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Alan Kurdi, the Syrophoenician Woman and Breaking Jesus’ Prejudice

Mark 7:24-37

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  (Read the whole passage)

Sermon*

Most of us had a moment this week when we first saw the image of little Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey. The scene seemed unreal: childlike innocence contrasted with devastating tragedy. It seemed to jar the world out of our summer sleepiness and into a deeper awareness of the reality of the humanitarian and refugee crisis happening out of Syria.

It’s not that there haven’t been news reports, articles written, and videos posted showing the thousands of migrants clashing against police, migrants struggling to cross borders or telling us of migrants dying trying to make their way to a better life.

It’s also not that we haven’t responded to the crisis, which has been going on for 5 years: CLWR asked our national church for 10,000 sweaters and we responded with 70,000. We’ve given with financial support, we have hosted fundraisers, and we have even had ongoing conversations in our congregation about how we can support refugees.

And yet, the reality of this crisis has always seemed far away. Something distant and removed from us. That is until this week when one photo scooped us up from our living room couches, plucked us away from computer screens, and transported us around the world.

Unlike the news reports, the articles and videos of migrants, one photo of a Turkish beach made us feel like we were standing just a few feet away from little Alan Kurdi and demanded that we come near and truly see this humanitarian crisis.

Perhaps it is serendipity or perhaps the Holy Spirit is up to something, because Jesus has his own close encounter with a foreign woman this week. A parent doing anything she can to provide a better life for her child.

And it is this desperate parent who seeks Jesus out, hoping that he will help her and her demon possessed daughter.

As seems to be usual in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is tired and cranky. He is seeking refuge from the demanding crowds, and so when this woman comes into the house where he is staying, Jesus is well… very un-Christ-like with her.

She begs for his help, and Jesus puts her off. In fact Jesus tells her off. Jesus compares her to a dog. And not the beloved family pets many of us have at home, but a pest and nuisance. The word he uses is more akin to that pejorative name for a female dog.

Mark the gospel writer, doesn’t usually provide details unless they are important, so the fact that he mentions that this woman is Syrophoenician should not escape our notice. Syrophoenicians were mixed race gentiles living in the border lands of Tyre and Sidon, just beyond Galilee. Syrophoenicians were half Phoenician and half Syrian (the coincidence here should not be lost on us).

The Israelites of Jesus’ day saw these particular gentiles living just beyond their borders as lesser peoples. People unworthy of Jewish attention or compassion.

As the Syrian-Phoenician  woman comes to Jesus, she humbles herself at his feet, and she begs for his compassion on her daughter’s behalf. And she crosses the boundaries of proper social behaviour, by being a woman who speaks to a man in public, by being a gentile who approaches a Jew, by being a beggar hounding a respected teacher and authority. And Jesus responds to this woman’s bold yet desperate plea by expressing a common Jewish prejudice of his day in the way he deals with this desperate mother. He is willing to put her off, because her needs, her tragedy, her desperation are not worth his immediate action. Jesus makes it clear that she, and others like her, will only get help once the people the world has deemed more worthy have their needs met.

Jesus sounds a lot like our political leaders have sounded this week… and that should not sit well with us. In fact, it should make us squirm in our seats. This is not the Jesus who eats with tax collectors and sinners, the Jesus who is forgiving prostitutes, the Jesus who is welcoming the unworthy.

Jesus today sounds too much like world leaders who can’t be bothered with people who are just too different from them. Jesus sounds like those who blame others for the problems facing the poor and marginalized, passing the buck. Jesus sounds a little bit too much like us.

It is uncomfortable to watch Jesus succumb to the same prejudice that we fall victim to. It is disturbing to see him place walls and barriers in front of suffering people just like we do. It is strange to think that Jesus would deny anyone compassion just because they are different from him, just as we are often guilty of doing.

Our prejudice often affords us the excuse to remain passive in the face of human suffering. This week it was a photo of Alan Kurdi that reminded us of this fact. Last year, it was the story of Tina Fontaine. The year before, it was the case of Brian Sinclair… and the list goes on from there. Maybe it goes all the way back to the Syrian-Phoenician woman.

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”

Just when we expect the Syrian-Phoenician woman to reject Jesus’ prejudice and bigoted words, she does the opposite. She holds them up as a mirror to Jesus’ prejudice and accepts the dog epithet. She is still begging for compassion, she is still asking Jesus for help. But instead of asking for help person to person, she is willing to lower herself… she is already on her hands and knees at Jesus’ feet… to the place of a dog. She is asking for the least that Jesus could do.

And in that moment, Jesus is faced with either turning her away and abandoning not only her humanity, but his own, or dropping his prejudice in order to show compassion.

Ephphatha. Be opened. 

It is not just the deaf man who is opened up today, but he instead re-iterates the opening up that Jesus experiences just before. When Jesus unplugs the ears and loosens the tongue of the deaf man, he makes a connection to a person who had no voice, who was on the margins and excluded from normal community. The deaf man can now speak because Jesus is listening.

It is a connection that Jesus first learns through the Syrian-Phoenician woman who presses him to show compassion. Jesus learns something about giving up his own prejudice, Jesus learns what it is like to have his own walls and barriers broken down. By holding Jesus’ prejudice up before him, by making her need for compassion heard, Jesus breaks open God’s compassion into the world. Compassion and mercy given to more than just the children of Israel, compassion now for Jew and gentile alike, compassion for all creation.

What starts as a tired and cranky Jesus refusing to help a person whom he thought was too other, too different, too unworthy becomes the means for God’s transforming compassion and mercy to enter the world. As Jesus is opened, God’s compassion meets a Syrian-Phoenician woman and a deaf man. As God is opened, the world is opened.

And it is the same thing that happened to the world and to us, this week. A single photo of a young Alan Kurdi, holds up a mirror to our prejudice, to the walls and barriers we build between ourselves and people who are different from us. When faced with tragedy like this, we are left with the option of going on with life as usual, where people like Alan don’t matter, or having our prejudice broken down and our compassion broken open by the realities of the Syrian migrant crisis through the heartbreaking photograph of a three-year old boy lying dead on a beach.

Still, even as the world now calls for compassion, even as we have been sending sweaters, praying, giving what we can, and discerning how to do more, even if our country opens our doors to as many refugees as we can take… we know that it is not enough. We know that our compassion has not and will not save the world. The power of the human spirit cannot do it alone, if at all.

Today, we are reminded, even as the Syrian-Phoenician woman pushes Jesus for compassion, that God is doing the work of breaking us open. God is speaking to us Ephphatha – Be open. 

There is no human cry for compassion, no human grief that will save Alan. There are just some walls of prejudice, some walls of indifference that we cannot break down.

And so like the Syrian-Phoenician woman, like the deaf man, and now like Alan Kurdi, we turn to God.

God alone who can meet our prejudice and open us up. 

God alone who can meet the walls and barriers we place in front of the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

God alone who can meet death,

God who knows what it is like for a son to slip from his arms and die on a cross. God who knows what it is like to die in the borderlands of a foreign and oppressing empire.

God alone who on the third day walked out of the tomb, breaking open death once and for all.

Today, we turn to God who speaks to us in the midst of prejudice and tragedy –

Ephphatha – Be Open. 

Amen

*This sermon was co-written between my wife, Courtenay @ReedmanParker and I. We haven’t done this before, but as we talked about our own reaction to the photo of Alan Kurdi this week, we decided to come together and write one sermon. It is something we will definitely do again. 

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