Friday, August 28, 2015

Reading The Syrophoenician Woman Inside Out

In my previous post, I wrote about the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out, which gives a life of their own to the emotions of Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. I also suggested that reading Bible stories for the emotions we find there is a great way to engage with the story, especially when we read with children.

This week in the lectionary readings set for Morning Prayer, we came across the Syrophoenician woman. She turns up again in the Sunday lectionary at the start of September. And her story reads brilliantly, inside out.

It starts with Jesus, and the emotions in his head. Anger is angry at the way in which those who were in a position to help people live a life free from burdens God didn’t intend for them to carry were in fact adding to those burdens. Sadness is sad that even his closest friends don’t seem to get it. Fear wonders whether this whole sense of mission will end up badly. Disgust feels slimed, and looks to put some distance between them and the critics. Joy delights in the love of his Father in heaven, and wants to get away and spend time alone with God.

Jesus moves beyond the boundaries of his territory, in the hope that he can just get away for a while. But he cannot be hid. Someone sees him, and the word gets out.

There is a woman. She has a young daughter, who is troubled by an unclean spirit. Terrorised by a supernatural presence that would prey on a little girl. (If you don’t believe in demons, ask yourself why horror films are such an enduring genre.) This mother is full of emotional chatter. Sadness is sad for her daughter, whose plight no one can help. Anger is angry that this should be inflicted on an innocent child. Disgust does not fail to notice the way other people look at her child, and judge her. Fear imagines the worst for the future: where will this end? Joy hears the word on the street – Jesus has come to town. Maybe, just maybe…

The woman finds Jesus (who cannot be hid). She begs him to help. And he responds by saying that it wouldn’t be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the pups at their feet.

At her console, the emotions look at one another. Anger explodes “Did he call us a dog? Did he actually say that out loud? Why…!” Disgust answers back “You Jews think we’re the dogs; but you ain’t so special yourselves.” Sadness sighs “Well, we tried. It was always a long shot. Let’s go. I’m feeling sad.” Fear adds “Let’s go quickly, before they all start laughing at us!” And Joy says “Did you not see the twinkle in his eye? He’s inviting us to play with him. Let’s play!”

Context: Jesus was last seen challenging the prejudices of his peers. Those prejudices included seeing themselves as God’s children, and Gentiles as dogs. So when in the next breath he comes out with a comment about throwing the children’s bread to the dogs, he is actually taking a piece of that bread and throwing it to the woman, to one of ‘the dogs’. His action undermines his words. Why? Because he is using humour as a tool to defeat prejudice. He is not making fun of a vulnerable woman, but rather of those who would judge her. It is a recognised strategy, then and now. And the woman understands. While all her emotions might lay claim to a response, not every response would be the right response. In this instance, Joy sees rightly – Joy that brought her to Jesus in the first place, Joy that sees and responds by joining in.

Elsewhere, we are told that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1) and that faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). This woman hears that Jesus is in town, and what she hears gives birth to faith. What she hears from his mouth grows that faith, the assurance of what she hoped for, deliverance for her daughter. She sees where this encounter is going, and she is not disappointed.

Without emotional intelligence we fail to see our neighbours as human, let alone have compassion on them – the acting for their benefit, motivated by love.

Without emotional intelligence we fail to see Jesus as fully human – that is, not ‘as flawed as anyone else’ but ‘displaying humanity as God intended humanity to be’ – and as the revelation of God’s loving presence in our midst.

Lord, have mercy.


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