From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.
Yet he could not escape notice.
But a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him,
and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.
She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
It is not right 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.”
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go.
The demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child thrown on the bed, and the demon gone.”
Some mornings, I wake up, and all I want in this life is to escape notice. On those days, I want to wake up when I am ready, walk downstairs into the kitchen on my own time, make myself a strong cup of coffee, and catch up on the news in peace. In my mind, this magical morning resembles something out of Norman Rockwell, with children playing quietly and peacefully while Alex and I gather ourselves together to meet another day.
Of course, that is nothing like our actual lives. Most mornings, one or both of us are jarred from sleep when one of our beloved children comes in our room to announce that THEY ARE AWAKE. Or, someone awakens the whole house to a concert featuring one of their favorite Christmas songs sung at the top of their lungs. And then there are the times that the dog awakens us early, eager to get outside to chase a squirrel or a rabbit. Domestic bliss!
You know, I went looking for a picture that might capture the fantasy in my head of an ideal morning. I figured there would be dozens of options to choose from—Norman Rockwell was, after all, a prolific artist. But I couldn’t find any. Instead I found pictures that looked a little too close to how I feel on my most stressed out days, which, in COVID, let’s admit, are more frequent than usual. Most days, I feel like the man in the picture above—slouching down in my chair, hoping that I will, for however briefly, escape notice.
Over the course of the pandemic, researchers have described a phenomena in which people were so desperate to be alone with their own thoughts that they were stealing that time late at night. Instead of going to sleep, which is the definition of a restful activity, they were scrolling the internet, binging television shows, hiding from friends and family and doing their best to escape.
In other words, we all know what it is like to want to disappear for a while. But most days, it turns out that we cannot escape notice. We cannot escape the reality that there are others—our children, our pets, our neighbors, the world outside—that need us to show up and be there for them. That remind us that we have responsibilities to one another.
Perhaps we can relate, then, to Jesus when he sets off for a little time alone.
You know, it’s interesting. It would seem that Jesus is trying to take a vacation in our scripture lesson this morning. He’s had a rough week—his hometown rejected his ministry, and then the religious authorities showed up at his door questioning his credentials. No wonder he wants to get a way for a bit. So he slips away from the boundaries of his community and into Tyre. Tyre is an interesting choice, I have to say, for someone like Jesus to be sneaking away to. Just 130 years before Jesus was born, the community of Tyre had assisted King Antiochus in the siege of Jerusalem and desecration of the Jewish temple. 130 years is not that long. A Jew hearing this news about Jesus might have sucked in her breath, shocked to imagine that he, of all people, would be naïve enough to end up in that kind of neighborhood.
If Jesus were American, it would be as though, after a long and hard season of ministry, he woke up one morning and decided he needed to get away and clear his head. And so he jumped on a plane and landed at Kabul airport. Or in Tehran. Or in Sinoloa. Or any other number of places populated by people around whom we have reasons to be guarded. To go there seems reckless. He would have been alone, alright. Alone, and exposed.
There is a whole genre of literature that explores the urge to be alone. Into the Wild tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a man who disappeared into the Alaskan bush to find himself. Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild pulls her life back together by testing her limits on a life-changing hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Jon Krakauer documents the relentless and dangerous pull of Mt Everest in Into Thin Air. There is an endless supply, it seems, of novels and memoirs that document the stories of people who felt that they needed to “escape notice” from the world in order to understand themselves more fully.
What is interesting in these stories is what happens when “the world” passes away, and the characters at the center of the story are stripped down. What will they do with this precious opportunity? And I would suggest that the same is true for Jesus.
When he slips away into Tyre, we cannot know what Jesus expected to happen. But we know what DOES happen: Scripture tells us that he cannot hide. Even here, far away from the people with whom he shares a culture and a religion, there are people hurting and crying out for relief. People who look nothing like him. Who believe differently than he does. People whom he may even have reason to distrust. People who are foreign. Other. And yet, they have heard of him and what he does. And so they find him. The Syro-Phoenician woman bows at his feet, lowers herself and begs for him to heal her daughter.
And for the first and only time in his ministry Jesus will say no to someone who comes to him seeking healing. But it is more than that—Jesus doesn’t just say no. He goes further, insulting the woman and calling her a dog.
Christians have twisted themselves in knots over the centuries trying to explain this behavior. “Perhaps Jesus is not saying what HE thinks, but what the disciples were thinking. Perhaps he is trying to expose their own prejudice.” Perhaps Jesus said one thing with his words, they suggest, and another with his eyes.
The truth is that we can’t know for sure. What we can be certain of is this: this is not an easy story to square with the Jesus we think we know. However his eyes looked, his words don’t seem compassionate or kind. He seems less holy, and more holier than thou, callous and indifferent to the suffering of the woman before him.
Perhaps its just that I don’t want to believe that Jesus could be as human as I know that I am. For I know that I have hardened my heart in the face of suffering. I know that I have made judgements about other people, people I have decided are not like me. I have seen the struggling, and instead of reaching out to help, I have thought to myself, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I,” and I have gone about my business without doing a thing. I have convinced myself that I need to compartmentalize, to decide that some suffering is more worthy of my time than others, because otherwise how could I possibly function in the world?
But not Jesus. I want Jesus to be better than that because I want to believe that, God willing, I can be better than that. Surely, when we affirm that Jesus is utterly human, just like us in every way, we cannot mean that he is as callous as we have the ability to be to one another. Because isn’t the fact that he is also utterly divine supposed to make him better than us?
You know, it’s easy to forget, but, according to the scriptures, there are times when God changes course. Times when God was prepared to mete out punishment, or withhold grace, and then is convinced to do otherwise. In Exodus, more than once, the people of God complain to Moses, and God decides right then and there to do away with the lot of them. And do you know what happens? Moses convinces God that there is another way. And God listens to Moses! In 2 Kings, when scripture tells us that the wickedness of Israel led God to send invaders to siege Jerusalem, King Hezekiah’s prayers of penitence convince God to have compassion on the city and to save the people once condemned. In the book of Jonah, the repentance of the people of Ninevah leads God to spare them from destruction, even though they are the enemies and oppressors of God’s chosen people.
Do you see what happens? Time and again, God erects a boundary, or pronounces a judgement, only to change course. To choose mercy.
So why would we believe that this encounter with Jesus and the woman is any different? For when Jesus judges her, calls her a dog, she does not respond in anger. Instead, she absorbs the insult, takes it in, and in the tradition of Moses and Hezekiah and the people of Ninevah, she makes her case. Am I not God’s child too? Do I not deserve God’s grace?
Let me ask you: do you believe that those whom you mistrust, or who have hurt you, those you have judged wanting, are worthy of God’s grace? Jesus found it in within himself to see the Syro-Phoenician woman in a new way that transformed an enemy into a neighbor, a stranger into a child of God. In the process, he opened the door for gentiles, people like you and me, to experience the goodness of the kingdom of God for themselves.
I can’t imagine it was easy for Jesus to change course, but then again, isn’t that part of the experience of being human? Science tells us that our brains are amazingly plastic, that they can actually reorganize themselves by forming new connections as we take in new information. The way I understand it, that means that the very part of us that many people think makes us who we are is inherently flexible. God made us to be flexible.
This morning, Christ shows us that, when we are wiling to embrace our inherent flexibility, it is possible to see in a new way. That it is possible to open our hearts to people and places that might once have seemed beyond God’s reach. That is possible for strangers to teach us something important about the character of God. The truth is that we are capable of so much more than our worst instincts. And that is what gives me hope right now. That, I believe, is the best of Good News. Because ours is a world that is aching for faithful examples of what it looks like to live as though the ability to be humble and flexible and open to change were the expectation, not the exception.
I want to leave you with one final story. 16 years ago, you may remember, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, killing nearly two thousand people and displacing over 100,000 students. At the time, I was a senior at the University of Southern California and a resident advisor in the honors dorms. I can remember how it felt to watch the news of what was happening in Louisiana, and how far away it felt from me and my world. I cared about their suffering, but what could I possibly do?
A week later, Ms. Brevard arrived in our dorm. She was a student from one of the Historically Black Universities in New Orleans that was flooded by Katrina. She and nearly 100 other students arrived at USC with nothing—nearly everything she had was lost in Katrina. She told us about how, at her college, the floodwater line reached up the wall of the dorm, knocking out the power and the generators, and that even when they mopped up the water, it didn’t matter because the mold and mildew covered every surface.
I cannot imagine how hard it was for her to leave a place that was home and find herself in Los Angeles, surrounded by a bunch of well-meaning, sheltered, mostly upper-middle class Californians who had no concept of what a hurricane was. And I am certain that we were imperfect in our support and our friendship of her in what was certainly a traumatizing time. But here is what I also know: Katrina became personal for us when we met her. When she arrived, we could no longer pretend Katrina was happening somewhere else. We could no longer escape notice.
That’s the thing about our faith. Our call is to follow where Christ is leading us. Sometimes God is revealed to us in the expected places, and sometimes we discover the face of God where we did not expect it. Sometimes God grabs our attention and makes us see the place were weren’t looking, where God was all along.
Let us walk humbly, and follow closely, that our Lord and Savior might lead us in the way that leads to life. Amen.