Monday, September 10, 2012

Faith Unlocks our Future

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

I made two visits and several phone calls to our veterinary hospital this past week, and dropped a bundle of money, all in my role as co-director of assisted living for our aging pussycat. I am relieved and grateful to report that he has successfully come through last week’s dilemma, a loss of appetite caused by too strong a dose of his hyperthyroid medication. His recovery was aided in part by a small dose of an appetite stimulant designed for human use. A bit of nutritional coaching resulted in my buying yet a second and a third brand of cat food carefully calibrated to protect kidney function in senior cats, who evidently require occasional varying of their menu.

A quick check with the concordance shows that the word cat does not appear in the Bible anywhere. Dogs do appear, as we notice today, and while this disparity would puzzle my cat if he knew it—and I’m glad I don’t have to explain it to him—my investment of time and attention and money in his well-being is a story familiar to all dog owners (or should I say all who are owned by their dogs, as I am by my cat?).

Those dogs under the table hypothetically set by Jesus and the woman in today’s Gospel were members of a household. In the disturbing story of her encounter with Jesus, she is a stranger; but those dogs are well-known both to him and to her, as they glide back and forth as figures of speech in this astonishing encounter, a candid sound-clip we’re just not ready to hear.

What does it mean that this woman carries labels, like Gentile and Syro-Phoenician? Geography is a political science. Land lies at the root of every war, and land lies at the root of religious conflict. That she is a Gentile says that she is not Jewish: to Jewish eyes, she is a stranger to the covenant love God has for Israel. That she has Phoenician blood means that, many generations back, her people were Canaanites, the original settlers in what Israel came to call the promised land, the land overrun, taken, and occupied by Hebrew settlers in the name of their God. The prefix Syro- says that, by the first century in the common era, Phoenicia was part of the Roman province of Syria. This woman is a stranger whom it may be timely for us to meet.

But before she stands unknown before Jesus, he is the stranger in her land. He has crossed the border between Israel and the Phoenician region of Tyre, where he enters a house and does not want anyone to know he is there. He has been swamped by crowds seeking his healing, his teaching… and all too often just seeking the buzz that he generates as he goes from place to place. He has had it, he’s exhausted, he needs a place, a safe house, to recover in.

And to make matters more oppressive, in the days before his flight across the border Jesus has been embroiled in controversy with religious conservatives finding fault with how he and his disciples observe the purity requirements of religious law. He has not been cautious in his response, calling his opponents hypocrites. Even his disciples have been anxious and demanding, and he just needs to get away on his own—can you relate to this?

Suddenly, he is not alone. You may think I mean that a woman from Syria has sought and found him. We’ll listen to her in a moment. But first I mean that the Church is crowded into that house with them, watching, listening. I know, St. Mark implies that Jesus desired solitude, but he often had two or three disciples with him, and aren’t we to imagine that we’re hearing what happened through their telling the story?

And their story was of unique interest to the entire young Church, for whom the burning missionary question was, “Is the Gospel of Jesus just for the house of Israel, or does it call to faith also the Gentile world, and women, and children—none of whom commanded much attention before this?

How complex this encounter will be. By the purity standards of Israel’s religion, Jesus and his disciples should not have crossed the border into Syria. By these old values, the Church of Jesus should have no public mission to Gentile Phoenicians.

Consider the encounter another way. Tyre was a coastal port city, wealthy by comparison to the hinterlands of Galilee where Jesus and his disciples came from. Back there, Jewish farmers raised crops on which the wealthy Gentile cities like Tyre depended. Galilean Jews, seeing their produce consumed by strangers, might well feel hostile. The poor in Galilee needed Gentile markets, but might go to bed at night hungry, they and their children.

In this swirling vortex of religious, political, and economic judgment, how is Jesus remembered to have responded to a stranger, a mother seeking the healing of her perhaps epileptic daughter?

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’s answer: “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”

We’re stunned to hear our Jesus talk like that. He relegates this caring anxious mother and her sick daughter to the category of dogs?

It was a more generous response than first-century religious people would have given: “Stand in line” isn’t “Go away.”

I think Jesus’s weariness is showing. Those endless lines of people wanting to be healed, back across the border in Israel: he cannot forget those children of God… they must come first, for his mission originates in Israel, the chosen covenant people of God.

But is this really the message of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, the master of radical hospitality? Or is he mouthing the expected words that sum up the current state of religion, geography, politics, and economics so that the Church will hear… and be appalled and shocked into change?

“Of course, Master,” she replies in Peterson’s version, “But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”

This is oral combat, says one commentator. And the Syrian woman wins. Dogs under the table are within the household.

We have witnessed what the first-century Church discovered over time: that the bread of Jesus’s body is broken not just for the traditionally religious and the confirmed members in good standing. Jesus receives, perceives, conceives, how radical is the love of God and the mission of his Church.

What he then proceeds to do for a deaf man who could not speak clearly, Jesus does for his Church: he opens our ears and frees our tongues to receive and transmit the gift of faith in the God who calls no one stranger.

James in his letter today asks, “Can faith save you?”

Jesus in his Gospel answers, “Yes.”

Faith in the one God of all, Syrian and Jew, Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, female and male, saves us from treating anyone as stranger. In that respect, faith saves others from getting the worst that is in us.

Faith saves us from wasting our lives asking questions that get us nowhere, saves us by calling us to ask questions that lead to truth.

Faith saves us from the bondage of lies perpetuated by geography, politics, economics, and religion.

Faith unlocks our future.