When my life suddenly shifts gear, when the unexpected happens and long-held plans of my heart drift away from my reach, almost as carelessly and indiscriminately as the milkweed pods released their seeds into the woods this week, never to be found again, I find myself in deep and dark grief almost instantly. Perhaps because of this, I latched on to a video posted on someone’s Facebook page about a new way of understanding grief: no longer seeing it as something we move through and beyond, but rather as a core part of our being that stays with us, that we return to, we immerse ourselves into, from time to time. This person’s thinking was that grief stays the same, though it may lessen a bit or become fuzzy over time, but we learn to grow our lives around a core of grief. The grief stays with us, but we have built up so much around it, that our world seems large again, and less consumed with the fog of grief, for our lives have taken on new possibilities, embraced more life-giving places where love has begun to blossom, where hope has teased us back into existence, where joy (yes, joy) occasionally erupts, where creativity is sparked, and for me, a place where God has been calling us, all along.
This brief video about understanding grief sat with me this week, for I see it as an apt description of faithful life, of listening and responding to God’s pull to always enlarge our vision for our lives, always inviting us to expand our view of the purpose of life, daring us to trust God’s possibilities, urging us to step beyond our current reality into the Kingdom of God.
Though we may find grief is at our core, often it is unchecked assumptions about how life should be, or our childhood beliefs about what is right and wrong, or our privileged status, or the way we expect our lives to turn out, or our own agenda. Regardless, it asks us to join with God to build a life larger than that within us which can consume our lives.
In our Gospel story today, Jesus finds himself in a similar situation, where he is being invited by God and the Syrophoenician woman, to enlarge his vision of his purpose in life, to expand the possibilities of extending mercy and compassion, to step beyond his current reality into the Kingdom of God. Blind to his status as an educated Jewish male, and driven by the assumption that God’s mercy was first to be given to the Jews, before the gentiles, he was distracted from seeing deeper into the core of his being, beyond the position given him by his society. At his core he was God’s beloved son, the incarnation of all that is good and healing, the source of all compassion and mercy.
So, here’s the situation. Jesus the Jew is in Gentile territory. The last time he was there, he drove a legion of demons from a tormented man into 2000 pigs which then rushed headlong into the sea. His manifestation of the Kingdom drove the people to ask him to leave. They were unready. To his knowledge, nothing has changed. His preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcism will not be welcomed. So instead of taking to the countryside, marketplace, or village, he seeks out a house in which to escape notice.
But someone ready to receive the Kingdom finds him. She is a Gentile woman who comes on behalf of her daughter who is troubled by a demon. By Jewish standards, she is doubly unclean: a Gentile woman with a demon daughter. But even so, she had heard of Jesus and chose to act on what she heard, finding him in his refuge.
She bowed at his feet, demonstrating her faith in the power of God that flows through him. She begged him for an exorcism – not for herself but for the good of another. She has what Jesus has been looking for all this time , yet which so often evades him: perseverance, faith, and service. It must be disconcerting to him that these yearned-for qualities are coming from someone unclean, as defined by Jesus and the Jewish culture.
Remember Jesus’ interchange with the Pharisees last week, about purity laws, kosher food and the worriment about defilement, and Jesus’ assertion that it is not what is exterior to us that causes defilement, but rather our core that becomes defiled. So it is with no sense of irony that Jesus, after having chided the Pharisees for finding others unclean due to their eating habits or place in life, now does the exact same thing – finding this woman unclean by virtue of her gender, geographic location and paganism, and thus unworthy to come to the Table to receive the nourishment which will make her and her daughter whole and clean.
The woman immediately sees the discrepancy between what Jesus claims to be his core (his cultural assumptions,) and his authentic core, before he himself does. In that moment, Jesus appears preoccupied with his positional power – his reputation as a learned male Jew, as someone with power to heal and cast our demons on his whim – all of which has perhaps distorted his authentic core for a very human moment, when the customs of his culture, his self-appointed curriculum, his strong belief that God’s plan must play out in the order he understands to be God’s: Jews first. Despite her faith, in Jesus’ eyes, she is still unclean, and that supersedes everything. She is not welcome at the Table. One could say that his core had become momentarily, temporarily, in a very human moment, defiled as he denied this woman in great need, who was begging on behalf of her daughter, her child, a child of God, who Jesus would otherwise care greatly for.
Many theologians and biblical scholars try to down-play the harshness of Jesus’ response to this woman, but I think it tells us so much about the ease of relying on assumptions while completely ignoring God’s call to enlarge and expand our cores into mercy and compassion. We know from the story that Jesus was exhausted and in a place of rejection, the natural response to which is often to reject those who reject you. Jesus wants to be alone and this pushy gentile woman intrudes on his quiet and personal space. I know that when I am in a similar place of grief, pain, or exhaustion, I don’t really want to be stretched or be accommodating, and my first response is often not my best one. Just this past week, in the midst all the inconveniences and disappointments those days had brought, I apologized to Bill that I was being such a pain. I told him that I was doing my best, but my best just wasn’t very good right now. We can understand Jesus’ response to this woman. We’ve all been in that place.
Yet, just as God loves us too much to leave us where we are, the Syrophoenician woman too clearly saw the truth of Jesus, to which he had been blinded by his cultural customs, and wasn’t ready to leave him there.
She doesn’t argue with Jesus, nor does she retaliate or attack. Rather, she repositions her request within the framework of his initial rejection. The dogs (she and her daughter) could receive a single gift of God (crumbs) from among the many gifts that are given to the children (the Jews). She does not seek to be great or to be first. She seeks to serve her daughter’s well-being and she is willing to become least in order to do so. She seeks her authentic core, the part where she belongs to God too, to let all else go, not feeling as though she’s lost anything, but knowing that she has gained everything.
In humbling herself, in being willing to take only the crumbs, knowing they would be more than enough, she found the spiritual gift of becoming least, which allows God to become most. Sometimes this is what grief does to us, it strips us of everything that is not essential and we find only our God’s love for us. Sometimes this is what confrontation does: like the Syrophoenician woman’s rebuttal, it startles us into our true reality. Sometimes this is what mercy and compassion shown to us does: open a place within our heart. However we get there, when we learn to become least, we receive the gift of letting all else go, and of not seeing the letting go as losing anything but actually gaining everything. Then we will have learned to hear and heed God’s invitation to build a life, an expansive, bold, creative life with God, bigger around that core, which initially can seem rather small.
This “becoming least” is the attitude of the Kingdom, the new humanity which Jesus is bringing about. This is also the attitude that releases God’s saving power in Jesus. The woman reveals how completely in sync she is with the divine will to heal. Jesus, whose will to heal is always waiting for cooperation, is so empowered by her becoming least that he heals the daughter at a distance. He does not need to physically travel to the little girl. Her mother’s faith, together with the divine love animating Jesus’ being, has released the Spirit in such a way that the normal ways of mediation have been surpassed. Spirit is no longer confined to space and time. Geography means nothing when there is complete openness to the healing Spirit of God. Those who are least allow God to be most, and then we become more than enough.
Positional power, like Jesus had in the story, is like fire, flaring up and, at times, explosive with the intent to dominate by force. The Syrophoenician woman had state of mind power, being-with-God power, aligning with the healing force of God power, which manifests as strength, steadiness, and rootedness. State of mind power holds fast to the truth (that Jesus did indeed want to heal her daughter), knowing that truth will outlast the lie (that Jesus’ initial refusal to heal based upon her uncleanliness). Her strength came from a knowledge in her core that she is being loved by God. This state of mind power, or steadiness of heart and truth power, is ours too. We can find it, we can live authentically, we can live faithfully—and we do that when we build a purpose larger than ourselves around our core, when we know the meaning we give to our lives matters to us and to God, when we commit to making the Kingdom a reality in our world today. We can hold fast to the truth of God within us, even though voices and situations may try to pull us away from God’s inner truth. And then, we can give that steady strength to others. That is how the Kingdom grows. We pick up the crumbs of Jesus’ tenderness, mercy and compassion and give them away, and we know that we and those we have given it to, are more than enough. Amen.