"A Feisty Phoenician Female's Faith"
May 13, 2007 Mother's Day Mk 7:24-30
Very Important People
Mother's Day is an opportunity to pause and honour the contributions made to our society and our lives as individuals by our mothers. As a class mothers are Very Important People: their sacrifices and caring impact the lives of the next generation at a stage when they're most impressionable. Many homes revolve around a mom's input; when they're away, their absence is deeply felt.
A cartoon in the Saturday Evening Post showed a young boy about 5 or 6 years old talking on the telephone, saying, "Mom is in the hospital; the twins and Roxie, Billy, Sally, the dog, and me and Dad are all home alone." (!)
Today's lesson features a remarkable woman who cared deeply for her family and did all she could to support them. She overcame obstacles and reached out to Jesus to help in the areas that were beyond her control. He blessed her persistence and commended her for trusting God greatly.
In case you're one of those folks for whom Mother's Day does not carry positive associations for some reason, or cannot relate to parenting, consider how much of what we say about good mothering applies to good mentoring. We're not all called to be parents, but we are called to make disciples, to impact others' lives and nurture them as God's 'new creatures' if they are receptive to Jesus. This woman - and God's Word through this story - have something to teach us all.
Go the Distance
It takes a lot to be a good mother. The sacrifices begin even before your first child is born. This past week we spent a couple of days with some of our own brood in Ottawa. Keith's wife Darcie is now in her 7th month of pregnancy with their first child. I walked with her to the bus stop both mornings on her way to work. Her usually small frame was now quite conspicuous as she walked down the street, covered in an expansive shawl. She's been discovering it's hard to find clothes that fit when you're at that stage of pregnancy. We joked about the sound her iron pills made in her handbag as she walked along. Maternity will bring its own adjustments: fortunately she's eligible for leave, but it does interrupt your paid-work life. They're having to move to find other accommodation on account of the baby. Darcie has already made some sacrifices: when she found out she was expecting, she immediately gave up her daily coffee. She works in an office with mainly other women, and although she hadn't said anything to them about it, one of her co-workers was quick to observe the change and popped off an email inquiring if she had a 'bun in the oven'!
Mothers go the distance. Mark's account tells us Jesus had retreated to the vicinity of Tyre, a seacoast town in foreign territory about 100 miles north of Jerusalem. He was trying to keep out of sight, but He couldn't keep His presence secret. V25 tells us, "...as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet." She went the distance, she first of all made the sacrifices necessary to come seek Jesus' help. We're not told what hurdles she had to overcome: perhaps she was a single parent, and had to arrange for someone else to look after her daughter (who with the problem she had, may have been a handful). Then she had to actually make the journey - no cars or even scooters back then; more than likely she trudged to find Jesus on foot, inquiring at different places, criss-crossing the countryside until she located him. She made the effort, sacrificing time and energy to obtain help.
Besides going the distance, mothering (and mentoring) involves resistance - to what is bad. Her daughter wasn't just suffering from the flu, or some everyday illness. Mark records her daughter was 'possessed by an evil spirit'; in v30, he says she found 'the demon gone' after Jesus gives the order.
Responsibility in faith and family life involves resisting our spiritual enemy - whom Jesus says is only too keen to "steal and kill and destroy". Satan would be happy to get a hold of the next generation; in modern society, there are many temptations that would drag young people down - from sex and drugs to pornography and eating disorders. The enemy is very subtle and sows destructive thoughts in a variety of means: a discarded magazine, a playground friend who's already using, the particular shape of a popular doll that sows doubts about one's self-worth. Parents need to be vigilant to protect their offspring from invasion by evil of any kind.
The enemy can even attack from unexpected quarters. The news this past week featured impact statements by victims of an Anglican priest who allegedly abused young boys on a native reserve. One boy tried to tell his mom what was going on, but she rebuked him, saying he mustn't say such things about "a man of God". So the boy's hurt was compounded: not only could he not trust the church, he couldn't rely on his own families. Consequently he had to fight feelings of low self-worth and suicidal tendencies.
Resist the enemy. Peter warns, "Be self_controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1Pet 5:8) Paul is mindful of trying to avoid enemy tactics when he tells Timothy, "So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander." (1Ti 5:14)
The woman who approached Jesus for help, Mark says in v26, "was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter." (Let's call her 'Sophie' to make things easier.) Sophie was not Jewish; she was Gentile, a full-blooded foreigner as far as the covenant promises of the Old Testament were concerned. She knew she had no claim on God. Faith knows that: God's saving grace isn't founded on our deserving; we come to the throne empty-handed, not boasting in anything of our own - brains or beauty or best behaviour. But that didn't stop her: she persisted in appealing for Jesus' help.
Matthew 15(21-28) carries the same story with a little more detail. It seems Mark has condensed the events a bit. As Matthew reports it, this lady was really rebuffed about three times but persisted in pursuing the Saviour. She came crying out, Matthew says, but "Jesus did not answer a word." (that's once) She kept on. The disciples started to complain to the Master, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." Jesus tells her at this point that He was sent only "to the lost sheep of Israel". (that's twice) Matthew says the woman came and knelt before Jesus, asking for help. This is the point at which Jesus says it's not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs. (that's the third barrier) Yet despite these three refusals, the woman persists. She just won't give up!
In Luke 18 Jesus told the parable of the Persistent Widow, who kept pestering an unrighteous judge until he finally relented and took her case. He said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming." Jesus told that story to encourage us to pray and "not give up". God wants people to be persistent in their faith.
Susanna Wesley was an example of another persistent woman. "She was the 25th child in a dissenter's family.Though brilliant, she procured little education.Though strong-willed, she lived in a male-dominated age.She married an older man and bore him 19 children.Nine of them died.Her house burned up, her barn fell down, her health failed, and she lived with the wolf at the door...Samuel's salary was so small (and he was so incapable of managing it) that he was thrown into debtor's prison, leaving Susanna to fend for herself...Susanna gave birth to a daughter during the election of 1705.The nurse, exhausted by overnight revelry, slept so heavily the next morning that she rolled on the baby and smothered it...Susanna herself was often bedfast, having to delegate home duties to the children...Her brother, having promised her a sizable gift, disappeared mysteriously and was never heard from again." Now, doesn't that sound like a recipe for bitterness? But Susanna Wesley persisted despite these tragedies. "...the parsonage at Epworth was destined to become the most celebrated in English history, for from it came two of the greatest evangelists of all time, John and Charles Wesley.And the mother who raised them shook the world."
Sophie wasn't put off by Jesus not answering, or the disciples complaining rudely, or Jesus objection in v27: "First let the children eat all they want...for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." Sophie must have had a quick wit, and guts of steel: she stood her ground. She was going to bat for her girl. She was insistent.
What a delightful comeback she had! V28, "Yes, Lord...but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." She was well acquainted with dining customs, especially in lower-class homes where the poor routinely lived in shared quarters with livestock. Also people didn't use serviettes: they would tend to wipe their hands and wrists with a scrap of bread, then toss it to the waiting pets.
She operates not from a view of God as grinch, but as generous and giving. Sophie doesn't back down because she has a high view of God - loving and gracious, who "richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1Tim 6:17). She may have been a Gentile, but she believed God was as He described Himself to Moses: "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin." (Ex 34:6) She probably believed God could even raise the dead, as Abraham stood firm when challenged to sacrifice his son Isaac: God would provide (Gen 22:8,14).
Jesus found this remarkable. Matthew notes that He said, "Woman, you have great faith!" (Mt 15:28) Mark has that He told her, "'For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.' She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone." (Mk 7:29f) With a single word the Lord of creation puts the forces of darkness to flight. He delivered Sophie's family from the grip of terror and the Destroyer. With Mary at the Annunciation Sophie would be able to sing, "The Lord has done great things for me." (Lk 1:49)
A Mom's Persistence Overcomes Obstacles
John Killinger shares this story of a remarkable woman from Kentucky who similarly trusted God could help her sick daughter, despite obstacles that were put in her way.
Margaret Howard was a good, solid woman of the hills who managed a small bookstore in Richmond, Kentucky, called the Miracle Book Room. Margaret had only an eighth_grade education. She married when she was just fourteen. But she was a woman of rare qualities. When one of her daughters had a brain tumour at the age of seven, the doctors removed most of the right hemisphere of her brain. They told Margaret the girl would be a mere vegetable for the rest of her life.
Margaret wouldn't accept their judgment. She nursed the girl and prayed for her. She saw an article in the newspaper about a special operation being performed [here] in Canada that might improve her daughter's condition. Pursuing the information, she learned that it would cost seven thousand dollars for the operation. Margaret's family was dirt poor. They didn't have seventy dollars, much less seven thousand dollars. But that didn't stop Margaret. She prayed some more and told some people about her need. An article in the newspaper raised more than ten thousand dollars to send her and her daughter to Canada.
When Margaret and the little girl arrived in Canada, they didn't have the proper papers and were not permitted to deplane. Margaret persuaded the airport officials to get her a phone connection with the Canadian government. She told the government officials that she was from the Commonwealth of Kentucky and needed to get her daughter to the hospital. The officials thought she was related to the governor of Kentucky and sent an ambulance and a limousine to take her and her daughter to the hospital.
Later someone asked her, "Are you from the governor?" "No," she said. "Are you a friend of his?" she was asked. She replied, "I didn't even vote for him."
The doctors at the hospital took X rays, studied them, and said they did not want to operate. Margaret said, There's a power higher than you that obviously wants you to." The doctors operated, and the girl lived an almost normal life until she was a young woman.
The story of the Greek mother in scripture ['Sophie'] prompts us to think of other women of faith like Margaret Howard. God invented something pretty special when he invented mothers. We serve a great, good, kind God - whose grace we see in the face of Jesus, likely getting a chuckle at the woman's wit as He grants her request and sends her on her way with a blessing and promise. Praise God for mothers and others who have impacted our lives with sacrifice and persistence. Let's pray.