September 5, 2021
"Nevertheless … She Persisted"
Rev. Scott Landis
You may remember the moment. The words from which became a kind of rallying cry augmenting the women’s movement at the time. The scene was the floor of the United States Senate where a hearing was held regarding the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to become the US Attorney General. Senator Elizabeth Warren came to the podium and gave an impassioned speech in opposition to his appointment. Her disapproval was based, in part, on words Mr. Sessions offered while facing a judiciary appointment in Alabama. Warren quoted from a letter written by Coretta Scott King, exposing Sessions’ comments.
I don’t remember the whole story – and certainly not the entire quote, but her speech rankled the presiding Senate Majority Leader – Mitch McConnell who claimed she was imputing the character of Senator Sessions. He tried repeatedly to get Warren to stop, explaining that what she was doing violated Senate rules. There was a heated exchange between them after which Senator Warren eventually sat down.
In the subsequent debate over whether to allow Senator Warren to continue, Senator McConnell offered those infamous words which I referred to – words that became the rallying cry. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” [Pause]
I couldn’t help but think of that historic moment in our own day as I read this story from Mark’s gospel. No matter how you feel about Elizabeth Warren – or whether what she did followed the rules of the Senate, what transpired between the two senators, I think, was remarkably similar to the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in this incredible story. A little background might be helpful.
Jesus was traveling through Gentile territory as he made his way into the region of Tyre and Sidon. The Jews – at that time – hated the Gentiles and vice versa. They didn’t trust each other, perhaps they feared one another, and they certainly didn’t want to associate with each other. Exhausted, Jesus was simply trying to escape public notice, so he quietly ducked into a local home, but his plan failed. Word got out. And folks sought him once again.
One who came was an unnamed woman and is central to this story. We don’t know who she is – only that she is of Syrophoenician descent AND she had a daughter who had some kind of demon – perhaps causing convulsions or seizures. That we don’t know. What we do know is that this mother was desperate. She knew Jesus is the source – the only source of her daughter’s healing. She didn’t care that he was a Jew. She had complete faith that he could heal her. She believed and would stop at nothing until she got what she came for.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
It’s hard to know why Jesus responded the way he did. Was it exhaustion? Perhaps. Was it his own internal struggle with the ethnic group that his tribe inherently mistrusted or despised? Could be, but it’s hard to believe that would be the case for the “Son of Man.” But, then again, can we allow for that possibility as we hold lightly the tension between his divinity and his humanity? Was he fully aware of her need all along and was just helping her to come into her own realization that Jesus was the path of salvation through this intense and intimate exchange? Once again, I suppose this is possible, but kind of hard to believe Jesus would manipulate anyone in such a way. Or could it be that Jesus was simply engaging in a deeply human – albeit painful – exchange in which both undergo an incredible moment of deep understanding and transformation?
Now, stay with me for a moment. I know, for some, this view of our Savior may sound slightly heretical. It’s hard to know what to do with Jesus’ humanity. How can we understand – and allow room for it if he is truly the incarnation of God? But suspend all judgment for the moment and see if you can’t relate even more closely to this very human aspect of Jesus. I certainly do.
When she came in desperation, the Syrophoenician woman knew that Jesus was the source of her daughter’s healing. Jesus initially resisted stating that he came to save the lost children of Israel – meaning the Jews. “Let the children be fed first,” he said, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Wow! That got her attention. She has just been referred to as less than human – from the one she believed could give her what she desperately wanted. Was this her “warning?” Or, was this her “explanation?” It matters not. Because, nevertheless, she persisted.
“Sir, Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she responded.
Wow! That got his attention. I think this stirred within him some new and deeper understanding resulting in a response that was the most loving thing he could possibly do. It appears he changed his mind. More importantly, an internal shift occurred as this woman spoke her truth further elucidating a more profound Truth that only our Savior could understand and act upon. He invited her to return to her daughter assuring her that she had been made whole. And she trusted Jesus – believing and leaving – knowing, that all would be well.
One artist depicted this moment in an interesting painting of a dark-skinned woman with the caption, “Jesus understood justice more deeply because she insisted that ‘Syrophoenician Lives Matter.” Okay, that’s a very human understanding of what just took place, but look at what happened next.
The story continued in a way that deepened my admiration for Jesus even more, and it’s one of the many reasons why I am such a devoted follower. Jesus didn’t leave that scene and head back home to Capernaum – to immerse himself, once again, in the familiarity of his own Jewish culture. No! He goes even more DEEPLY into Gentile territory. And, I think it was the result of his profound encounter with this woman. It was as if he knew at a deeper level, he had to spend MORE time with THESE “children of God” who were despised by his own tribe. He HAD to go to those on the margins. He needed to hear their cries, feel their pain, to save and heal their lives.
That, my friends, is truly the incarnation of a loving God. He doesn’t excoriate the despised, nor does he run from them acting as if they did not exist. He lovingly embraces the other and walks toward those who desperately needed his love and healing mercy. What a powerful example for us to emulate. [PAUSE]
We know, all too well, the divided world – the divided nation – the divided family – which is the context of our lives. The deep rift between Gentiles and Jews is amazingly similar to our experience today. Whether it is blue vs. red, black vs. white, or vaccinated vs. unvaccinated – the list of divisions is endless – and they are deep. We look to leaders to change all that – to make our lives more peaceful – to live in harmony with one another. But peace cannot be legislated – healing does not happen by power or force.
It happens when we follow the example, I believe, Jesus gave us in this story.
We must listen to the cry of the one in need. In this case a nameless, heretofore voiceless, woman of Syrophoenician decent – she was an outsider who thankfully found her voice.
We must allow ourselves to be changed by looking deeply into the eyes of the other and truly see and hear the need that is before us.
We cannot run in the other direction – in fact we must move toward those that may be the hardest for us to embrace and do everything we can to – in humility and vulnerability – to offer our love.
As I’ve said many times before, following Jesus is not an easy path. The costs of discipleship are dear and tremendously challenging. But it’s the only way to hold the brokenness we see each day. To hold it with empathy and deep respect, so we might allow for the gift of humanity and divinity to be the source of healing and wholeness for all.
Jesus shows us that path. Ours is to wrestle with the question, am I willing to walk with him?