Detail from the ‘Sarcophagus of the Crying Women,’ from Sidon, now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum
Sunday 9 September 2018,
The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XV).
11.30 a.m., Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.
Readings: Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2: 1-10, (11-13,) 14-17; Mark 7: 24-37.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Our readings this morning emphasise justice, again and again, especially justice for the poor and those on the margins. They connect feeding and clothing the poor and looking after their health and housing with faith and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
Our Old Testament reading (Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23) tells us God shows no special favour to the rich, and advises us to value justice, to be generous and to attend to the needs of the poor, the ‘afflicted at the gate.’
In our New Testament reading (James 2: 1-10, 14-17), Saint James continues to talk about our responsibilities as Christians for the disadvantaged. He challenges us about how we welcome strangers: do we judge by appearances, do we demonstrate Christ’s preference for the poor?
So, it is a bit disturbing in this morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 7: 24-37) that at first, when a distressed mother, possibly a single mother, a foreigner, a gentile, intrudes on his privacy, to think Christ’s first reaction could be rude.
Last Sunday, we heard how Christ appears to be rude to a group of Pharisees, when he asks them if they are ‘hypocrites,’ wearing a mask, hiding their true intentions, beliefs and values (Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23).
They were religious insiders. This morning he is dealing with outsiders, the Phoenician mother and the man who is both deaf and dumb.
Is Jesus being rude?
Context and location are important for responding to this morning’s Gospel story.
Jesus is in Tyre, where the people are Gentiles, a mixture of Phoenicians, Syrians and other people, mainly Greek-speaking Gentiles.
Estate agents say there are three important facts … location, location, location. And in this morning’s story, location provides us with our context – if you like, it paints the picture and sets our expectations.
If I started telling a story, set it in an East End pub, and told you the principal characters were dodgy car dealers and people with many marriages and divorces, you would know what storyline to expect, and its dramatic emphases.
That was true too for the people who first watched or heard this morning’s Gospel drama unfold.
At that time, if I introduced a drama involving a Phoenician woman, her dying daughter, powerful men who only act in their own interests, and the fears and hopes of a new kingdom – then you would know what to expect as the plot unfolds.
In the classical world, Phoenician women were pushy women. About 400 years earlier, the Greek playwright Euripides wrote his tragic play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoenissae), retelling a story told by Aeschylus in Seven Against Thebes, dealing with tragic events after the fall of Oedipus.
The title of the play, The Phoenician Women, refers to the chorus, made up of Phoenician women on their way to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi but trapped in Thebes by the war. But the Phoenician Women in the chorus – and a Greek chorus was normally played by wizened old men – are mere bystanders, watching an unfolding tragedy that disrupts their plans.
The two key women in the play are Iocasta and her daughter Antigone, who have survived against all odds. These two women, mother and daughter, challenge the accepted concepts in the classical world of fate and free-will. In the face of death, they refuse to accept what others see as their destiny. They refuse to be pushed to the margins while the men around them compete for power.
So, in the time of Christ, cultured, Greek-speaking people, including those in Tyre and Sidon, expect a Greek-speaking Phoenician woman and her daughter to be pushy when faced with what appears to be cruel fate – even if this means confronting successful or ambitious men: they are prepared to stand up to kings and men with power, to challenge them, to risk rejection, exile – and even death.
In Saint Mark’s Gospel, in this morning’s translation (NRSV), she is ‘a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin’ (verse 26). But the original Greek text describes her as ‘a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth’ (ἦν Ἑλληνίς, Συροφοινίκισσα τῷ γένει).
Tyre and Sidon were cultured cities, Greek-speaking since the days of Alexander the Great, known for the arts and commerce. Sidon was the first city of the Phoenicians and the mother city of Tyre, known as its ‘Virgin Daughter’ (Isaiah 23: 12). Mothers and daughters – one of the great archaeological finds from Sidon is the ‘Sarcophagus of the Crying Women,’ now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
So, Christ could expect to find himself among a large number of Greek-speaking ‘gentiles’ in this area, perhaps even a group of crying women.
This woman is not Jewish, and Biblical comparisons might include Ruth the Moabite and Achior the Ammonite (Judith), or the Gentiles who healed by Elijah and Elisha (see I Kings 17: 8-16; II Kings 5: 1-14). But they might also include Jezebel, daughter of the King of Tyre, who was thrown to her death and eaten by the dogs (II Kings 9: 35-36).
This morning, the woman seeks healing for her daughter who is possessed by an ‘unclean spirit’ or a ‘demon’; she is at home, lying sick on bed.
When Christ replies, the children he refers to are not her children, but Jewish believers. Jewish writers sometimes referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs.’ Dogs were regarded as unclean (see Revelation 22: 15), but Christ may have been humorous when he uses this phrase to ask rhetorically whether the woman believes his ministry is principally to Jews.
If Christ intends to be witty, she too is witty in her reply, appearing to ask whether he thinks her daughter really is a little dog: κυνάριον (kinárion) in verse 28 is translated as ‘dog’ in the NRSV, but it is diminutive and feminine, and could be more accurately translated as a ‘little dog’ … even a ‘little bitch’!
She could easily take his response as rude if not racist. Instead, she engages with the same humour, and shows her confident faith. She claims a place for non-Jews in God’s plan, Christ accepts her claim, and her daughter is cured completely.
But would any of us like to be seen behaving the way Christ behaves in this reading?
The story is also told in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15: 21-28), where Christ is accompanied by the disciples, who do nothing, like a Greek chorus in the background, passive wizened old men passing judgment on others.
Do the Disciples expect Christ to behave like Elijah and to break all the rules in being open to gentiles, to take miraculous care of a lone mother and her child?
Or would they expect him to treat all Phoenician women like Jezebel, who was from here, and leave them to the dogs?
Perhaps they are not open to the cultural challenges, perhaps they dismiss the woman as a gentile, a stranger, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. Her religion, language, nationality and gender place her beyond their compassion, outside the gates.
The NRSV says she bows down at Jesus’ feet. But the original Greek is more direct and says she prostrates herself in homage and worship before him, perhaps touching her forehead to the ground: ἐλθοῦσα προσέπεσεν πρὸς τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ, she fell down, or prostrated herself, at his feet (verse 25).
Saint Matthew stages the disciples like the chorus staged by Euripides: they become wizened old men, obsessed only with their religious future and fail to have compassion for the outsider who steps onto the stage, talking in asides at the side of the tragedy, but not actually engaging with it. In Saint Mark’s account, they are not even on the scene.
But there is something even more shocking here: at that time, dogs were seen as unclean. They were kept outside the gates; in Saint Luke’s Gospel, the beggar Lazarus sinks so low that outside the gates of Dives the dogs lick his sores (Luke 16: 19-31).
The disciples, as a chorus, can see the woman’s facial reactions to Christ … but they cannot see the face of Christ. They are bystanders at the conversation, hearing only half the story.
But this is a woman of deep faith. The translation has her address Jesus as ‘Sir,’ which sounds like civility, if not servility, today. But in the original Greek she addresses him Κύριε (Kyrie). At the time, the word Κύριος (kyrios) was used in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Bible for the name of God.
The faith the woman shows now produces results. Christ responds to her demands, and she returns home to find her child has been healed (Mark 7: 30). Saint Matthew has Christ go further – he commends her for her faith … and her daughter is healed instantly (verses 29-30).
How do you and I respond to encounters like this?
As a social response, for example, we might consider that the confrontation shows how we might respond to the needs of strangers and foreigners, even when, especially when, we find them pushy and demanding.
How do we respond to people who are pushy and continue to make demands on behalf of their children, even when society continues to say no?
How many times have I dismissed the needs and prayers of others because they appear to be outside the community of faith as I understand it?
How many times have I turned to God in prayer, and given up at what appears to be a first refusal?
This woman is rebuffed, but she is insistent. She refuses to accept what other people regard as her fate and destiny. She receives the mercy and help she asks for … and much, much more.
Could we say, as the ‘Phoenician Women’ in the Chorus say, after hearing the distress of Iocasta and Antigone: ‘Pity distracts my aching heart, pity for a mother’s heart’?
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Mark 7: 24-37:
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.’ 28 But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29 Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
Liturgical Colour: Green
who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Post-Communion Prayer:
34, O worship the King (CD 2);
494, Beauty for holiness (CD 29);
514, We cannot measure (CD 29).
The Syro-Phoenician Woman … a modern icon by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
Iokasti, a restaurant in Koutouloufari in Crete … are there comparisons between Iocasta and her daughter in ‘The Phoenician Women’ and the Greek-speaking Syro-Phoenician woman in Saint Mark’s Gospel? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)