This past spring the world anticipated with great excitement the boxing bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. The bout, which took place at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, generated more than $300 million in revenue.
Manny Pacquiao is a Filipino world champion boxer. So when preparing for his May 2 bout against Mayweather his trainer, Freddie Roach, included in his training sparring with two separate sparing partners.
The plan was to have the first of Pacquiao’s sparring partners throw more right hands at Manny because it was known that Mayweather throws a lot of right handed punches. The second sparring partner would run more than usual which would necessitate Manny chasing him around the ring. Again because that is what Mayweather does. In the world of professional boxing, there’s nothing unusual about this practice. It is standard training to have fighters box against other boxers. Consequently, both boxers are made better—it’s a case of steel sharpening steel, as the saying goes.
Sparring though—that is, going up against a contender for purposes of improving one’s own output—is not limited to the sport of boxing. Sparring can be, and maybe should be, a standard practice for not only improving our spiritual life but also for finding healing and wholeness as well.
Over the centuries, one place where a kind of sparring was common was among the rabbis who studied Jewish law. It’s not uncommon in literature to see such rabbis from medieval times described as “sparring” with one another over biblical texts.
For example, in a book to help Jewish teachers instruct adult learners about God, one passage says, “In the glory days of the middle ages, two titans of Jewish thought, Rabbi Judah Loeb … and Rabbi Moses Nahum sparred. The argument they were sparring about: “Was the obligation to believe in God one of the 613 commandments of the Torah, or was it the ground on which all the 613 commandments stood?”
The sparring would then commence between the two, each stating theological understandings to support their stance and/or refute the other.
Our own Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) founding fathers—Alexander Campbell in particular—used to frequently spar with other religious leaders in similar ways.
This practice of sparring was even common for Jesus himself. In several places in the gospels, Jesus’ contemporaries address him as “rabbi.” It was a term of respect, and it denoted that the person so addressed was considered a teacher and spiritual leader.
When we keep in mind that people called Jesus “rabbi,” and that rabbinic sparring was a common practice, it goes a long way in helping us understand what’s going on in our gospel reading for today, one that many people find troubling. But when we understand it deeper and more completely, then we will see that it’s actually a story about healing and becoming whole, which can consequently be inspiring, comforting, and incredibly helpful to our spiritual growth.
The presenting problem with this passage is that it seems to portray Jesus as treating the Syrophoenician woman badly. The text tells us up front that Jesus has retreated to Tyre, a Gentile area, and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. Jesus, in fact, is “preached out, prayed out and peopled out,” as commentator John Rottman puts it.
Jesus needs not only some down time, but more importantly, some alone time with himself and God. But, somehow, word gets out that Jesus, now with a growing reputation as a healer, is in a house in the village, and a women whose daughter has “an unclean spirit”—perhaps epilepsy or a mental illness—comes to ask for his help. She wants Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.
By the ordinary standards of the day, the Jewish Jesus should completely ignore her, for at least a couple of reasons.
First, she’s a Gentile, and Jews and Gentiles had centuries of bad blood between them. Second, she’s a woman in an era when it was considered improper for a woman to approach a man to whom she is not related. Beyond that, Jesus is worn out, wanting only to rest and recharge, but here she is intruding.
Given all of that, we’re apt to hear Jesus’ response to her as “Go away, and don’t bother me.” But what is really happening here is that Jesus is engaging her. He doesn’t dismiss her, he doesn’t ignore her, he speaks to her which is pretty radical.
Now granted, the initial hearing of his statement may not sound all that great. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” His apparent meaning is that his immediate mission is to the Jews, and it’s not right to take the work that’s meant for Jews and throw it to dogs—the Gentiles.
Now again, to us modern readers, this sounds awful. It sounds…well… un-Christ-like. But it will help to know that the word Jesus used that’s usually translated into English as “dogs” is more accurately translated as “puppies.”
So that’s a little better but we still can’t help but ask, is this still any way to behave toward a woman who’s desperate for help for her sick child? Well, no, but only if that’s what Jesus is doing. And I don’t believe he is, and neither do many scholars. Here’s the thing: It’s possible that we’re not hearing the exchange the way the woman did—we have no idea about tone, infraction, or demeanor.
Commentator N.T. Wright describes the conversation as “teasing banter,” and some others call it “sparring.”
The point for us to notice today is that, if sparring is what’s going on, then Jesus’ comments to her about the puppies is, in fact, not rude, but an invitation to her to be his sparring partner. And with that perspective we can see that Jesus isn’t being rude, he is in fact honoring her with this invitation to spar with him. He is honoring her because rabbinical sparring is a role explicitly denied to women in that time.
Now this is where things get really interesting. Certainly the woman didn’t expect such an honor and invitation, but she doesn’t hesitate for even a nanosecond to dish it right back at Jesus, saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And with that statement, coupled with this understanding of sparring, we can almost see Jesus nodding his head in admiration when the woman fires this back at him, perhaps he’s even smiling.
It is then that Jesus tells her to go home, for her daughter is healed, and the sparring ends. But though the sparring has ended, the honoring, the inspiring, the healing, the growth all goes on and on and on.
This story is not the first time sparring with the divine is revealed. All throughout Scripture there are other biblical precedents for sparring with God.
Another female example is Hannah of the Old Testament. In 1 Samuel we find Hannah praying and praying and praying, and she finally strikes a deal with God. When God told Abraham of the forthcoming destruction of Sodom, Abraham pushed back by asking God if God would spare the city if 50 righteous people could be found there. Abraham then whittled the number down, successively, to 45, 40, 30, 20 and 10 (Genesis 18:20-33). There’s the account of Jacob wrestling with God— an encounter that went even beyond sparring in its physicality (Genesis 32:22-32). There’s also the time when God, speaking from the burning bush, called Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Moses spent most of the ensuing conversation talking back to God, arguing that God had called the wrong man. Moses didn’t win that argument, but, in the process, he received the help he needed to succeed (Exodus 3:13-4:17). We can also think of Gideon, called by God to lead the Israelites in casting off Midianite oppression. Before accepting his call, Gideon insisted that God prove God’s power with a wet-dry test involving some fleece (Judges 6:36-40). And the book from the prophet Habakkuk is, if nothing else, a transcript of the prophet arguing with God.
In each of these cases, important change took place in the lives of the debaters or through their subsequent actions. Abraham learned more about God’s expectations for righteousness. Hannah and Jacob received a divine blessing. Moses freed his people. Gideon routed the Midianites. Habakkuk learned about trusting God in the midst of trouble. All of it shows us that sparring with God—giving our arguments, our best shots, our angry rants to God leads to honor, blessing, inspiration, healing, and growth.
So what does it mean for us to be God’s sparring partner? For one thing, it’s a reminder that questioning, pushing back, expressing doubt, showing irreverence and arguing are not out of bounds. We needn’t fear that we’ll offend God. Sure God will have the final word, but it’s likely that we will receive insight, inspiration, understanding, blessing— or if not those things, at least the comfort that comes from having aired our grievances, even if the answer isn’t what we’d hoped for.
This story, and others, tell us that speaking plainly to God about the things that nag us about God and the will of God is still an act of faith. Why else would we be talking to God at all?
Our faith may be thin or weak, but, even in an diminished condition, it’s a route to truth. Our faith—weak or strong—becomes a channel through which God can work.
Unfortunately for Manny Pacquiao, all the sparring he did wasn’t enough. He lost to Mayweather Jr. in a unanimous decision—although there are reports that Pacquiao fought the fight injured.
But doesn’t that make this an even better sermon illustration? Don’t we all fight and spar injured, hurt, broken? Which just makes it all the more reason to spar with God because in doing so we are led to healing and wholeness that comes through: honor, blessing, inspiration, healing, and growth.
So what do you need to spar with God about? What do you need to argue with God about? What do you need to fight with God about?
Ask yourself those questions, then set yourself to a sparring match with God…and see how, like the gentile woman of our story today, divine healing comes to you. Amen.