Mothers and Mercy

Homily for Proper 18, Year B

Lectionary Reference: Mark 7:24-37

First, a story…

It was in the middle of the day when word reached her. She had been in her usual state of overdrive: taking care of her home, taking care of her daughter, biting her tongue from the sharp comments of the neighbors who stared at her and whispered things about how her child couldn’t act right, holding in her body all the trauma from being told her child was evil and what kind of a mother she must be.. She had just used up every last bit of her wits, energy and motherly wisdom to coax her exhausted and overwhelmed daughter into taking a nap. In what she knew would be a short-lived respite from caring for the child she loved, exhausting as that may be, she took a quick moment to step outside to get some air. The breeze against her face made her pay attention to the tears streaming down her face. She didn’t even know how long she’d been crying. A neighbor walked by, shaking her head a little but turned away as soon as their eyes met. So it was, caring for a child that exhausted and exasperated everyone. She wiped her tears and turned to look at her daughter dozing in a fleeting moment of peace, “I love you. Know that you are loved.” she whispered.

Her friend came around the corner in a hurry, motioning to her. “He’s here.” she said. “I just heard that he’s here.”

Although her mind was racing at first to figure out what she meant, a wave of recognition suddenly washed over her. “Will you stay here with her while I go?” she asked her friend. As friends do, she smiled and nodded. She wrapped her friend in a hug of gratitude.

As she picked up her pace, her heart was racing and her mind was flooding with possibilities. The closer she got to the place where she heard he was staying, the more she thought about her daughter. All the things she’d been called. All the judgement. People didn’t even see the child anymore, just the outward manifestation of whatever had taken over her body, mind and spirit. Others had stopped seeing her daughter as a beloved child and others had stopped seeing her in any kind of loving way, too. She hadn’t been sleeping much. She hadn’t been eating well. She didn’t have a lot of people around her who cared other than a few friends that stuck by her, like the one who had come by today. But she had love for her daughter and hope in her heart that there was truth to the stories that she heard about the man who had been preaching and teaching and healing along the Galilean shore. Why he had come here, into the country of the Canaanite gentiles, was a mystery. She didn’t have time to worry about that, though. She’d tried everything and everyone else. She’d already been mocked and scolded and once, even spit at when she tried to protect her daughter from the hate and fear of others. Why stop now?

She found her feet moving forward, fueled by that seed of faith still in her heart. As she went through the doors of the place where he was staying, she saw him in the shadows. She didn’t ask permission; she just immediately went and knelt down at his feet. She was a gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. He was a Jewish teacher, a prophet, a miracle worker. She begged him from the place of her own exasperation to cast the demon out of her daughter. When he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” she almost laughed. As if she hadn’t heard that before. If she had a shekel for every time she’d been called a dog, she’d be rich. But her mind and her heart were fixed on love for her daughter and hope in something greater than her fear. Endless days of tough love now met with the faith that propelled her to bring herself to this place at this time. Words welled up in her and she answered him with a courageous retort that would either make her or break her, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” she said. Her voice didn’t even crack.

She was aware, in that moment, that all eyes were on her, in that place where she had made her own entrance out of the desperation that is love. Eyes were always on her, though. Today was no different in that regard. What was different were the eyes of this prophet and healer she had sought out, now looking at her with a clarity that told her she was seen, and she was loved. Even her daughter…not even there with her…was seen, and loved. In that moment, in that split second where the words he spoke met with the realities of her life everything she expected to hear and experience next shifted. Sometimes it’s like that when Divine Presence cuts through all the messiness of our human lives. In that moment, he looked at her and everything in her world seemed to shift, that small seed of faith taking root and bursting to life:

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

She knew it was true. She hurried home and met her friend who was already outside waiting for her, weeping tears of joy as her daughter jumped out of her bed with joy, running with happy excitement to throw her arms around her and say, “Mama, you’re home!” The demons of her former life had fled in the face of faith and love.

I read and re-read this Gospel lesson often. I know, I embellished the story a little bit there for you because this is how it plays out in my mind. Our Jewish siblings might call this a midrash of sorts, my maternal exegesis. In seminary we used to joke: that’s why we say the Creed after the homily, so that we can all restabilize from any heresies spoken by the preacher. But, all kidding aside, I do think about this Gospel lesson a lot and every time, I enter into it from the perspective of this “woman of Syrophoenician origin” who appears out of nowhere and engages in one of the most provocative conversations with Jesus reflected in the Holy Scriptures. Layers of meaning are always emerging, especially from stories like this. Just like the many images I just showed…there isn’t just one way to see it.

To me, this story is as beautiful and scandalous as the Maundy Thursday story of another unnamed woman who breaks open her alabaster jar of perfume and pours it over Jesus’ head. It’s shocking, unexpected, lavish…and filled to overflowing with love and divine wisdom. This was not a time or culture filled with empowered women whose witty retorts were recorded. More likely, their outspoken and courageous acts could land them being silenced or facing punishment much worse. And yet, the stories of these unnamed women are given to us in our Gospel lessons as a prophetic vision for understanding who Jesus is: not only in his divinity, but also in his humanness. Both are at work in this story.

In this scandalous act of faith and mercy-seeking, a mother carrying the weight of her child’s condition breaks in, falls to her knees and sees Jesus as the One who Heals. Jesus, who is both fully human and fully divine, may have been caught up more in his surroundings than in that moment…the outer things that his culture and society have taught might defile. He was in gentile territory, he wasn’t trying to stir things up, he had people around him, watching and trying to figure out what the plan was. Perhaps like us, he was filled with love but tired. This woman breaks in and shatters those attempts to lay low and remain unnoticed. This story conveys to us an image of human Jesus, caught up just like we are in the context of our lives. This woman shatters the scene by breaking open the alabaster jar of her vulnerability sourced in love, speaking more boldly than was safe or prudent to plead on behalf of her daughter. Her courage and wisdom in responding to Jesus is what shatters the ordinary and reveals God’s presence.

The divine pivot in this story happens after the shattering. This encounter breaks open the assumptions of people, cultures, families and religions to reveal the heart of love and healing where God acts, often through unnamed and socially marginalized people: the inbreaking of God’s reign into our human existence. In that space is healing: to the heart and soul of this woman where the love of her daughter dwells, as well as to her daughter. I don’t mind saying that I believe everyone in that space was changed from that encounter, even Jesus.

I think this story is a “calling-in” for all of us, actually. Most of us are familiar with the term “calling out” but I’d like to introduce the idea of “calling-in” which we use as a teaching model in social work for anti-oppressive practice. “Calling in” means that we recognize that we all are learners and we agree to hold mutual accountability and embrace humility when someone points out to us that we have made them, or another group, feel less-then, or othered. Calling in doesn’t assume perfection or assume we have done something malicious or even intentional. It assumes that part of being a human being is that even when we try our best, we live in a context where injustice and hurt have impacted people in ways we may not ourselves understand. Calling in welcomes the opportunity to hear how our words are received by another person. It steps away from blame and shame, and invites the opportunity to receive new information, learn from it, and grow. It breaks down the power structures of the world around us because it centers love and community. And let me tell you, this approach isn’t just for social work students in higher ed: imagine how much stronger Church would be if we learned how to meaningfully “call in” and learn from each other, for the mutual love and growth of all.

This story is a gift of Good News and a calling-in of our tendency to think that we need to be perfect in order to be like Jesus. That isn’t what we are asked to do. We need to be humble to be like Jesus. God works through the broken and the outcast, not only through the pious and holy. The pivot in this story happens when God works through this unnamed gentile woman and Jesus responds with love and grace. It models humility as the gateway to divine mercy and grace. Whether we enter this story as the Syrophoenician woman, as Jesus who reacts culturally but responds divinely, as the disciples and bystanders who witness this as a teachable moment, or as the young girl who wakes up with clarity and peace because of her mother’s courageous love in reaching out for divine Love and Grace: we all are changed through the encounter. I hope we, too, are broken open by this story so that we can be filled with the healing of God’s love and grace.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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