"In Praise of Badly Behaved Women"

Proper 18.B.21
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

If today’s sermon were to have a title, it would be “In Praise of the Badly Behaved Woman”. Let’s begin with the Gospel passage from Mark. I consider this to be one of the more unsettling (and dare I say) cringeworthy, passages in the Bible. It calls into question beloved images we hold of Jesus as a Messiah radiating peace and calm and ever-busy extending compassion and charity without question. To be honest, I consider this one of our Savior’s more human moments—and, for this, I believe there is ample reason for it to be cherished.

Here is a bit of background. Both Tyre and Sidon were cities against which the prophets of the Old Testament had pronounced God’s judgment—this is the region of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Biblical times, Tyre was famed for its great temple to Melkart, god of merchants and navigators. To put it simply, if you were a good Jew, this was not a holy city.

Jesus, we learn, travels to the region of Tyre, and once he has arrived, he enters a house and desires privacy--not surprising for someone constantly surrounded by crowds. He does not want anyone to know that he is there. However, he does not manage to escape notice—at least from the eyes of one Syrophoenician woman, whose daughter is ill. She finds Jesus and confronts him, begging for healing. And what does our Savior do? He says: “Let the children (meaning the Jews) be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs (a reference to the Gentiles).” Not nice at all! What has happened to our Savior? Maybe he’s tired, and frustrated—perhaps he’s hangry. Hey, it happens to the best of us.

But this woman—she’s not giving up. She’s already been busy breaking rules left and right. To begin with, she’s female—and women (at least reputable women in the time of Jesus—whether they be Jew or Gentile) don’t go around accosting men who are not their husbands. Secondly, she’s a Gentile—a person of a different religion, which is another reason for her to have kept her distance. And whether or not Jesus is wanting to be in the public eye, she’s more than willing to be in his face. So, to our Lord’s rather rude response, she marshals her wits and fights back saying: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (There, take that!). This woman, she’s not slinking off into the shadows, she’s not weeping or wailing—no, she’s quick witted and determined. What’s more, she has an abundance of faith—she knows this man can heal her child, and when it comes to being a mother there’s nothing that can stop her, not even the disgruntled Son of the Almighty.

And now, we get the sense that Jesus, irritable though he may be, appreciates the spunk of this woman who is willing to defy all sorts of social and religious barriers in order to see that her daughter receives healing. And he heals her child—and in doing so, Jesus opens the door of grace not only to Jews, but to Gentiles as well. This is an earth-shattering moment, make no mistake! The ultimate response of our Lord to what, in the eyes of the time, would have been a rude and unthinkable act on behalf of this woman, was grace. A seat at the table, indeed.

Here's the story of another badly behaved woman whose life’s work, should be remembered, particularly as we observe Labor Day Weekend.

Mary Harris Jones was born in 1837 in County Cork, Ireland. She immigrated, at the age of five to escape the Potato Famine in her native country. In 1861 she married George Jones, an iron worker. The two of them had four children in six years. Then tragedy struck when her entire family (George and the children) died in a yellow fever epidemic. Mary was 30 years old.

She returned to Chicago and became a seamstress only to lose everything she owned ten years later in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Imagine, losing your entire family, rebuilding your life and now losing your home and livelihood. It’s difficult to comprehend. For the next quarter century, she worked in obscurity. As the the age of Industrialization took hold, Mary Jones was an aging, poor, widowed Irish immigrant. She had survived plague, famine, and fire, only to confront a lonely old age. She might have been beaten by life, but she was not cowed. Focusing on the rising number of working poor during industrialization, especially as wages shrunk, hours increased, and workers had no insurance for unemployment, healthcare or old age, she utilized her skills to rebel, calling out the injustice that was taken for granted by far too many at the time.

Possessed of tremendous oratorical skills and organizational abilities (as well as a decided flair for the dramatic), Mary Jones, in her sixties, seventies and throughout her eighties, led hundreds of strikes. She was a beloved leader of labor, and it wasn’t long before people were referring to her as “Mother Jones”. This elderly woman, standing there in her black dress, regaling leaders of industry—she was an anachronism if there ever was one.

Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle knew Mother Jones and even made her a character in one of his novels which chronicled the Colorado coal strike of 1913-14. He writes: “There broke out a storm of applause which swelled into a tumult as a little woman came forward on the platform. She was wrinkled and old, dressed in black, looking like somebody’s grandmother; she was, in truth, the grandmother of hundreds of thousands of miners.” But make no mistake, meek and mild were not in Mary’s vocabulary. Mother Jones was known for berating the miners for cowardice, telling them if they were afraid to fight, then she would continue on alone. “All over the country she had roamed,” Sinclair concluded, “and wherever she went, the flame of protest had leaped up in the hearts of men; her story was a veritable Odyssey of revolt.” Here are a few of her quotes for which she is known: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” “I am not afraid of the pen, or the scaffold, or the sword. I will tell the truth wherever I please. If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout Freedom for the working class.” Your typical grandmother—this woman was not.

Mother Jones wasn’t perfect. Her agenda was limited, even by the standards of her time; for example, she was opposed to women’s suffrage. Yet her efforts to provide a livable wage and a reasonable standard of living for laborers is one which cannot be underestimated. She defied convention, she rose up, she employed wit, drama and dedication to her cause, which was a better life for the working poor. I suspect our Lord would be proud.

The readings this morning from Proverbs and James remind us that words are not enough when it comes to living a righteous life—indeed, the proof of living a righteous, holy life is when what we do is in step with what we say. In his letter, James asks: 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?”

If we take these lessons, and combine them with the example of the woman from Tyre in the Gospel, we come to the conclusion that we should not be satisfied when confronted with the injustices of life, particularly those which are within our ability to fix. We should not settle for social convention when there are wrongs to be made right. Instead, we should rise up, be brave enough to break down barriers—and following the fine example of the Gentile woman in today’s Gospel, we should be people of faith, placing our trust in the Son of God, to give us strength and bestow upon his people grace and aid. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(“Mary Harris Jones” edited by Debra Michals, Ph.D./2015);
(Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliott J. Gorn)