Whose God is this..?
By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Sep 09 2018
It isn’t difficult to read the Old Testament as an ‘us against them” struggle. Though the story begins with our ‘common ancestors’ - either the first couple in their disgrace, or the sons of Noah whose list of offspring looks like an ancient near Eastern road map - by the time we get to the books of history and prophecy, it surely looks like a winner-take-all showdown; Israel against the world.
For much of the Old Testament, we must read carefully to find evidence of the breadth and depth of God’s compassion. It’s there, but it is hidden by the Israelite struggle for recognition (in a world dominated by powerful nations) and faithfulness (in a world dominated by the urge to ‘look out for number one’). It is in Isaiah that we begin to see the full scope of God’s care and concern, for Israel, yes - but also for the wider community - the rest of the world - the ‘nations’…not one at the expense of another, but the beginnings of a different kind of community.
Deserts will bloom - the forgotten will be included - those who have known only mourning will finally be able to dance for joy. The anxious; the fearful; the blind, deaf and lame; all will be included in the sweep of God’s salvation. That covers a lot of ground, both literal and figurative. We are ready to equate Isaiah’s promises with the work of Jesus - and why not? There is so much that lends itself to direct comparison - but then we must allow that the net that God is casting, even in Jesus, is cast wider than we could possibly imagine.
A case in point: Jesus makes a trip out of the comfort zone. Maybe he’s looking for a break, maybe he’s looking for a different kind of challenge - who knows. What he finds is some hospitality and an unusual request.
Ok, so a request for healing is not unusual, but the source of that request is. The author goes to great lengths to state the obvious; this woman is not ‘one of us’. Though Jesus is travelling, somehow it’s the woman who is identified as the foreigner. A gentile. Specifically a Phoenician of Syria. And, for strike three; a woman. The author of Mark’s gospel is an insider, writing to insiders. Jesus, he seems to be saying, is ours. But look at how this single encounter changes that perspective.
Jesus’ initial response to this innocent request for healing always shocks me. It should certainly grab our attention, because it seems callous and caustic - in short, everything Jesus is not. We might be tempted to offer excuses for Jesus: he’s worn out - frustrated by the recent conversations with the religious authorities - fearful that his mission to open hearts and minds to the love of God may have wrecked upon the reef of nationalist indifference. Go ahead and believe that if you must, but the truth is that Jesus was simply following the instincts of his religious heritage. In a hundred generations of struggle for Jewish religious identity, the first order of business is to tend to their own. There is room for outsiders, but…
This shocks us because we want Jesus to be better than we are - we want Jesus to show, at every opportunity, what is the height, breadth, length and depth of the love of God. We declare Jesus to be the ‘perfect’ human in our creeds and our hymns - and it shocks us to see Jesus acting fully human; complete with the sort of social prejudice that infects each of us to some degree. “It is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs.” Yikes. But then, such fully human statements slip through our consciousness every day - so common that we hardly notice them.
At just about every level of human interaction, there is “us” and “them”. There’s family, then neighbours. There’s irrational loyalty to home towns, or regions of the country (lately it is “Alberta vs the rest of the country, right?). Canadians abroad resent being mis-identified as ‘American’ and so it goes. At each level there is the feeling - sometimes openly stated, but often hidden by all manner of excuses - that we would do anything for our own group before reaching out to the other side.
*(There are exceptions, of course - maybe you would go out of your way to help a stranded motorist with out-of-province plates. Maybe you share your stadium blanket with a Argonaut’s fan at the Grey Cup. Maybe you don’t hesitate to invite someone from Dunmore to dinner)
But what makes Jesus moment of utter humanity so instructive is the way this story develops. The woman makes her request, and is harshly answered. She turns Jesus answer back on him, and wonder of wonders Jesus’ mind is changed! The faith of “The Other” is recognized as legitimate faith.
The woman recognizes that even a crumb of the Bread of Life would be enough, and she doesn’t ask for the whole loaf. Not a greedy request - not an unreasonable request - a cry from the heart that demands a loving response, and Jesus sees the truth in that and is persuaded. “For saying that, you may go home content (says another translation) the unclean spirit is gone…”
Not only is this a classic case of Jesus making miracles, there is a deeper truth at work. This woman’s steadfast faith - her belief that compassion was her privilege - has removed the demon of partiality from the equation. Jesus most human response has been banished by a sharply worded criticism of Jesus’ gut reaction.
It’s something we can learn from - something that gives me hope; something that make me want to follow Jesus. Because this is Jesus modelling the love of God, not in it’s perfectly distilled, 100% pure state - this is love filtered through Jesus humanity. Jesus shows us how to make a change of mind: he offers his opinion, hears the alternative view and recognizes the legitimacy of the faith of ‘the other’.
How many times in a day have we encountered opinions that shut us down, or leave us shaking our heads just because they come from someone we think is different - an outsider. Those encounters are the fuel that feeds the worst of social media - the biggest arguments are among strangers; folks whose only connection is electronic. Our minds are rarely changed because we’ve never had to look one another in the eye - we’ve never heard the pain in the voice of our opponent - we’ve not needed to acknowledge that there’s a human being on the other end of the discussion.
But Jesus gets around. He goes to where the ‘other’ lives. He meets his opponents in their comfort zone - sometimes he convinces them, usually the result is ‘a draw’ - and this time his heart is moved and his mind is changed. And every time, win, lose or draw, Jesus treats the stranger - the ‘other’ - the foreigner - as a child of God; as a fellow human being.
That’s the answer to what ails us. We don’t need better security, or more closely guarded borders; we don’t need less technology (or more technology). We need to be aware of our shared humanity. We need to be like Jesus.