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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18


Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1- 10, (11-13), 14-17 Mark 7:24-37 Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. You are no doubt familiar with the nowadays somewhat hackneyed phrase or admonition, “think outside the box.” It is frequently used in business and management circles to encourage everyone in the enterprise from the newest recruit to the most- seasoned executive to avoid being restricted by their old ways of thinking and doing things and to become more creative and perhaps reimagine their work in new ways which will lead to innovative solutions and opportunities. And of course, increase revenue. The term -- think outside the box -- refers by the way to a nine-dot-and-four-line puzzle done with paper and pencil which itself goes back at least a hundred years to the everyday parlor puzzle books which were the computer games of the period. If you are familiar with neither the box nor the puzzle, ask any of the businesspeople in our community here today to explain them to you after the service. Or ask me to help you, well, think outside the box. We will probably need to think outside the box this morning to understand a portion of our Reading from the Gospel of Mark, the somewhat troublesome story of the Healing of the Syrophoenician Woman’s Daughter. Historians and biblical scholars are themselves not quite sure what to make of it, for it presents a number of challenges in interpretation, not only hermeneutically but, in a sense, spiritually as well. If nothing else, it should make us think; think outside the box. In his usual clipped fashion, the Evangelist Mark tells us flatly at the beginning of this passage that, “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” Now, if you are not familiar with the geography of the ancient Middle East, Tyre, along with the city of Sidon with which it is often associated in Scripture, was a rather cosmopolitan Gentile port city along the Mediterranean Coast located in today’s Lebanon. Mark markedly does not tell us why Jesus chose to go there of all places. Perhaps Mark thought the reasons would be obvious. In any case, in making his way to Tyre our Lord was leaving the comfortable, rural sphere of Jewish life and culture in Galilee so familiar to him and his disciples. In going to Tyre, he was crossing boundaries of religion, custom, and society. He was quite literally leaving “the box” of his own and his disciples’ comfort zone, another overused but nevertheless useful expression in explicating this text. Perhaps this is why, as the narrative goes on to tell us, our Lord “did not want anyone to know he was there.”

Some scholars conjecture that he actually entered Gentile territory to get some rest, to be left in peace and anonymity among people who would not have known of him and his message. I am skeptical of this. That would not, it seems to me, have been Jesus’ style. “He entered a house,” Mark then tells us. An unremarkable statement in itself, we might think. But that he enters a house at all in Gentile territory is indeed remarkable. A proper Jew would never have done that; would never have left his own box, so to speak, and entered that of another, of a Gentile. The transition to Tyre here highlighted by Mark more or less at the middle of his Gospel narrative represents a transition as well in our Lord’s ministry, for this is arguably his first foray into the world beyond the bounds of his own Jewish culture and heritage. The account thus makes clear that the Gospel message is no longer intended only for the people of Israel but rather for Gentile and Jew alike. Jesus crosses geographic and cultural boundaries to demonstrate that God’s love is neither limited nor bound by human constraints and fears. It is for everyone and for all time and all places. This message of inclusion -- of thinking outside the box -- is reinforced by the sudden appearance in the text of the so-called Syrophoenician woman, described by the Evangelist Matthew in a similar account as a Canaanite. In any case, she is a Gentile and an outsider and not a Jew; someone of mixed ancestry including apparently both Syrian and Phoenician background, two important and powerful peoples of the time. And of course she was a woman; outsider enough in the culture of the time and in some places still today. She is not named in the narrative, and so we have no idea who she was, although having her name before us would probably not make much difference. She is a kind of everywoman or every-parent worried sick about a sick child. And as it turns out, she too is not afraid of thinking outside the box, of crossing cultures and perhaps propriety barriers for the sake of her daughter, for the sake of someone she loves. Whether she was rich or poor is a matter of debate among scholars. In any case, she certainly did not lack in self-confidence or what our Jewish friends might call chutzpah. More troublesome to the scholars -- and likely to us -- is Jesus’ reaction to her. Dissertations have been written in order to explain, or perhaps explain away, what certainly seems to be our Lord’s gratuitous insult, comparing in effect the woman’s sick child, a Gentile, to a dog, or more specifically in the original, a puppy. I suppose we can leave it to the experts to make sense of our Lord’s motivation. Theories abound. Was he tired or simply joking...? Unlikely... Was he himself unaware of the importance of his mission to the Gentiles...? Even more unlikely. Is Mark putting words into Jesus’ mouth to make a strong point stronger still...? Perhaps. But no matter; this Syrophoenician woman is having none of it and counters Jesus with the words, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s bread.” Her quick wit wins the day, and Jesus sends her off to her child back at home and now suddenly healed of the spirit which had been tormenting her. As an astute parishioner at Saint Margaret’s notes, "Jesus really was going outside of the box by not only talking to a Syrophoenician woman, but actually listening to her, and being changed by her. Thinking outside of the box was the first step, allowing her to change his understanding of his mission. Here is where mercy triumphs judgment,” making our Lord’s about-face even more breath-taking. Finally, Christ’s power to heal is limited by neither distance nor

culture; by neither borderline nor boxes. God’s mercy is always outside the nine-dots of our imagination and vision. We today are still too often boxed in by our prejudices and fears. Media manipulate views and judgment without people even realizing it. Neighbours and family members are alienated and separated by their inability to think outside the box of narrow but cherished opinions and prejudices; by their inability to cross over into the life and world of the other. Nations and peoples are still pitted against each; as are those of religious belief and faith. Skin colour, of all things, still somehow matters, as does wealth and poverty, sex and gender. Alas, there is still much for all of us to learn from our Lord’s brief sojourn abroad. Pandemic or no, travel restrictions or no travel restrictions, we too all need these days to find our way out of the box; to cross borders and barriers; and to make our way with Jesus to the region of Tyre. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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