an end to intolerance and the searing pain of loss?
God doesn’t expect perfect language or even any language at all when we pray. Stopping our daily activity for even a few moments in prayerful silence, asking that the presence of Jesus remain with us, is powerful on its own.
Earlier this week, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies called upon all congregations to observe today, September 6, as a Sunday for “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism.”
Leaders from Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, whose members were killed in an act of racism this past June, ask us to join in an ecumenical effort of solidarity, prayer, and action.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention designated two million dollars toward the work of racial reconciliation. That’s how serious a priority this work is in the coming triennium.
The national church has issued an invitation to young adults aged 18-30 to participate in a pilgrimage to Ferguson in October, recognizing that standing in the very place where injustice and violence occurred, and bringing the experience home in the form of a local project, will change minds and hearts in a hands-on way that no church convention ever can.
AME Bishop Reginald Jackson writes that “Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking…We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism…and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.”
The Presiding Bishop prays, “May God bless us and forgive us as we pray and act with our partners this week and in the years to come. In the words of the prophet Isaiah appointed for Sunday, may we see the day when ‘waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.’”
Our prayer support is crucial but, like the Syrophenician woman, requires faith and persistence.
Praying in community strengthens our petitions when we ask God to hear our prayer. In our vulnerability we beg God to reveal, through Jesus, how God remains active in our lives, even in those times when we are brought low and feel far away from compassion and healing.
May we learn from the Syrophenician woman, and in our persistent prayer for a world deeply hungry for healing, never give up on Jesus – the one who never gives up on us.
As author Lindsay Hardin Freedman writes in her book, Bible women, this bold character in today’s gospel is one to notice and to learn from. She would tell us, “Don’t give up. Go find Jesus and stay with him until the healing is found.”
Please join me in saying together the Prayer for the Human Family, found in the Book of Common Prayer on p. 815.
Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 Lindsay Hardin Freeman, Bible women: all their words and why they matter (Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 2014)
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