"Is Jesus a Jerk?" by Pastor A.J. Houseman
The story we encounter in our gospel lesson today where Jesus meets the Syrophenecian woman is one that can be a bit unsettling for many. Like does Jesus call her a dog? Or less than a dog? It’s a tough one because Jesus just might be being a jerk.
Jesus as a jerk is not one that we normally see. Like is he just in a bad mood? Or why is he being so rude to this woman? This woman who just wants to help her daughter. That doesn’t seem like the Jesus we know.
So let’s wrestle with it.
I imagine what’s really going on is something this:
Imagine its 1847 on the underground railroad in the United States, a woman and her daughter set out on a journey. A journey to find life, find healing, and find freedom from their demons. Her daughter is weak, having taken several lashes this week. They move slowly. Only at night can they make the hard trek of their journey.
Their demons chase them. Follow them as shadows in the very corner of their minds. Though they travel on. They persevere because this is their only hope. This journey is the only thing that can make them free from their demons. This is the only way they can find sanctuary and healing.
It is close to dawn when they come upon the station at last. They are tired and hungry, not sure if they could take another step without eating a single crumb.
A tall white man opens the door. He says, “you have no business being here.” this was certainly true, the woman thought. In 1847, she and her young daughter, both slaves escaped from a cotton plantation in rural Georgia, had no rights, not even claim to their own bodies.
This white man before them had all of the power. He could deny them. He could turn them in, he could sentence them to be hanged. He could just do it himself and save the patrol the worry of making the journey to fetch them.
Here, in this place, they are less than the dogs. And the woman can hear the dogs barking in the distance, as though the dogs know they are there and are waiting to claim them as a pound of flesh for their masters.
The man looks her in the eyes and says the thing that is true in their society. Then, he opens the door, ushers them in, feeds them, and gives them water to drink. Fresh clothes and a wash. He tends to the wounds on her daughter’s back. He then takes them to his cellar where there is a cot to rest their heads. She looks over at her daughter and sees that the demons following them are gone from her eyes.
A woman of syrophoenician origin is almost as low as it gets in Jewish first century Palestine. First, she is a woman, how dare she speak to a man. This man.
Second, she’s a gentile, that is worse than being even an unclean Jew… and remember last week? that will get you in trouble real fast.
This woman is the wrong color, the wrong culture, the wrong religion, and the wrong gender in this place and time. She knows it. And so does Jesus. And he says the thing that is true for them in their society.
She has no business being anywhere near him, let alone talking to him, or most offensively, making a request from him!
And Jesus, doing the most Jesus thing to do, he crosses all cultural and social boundaries and heals her daughter anyways.
So offensive. This Jesus. But maybe not quite a jerk.
This man, that, continually ignores societal boundaries. Breaking down the structure of racism and oppression in first century Palestine. Who re-writes what it means to be clean and unclean. This man, who heals a child that his fellow Jewish Rabbi’s wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. This man is so offensive to first century Palestine.
Because you see there is an order and a structure in place that he gives no regards for in order to save, or to love and to heal. These structures that have been created to keep people in their place. Jesus spends his life crossing the boundaries of these structures.
We are no strangers to these structures. And unfortunately, lots of these same structures are still in place in our world today.
How how dare anyone to step out of their place? How about those rebel princesses we talked about last week? How dare they step out of their castles, out of their fancy clothes, and step into the streets, help create equality, help bring peace into the world. How dare they.
And how dare a slave in 1847 think they deserve to be free. How dare a white man help them.
But they do dare. They do dare to seek justice, to help others, to open the door to the vulnerable.
Because Jesus dares. And he dares each and every one of us to follow.
There can be a cost to following Jesus to break down these structures, to go against the grain, to upheave the system.
The cost to the runaway slave and the station master who would have helped them was severe, much of the time it was death.
The cost of going against your own people to stand up for someone who cannot stand up for themselves, to help the marginalized people in this world, is a cost that Jesus is no stranger to. He flipped tables, he healed gentiles, he stood up to the authorities making these structures, and they killed him for it.
Standing up to sin, structural evil, and oppression... It was costly. Jesus did that for us. He loved us so much that it was worth the cost.
Now for most of us today, at least here in this room, the cost of discipleship is not death, but it has been for many throughout history.
Standing up for others in the face of extraordinary costs is what Jesus spent his life doing and he looked those costs in the face and said you are a beloved child of God and you are worth it.
We have these perpetuating structures that are there to separate us into a hierarchy that displaces our common humanity and Jesus isn’t having it. Jesus doesn’t tolerate these preposterous ideas that some people are worth more than others. And that, my friends, is the very embodiment of social justice. And a central piece of the gospel.
Jesus dares to step out of the lines and he dares us to follow. To make a difference. To support and love one another in the roots of our common humanity. To stand up for others that are different from us and especially those that cannot stand up for themselves.
So when we meet Jesus in the story of the Syrophenecian woman, is Jesus being a jerk? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s to her. I think Jesus is a jerk to injustice and social structures that deny human rights.
Now that sounds like the Jesus I know. Amen.