The prophet and the Lebanese mother

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
16 August 2020

[ video ]

It was the rostered day off for Jesus and his team.

They had headed to the coast for a break, near the famous cities of Tyre and Sidon. 

These days they could not get there due to the Israeli border fences, but in those days it seems people could move around more freely. Indeed, I have friends in Palestine who speak of catching the train from Jaffa to Beirut or Damascus to see a show and have a dinner. That was pre-1948, of course.

The geography is just one of the unusual things about this story.

It first appears in the Gospel of Mark (7:24–30), where the woman is correctly described as Syro-Phoenician. Today we would say Lebanese.

Matthew changes her ethnicity and calls her a Canaanite, evoking the hostile attitudes to the indigenous people of Palestine that we find in the Old Testament. That little twist sharpens the dilemma posed by this woman’s request for help.

The visit to Tyre and Sidon also evokes the old traditions (1 Kings 17) about Elijah having been sent to the same region when there was a famine in Israel. He found hospitality, after a hesitant initial reaction, from a widow who—along with her son—was close to death herself.

There is yet another twist to this fascinating tale.

In Jewish traditions from around the time of Jesus (Lives of the Prophets), the widow’s son is none other than Jonah, who had settled in Sidon with his mother, after returning broken-hearted from his all-too-successful preaching campaign against Nineveh. Having ‘failed’ in his wish to see the enemy destroyed—because his preaching was so successful that everyone in town repented (even the cattle put on sack cloth according to the book of Jonah)—he could not bear the shame of seeing the Assyrian capture his land. So he packed up his widowed mother and relocated to the region of Tyre and Sidon, only to have the prophet Elijah come and stay with them for an extended visit. First the sea-monster and now Elijah.

Jonah’s hometown, according to the tradition, was a small village between Cana and Nazareth, modern-day Mashhed. That connection may be why Jesus spoke about needing to pay attention to the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’ if people were really going to understand him and his mission.

This is starting to sound like Alice in Wonderland …

Whether or not Jesus ever went to southern Lebanon, people of faith like to tease out what God is asking of us by telling stories, connecting stories, reshaping the stories.

We have a meme here.

Prophets from the Galilee understood their mission to be to their own people, but they sometimes found themselves needing R&R in Gentile territories outside the kingdom of Israel.

Elijah finds lodging with a widow from Zarephath near Sidon

The widow is later understood to be the mother of Jonah

In Luke 4 Jesus reminds his hometown crowd that Elijah was sent to the widow at Zarephath and not to any of them; just before they try to throw him off the cliff!

Jesus himself seeks some ‘time out’ in Tyre and Sidon, as Mark says in the original version of this tale:

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice … (Mark 7:24)

So the runaway prophet meets with a local lady from the region of Tyre and Sidon.

We can almost sense the first-century audience thinking, “Ah, just like Elijah …”

Like the widow that Elijah encountered, this Lebanese mother has a needy child. 

This Lebanese mother has heard that Jesus is a prophet who can heal people.

She finds out where he is staying and disrupts his vacation time!

The prophet … the mother … the sick/dying child …

Yes, we have a meme.

And the disciples are irritated. Send her away, they ask Jesus. But this woman is not for sending away. She has a sick daughter and she believes that Jesus could fix that situation. She will not be shooed away.

Finally, the woman is right there in Jesus’ face … “Help me, Lord!”

Jesus responds with cruel words, harsh words, that offend our ears but invite us to appreciate him as a person of his own time, culture and religion: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

This Lebanese mother has chutzpah, a Hebrew term for extreme self-confidence or audacity. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

In the original version of the story, found in Mark, Jesus replies: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29)

Matthew seems to feel the need to find some religious basis for Jesus’ agreement to assist her distant daughter, so he reworks the moment this way: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matthew 15:28)

The temptation for preachers and theologians is to ‘over think’ this scene.

Let’s just stay with the Jewish meme of prophet-goes-to-Lebanon-meets-woman.

Like the car chase scene in a movie, we know how such a meme has to end. In this meme, always people are healed, rescued, kept alive, blessed and transformed.

As we hear this story and as we engage with the ancient meme it reflects, we give thanks for the God who meets us in the guise of other people. Sometimes we are the prophet to them, other times they are the prophet to us. Always God is at work. Always good things are happening. 

Love drives out fear.

Light overcomes darkness.

Compassion trumps religion and tribalism.

And for that we say, Thanks be to God.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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