Today I had the priviledge of preaching about Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophonecian woman – one of my favourite stories in the Gospels. I love it because Jesus seems to learn from the woman and it’s her persistence and good humour that moves him to compassion.
Here is the reading from Mark chapter 7 for those of you that don’t know it.
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.
For me, the last verse is one of the most interesting. It seems that after this encounter Jesus changed his route back to the familiar land around the Sea of Galilee and spent more time among the Gentile people, in the region of Decapolis.
Earlier this morning, the Gospel reading I heard was the story of the Good Samaritan – in that story again it is the religious other, the outsider, who is a model of discipleship. Jesus uses the story of kindness from a Samaritan to teach the disciples how to fulfil the commandment to love your neighbour. He could have had the Samaritan as the one who was beaten up and made the same point but he chose to have the outsider as the one who is the agent of grace, kindness and compassion.
I have found in may own life that people of other faiths and ethnicities have often reminded me of what is so very important about my own faith. I could quote numerous examples that I witnessed or experienced on our recent trip to Israel/Palestine as a group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian friends. The Jewish man who enabled a female Christian priest to participate in a communion service where she could not preside by arranging for her to read the lesson. The Muslim woman who accompanied three women who were asked to leave a mosque at prayer time because she did not want to pray there if her friends were not welcome. Another Muslim woman who shared her cucumbers and biscuits with seven other people who were unable to buy lunch and no-one was left hungry. I could go on.
But since I returned another example has been playing on my mind. I was chatting by text to a Muslim friend who was visiting a neighbour in prison. She had arrived early and was sitting waiting for visiting times and I mentioned that Jesus says in Matthew 25 that anyone who visits someone in prison is actually visiting him.
My friend responded to this passage with such interest and with such seriousness that it made me ask if we, as a church, really understand what Jesus was saying. Have we really considered how we will be judged? Last week I read an article saying that many nurses no longer had time to be with those who were dying. A friend who is a hospital chaplain talks about the huge stress and lack of resources she faces every days as corridors are filled with patients and care is stretched more and more thinly. Equally in prisons, where over-crowding and cuts are causing more and more stress and hardship, it is hard to recruit and retain chaplains to be with some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Unknowingly my Muslim friend rekindled in me an understanding of God’s unswerving commitment to the poor and the sense that nothing is more important than serving those in need, offering food to those who are hungry and working tirelessly for a more just and equal society. My conversations with friends from different faiths are like being both a teacher and a seeker alternately. I hope that, from time-to-time, something I have said or done has deepened the faith of others.
Jesus seems ready to receive from those outside of his own faith traditions, those who are feared or despised, those whose religions are different from his own. This city sees many faithful Muslims caring for the homeless; compassionate Jewish people welcoming refugees; chaplains from different faith communities being alongside the vulnerable. I am praying that we as Christians have our ears open to learn as we encounter God at work in the world and to listen widely as God leads us into a new phase of being church.