Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Syrophoenician Woman and the St. Jude Mother

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman is one of my favorites
in the Bible. It is a tender story, with a happy ending; it is a story of a
desperate woman who, against all odds, succeeds in getting her beloved
daughter healed. But, it starts out with rather unexpectedly harsh words
from Jesus, who does not want to throw food to the dogs, an
uncomplimentary term with which he equates her. Consider the context:
Jesus, a Jewish man and a leader of his people, has ventured with his
disciples into Gentile territory, and is approached directly by this Gentile
woman, who has heard of his ability to heal. In those days, it would have
been unheard of for a single woman, especially a gentile woman, to be seen
in public, not only unaccompanied by her husband or male relative, but
also to approach a single, Jewish male. To do so would have put her at risk
of being banned from the church, or even being arrested and stoned to
death. Yet, here was this woman of great faith, desperate to have Jesus heal
her daughter, who was afflicted with some demonic disease that no one else
could cure. She responds to the derogatory remark of Jesus by saying that
even the dogs will eat the crumbs spilled under the table by children. A light
bulb goes off in Jesus' head, and he thinks, " you know, you are right, my
ministry and the kingdom of God should be available to all people, even to
Gentiles and women with demonic children". Jesus has been taught a
lesson by this humble woman and he changed his position in the matter,
and the daughter is healed. I personally like to think that this story reflects
the human side of Jesus, a person capable of making a mistake, learning
from it, and correcting it.
This story parallels a meaningful event that occurred in my life several
years ago, during my seminary experience. I served as an assistant chaplain
at St. Jude Hospital and my assignment was to visit patients and their
families in an effort to provide support and to pray with them when
appropriate...mainly, I was there as one of God's representatives. On many
occasions, I visited rooms where there were many family members present,
some of whom were totally uninterested in my visit, carrying on separate
conversations, and with a television blaring in the background...obviously,
not a scene conducive to having a very effective pastoral discussion. On this
day, however, the room I entered was rather dimly lit, the television was
not turned on, and the room was occupied only by a young woman and her
one year old. The child lay quietly, receiving IV fluids and sedation to
control his symptoms, for he had become unresponsive to further chemo
and radiation treatments for his inoperable brain tumor. The mother--we'll
call her "Nicole"-- was a slight African-American woman in her mid
thirties; when she smiled at me, I could see a couple of missing teeth, and
she wore glasses and had what appeared to be a "lazy eye", one that looked
to one side. It occurred to me that she may have neglected some of her own
medical issues in order to care for her son. They had spent most of the past
3 months in the hospital, and she had never left his side. She was extremely
grateful for all the care they had received at St. Jude, and told me that she
prayed daily for all the doctors and nurses there, as well as all the other
little children receiving treatment there. When I asked how she passed the
time, she smiled and pointed to two open books on her small bed, adjacent
to her son's hospital bed. One was a prayer book and the other a Bible, open
at the time to Luke's Gospel, where several verses could be seen
highlighted. She said she drew her strength and courage from reading and
praying from just these two sources. For a moment, I was speechless, and
choked with emotion. Here I was, an apprentice chaplain, there ostensibly
to offer her comfort and support, but it was she who was giving me a lesson
in faith. This slight, soft-spoken woman, whose son was dying with brain
cancer, was a tower of strength, one whose faith enabled her to endure
great suffering. After gathering myself, we said a prayer together, and I left
the room knowing I had been on sacred ground.
On my dining room table at home I have a beautiful glass bowl on which
are inscribed these words from the Book of Hebrews, "Do not neglect to
show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some may have entertained
angels without knowing it". There are angels like Nicole out there...if we
look for their presence, our lives might be transformed.

-The Rev. Deacon Randy McCloy

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