In gratitude for #blacklivesmatter preached at St Paul’s in Brighton, MI on September 6, 2015. The gospel was Mark 7:24-37.
Jesus entered the region of Tyre. To the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, this means Jesus entered enemy territory. The people of Tyre struck fear into the hearts of Jews because, for centuries, Israel had been invaded by people from this region.
These were not simply unsavory neighbors they had to put up with. The people of Tyre were seen as dangerous terrorists – completely untrustworthy and immoral beasts that one could barely call human.
And Jesus, for some reason, crosses the border into the region of Tyre. From safety and familiarity into a place of danger and risk in the face of the repellent, despicable creatures he has feared since before he can remember… because he was taught to hate them. He was conditioned to fear them.
In the narrative of Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles. We’re halfway through Mark’s story and this is his first time meeting someone who doesn’t know and follow Jewish law because it’s the first time he’s crossed that border.
Why does he do this? Why should he do this? Why should he bother with these people? He’s a Jew and his teaching is for those who understand what he’s talking about when he challenges the Jewish hierarchy. His healing is for his people – the people oppressed by Roman occupation. He has come as a Jewish messiah, for the nation of Israel, so that Israel might be free.
Why does Jesus, a Jewish man, go into enemy territory – a place of fear and unknowing? It’s clear how he feels about this endeavor because the first person he meets, he insults. He encounters a shameless woman who begs on her knees before him that her daughter might be healed.
And he says, “God’s children deserve God’s healing love, not you – you who are a dog.”
A dog. This is a huge insult. Even worse than it sounds to us because Jewish people saw dogs as filthy, unclean, pest-ridden, disgusting animals. They were not kept as pets or even as working animals. They were scourges and scavengers. They were scum.
Jesus has told the Syrophoenician woman, she is scum.
Think about what Jesus is doing here.
Think about how Mark is telling this story.
Here’s our Lord and Savior – this person we put on a pedestal, this person who gave us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter a dog. He’s calling her scum.
Without thinking, he dismisses her out of his conditioned contempt for her people, because of what he has been raised to believe in his context which tells him she is not worthy to receive the grace of God. He doesn’t see her humanity. Her life doesn’t matter.
And this woman, whom Jesus finds despicable and easily dismissed, looks up at him, a person of power, as she’s vulnerably kneeling in front of him and she defies his dismissal and claims her place as a child of God. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Even my Syrophoenician life matters.”
“My life matters.”
The fear of “the other” comes upon us humans easily and unbidden – when we think someone we love is in danger, when we think we are in danger, when something has gone horribly wrong and we need someone to blame, when we are afraid of losing our way of life, when we feel threatened – whether that threat is real or the result of media buildup.
When we’re scared, suddenly, we find we are nervous around people who don’t look like us, don’t act like us, don’t speak like us. We end up marginalizing others without even realizing we’re doing it. And for people who are marginalized, who have no power, whose lives don’t appear to matter… it’s not only hard, it’s dangerous and brutal and depressing and dehumanizing.
I think about the mass migration of peoples – leaving their family behind, fleeing their own beloved homeland because it’s being torn apart by war as in Syria or extreme poverty as in parts of Latin America. How migration on such an epic scale is never about seeking riches, but about the choice people make to say, “our lives matter” even when they will be strangers in a new land.
And I think about slavery and the buying and selling of human life – the centuries of African slavery that we have yet to recover from, and the slavery of women and children in the sex trade. How we collectively tell people their lives don’t matter by ignoring the situation, ignoring the healing that has yet to take place.
And I think about how our context conditions us, just like Jesus’ did. How our media informs us – that when Trayvon Martin was murdered, the media showed him looking serious in a hoodie instead of standing in front of a propeller plane, beaming with pride when we attended space camp. That when Michael Brown was murdered, the media told us he deserved it because he had stolen a pack of cigars from a convenience store. How the culture tells people their lives don’t matter.
I think about how racism is institutionalized in the criminal justice system and how we are finding more and more evidence of how racism has become entrenched in the cultures of some law enforcement organizations. And how we can become polarized when we talk about this because there are so many good people who are police officers. But if we don’t talk about the problem, it’s really another way of saying, only certain lives matter.
I think about all this – migrations of desperate people, buying and selling of human life, media hype, institutionalized racism, oppressive systems – all of these ways in which one group of people is telling another group of people, “It is not fair for you to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “You are a dog. You don’t matter.”
And here we are in a moment in time in a place, when people who have been shackled and marginalized and dehumanized are standing up and saying “we do matter.” People are saying “black lives matter.” Just like the woman begging Jesus for her daughter’s life.
Jesus’ first response to the Syrophoenician woman is so human. He’s defensive and judgmental, unable to see her as human and unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit because he’s so weighed down by expectations and cultural conditioning.
Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him in the face of this Syrophoenician woman. And he calls her a dog.
And the Syrophoenician woman says, “But my life matters.”
And people are screaming, “But our lives matter!”
The lesson of the Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorites in the gospel stories because Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this “despicable” woman. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is humbled by her – telling him, teaching him, reminding him that God’s Reign has no boundaries, no borders. And it’s what opens him up.
Jesus is never more real to me than in this story. And it is here that I find great comfort, that I find immeasurable healing. For the message I glean from this story is one that tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s Kingdom is indeed boundless – it extends to all people regardless of my personal issues with them and any cultural conditioning I might have been raised with.
You see, something inside of Jesus opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman. Something helped him to refocus his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him. Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved in compassion to heal this woman’s suffering little girl. When he saw a new reality. When he saw the humanity of the one he feared and dismissed, he released both himself and the woman’s offspring from the shackles of hatred and fear. Both became free.
Can I be that vulnerable? As a white person in this culture, can I be that vulnerable? Can my ears be opened to hear someone telling me “my life matters?” I think what scares me is that no matter how much I learn and how much I think I know there is always going to be something I’m not capable of seeing. There is always going to be a way in which the Holy Spirit is trying to show me something new. Will I be able to respond in compassion? Or will I say “no, your life doesn’t matter”?
The implication here is a challenging one for us to bear because it requires us to be as vulnerable as Jesus was in that moment. It asks us to recognize that we are usually wrong in our certainty.
We need one another. If liberation is God’s desire for us (which I think it is), then either we are all liberated or no one is liberated. Because when I fail to see how another is shackled, when I avert my eyes or refuse to listen to their story because I think I have a better understanding of what’s happening. When I try to tell oppressed and marginalized people how things are, I’m saying to them, “You don’t matter.” “Your life doesn’t matter.” “Only my opinion matters.”
Jesus crosses the border into a land of people he thought to be brutal, wicked terrorists so that he would come to know their humanity, to know there is no border, no boundary to God’s liberation. Jesus learns that in order for anyone to be liberated, all must be liberated, even and especially those we hold in contempt.
For it is because of this brave woman who humbled him by kneeling before him and claiming that her life matters that Jesus becomes truly free himself. Free of the hatred and fear bred into him by his family and his culture. Free to know the true Love of God that is boundless and borderless.
We need one another. We need people to point to our blind spots and be willing to come to the Table and teach us when we haven’t been paying attention. As a white person, I need to hear what people of color have to say and to learn how to be their ally. I need movements like “black lives matter” to call our attention to my inattentiveness and my fear, my dismissive nature and my privilege.
Because Jesus comes to know, in that moment, that liberation includes all – absolutely everyone. He knows that the messiah is for every life. He knows this because the Syrophoenician woman teaches him that her life matters and he knows he must listen.