Syrophonencian Woman

September 5, 2021

Last weekend I learned about Zalmay Niazy.[i]  His friends and neighbors in Iowa Falls just call him “Zee.”  You might think that Iowa Falls is a strange place for a devout Muslim to end up, especially given that pork, which observant Muslims don’t eat, is big business in Iowa Falls.  And there isn’t a mosque anywhere in sight.  Iowa Falls is a long way from Zee’s native Afghanistan.

Zee came to the United States after serving as an interpreter for American and Allied forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan.  It was dangerous work, and it made him a target of the Taliban.  He’s got the scars to show for it.  He’s taken a bullet to the arm, nearly lost his eye to shrapnel, and he almost lost his leg when the bus he was riding in was hit by a roadside bomb.

Zee never planned to live in Iowa Falls.  In 2014 a U.S. contractor that had hired him flew him from Kabul to Washington, D.C. for business.  Almost as soon as he landed, his parents found a warning from the Taliban nailed to their front door.  It wasn’t the first, but this one said that if their son came home, he’d be dead – and the Taliban would kill his family too.  Zee was forced to apply for political asylum to save both his family and himself.

When he arrived in Iowa Falls, he had nothing except the clothes he was wearing.  People helped him out, starting with Mike Ingebritson and his wife.  Mike is 6’10” tall, so he’s a bit imposing.  But in Mike’s words: “Oh, you get a kid that’s, let’s say, 10,000 miles away from home, three-time wounded veteran, and he says, ‘Can you help me?’ You don’t turn him down; you do the right thing.”  Mike loaned Zee some money to buy a house and helped him get it fixed up.

Zee’s friends and neighbors can’t say enough nice things about him.  They talk about how he would do anything to help anyone in the community – and often has.  He’s become a local handyman, started his own business.  They love him so much that when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration was threatening to deport Zee, the town raised $40,000 to hire him an immigration lawyer, and they wrote letter after letter in support of Zee’s asylum case.  The problem was based on something that had happened when Zee was nine years old and had been forced at gunpoint to give the Taliban some bread.  That situation was viewed as aiding the enemy, engaging in terrorist activity.  His attorney was recently told that Immigration Services is reconsidering his case.  The government won’t say why, but I like to think it’s at least in part because his neighbors have stood by him and advocated on his behalf.

I’ve thought a lot about Zee’s story in conversation with our readings this morning.  Zee moved across borders to save his family.  He pursued an unknown path, unsure of the consequences, and thankfully he found himself surrounded by people who helped him out.  The Syrophoenician woman we hear about this morning also moves across borders – borders of ethnicity and religion and gender.  She crosses those borders to save her daughter.  But she doesn’t find immediate support.  She encounters something quite different.

We don’t know much about this woman.  We know that Jesus has entered her Gentile community in the region of Tyre.  It’s an ethnically and economically diverse place, with all of the suspicions, prejudices, and tensions that you might expect across different religious, economic, and cultural groups.  We don’t know whether this woman is rich or poor, if she is a powerful member of the community or someone relatively unknown.  We don’t know if she’s a widow or if there’s some other reason she enters the story without a husband.

We do know this: Jesus has entered a house in the area and wants to keep a low profile.  He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. Meanwhile, this woman goes waltzing right into that house as if she belongs there.  She has decided that Jesus is the one who can help her daughter, who is possessed by a demon.

We also know this:  Jesus is not nice to her.  He’s kind of a jerk.  We’ve talked about this story before, sometimes the version from the gospel of Matthew, and each time we end up scratching our heads.  Why is Jesus so dismissive of her?

She asks that her daughter be healed.  It’s a request that any of you would make if your kid were suffering. Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m so sorry your daughter is struggling.”  He doesn’t ask how long this has been going on.  He doesn’t seem to care at all.  Jesus instead says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  It sounds like he’s saying that the Jewish people get the best of what he has to offer, and the Gentiles are no better than dogs.

We don’t have time this morning for me to tell you all the ways that some scholars and preachers have tried to excuse what Jesus says here.  But as I heard one seminary professor say this week, “You can’t save Jesus from this one.”[ii]

I continue to struggle with what Jesus says here, and this morning I’m focused on the reality that Jesus is human.  He’s holy and divine and all of that.  But he’s also human.  I think we’re seeing him at his most human in this moment, dismissive of the Syrophoenician woman for some reason that we can’t name but instinctively know is wrong.

But the woman does not give up.  She stands her ground.  She persists.  She talks back.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  You can almost hear her thinking: Aren’t you the guy who feeds people?  Aren’t you the one who heals?

This woman is smart and determined.  She’s one of only a couple of women in the gospel of Mark who get to say something out loud.  This woman takes the insult from Jesus and does a bit of word play.  OK, you might think I’m a dog, but don’t the dogs deserve something?

And it works.  Jesus changes his mind.  He heals the woman’s daughter. And he acknowledges this mother’s determination: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

We don’t know what Jesus might have pondered as he continued on his journey, but the next time we see him, he healing a man with a speech impediment, getting right up close to the man, putting his own fingers into the man’s ears.  I like the think that his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman has shifted something in Jesus, has opened him to possibilities that he is only now considering.

It isn’t easy to hear how Jesus treats this woman, but I find his humanity to be an encouragement to my own.  I think about all the times I’ve said or done something I regret.  I think of how I have hurt other people, often without meaning to.  I think of the times I’ve dismissed people.  I watch Jesus change his response to this woman, and I think about what assumptions I need to shake loose.  How might I be open to something shifting in me?  How might I turn in a new direction?

The end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan means that there are now thousands of Afghan refugees, people forced to flee because their lives are now in danger.  Many of them, like Zee, have provided invaluable assistance over the years to American troops.  I have heard many veterans this week pleading with the United States to do everything we can to resettle these friends and allies.  Our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service organization has called for the same, highlighting the urgency of the situation.  LIRS has decades of experience resettling refugees.  You can learn more about their work at lirs.org.  The commitment of Lutherans to that work makes sense not only because of our call to help those in need, but also because the earliest Lutherans in this country were immigrants and refugees themselves.

There are already voices saying that we should not help these refugees.  That we should turn them away, refuse to see their desperation.  Those voices will only get louder. I pray that we will ignore those voices and instead heed the biblical mandate to care for those who must find a new home.  I pray that we will live out the words we heard from the book of James: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” 

Love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s that simple.  And, as Jesus reminds us, it’s also that difficult. 

May we be willing to help, willing to love, willing to change.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/zalmay-niazy-afghan-interpreter-iowa-falls/

[ii] Thank you to Professor Karoline Lewis for adding this comment to the conversation on the Sermon Brainwave podcast episode for September 5, 2021.

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