Mark 7:24-30 3.20.22
We have all heard stories of women who were bold enough to break into a male dominated career path or a particular workplace. Some of you have done that. Trailblazers, we call them. I can’t tell you how many times I have been to church meetings and been the only woman in the room. One has to have a measure of hutzpah to be that kind of a trailblazer. And what about the hutzpah on the part of Black Americans who too often are the only dark face at an event or a meeting or a workplace? When you are the only woman, the only Black, the only physically disabled person, the only youth, you may feel a need to steel yourself, take a deep breath and gather up a good helping of hutzpah before entering the space. Hutzpah is a Yiddish word originating in Hebrew. It can mean nerve, gall, audacity, supreme self-confidence and conspicuous boldness.
Hutzpah can be perceived positively or negatively, depending on which side of the table you are sitting. The middle-aged man in the grey suit might say to himself about the woman who is now in the office next to him: “She’s got some hutzpah to come in here and challenge our ways of operating.” At the same time, that woman’s classmates in graduate school are saying, admiringly, “She’s got all the hutzpah she needs!” I recently read an article in The Baltimore Sun detailing the extremely negative reactions of white neighbors in several parts of this city who are clearly upset at the hutzpah of Black restaurant or bar owners who have set up shop nearby. They have been calling repeatedly to report bogus noise violations, leaving dog feces on the front step, leaving rude notes—anything they can think of to intimidate and harass, trying to get the restaurant owner to leave their neighborhood. Unfortunately, some of those restaurant owners interviewed are considering relocating. All I could think when I read the article was, “What in the world? It is 2022!”
I like thinking of hutzpah as conspicuous boldness, that is boldness that you just can’t miss. If anyone in the gospels is conspicuously bold, it is the Syrophonecian, or Greek, woman who stands up to Jesus. She expects him to free her daughter from an unclean spirit. She knows he is able. She believes he will. Yet, because of her cultural roots, because of the long- standing breach between Gentiles and Jews, it seems the poetic rendering of the text which we heard this morning got it right: “has she not asked for more than can be expected?” What hutzpah. This bold request for freeing her daughter from being possessed by an unclean spirit ends up changing her daughter’s life, and I am sure, the life of the entire family. First Jesus refuses to respond to the Gentile woman’s request. At the end of their conversation, however, he removes that evil spirit from the child who is not even present, but at home in her bed! This is the only story in the gospels which shows this kind of about face on Jesus’ part. It is also the only place where we find Jesus with a sharp insult toward a person who has come to him for help. Seems out of character, we think. Maybe he was tired. Maybe someone had just yelled at him. Or, you know what? Maybe he was being a human like you and me. Maybe when we see him answer so sharply, we can see that he truly lived the same human reality that we live.
The woman is bold enough to argue with Jesus. That was unusual from the get-go. Some scholars point to the fact that her child was in a bed—a piece of furniture and not a straw pallet–and to her ability to speak Greek as signs that this woman was an educated, well-off woman of some status in her community. Perhaps that social standing gave her a leg to stand on, removed her fear of speaking up for what she needed to the very one who she knew could deliver. She won’t take no for an answer. Whether she knew it or not, she fits right into the Old Testament pattern of lament. Listen to the plea in Psalm 6: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” And in Psalm 38: My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.” And Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily when I call.” The people of Israel are very familiar with going to God for help in times of trouble, pain, harassment or distress. Basically, it is: “O Lord, come and do something about my terrible situation. Or, “Come and do what you have promised to do for your people, Lord.” This Gentile woman calls on Jesus to really be Jesus and to do what she knows he is able to do, what he has done elsewhere, and what her daughter needs so badly.
Jesus’ words are sharp. In Matthew’s version of this story (chapter 15), he gives her his job description: “I have come to save the lost sheep of Israel.” –clearly excluding anyone outside of Israel. When you stop and think more deeply about it, that WAS his primary mission. Yes, he had interactions with Gentiles, and in all other cases in the gospels, he willingly met their specific needs, and sometimes, as we saw last week in the account of the woman at the well, he was the initiator. But the intentional ministry to the Gentiles took place after Jesus’ resurrection, when the work had been left to the apostles, especially Peter, Paul, Timothy, and Barnabas. Jesus had to bring his message to his own community first. He had to build a base from which to launch this world changing message of good news—the news that the door to God’s kingdom was wide open. The news that the crack in the relationship between God and humans could be repaired by following this brown skinned, itinerant preacher with a name that means: “Save”.
Calling the woman a dog was an insult, and ethnic-religious insult. There is no getting around that. But she does not argue about that. She accepts second class citizenship—not something I would ever recommend for anyone. She does so in order to move on to the point she insists on making: she (and her daughter) are deserving at least of the leftover crumbs from the master’s (or the lord’s) table. And indeed, they are. Jesus recognizes the truth in her conspicuously bold retort. And Jesus changes his mind. Had she not been bold enough to push back, nothing would have changed for her. She would have meekly gone back home to her daughter with the unclean spirit, tail between her legs.
You might say that the recipients of our denominations’ Self Development of People grants are conspicuously bold in their ask for grant monies to enable healing in their communities, the closing of opportunity gaps, and creating ways to repair the breach and be restorers of livable streets. Self-Development of People is one of the three parts of our annual One Great Hour of Sharing offering. With Presbyterian churches across the country, this offering ends up being the largest way that Presbyterians come together every year to change the world for the better. We will collect that offering on Easter Sunday again this year, and the focus for this year is: You shall be called repairers of the breach, taken from the prophet Isaiah.
Any Self Development of People grant must be just that—self development. It must be a request directly from the community which is experiencing oppression, poverty or injustice. It can not be a request from some rich Presbyterian congregation on behalf of that community. Grants go to both national and international partners. Last year’s grants went to grass roots organizations like Cultivate South Park in Seattle https://cultivatesouthpark.org/about: they are a low-income group of artists, community organizers, activists and youth who are creating a community space in South Park, a part of Seattle that is almost 1/3 Hispanic. Cultivate South Park will use the funds to conduct classes and activities for youth needing connection and healing, to further develop a farmers’ market and neighborhood dinners in their food desert, and to work together on projects that pull them together as a neighborhood. They are repairing the breach that our society has created for those who have few economic resources and little political power. They are using their conspicuously bold voices to bring about change in their own lives and for their community, like the Gentile woman who argued with Jesus.
Surely conspicuous boldness is needed on the part of those who are at the fringes in order to get the message across to those who hold the power. But repair work can never been only one sided. Conspicuous boldness is needed on the part of those who already hold the power to speak out about injustice, to seek to level the playing field in education, in the work place, in the purchasing of homes, in the ability to build generational wealth. How conspicuously bold would it be for those in power to relinquish some of their power so that it could be shared? How bold indeed. Amen.