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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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Bursting Bubbles And Blindspots

February 23, 2020

 

However, if one were to peer through the windows of our nation’s churches — they might easily summarize we’ve forgotten how. 

Rather they would see the church’s unwillingness to speak prophetically — the timidity with which it addresses social divides — it’s quickness to adopt a rhetoric of reconciliation and hospitality that requires nothing of the ones who espouse it, and in turn perpetuates the systems it claims to oppose. 

Fortunately — or inconveniently as the case may be — our Bible is far less polite. And far less equivocal. 

Proverbs 22, for instance — insists that social injustice inevitably leads to collective disaster and criticizes those who rob the poor simply because they are poor. Verse 22 — “Rob not the poor, because they are poor: neither oppress the afflicted in the gate: For the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.” 

As author and theologian Elaine Enns has said — the church and our nation seem to have gotten things exactly bass ackward. 

When we ignore the poor. When we treat homeless folks as if they were invisible. When we criminalize immigrants... We in turn disrespect those who God specifically blesses. 

And the book of James reminds us — When we despise downward, while aspiring upward. When we refuse to call a spade a spade. When we pray for those who are hungry. When we pray for victims of abuse. When we pray for those who lack healthcare. When we refuse to translate our righteous rhetoric into concrete acts of mercy and justice. When we give the affluent a pass and allow them to destroy the ecological commonwealth for profit. When we allow them to take the money and run with little more than a whisper... 

We become co-conspirators. 

The only true solidarity is that which seeks to meet the needs of marginalized people. 

No wonder that historically — church leaders as prominent as Martin Luther wanted to ban the book of James from the canon. As the Quakers would say — it speaks to our position just a little too plainly. 

Why has the Christian church failed so spectacularly? 

This morning’s text represents an inconvenient truth word for middle class churches in the United States — who in a myriad of ways, large and small, personal and political, have made their peace with social and economic inequality — for fear of what real personal and political change might cost them. 

The gospel of Mark offers us two healing stories, but for the sake of time, we’ll settle to focus on just the first one. 

At this point in the story, Jesus has traveled to the far region of Tyre and Sidon — a coastal region Northwest of Galilee that was considered outside the geo-political scope of Palestinian-Jewish society. This was the homeland of the Philistines, Israel’s historic enemies. Which is to say, Jesus is way outside of his Galilean bubble. 

Here’s our first lesson. Jesus travels to places far outside of his comfort zone. 

This willingness to deconstruct his own insularity — is perhaps one of Christ’s greatest challenges to modern suburbanites. Leaving our bubble to encounter the other is perhaps the single most important spiritual discipline. 

Jesus — outside his bubble — encounters a Gentile woman whose political body was completely othered by Galilean Jews. As Ched Myers says, this encounter is a dramatic object lesson in radical inclusivity for the Jewish body politic. 

The encounter begins with the woman falling at Jesus’ feet — appealing on behalf of her daughter who is demon possessed and suffering terribly. 

Now because we are not familiar with what constituted social propriety is Hellenistic antiquity, we miss the scandal of this encounter. It would have been inconceivable for an unknown, unrelated woman to approach a man in the privacy of his retreat. Even worse, she’s a Gentile soliciting favor from a Jew. 

Mark’s description is emphatic. 

She is Greek, he says... by birth... You can almost feel a first century Jewish audience cringe as they shout in unison. Yuck! How dare she? 

This interaction is an affront, in every way to Jesus’ ethnic and gender propriety. This explains his his initial rebuff. Jesus is responding in a manner that would have been expected of a Jewish male. He is defending the collective honor of his people by putting her in her place. We can not sugar-coat the fact that Jesus is insulting this woman. We can not sanitize the fact that Jesus is being a bit of an ass-hole. Custom should not dictate decency. Jesus calls her a dog. 

Some point to Jesus's use of the diminutive word for dogs — “little dogs" or “puppies,” saying that if softens things a bit — which seems to me like an all too convenient argument — one unwilling to wrestles with the uncomfortable nature of this text. 

This morning we’re going to sit with the uncomfortableness of the text. 

“Dog" was a popular Jewish epithet for Gentiles. A rabbinic saying at the time asserted that “he who eats with an idolater is like one who eats with a dog.” Exodus 22:31 commands that unclean meat should be thrown to the dogs. 

In the story — Jesus stipulates that the children must first be satisfied and then uses this table metaphor to assert his ethnic bias. 

Jews — my people — are first. We have covenantal primacy. Something akin perhaps to the rhetoric of American greatness or America first — that has been so militantly revived in recent years. Under normal circumstances, the the conversation between Jesus and this woman would have ended there. 

These were not normal circumstances. 

This woman turns Jesus eating metaphor back on him. “Even the dogs under the table, eat the crumbs under the table.” And with that, time suddenly stands still. Everybody freezes. 

The protocol has been strained to the breaking point. This woman uses Jesus’ own words against him in order to defend her people. 

Jaws drop. We wait to see what happens next. 

These, my friends, are fighting words. They could earn a lash — or worse. 

We don’t know how long that awkward moment lasted. Hanging in the air while everybody waited. 

In every other story, Jesus is a master of verbal combat. But, here — the best gets bested. The most revolutionary part of the text is this. Jesus concedes the argument. You know what? You’re right. My bad. 

Jesus repents. Can we sit with that for a second? Jesus repents. 

This is more than a concession. Jesus responds with a wholesale affirmation of her argument. Because of your teaching — the demon has left your daughter. The female outsider enlightens the rabbi. She teaches the teacher. 

She says nothing from the outside can make your unclean. Those are not her words. Those Jesus words. In fact, he says them just one story earlier — nothing from the outside can make your unclean. Jesus understands this on an intellectual level — but when push comes to shove — his digest mechanism kicks in — his cultural bias takes over. 

Perhaps it is a bit like knowing intellectually, believing even, that black boys in hoodies are not inherently criminal — and then clutching your purse when you pass them on the sidewalk. Being an anti-racist, unlearning our cultural bias, welcoming the other, dismantling the structures that divide us — is less something we achieve and more something we choose to do — again and again and again. 

Jesus response abandons male prestige — his own body — and the collective honor of his people — their body politic. They are not the ultimate value to be defended. They have been transcended by the ultimate value of human solidarity. 

This story ends with a radical redistribution of race and class and gender power. All in one big messy bundle. 

Jesus allows himself to be “shamed” by the "least of these." And not because of her faith, but because of a forthright argument about fairness and equality. 

Jesus models what we might call the cost of discipleship. The seeming short term pain of loosing face — becomes utterly eclipsed by the only goal that matters — that all God’s children deserve to be satisfied. 

In today’s gospel Jesus leaves his own comfort zone. He encounters and confronts his own entitlement. Because true liberation lies in learning from the very people we fear — or exclude — or ignore. Risking communion with the political bodies of those we other is our best hope for healing our fragmented world.