Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
April 2, 2000
II Samuel 11:26-12:15a; Mark 7:24-30
We may wonder how the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman ever found its way into Mark's Gospel account. It certainly does not portray Jesus in a very favorable light. Here is a woman who comes to him out of her love for her daughter, begging him to do something for her. She wants Jesus to cast out the demon that is in her child. She makes no pretense. Her sincerity is transparent. But Jesus rebuffs her with words that sound to us callous and cruel: "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."
This is Jesus' first reported excursion outside the boundaries of Palestine. He is in Gentile territory, and the woman is a Gentile. The "children" of Jesus' statement refer to the Jews, the house of Israel. The "dogs" are a reference to the Gentiles. The statement expresses a Jewish chauvinism as strong as any to be found in the New Testament. It is not the sort of thing we would expect Jesus to say.
It is commonly held that Jesus could not have said such a thing. The spirit and character of Jesus are thought to be such that his love and care for others knew no bounds or race or cast or nationality or creed. But one may also wonder how and why this story made it into the Gospel record if it was not believed to be a faithful reporting of the ministry of Jesus. It is hard to imagine Mark recounting the story unless it had credibility in the early church. We may at least entertain the possibility that Jesus actually found himself in such a situation as this. We may at least wonder if Jesus himself did not find his own sympathies challenged and enlarged in the face of the need of those who did not belong to the house of Israel. If Jesus was really one of us, we can hardly assume that he was born with an indiscriminate and unlimited love and compassion for all people.
But whether the story is an authentic report or not, its point and message for the church are clear. The Gospel is for the Gentile as well as the Jew. The dispensation of God's grace knows no national or racial or social or ethnic boundaries. There were protests in the early church against the Gentile mission. Long-standing and deep-seated prejudices and antagonisms had to be overcome. One of the greatest testimonies to the power and truth of the Christian Gospel was its capacity to transcend the ethnic identity and history of the people among whom it first took hold. Our text from Mark is a pointed reminder that the Gentiles are not to be treated as worse than dogs. Indeed, it should not escape our notice that the Syrophoenician woman is the only person in Mark to address Jesus as Lord. Mark may be trying to tell his readers that the Gentiles seem to have a better grasp of Jesus' gospel than do the Jews.
Years ago I came across a news item that reported that most pet owners find it easier to focus their attention and affection on their animals than on others, even family members. The study was done by a family therapist, so it may be that his clients were not the most healthy to begin with. Nonetheless, it was noted that in these families the pets were most frequently reported to be the family members who got the most "strokes." The pets were the most frequently touched or spoken to or otherwise recognized by some gesture that says, "I know you're there." [clipping file]
From what I have observed over the years, it is not uncommon for people to treat dogs better than people, and to treat people worse than dogs. People are more complicated than animals, and our affections and disaffections toward them are more complicated as well. It is easier to blame people for their short-comings, easier to hold it against them, easier to excuse ourselves when we abuse them. But how wrong and how sad this is becomes evident when someone points out to us, as does the woman in the story, than even the dogs receive better treatment at our hands.
Much of the history of the human race can be written in terms of the tragic consequences of how we view and treat others as different from ourselves. Ironically, we sometimes romanticize and sentimentalize those who live under circumstances some distance from ourselves. So we speak of the "noble savage" or the "happy poor" or the "honest laborer" or the "care-free young". Notice, however, that all of these are persons who pose little threat to our existence. They have no power over us, and exercise little claim upon us. More often, unfortunately, we denigrate and depreciate the humanity of those not like us. We reserve our worst invectives for those we regard as enemies: barbarians, terrorists, thugs, commies, nazis, kikes, japs, krauts, gooks, niggers, faggots, fascist pigs. We have other words, less scandalous but still subtly--or not so subtly--dismissive, to put others in their place: hippies, punks, honkies, oreos, homos, liberals, fundamentalists, secular humanists, radicals, reactionaries, heretics, slackers, yuppies, lazy bums. It is our habit not to see these others as we see ourselves. Maybe it is easier to relate to dogs because we know that there is nothing else that dogs can be but dogs. Dogs will be dogs. But people--other people--people who are different from ourselves? Surely they don't have to be that way! Why can't they be more like us?
If we could only get inside the skin of another, we would of course see what a difference it makes. John Howard Griffin, a white man, attempted to do just that back in the 1950s. He chemically altered the color of his skin so that he would appear to be a black man. His book, BLACK LIKE ME, is the account of his attempt to understand from the inside what it has been like to be a black man in the southern United States. Few of us can attempt to enter into the world of another in such a dramatic way, but there is still a lot we might do to gain a more sympathetic appreciation of the lives and circumstances of others.
Our Old Testament text provides an eloquent illustration both of how narrow one's sympathies can be with respect to another, and of how blind one can be to one's own relationship to that other. The background of the story is this: One day King David spied from his roof a beautiful woman bathing. She was Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, a Hittite. Being King, David simply had his messengers bring her to him. As luck would have it, she conceived his child. This presented a rather awkward problem with respect to her husband, Uriah, a soldier off fighting in David's army. David finally resolved the problem by having his general, Joab, put Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting in the war against the Ammonites. Then, for good measure, he had his own men fall back from the line of battle so that Uriah would not stand a chance, so that David would be free to take Bathsheba as his wife. "But," says our text, "the thing that David had done displeased the LORD."
So Nathan, David's chief advisor, tells him the little story of the rich man with many flocks and herds and the poor man with one little ewe lamb. David, as would almost any other disinterested hearer of the story, becomes incensed when he hears that the rich man stole and slaughtered the poor man's lamb, rather than one of his own, to provision his table. David perceives quite clearly that the rich man deserves to die. Nathan says to David, "You are the man."
Nathan enables David to see himself as others might see him: a rich and powerful man with many women as his disposal, who nonetheless steals the one wife of his neighbor and servant, poor Uriah. Once David sees himself in this light, it is obvious that he did not see Uriah as he saw himself. He did not put himself in Uriah's shoes. Blind to Uriah, the Hittite, a foreigner, a servant, not one like himself, he was able to do the most heinous deed, to commit the most heinous crime, and hardly even recognize his guilt and his sin.
How could David have been so blind to the nature and character of what he had done? Yet there are surely untold numbers of unfaithful spouses who just do not realize what they are doing to their families, or to the families of others. There are many native Americans who wonder how the "white man" can be so blind to the genocidal treatment the Indian received at the hand of the American government and people. There are surely many in Central and South America who wonder why more Americans have not seen the savagery of our government's support for oppressive and exploitive rulers over our neighbors to the south. There are many women who wonder why their men cannot see the oppression of sexist attitudes and language and behavior. There are many factory and sweatshop workers who wonder why we do not see how our consumer behavior feeds the corporate industrial structures that exploit their cheap labor and resources, so that our wealth is quite literally purchased at the price of their poverty.
We cannot crawl inside the skins of everyone who is different from ourselves. But we can grant them their humanity. We can begin by assuming that they are more like us than like dogs. We can attempt a more sympathetic and imaginative participation in the circumstances of their lives. We can read what folks who are poor, or black, or female write. We can listen to the "other side" in our differences. We can examine our own prejudices and recognize that we may be in no position to judge those whom we do not understand. The now-celebrated case of Elian Gonzalez illustrates how far we have to go as a people to see beyond our own narrow constructions of the world. Little Elian has become a political pawn in the hands of the rich relatives, who would not stand for what they are doing if the tables were turned on them. Take away all the prejudice and pride and politics and there can hardly be any question that this boy needs to be returned to his father.
When Nathan wanted David to see what he had done to Uriah, he engaged him in an act of sympathetic participation in the circumstances of Uriah--the poor man with the one little ewe lamb. When the Syrophoenician woman wanted Jesus to help her, she reminded him that human beings deserve to be treated at least as well as dogs. Both stories constitute a challenge to the limited, de-humanizing ways we tend to look at others. Both stories call for an enlargement of our sympathies.
It is true for me, as I suspect it is true for all of us, that it is easier to put ourselves in the shoes of some people than it is to put ourselves in the shoes of others. So it is easier for us to sympathize with some people than it is with others. The challenge of the Gospel is to try to put ourselves in the shoes of those with whom it is not easy to sympathize. This is not to say that we are to be indifferent to the actions of others. It is simply to say that we should not judge those who are different, those we do not like or do not understand, by a different standard from the one by which we judge our friends or ourselves. And if we applaud and reward the actions of those like us, we should do likewise in regard to the actions of those we find so different from ourselves.
It has been part of the genius of the Christian faith from the beginning that it could see in others, formerly regarded as "not like us," those with whom the good news of God's love is also to be shared. Too much are our churches today filled with people who are of like minds, or of common ethnic heritage, or of similar social status or education or way of life. It is a judgment upon us that we do not hold all people in equal regard, and that we encompass in our sympathies those we see as most like us more than those whose circumstances place them at some distance from our circle of belonging.
In his letter to the Romans Paul wrote, "I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think" [Romans 12:3]. It happens--even in church, perhaps especially in church! We get to thinking we are God's chosen ones, and therefore others are not. But what kind of Christianity would want to see anyone else excluded from the bounty of God's grace? Paul goes on to say, "love one another with mutual affection" [12:10]. That is a tough calling, and none of us should think that we have it mastered. Mark's story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician women hints that in his ministry even Jesus may have found his sympathies stretched and challenged and enlarged. In any event, the story instructs us that we are not to place limits on God's compassion. We need to learn to see others as we see ourselves. How else can we love them as we love ourselves? AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert