The following homily was given at the Sunday worship service of Mennonite Arts Weekend in response to the question “What gospel story has caused you to be transfigured?”
Throughout the gospels there are different points where we are told that Jesus withdrew from the demands of the crowds for times of solitude and prayer. The Transfiguration itself was one of those occasions. A gospel story that has caused me to be transfigured over these last few years has the unique characteristic of being a time when Jesus went on a failed retreat.
Right in the middle of his gospel, toward the end of chapter seven, Mark tells the story of Jesus setting out and going away to the region of Tyre and Sidon, far away from his Galilee home base and well outside Jewish territory. Tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders had been escalating and he was just coming off a particularly abrasive encounter with them. His closest followers had again failed to understand even the basics of his teaching.
Once Jesus arrives alone at this foreign destination, Mark says “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Maybe Jesus is just trying to get some rest, away from the intensity of his ministry efforts. Maybe he’s on the run, pondering abandoning this whole ‘kingdom of God’ project that isn’t catching on so well. Maybe he hopes to hear an audible voice from God to guide his next steps.
Whatever his intentions, he has little time to carry them out as Mark says that he could not escape notice. Breaking into the silence of this retreat, Jesus does hear an audible voice. Some overly assertive local who won’t take no for an answer barges into the house and falls at his feet, begging for healing for her little daughter. The way Mark describes her, you can count the three strikes she has against her in coming to this rabbi in this way. “Now the WOMAN was a GENTILE, of SYROPHOENECIAN ORIGIN.”
Jesus is not moved to compassion. He defines his boundaries of who gets to eat at his table, letting her know in no uncertain terms that she is outside those boundaries, implying that she might as well get herself outside his house, all the while managing to call her a dog. Surprisingly, the dog barks back. The Syrophoenecian woman offers that even the little puppies should be able to eat some of those leftover scraps that fall from the table. Is her daughter not worthy of even some scraps?
And then, a remarkable moment. For the first and only time in any of the gospels, Jesus acknowledges that he has just lost an argument. Jesus — tired, frustrated, didn’t-want-anybody-to-find-me-here Jesus recognizes that he has just been a student of this unwelcomed rabbi and that her word has been better than his word. He says, “For that word, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” This is a pivotal moment in Mark’s gospel as Jesus returns from the region with his ministry now wide open to the Gentiles.
It’s in this raw, earthy, very human portrayal of our Master that I have experienced personal transformation. It’s important and valuable to me to see that Jesus was not simply some self-contained, self-sustained dispenser of wisdom, but One whose wisdom rested in the reality of being radically open to learning from any situation. Jesus the Teacher, no doubt, but also Jesus the Student whose eyes and ears are attentive to those surprising realities that the rest of us are too blind and deaf to notice. Witnessing this encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman only elevates my admiration, curiosity and awe toward this One we refer to as Lord and Savior.
When I was beginning ministry at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship a year and a half ago this scripture happened to be the lectionary passage that I preached from during my licensing service. I ended then, and I end now, by saying that I hope we will be visited often by the Syrophoenecian woman and that we will be able to recognize her as a messenger from God who breaks through uninvited into our lives and opens us up to new forms of living out God’s compassion for all creation.