Last week we began our parish’s annual fund campaign with the theme “Transforming Generosity.” You should have received your pledge card for 2019 together with a letter about the nature of stewardship and generosity. There was an article in the newsletter similar to that letter, and early in the week you received an email (if you receive email) which is repeated on an insert in your bulletin this morning. Your parish leadership team has asked and will continue to encourage you to do two things that may seem contradictory: first, to make your financial commitment for 2019 earlier than usual, and second, to take your time in doing so. Our hope is that you will submit your estimates of giving on or before the first Sunday in November, but that you will give real prayerful and careful consideration to how your financial support of your church reflects your relationship with God. Stewardship, as that letter said, is not a matter of fund raising; stewardship is a matter of spiritual health. The “Transforming Generosity” theme hopes to inspire you to be a faithful steward and so to give as an expression of your relationship with God.
So, I’d hoped to preach a stewardship sermon this week, but . . . alas . . . the Lectionary saddles us this Sunday with a story that doesn’t much lend itself to discussing stewardship and generosity; it’s the story of Jesus basically insulting a Syrophoenician woman who comes to him begging healing for her daughter. Instead of doing so, he says to her, “It is not fitting to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” I have wrestled with this text from Mark more times than I like (at least ten times as the lectionary has cycled round in my thirty years of ordained ministry) and I have yet to win. Scholars have been wrestling with this text for two thousand years and I don’t think they have won either. There are just no commentaries which offer any sort of exegesis of the story that I find satisfactory; either Jesus’s use of the term “dog” to refer to the Gentile woman is excused away or it is ignored. The commentaries which acknowledge the rudeness, the downright vileness of the comment do no more than that; there’s little or no help in resolving our dilemma.
One of the “excuse away” treatments has been to focus on Jesus’ (or is it Mark’s) use of the Greek diminutive for “dog” suggesting that the term is “little dog” or “pet dog” or “puppy dog,” as if that somehow “softens” the insult. Bible scholar T. Alec Burkill fifty years ago put the lie to that one: “As in English, so in other languages, to call a woman ‘a little bitch’ is no less abusive than to call her a ‘bitch’ without qualifications.” Jesus comment is simply rude and insulting, but it would be in keeping with the attitudes of First Century Palestinian Jews toward Gentiles and of First Century men toward women.
I have wondered for years if Jesus might just be using, rather unthinkingly, an idiom commonplace among his contemporary Jewis community for wastage of resources. Throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, there is not a single positive reference to dogs. One of the very first, is in the Law of Moses, in the book of Exodus, in which the Hebrews are instructed not to eat “any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.” So I have thought that, perhaps, “throwing something to the dogs” might simply have been a common turn of phrase, something like “calling a spade a spade” or “dancing with gay abandon.” If so, then what Jesus did in today’s language is called a “microagression”. Psychology Today defines this as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
You’ll note that my examples of “common phrases” can be and often are understood (and therefore often avoided) as microagressions. Although “to call a spade a spade” finds its origins in classical Greek literature, since the word “spade” made its way into American slang as a racial epithet (apparently sometime in the early 20th Century), the phrase has increasingly fallen into disuse. Likewise, although we find the word “gay” as a synonym for “happy” in such things as Christmas carols (“don we now our gay apparel”), birthday songs (“our hearts are light and gay”), and movie titles (The Gay Divorcee) that date from before the late 20th Century, no one seems to use it that way any longer.
Language changes as culture changes. Idioms, common expressions, and modes of behavior to which we have grown so accustomed that we don’t recognize how they might offend others become microagressions. “Monkeying around” with something, for instance, used to mean simply inadvisedly changing and thus damaging whatever “it” referred to. Now, as we all know from recent events, it can be used as or understood to be a thinly veiled racial epithet in American politics, a microagression.
Neither words nor social conventions are static, as the accompanying epistle lesson for today from the Letter of James reminds us of that. Following the social conventions of the day, James’ correspondents – apparently the leaders of a church assembly – are seating people according to social rank. “The community treats the richly attired person with every mark of worldly honor: this person is invited to come close, to sit, and to be comfortable. The shabbily dressed person is treated with scorn and degradation, put at a distance and made to stand – or worse, made to sit in a position of submission.” The community “acts according to the ancient world’s measure of values . . . [the] world of honor and shame.” The members of the church to which James writes are simply following the conventions of the day, but those conventions in the context of the Christian community can be every bit as much a microagression contrary to the Gospel’s demand for radical equality as any word or turn of phrase. The contrast between Jesus’ behavior and that encouraged by James is striking; Jesus has done to the Syrophoenician woman precisely what James condemns. He follows prevailing Jewish social convention with regard to interaction with Gentiles. The saving grace of the whole mess is that the woman doesn’t; she responds graciously to Jesus and Jesus is changed.
She would have, I think we can agree, been within her rights to take offense, to curse Jesus, to stalk away angry, but she does not. She accepts and even adopts the epithet “dog,” and replies, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She does what James counsels the church to do: she follows what James calls “the royal law,” to love one’s neighbor as oneself, responding to Jesus with charity rather than judgment, with understanding not offense. Her generosity of spirit transforms Jesus. He abandons the conventional thinking of his community and responds to her not as a Jewish man dealing with a Gentile woman, but as one person of faith encountering another, healing her daughter as asked.
There is a rabbinical story about generosity that I think applies to the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman:
A small child was holding two apples, one in each hand. The mother came in and, with a smile, said to her child: “Sweetheart, may I have one of your apples?” The child gazed at her for a few second, and then quickly took a small bite out of one apple, and then just as quickly took a bite from the other. The mother was very disappointed, and almost said something in reproach. But before she could, the little one handed her one of the apples. “Here, Mommy,” the child said, “this one is sweeter.”
No matter who one is, nor how experienced, nor how knowledgeable we may think we are, nor how justified we may believe our initial response may be, a generosity of spirit, a delay of judgment, a moment of graciousness allows others the privilege of transformation, either of themselves, or more commonly of us. The answer to the modern problem of microagressions (a problem not really so modern, as our gospel lesson demonstrates) might be lessened if we would take such time, because reality may not be what we think it is. And, even if it is, we can change reality. We should follow the example of the Syrophoenician woman.
“Transforming Generosity” is not about fundraising. It is about spiritual health. The Syrophoenician woman would have been well within her rights to take offense, to curse Jesus, and to stalk away angry. Instead, she exercised grace; she exhibited a generosity of spirit. She changed her reality and Jesus’s. Her generosity transformed the encounter; it transformed Jesus; and it brought about the transformation of her daughter. May all of us exhibit such transforming generosity. Amen.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
The lessons used for the service are Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-17; and St. Mark 7:24-37. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Mark 7:27
 T.A. Burkill. The Historical Development of the Story of the Syrophoenician Woman (Mark VII: 24-31), Novum Testamentum 9:3 (July 1967), pp. 161-177, 173.
 Exodus 22:31
 Luke Timothy Johnson, Commentary on the Letter of James, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII (Abingdon Press, Nashville:1998), p 192
 Mark 7:29