Not my problem? - St Bride's: Reflection

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Not my problem?

Mark 7:24-37

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24 And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid.

25 For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet:

26 The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.

27 But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.

28 And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.

29 And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.

30 And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.

32 And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.

33 And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue;

34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.

35 And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.

36 And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it;

37 And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Of the four gospels, it is undoubtedly the Gospel of Mark that reveals to us most clearly the human face of Jesus.  Unlike St John's Gospel, where Jesus is portrayed as all-knowing and fully in control of events (even when he surrenders himself to his destiny), Mark, by contrast, shows us a Jesus who struggles; a Jesus who experiences weariness, and fear, and at times even despair.

And this is never more clearly illustrated than in the episode we heard in today's gospel reading, which for two thousand years has left Biblical scholars feeling deeply uncomfortable.

A Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, comes to Jesus begging him to heal her daughter, who is possessed.  And, contrary to everything that we like to think we know about Jesus, his response to her is not merely curt, but actively offensive: 'Let the children be fed first', he says to her, 'for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.'  What is so shocking, of course, is that not only does he dismiss her request, but he likens her people to dogs.  And within the context of his day, you can't get much more offensive than that.

So, at this point, anxious but well-meaning Biblical scholars wade in with various attempts at explaining this away.  One version goes that of course Jesus was always fully intending to heal her daughter really - the reason why he dismisses the woman's request initially is simply to test her faith.  But I'm afraid that I find that suggestion even more problematic: the idea that Jesus could be toying in that way with a woman who is already utterly at her wits' end, seems to me to be cruel in the extreme.  Or there is the theory that makes much of the fact that the Greek word for 'dogs' that is used in Jesus's response to her is in fact the diminutive form 'doggies' - as a result of which it is argued that Jesus was simply participating in a kind of gentle, good-natured joshing.  A suggestion that I find equally unacceptable.   If Jesus was making a joke, the desperate Syrophoenician woman clearly didn't get it.  No, it seems to me that the explanation is much more glaringly obvious than that.  We simply need to read the story in its entirety.  

Jesus has travelled to the region of Tyre, which is outside Israelite territory, and we are told that he enters a house not wanting anyone to know he was there.  In other words, Jesus is trying to escape.  He has had enough.  He is exhausted and wrung out, and can't take any more and just needs some space.  

I know that one.  There was a time when I was in sole charge of a parish of 10,000 souls, with no administrative support, and living in a Vicarage which attracted a constant stream of callers.  And as many clergy will know to their cost, in a situation like that it is very easy to go for weeks without getting a proper day off.  Eventually, at long last, you finally have a clear day that is all yours, and you put a line through the diary, and you get in the car ready to escape - and then your mobile phone rings.  You think long and hard about answering it, but finally you crack.  And it is a local Methodist woman who is asking for your help.  And your first instinct is to explode: 'I haven't had a day off for six weeks - you're a Methodist - go and find a Methodist minister.'  But then you hear her story - which is one of genuine human need - and suddenly your anger and exasperation evaporate just as quickly as they materialised.

Similarly Jesus, utterly exhausted, finally finds a place away from Israelite territory, where he thinks he can be completely anonymous and find a moment's peace.   But this wretched woman - and a Gentile for heaven's sake - hears he is around, pursues him to his hiding place, falls at his feet and begs him to help her.  These people simply will not leave him alone, even here - little wonder that the tone of his rebuke to her is so sharp.  But the woman is undeterred, turning his insult around: 'Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.'  At which point Jesus recognizes her despair, and the faith she has in him, and compassion floods out from him, healing the woman's daughter, even as she lies on her bed at home.  I for one recognize the authenticity of that story absolutely.

But interestingly enough, this incident turns out to be even more significant than that.  Last Sunday we heard the passage from Mark's Gospel that comes immediately before today's reading - which was the episode in which Jesus completely overturns the strict code of Jewish practice in relation to ritual purity, challenging the accepted definitions of pure and impure.

And given the way in which Mark structures his gospel - he puts stories next to each other and leaves us to make the connections between them - I can't help thinking that in today's episode - the first occasion on which a Gentile comes to Jesus seeking help - Jesus finds himself challenged by his own logic to overturn the same boundaries separating Jew from Gentile.  For all are children of the same heavenly father.  And it is the persistence of that desperate woman, who remains undeterred even when facing rejection and rebuke, which opens his eyes to her need.  And the reason for her determination and persistence is that what is at stake is the welfare of her child.

A few days ago, there was an extraordinary sea-change in the news coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe, following the publication of a photograph that challenged all who saw it.  It showed the body of a little toddler, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach.  As Jonathan Friedland wrote in an article yesterday: 'The civilians of Syria, including children, have been dying in their hundreds of thousands for more than four years.  So we can't pretend we don't know.  But somehow, it seems, we needed to see those little shoes and bare legs to absorb the knowledge, to let it penetrate our heads and hearts.  The result has been a collective resolve to do better, a bellowed demand that something must be done.'

There is something extraordinary about the power of particularity: one Gentile woman whose daughter is in profound need; the body of one little Syrian boy, with a name and a family and with bare legs and little shoes - that somehow has the power to transform our perspective from one of self-preservation ("I haven't got the energy; this is nothing to do with me; if they come over here our own quality of life will suffer"), to a recognition that, actually, in some way, we are all implicated, because we are all part of the same human family.  The barriers that separate us suddenly lose their meaning.  Human beings are capable of the most extraordinary and profound acts of compassion - but sometimes it takes a tragedy affecting the most vulnerable to unlock that compassion.  That little boy on the beach belonged to us all.

Jimmy and Teddy have chosen their families wisely and well; they are richly blessed, with the benefit of loving parents, a secure home, affection, food, clothing, education, a future.  And today they become members of another, wider family, the family of the Church.  But perhaps today is also a day when we should strive to remember something even more fundamental that unites all of us, whoever we are, and wherever we are from: that we are all children of the same heavenly father; and so any human joy is one in which we too can rejoice; and any human tragedy is our tragedy too.


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