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There is this story in the Bible about a woman with whom Jesus interacts. It is a story that is complex and tricky to understand, because in it, Jesus calls this woman a dog. At first glance, this sounds so un-Jesus-like, so it is a good thing that the woman’s little daughter is healed in the end. Whew. At least Jesus still acted orthodox even though he didn’t sound orthodox.

But it is in the middle of this story where the good stuff lies.  You see, Jesus had retreated to a region outside of his familiar homeland, and beyond the crowds that normally showed up at his gatherings.  He was exhausted, and needed some downtime to reflect and refresh with his closest friends.  But, his renown had reached the town ahead of him, and a woman shows up where he is staying, telling him of her demon-possessed daughter and requesting his assistance in her crisis.

Jesus responds to her in a surprising way that seems out of character with his Messiah-ness.  He answers out of his own bias as Jewish man interacting with a Gentile woman.  He makes it clear to her that the work He is about is for his own people.  He uses a racial slur toward this woman, and no amount of trying to soften his words or make them endearing or cute will work.  “First, let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

This woman is bold. She stands her ground against Jesus’ insult, and I imagine her squaring her shoulders, maintaining eye contact, and taking a deep breath. She responds by saying, “that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She stands deeply centered in her truth that there is enough for everyone and in her knowledge that Jesus can do something about the deep need of her daughter. I love the empowered tenacity of this woman! She has an urgent need, she goes to the exact person who can do something about it, and she refuses to back down and leave until she has what she needs.

Now, I imagine an array of expressions traveling across Jesus’ face at her response. Shock, offense, deepening awareness, understanding, respect, awe, and delight. “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter,” was his response.

I want to share a poem with you, and then I want to share with you why I find this story so compelling as it relates to women, their callings, and God.

It’s Not Fair!

It’s just not fair—the phrase was on your lips,

It’s just not fair that I can’t do any more.

Exhausted, all your glory in eclipse,

You sought escape but she beat down your door.

Already daunted by the thankless task

Of bringing your own people back to God,

And now the Gentiles come—too much to ask—

So you respond with this exhausted word.

But she comes back in playful raillery,

Takes up and turns and tunes your metaphor,

Teaches you more of who you’re meant to be

And so renews your power to give more,

You learn, self-emptied, in humility,

That even crumbs of love can make us free.

I find this story so compelling because of how this woman engages with Jesus. She knows He knows that He can heal her daughter. In his exhaustion, He has forgotten; she boldly reminds him. She reminds him that Love is boundless, that the resources of the Universe are limitless, and there is more than enough for all who have a need to have their needs completely met. She looks Jesus straight in the eye, and uses his own metaphor and phrase to prove her point—she may be a “dog” but at the Table of Enough, there is plenty for all. She calls Him out on His bias, and reminds Him of who He is—the Incarnate God, walking amid humanity in all their troubles and suffering, reminding Him that they are the very people God cares about. She invites Him deeper into His mission of bringing forth a new creation for all people.

In so many parts of the church, Evangelical and Catholic alike, women are told all the things that they cannot do within her walls. Because she is a woman, she cannot preach, she cannot teach men, she cannot have a seat at the decision-making tables with the other male elders. She cannot be ordained, she cannot go to seminary, she cannot pastor a church. The power of the patriarchy keeps her in her place, and as long as she does not rock the boat, all will be smooth sailing within these sacred walls. Sometimes the patriarchy bends and softens, and shows her all the spaces in which she can serve—in the nursery, in the office, in the children’s ministry, in the women’s social and Bible study ministries, in the kitchen and in-house coffee shop. The benevolent patriarchy assures her that, of course, she is equal in essence, but different in role. The men in the church make sure to preach compelling sermons and host marriage seminars that make it clear who is {lovingly} in charge and who needs to pray even more faithfully to serve those in charge well and in love.

But benevolent patriarchy is still patriarchy, and the men still hold all the power. God’s original design of equality and mutuality between men and women is unrealized and violated as long as men hold power over women.

But this woman….she upends the erroneous idea that woman can’t, and shouldn’t, teach men.  Her quick, unblinking, unflinching response to Jesus in the face of his racial bias invites him to do better.  She invites him to expand His vision of what His kingdom is about and what it is supposed to look like.

In a word, she teaches Him more of who He is called to be.  She teaches Him that racial bias has no place in the expansive kingdom He is here to usher in. She teaches Him that Love is large enough to bring healing and freedom for all people, regardless of their city or time period or race or gender or age. She teaches Him that Love can bend down further than previously thought and not come away empty.

How do I know that this bold, courageous woman taught Jesus?

Because He responds to her faith and her brave words by doing exactly what she has asked him to do. 

He hears the wisdom in her words, sees the dignity in her face, sees the tenacity and passion in her shoulders and chin, and He receives her lesson. Love is not a zero-sum game; there is absolutely enough Love for both her, her daughter, and the children of Israel. Love given is always Love received. Love is never emptied; it is only filled to overflowing the more it is given away.

So, those churches and pastors that tell women all the things they can’t do, simply because they are women?

Lies.

If Jewish Jesus can be taught by a Gentile woman, then women must teach the lessons they have to impart, and speak the words of wisdom that wells up from within them. Men would do well to sit at the feet of such wise women and humbly and truly learn from them. Men are not the gatekeepers of women’s callings and gifts; God’s Spirit is. It is the Spirit who gifts and who calls, and it is She who empowers acts of service and words of truth born out of Love. God Incarnate was taught by woman, and He received her words with humility. Her words empowered Him to step more fully into both his humanity and divinity, reminding him of the expansive and wildly inclusive New Creation he was creating.

Women, boldly step into the calling that Spirit has placed upon your life.  Speak the words of life, correction, and truth with confidence.  Men, seek out and listen to the wisdom of the women in your life, and leverage your privilege to make space for her to step fully into who God has created and called her to be.  I am certain that you will find that you are only empowered and loved into a fuller version of your own selves. 

Women, what has God placed within you that is calling you forth? Will you boldly take the next step where Spirit is leading you?

Men, who are the women who are teaching you and forming you? Consider specific and practical ways to honor her gift and influence in your life (and tell her!).

The story of the Syrophoenician Woman is found in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30

Poem by Malcolm Guite from his book “Parable and Paradox: Sonnets on the sayings of Jesus and other poems.”

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