To be completely honest with you, this week’s world news has so impacted my thoughts that I wasn’t sure I would be able to find a voice in these texts that wasn’t simply crying an echo of my own sadness and anger and frustration at the world and the people in it. A number of my friends have asked me about what’s going on in Hungary and to explain why there is such animosity to refugees and immigrants in that country. I think that their hope is that I, as a half-Hungarian, can somehow find the words to make sense out of this completely mad scenario that is playing out on the shores and borders of far too many places.
At first, I despaired of being unable to find the answers that they were looking for.
And then I realized, that this current story of masses of desperate Syrian refugees is not a new story to us. This is a story that is as old as time and is re-told over and over and over again. Same story, different characters.
Even if I could somehow explain the whys and hows of an entire Hungarian people, the story would continue, perhaps here, perhaps in another way. And someone else would be asked to explain the actions of another mad scenario such as this one.
That thought was particularly upsetting. Especially when a young and drowned child, lays on a shore and becomes a symbol for all the suffering and danger and hopelessness in the world. Especially when we learned that this small boy’s, Aylan’s, father, Abdullah, lost not just one son, but his other son, Galip, and his wife, Rehen to the terrifying dark waters of the sea. Because it does nothing more than reiterate that the world is full of sin, and pain, and hatred, and evil, and desperately begs the question: where is God?
The honest truth? I don’t have a better answer than this: I believe that God is there.
Though the world shows us repeated stories of sin, pain, hatred, and evil, I believe that God exists in the midst of all of those stories of darkness and God touches the lives of any and all people with courage, and peace, and faith, and love, and light.
Some people have tried to explain what it is that we, as Canadians far removed physically from this particular story of Syrian refugees, can do to help. Some have tried to explain away the actions of various governments around the world as they have acted or spoken in reaction to the stories of the Syrian refugees. Some have stated that the focus shouldn’t be on the refugees, rather on the root of the problem in Syria. Wherever you look there seems to be someone with some opinion to explain, or rationalize, or excuse, or blame. And two things are happening:
It’s getting talked about. And it’s getting noisy.
I have found that is can be hard to see and hear God in the midst of the chaos of noise. And I really wanted to find God in the midst of this week’s news. I really wanted to know that what I believe about God being present in the midst of the darkness was especially true this week.
Which is why I was struck dumb when I read today’s gospel.
Jesus encounters the Syrophoenecian woman. This story is hard to hear. It makes some of us very uncomfortable. Who is this Jesus? What is happening? How can we possibly explain this story?
This moment of uncomfortable interaction presents Jesus in an ambiguous light. The story brings so many questions to the surface: “Is Jesus buying into the racism of his people? Or is Jesus testing her faith? Does the desperate mother teach Jesus about the unlimited nature of divine hospitality or does Jesus use this encounter as a type of parable, acting out a racist attitude, only to break down the barriers of race and ethnicity by healing the woman’s daughter?”[i]
The honest truth? I don’t have an answer. I don’t think anyone does.
But I will share with you some of the things that I have learned in studying this text.
There is a wonderful parallel between the Syrophoenecian woman’s approach and request and the approach and request earlier in Mark of a ruler of the synagogue. Both of these people come to Jesus and fall to their feet and beg him to heal their daughter, who is near death. Not to be outdone by the similarities, the differences between these two stories are also quite pointed. The woman is described as a gentile, a Syrophoenician, almost as an after-thought. The ruler of the synagogue has a name and a job and a social position. Jesus goes immediately with this man. The Gentile woman, however, gets a different treatment.[ii]
It is a horrible thing to say to someone. I don’t know if we understand the full impact of this name-calling. A nameless woman and her sick daughter, described only by their race, are named, by Jesus… a dog. Not a cute little puppy house pet, but a mangy, inbred, flea-ridden, fly-covered, mostly ignored working animal that is tolerated, barely, fights for every scrap of food, and is chased away whenever company comes over. The label is racist, classist, and abusive. It is a terrible thing to say. A terrible thing to say about a sick child, who exists in a state of need, or to an already begging mother.[iii]
I’m not sure that I fully understand what it is that the author of Mark is doing with this story. I don’t have an answer or an explanation for Jesus’ behaviour. I am struck dumb.
Because the parallel of this story to that of the Syrian refugees is shocking. There have been many horrible things said about the refugees – nameless people, described only by their race, and called horribly abusive names.
But since I am being so honest, I have to tell you that these stories don’t end here.
Something happens. In the midst of the pain and suffering, hurt and desperation, something happens. The woman refuses the label and instead points to hope – even the desperate dogs will look for their means of hope under the children’s table. This woman believes that God is there, present in the midst of her darkness. The woman is honest and tells that truth. And something happens.
Every now and again we get a glimmer of how human the also-divine Jesus is. And every now and again we are reminded that even Jesus might occasionally miss out in seeing and hearing God in the midst of the world.
For “God’s realm breaks down the barriers of friend and stranger and rich and poor and invites us to do likewise. God’s children deserve our reverence and respect, and this is revealed in our political advocacy and personal relationships.”[iv] Jesus really hears what the woman says and sees her need and suffering, and hears what it is that God wants, and know what he is about and who he is for. Jesus heals that little girl near death, from an unknown distance, and sends a hopeful woman home to her daughter. Something happens. Jesus then continues to travel along the coastlines through Gentile lands where he encounters a deaf man, who he heals when asked. Jesus crosses a barrier of division. There is no longer Gentile or Jew. There are only God’s children.
And if, as James charges us, we believe in God’s presence and in-breaking tendencies yet continue to proliferate acts of favouritism and separation based on race, class, socio-economics, education, wealth, health, or any number of ways in which humanity judges and categorizes people, then we only continue to dishonour God’s children and God.
“There are no outsiders in God’s healing realm.”[v] The letter of James assures us that mercy triumphs over judgement – and we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is no easy task. And it is one that, I think, requires us to actively listen for God’s direction in the world. It requires honesty and faith. And maybe a little bit of desperation and hope.
We don’t have an explanation for the whys and hows of the pain and suffering of the world. We do have a faith that continues to point us to God. And we are encouraged by the letter of James to act in and out of that faith. We provide for those who have less than we do, and we love and respect the people around us, regardless of station. And if we can’t provide, we can pray that God will be with them and put the right people there who can help. Then, it seems that suddenly our faith can transform the world around us – bringing us together across unknown distances, spreading faith, hope, love, peace, and light, shaping our lives as well as the lives of those we are connected to through Christ, the Saviour of all God’s children. Amen.
[i] Bruce Epperly. The Adventurous Lectionary.
[ii] D. Mark Davis. “Comparing Humans to Dogs,” Left Behind and Loving It.
[iii]D. Mark Davis. “Comparing Humans to Dogs.”
[iv] Bruce Epperly. The Adventurous Lectionary.
[v] Bruce Epperly. The Adventurous Lectionary.
Today’s image was borrowed and adapted from EarthPorn’s article: “This Vending Machine Takes Bottles And Gives Food To Stray Dogs In Exchange” found here.