I’M NOT SPECIAL

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

“Special.”

Such a common word today. A word that we love to hear!

For example, we call a couple’s wedding their “special day.” Restaurants offer “specials” to eat, on Thanksgiving Day, they offer “special menus.”

In school these days, every child is told that she’s “special.” At the end of a sports season, every player gets a trophy to recognize his or her unique contribution.

And, of course, the opposite of “special” isn’t treasured at all. No one wants to be like everyone else. No daughter comes home and tells her mother, “Mom, I’ve just met a really ordinary guy.”

So we may be surprised that the woman who is at the center of today’s Gospel is happy to claim that she’s ordinary. In fact, she sees herself as having a social standing that’s below average!

The woman is not Jewish for one thing; St. Mark writes that “the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” “Syrophoenician” indicates the woman was originally from the southern part of Syria. In Israel, then, she would be classified as a “foreigner.”

This alien, non-Jewish woman has the temerity to approach Jesus–a popular Jewish teacher. And, of course, she’s female, which in the Middle East at that time was another strike against her (as it is in parts of the Middle East today).

But despite her apparent liabilities, the woman speaks her mind. She has a daughter who is possessed by a demon; the woman wants Jesus to heal her child.

The woman is conscious of her low status. She knows that she’s asking a big favor, and she is as respectful as she can be. However, Jesus says to her, rather sharply, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Not the response that the woman was looking for! We can understand Jesus to be reminding the woman that the revelation of the true God came first to the people of Israel. They were God’s children; and many people of Israel felt that they were superior to non-Hebrew “dogs.” Israel was the chosen nation; as such, it had priority in receiving the special revelation of God that Jesus brought.

But the woman doesn’t take Christ’s comment as the last word. She replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus recognizes that this is a very clever response. Dogs at that time were widely disliked in the Middle East—to call a person a “dog” was an insult, to compare yourself to a dog was even more unthinkable.

But the woman points out that even dogs need to eat! Pet dogs are allowed to lap up the crumbs that fall from the family table—crumbs that would otherwise go to waste. The woman implies, then, that Jesus could perfectly well toss her daughter a few crumbs of healing!

And Christ is impressed with the woman’s reasoning. He replies, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” The woman then returns home and finds that the demon has been exorcised. By the power of God, her child has been healed.

I love this text. It’s proof that when Christians talk about the inclusiveness of the Gospel, they’re not just being politically correct.

Jesus really did teach what looks like a modern message: that the Kingdom of God includes everyone. And Christ backed his teaching with action: he went out of his way to help everyone who came to him— in this case, even a non-Jewish woman from a foreign country.

I also like the implication of this story that, as the woman challenged Jesus, so we are free to challenge God. In my view, Jesus didn’t actually change his mind when the woman pointed out that dogs can eat crumbs from their master’s table. I think he was planning to heal the woman’s daughter anyway.

But Christ was impressed with the woman’s intelligence. She even makes a theological wisecrack: She says, in effect, “Do you think that just because I wasn’t born into the same religion that you were born into that I deserve to eat spiritual dog food? Should I be punished because my parents weren’t from Israel?”

Yet in another way the text isn’t modern at all. For the woman doesn’t claim to be special. She doesn’t feel that she deserves divine help ahead of the people of Israel. She doesn’t expect Jesus to treat her the same as someone of Christ’s own faith. The woman just wants her daughter to get well.

So the story implies that her humility gave her a certain power. Because the woman wasn’t asking for an exceptional favor, she showed an integrity that Christ recognized and rewarded.

And however counter-cultural it seems to us modern people, there is a power in that old virtue of humility. Even when politicians seem willing to say anything to make themselves look better than their rivals–even when average folks have a sense of entitlement, that they deserve more money and more things than others, even today humility about one’s place in the universe has a value.

I love the Southern custom of using “Sir” or “Miss” or “Ma’am” in conversation, including with persons that you’ve just met. After you’ve been waiting in line in a crowded store, and you are finally able to pay for your purchase, you’ll find that the harried cashier will appreciate your saying, “Thanks, Ma’am.”

That small gesture shows respect for someone whom society doesn’t consider “special.” As a bonus, the clerk may smile back at you—grateful that you treated her like a human being.

And when we do this, we remind ourselves of the spiritual truth at the heart of the story of Christ’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman: we’re all equal before God. In God’s eyes, we’re all worthy of respect and love and healing.

So we don’t have to worry about our status. We don’t need to feel threatened by someone else’s success. We are immune to the snubs of snobs.

For in the sight of God, we’re all special!

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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