[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, September 9, 2018]
In the Name of God, father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We’re coming up on it again. That parlous day, as Sir Thomas Malory might have called it. The day when America lost its quiet self assurance, as planes smashed into the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania.
On this coming Tuesday, September 11, we will have our annual Service of Hope and Remembrance. We will grieve the dead, honor the heroes—those fallen, and those who lived to tell the tale. We will come together, as we have every year. And as we should.
But today’s Gospel takes us to a different part of the American reality, a place we need to recognize and acknowledge if we are to get past it.
We have been at war now for seventeen years.
And not just against our attackers, but against those we were convinced assisted them, such as the nation of Iraq, or even, more recently, against those who seem like them, such as Syria.
Just as bad, we have been at war against each other, against ourselves.
I won’t score the innings—this is a sermon, and time is limited—but I’ll point out that we are, in this Year of Our Lord 2018, more polarized, and more hostile in our polarization, than we have been for decades—and we are divided primarily by party affiliation, not by issues. In other words, we are split by tribalism, far more than by principled disagreements. This comes from a recent article in Political Quarterly by Lilliana Mason.
This is not a new thing—it’s an old one, dating back to Old Testament times, and prevalent in Jesus’s lifetime.
As today’s Gospel demonstrates.
Today’s Gospel makes for uncomfortable reading, and poses a deep challenge for us as members of the Jesus Movement.
Because today’s Gospel tells a story of a religious leader who loses sight of the humanity of those who come to him for aid, and rebuffs one such person, insulting her in the process.
What makes this story so hard to grapple with, so painful in a very real way, is the not just the bigotry (Paul and the apostles fall into this trap more than once), but that the bigotry is displayed by Jesus.
That’s right, Jesus.
Here he is, traveling through Tyre, and a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile—approaches him, and “bow[s] down at his feet.” She humbly begs him to cast out a demon from her daughter.
Unlike the similar account in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t ignore her. But he doesn’t reply as we would expect.
Jesus’s reply is cutting even two millennia later.
He spurns her, saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answers back, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
At this point, Jesus says “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
And the woman discovers on her return home that the long nightmare of possession is over.
Happy ending, right?
Well, yes, the ending is happy enough. But though I’ve poured over various Bible commentaries looking for an answer, none of them make this story any less rough for me.
Because Jesus’s behavior is genuinely shocking here. He insults the woman, calling her and her tormented, haunted daughter dogs, in comparison with the beloved children of Israel.
This story troubled me for years, because it’s such out of character behavior for Jesus. I could never really believe the apologists who said he was just testing her faith, or testing the disciples, because I couldn’t imagine Jesus putting a woman tortured with anxiety and fear for her daughter through such a test, or treating her as a teaching tool.
No, it was, of all people, the agnostic playwright George Bernard Shaw who helped me see my way through this passage.
Shaw wrote prefaces to his plays that were sometimes longer than the plays—essays on subjects related to the play, if only tangentially.
That was how he rolled.
In 1915, he wrote a play retelling the story of Androcles & the Lion. That’s an old fable about a tailor who finds a lion with a thorn in its paw, and, feeling sorry for it, removes the thorn.
Later, the Romans throw Androcles into the arena with a group of other Christians, only for the lion to remember him and protect him. Shaw’s play is about Christian faith in times of persecution, and just what they believed. And what led them to risk death, rather than betray their faith. So of course appended an exegesis of all four gospels, with his own interpretation of what Jesus means to us today.
He directly tackles the story of the Syrophoenecian woman, which he finds to be authentic. Here’s what he tells us about the story.
In all four gospels, there is nobody who beats Jesus in a verbal joust. Except for this one nameless, desperate, Gentile woman. She wins the argument, by her humility, her insistence that the crumbs of mercy that fall from the table of the children will suffice to save her child—in other words, she believes in Jesus when his own behavior has given her no reason to.
Shaw describes the story as “somehow one of the most touching in the Gospel; perhaps because the woman rebukes the prophet by a touch of his own finest quality.”
And he’s right.
Shaw acknowledges that Jesus’s behavior toward her is “certainly out of character,” as he says “the sins of good men” often are. He credits the woman with having melted the bigot out of him and “made Christ a Christian."
Just this once, Jesus gets as much as he gives in a miracle story. He’s come back to himself, as he describes the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel.
Just this once he needed to be called back to his truest, best self.
It wasn't his disciples who did it.
It wasn't his friends, or his family.
It wasn't the religious authorities.
No, it was the other, the hereditary enemy, the woman of another people, the dog, who was there for him.
It’s uncomfortable—it feels like heresy—to say that, but I think any other reading of the Gospel diminishes it, smoothes it over.
Lies about it, in other words.
In 1889, Charles Gore in postulated in one of his contributions to a book called Lux Mundi that Jesus in his life and ministry was limited to the knowledge of his age. He did not know that the Earth circles the Sun, and not the other way around, or about evolution—of which Gore was an early adopter.
This landed Gore, an up-and-coming young clergyman, in so much trouble that he wrote a book expanding on his account of Jesus as both true man and true God, but yet limited in knowledge. He called it the “kenotic” view of the Incarnation. He took the term “kenosis,” meaning “emptying,” from Phillipians 2:7, in which Jesus is described as having the nature of God, but not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, and instead emptied himself, and took the nature of a servant.
The view is widely held now, but was quite controversial when Gore first proposed it. And I think it helps us see how Jesus could have fallen into tribalism, one of the gravest errors of his time—and of ours—and how this incident may be where he transcends it.
Jesus, having been raised to think of the priority of the children of Israel, is shocked into caring for the other, the “dog.” And so he cannot see her as an other, any more, but sees her in her full humanity. I imagine him a little taken aback, a little quiet in his words to her.
The tribalist reflexes instilled in him by his culture, by his uprbringing in occupied territory—he has recognized that he must transcend them, and so begins the mission to the Gentiles. Jesus has taken the first step that leads to Paul’s mighty declaration in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
For us as a Church and as a people, the lesson is one we are still struggling to live into. We are a people of hope, and we profess that we are called to follow Jesus in walking the Way of the Cross. At a minimum, we must reject tribalism. We must open our eyes and see the person in front of us in their full humanity, and not as a symbol of the “Other,” the different, the alien.
Our St Barts’ ethos of “Radical Welcome” is an effort to walk in that Way, not political correctness.
We are called to open our hearts to Samaritans, to unbelievers, to the unclean.
Because nothing and nobody made by God is unclean.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.