Two images have dominated my reflections, and the news, over the last week. The first is that image of a 2-year old Syrian boy, his body washed up on the beach. The second is that of Kim Davis, the County Clerk in Kentucky who has been jailed for contempt of court because she refuses to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
Two images, two issues over which there are deep divisions and which elicit very different responses from nation-states, politicians, and Christians. I’ve been horrified by the plight of refugees who have come to Europe seeking safe havens from the war and terror in their homelands. I’ve been horrified by the response of some governments and keep thinking not just about what’s happening in Europe, but our own national conversation about undocumented immigrants, the vilification and demonization of people who have come to our country in search of a better life.
I’ve also been horrified by the response of many on the progressive side to Kim Davis. She’s been labeled a hypocrite, ridiculed for her decisions, her behavior, her marital history, her appearance.
With regard to both situations, I’ve seen any number of folks on the progressive side of things pondering, “what would Jesus do?” And all of them agree, in both instances, that Jesus would do precisely that thing they think is right—invite all of the refugees in, and issue marriage licenses to everyone. Isn’t it interesting how Jesus always agrees with us (whichever side we happen to be on)?
What a shock then, it must be, to hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. Not only does he refuse to help someone who comes to him in desperate need, he dismisses her by calling her a “dog.” The Jesus we encounter in this reading is nothing like the loving, sweet, compassionate Jesus of our fantasies. In fact, there’s little resemblance to our common assumptions about Jesus in the image the gospel of Mark gives us of him.
Now that we’ll be back in the Gospel of Mark for the next three months, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a few key themes in the gospel, and where this reading appears in it. Mark is the first, the shortest, and the most puzzling of the gospels. Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism and ends with his death (although it’s clear he knows about the resurrection). He records very little of Jesus’ teaching. There’s none of the material that Matthew shapes into the Sermon on the Mount, none of the lengthy discourses that appear in John’s gospel. There’s a sense of mystery and uncertainty. He’s recognized by demons and possessed people as the Messiah, but Mark depicts the disciples in unflattering terms. They don’t understand Jesus, apart from Peter’s confession, they’re not sure of who he is, and when they do call him the Messiah, they mean it in very different terms than Jesus does. And at the end of the story, all of his male disciples abandon him. I encourage you to go home and read the whole gospel from start to finish. It’s short; it won’t take long.
I hope all of this helps to provide you with some background as we look at this text. One other thing. We are provided with some clear geographical referents here, and since none of you has your bible turned to the map section in the back, I’ll help orient you. So far, most of Jesus’ activity has occurred in and around Galilee. Capernaum seems to have been a center for him. He’s gone other places. We saw him cross the lake to the region of the Gerasenes, where he cast out evil spirits from a man who lived among the tombs.
But now, we see Jesus going on a journey, to Tyre. Tyre is on the other side of the country on the Mediterranean Ocean. Like the region of the Gerasenes, it’s gentile territory. But the geography is even more interesting that. We’re told that Jesus went to the Decapolis by way of Sidon which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (he should have been using google maps) Sidon is a 20 mile detour in the wrong direction, Decapolis being beyond Galilee. It too is Gentile territory.
The text implies that Jesus has traveled here to get some rest. It’s likely that he had no intention of teaching or healing, an inference supported by Jesus’ own statement in response to the Syro-Phoenician woman. It’s one thing to make an ethnic or racial slur in public. That’s just what Jesus did, by calling her (and by extension all Syro-Phoenicians) a dog; It’s quite another to make such a slur when you’re the outsider. Jesus is from out of town, a Jew, and presumably the woman is a local.
But note her response. Instead of attacking him, she argues with him on his own terms, and bests him. “So, I’m a dog,” she says, “well, even dogs receive table scraps from their masters.” Jesus responds by assuring her that her daughter is healed. It’s worth pointing out something else—Jesus doesn’t say, “Go your faith has made your daughter well.” There’s nothing about faith in this story. It’s the woman’s skill in debate, in arguing, that wins Jesus over.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about all this is that as a result of the encounter with the woman, Jesus’ ideas of himself and his mission change. He begins by telling her that he won’t help her because it’s not his job, but then, he helps her anyways—and from there he travels across the country, through Jewish territory, to proclaim the good news and heal the sick in another Gentile region.
We may be horrified by scenes from Budapest, Greece, Italy, and elsewhere of the plight of refugees and the callous response by many people and their political leaders. We may struggle in this country with immigration, and many of us appalled by the attitudes expressed toward undocumented immigrants.
There’s a big sign hanging from a bar that can be seen from Verona Road, “Mayor and City Council, “Give us back our city.” It expresses what I suspect is an attitude shared by many (and perhaps by our own mayor) that many of Madison’s most intractable problems are caused by outsiders: homeless drifters, or African-Americans who have come here from Milwaukee or Chicago. It implies, or assumes something else, that “our city” “our Madison” is a city of, and for, white middle-class people.
In the next months, we’re going to have some difficult, emotional conversations here at Grace—about same-sex marriage, about racism and inequities, about our future ministry and mission. Many of those conversations will center on how we can be more welcoming and inclusive, how we can reach out to our community, to people unlike ourselves. Underlying all of those questions is a deeper one, how can we do more than “help” How can we be in relationship with others, how can we invite people to be in relationship with us?
If we ask these questions openly and honestly, if we truly want to be in relationship with people unlike ourselves, we will have to confront another uncomfortable reality-that authentic relationship will change us, as individuals and as a congregation, that like Jesus in his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, our eyes will be opened, our attitudes changed, and we will take new roads in our ministry and mission.