Sermon for Pentecost 16 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The great thing about the lectionary is that it forces us to hear passages of scripture which we otherwise might not hear, usually because of the timidity of the preacher. If the whole of scripture is inspired, this forces us to wrestle with difficult texts, the nasty bits I might not choose to preach on, particularly if I’ve had a busy week. Well, I’ve had a busy week, but the lectionary won’t permit me, or us, to be lazy this morning, because the Gospel reading contains one of those nasty bits.

“[Jesus] said to [the Syrophoenician woman] ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” This is not the sweet, friendly Jesus we sometimes imagine painted in pastels and stroking lambs by the Sea of Galilee. Rather, Jesus’ response to the gentile woman seems gruff, even nasty. Some apologists have taken Jesus’ response to the woman as a test, a test he knew she would pass, in order to make a point. They would say that Jesus knew all along that his mission was to all people, not just the Jews, and that he was coaxing a dramatic, memorable example out of the Syrophoenician woman.

Well… maybe. But perhaps such an interpretation stems from an ancient heresy to which many, myself included, sometimes retreat. The heresy was called Apolinarianism (or in its less extreme version, Euthychianism) and it was the ancient opposite of another heresy, called Arianism. While Arians believed that Jesus was just a man like any other, though he had progressed spiritually to the point of being god-like, Apolinarians believed that Jesus wasn’t a man at all. He was, to their mind, the same person as God the Father, and he was merely veiled in human likeness. Though he looked like a person, he did not struggle and grow like a person. To the Apolinarians, Jesus could easily have stood up in the manger and started preaching to the sheep if it wouldn’t have scared everyone too much.
Now the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus charted a middle way between Apollinarianism and Arianism.

Certainly, Jesus was and is God incarnate. He was and is fully God, as the Apollinarians claimed, and His identification with the Father and the Holy Spirit meant that during his earthly life he had a greater insight into the Will of the Father and the Work of the Holy Spirit than any other human being ever could have had. But, Jesus was and is also fully human, as the Arians claimed. He not only had a human body, but a human mind and spirit. He wasn’t just God operating a body as if it were an automaton. God is no homunculus. Jesus was, rather, truly, fully human, and that meant that he grew. He grew not only in his physical body, but in his mind, in his own understanding of his life and work and identity as the Son of God.

This being the case, maybe Jesus wasn’t testing the Syrophoenician woman. Maybe at this point in his ministry, Jesus really believed that his mission was only to the lost sheep of Israel. Perhaps, God the Father was making his Will known to the Son in this incident, just as he would later do in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed that the cup of crucifixion might be taken from him. Perhaps this Syrophoenician woman was truly an angel, in the older sense of the word, which literally means messenger. Perhaps God the Father sent this woman into Jesus’ life as a messenger, to make it known that indeed his ministry was broader than he had initially thought, that he came to give life to the whole world, not just to Jews but to Gentiles, too.

I like this picture of Jesus a whole lot better than the pastel-painted, sheep-stroking one. It makes a great deal more sense of his saving work on the Cross, for how could some static disinterested figure really be a Savior? How could such a sacrifice really be sacrifice. Tertullian, the Church Father, said that “that which is not taken on cannot be saved”, so how could Jesus have saved humankind if he hadn’t taken on everything about us, including the very human phenomenon of being perplexed and then being brought out of that perplexity, of following one direction in life and recognizing that one needs to make a course correction, of being open to growth and renewal in the face of the very human penchant for comfort and inertia.

So, the fact that Jesus changes his mind in today’s Gospel, to put it very bluntly, shouldn’t trouble us so much. Not every human tendency is ipso facto sinful, so we need not reject our treasured belief that Jesus was like us in every way “but sin”. What would have been a sin is if Jesus had been shown this new avenue for God’s Grace, seen that the Father meant to expand his love and saving help to the Gentiles, and had ignored it. But Jesus responds faithfully to this new insight into his mission. He heals the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and then proceeds immediately to the Decapolis, a region whose population was heavily Gentile.

The Syrophoenician woman’s response led to a moment of clarity and resolve for Jesus, and I hope that all of us have such moments. I know that I do. I know that when I’m praying ceaselessly about some particularly vexing question about my own life, God has a tendency to make His Will known with clarity and, sometimes, the sort of instantaneity with which Jesus got the message in today’s Gospel. Not always, of course, and like anyone I can struggle with a problem for a long time without figuring things out. Even so, I’ve found that an openness to where God might be leading me and a commitment to prayer usually leads me in directions in which I had no idea God wanted me to go. It happened to Jesus, and it can happen for any of us if we will take the time to get quiet, to pray, and to listen. Try it, and you might be surprised where God takes you.

Let us pray:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.