Scandalous! More food for the dogs.

Is anyone else scandalized by this encounter between Jesus and the gentile woman?  Every time I come to it, I start out angry, and end up confused.

As Matthew tells the tale, the disciples first run interference for Jesus – they complain that this woman “is crying after us…”…send her away, they say.  Yet in Mark’s gospel there is no delay – Jesus enters a house (in a region historically outside Jewish influence/control) and, because Mark says “he cannot escape notice” (an allusion to the parade of miracles and teachings that are attributed to Jesus through word of mouth around the countryside) he is (at once) confronted by a woman with a request.

Now, the woman is a Gentile.  In the language of the gospel writers, this is always a reminder that Jesus is about to go where no faithful Jew would willingly go – and her daughter has a demon.   We could well expect that Jesus would refuse, or be impatient – remember, they have come to Tyre and Sidon to escape – “he didn’t want anyone to know he was there”, but then Jesus utters those awful words “…it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Understand what he is saying – What I’ve got, you can’t have – because you are not “one of the children…”  We hear “of God” (though that’s not what Mark records) but we imagine that Jesus – just in this moment – is drawing a very tight circle around the gifts of God, to ensure that they are only for the people of God.  Culturally, his traditions (and no doubt, some of his disciples) would support this position.  It is for God’s elect – for the lost of Israel – that Jesus’s says he has come; there are other, subtler references throughout the New Testament.  But no name calling, Jesus – that’s not on.

Yet there is is – in two of the four gospels – a moment where Jesus lets his guard down – says what he’s really thinking, perhaps  – and is offered a lesson in humility and compassion from a most unlikely source – a Gentile woman!

I’m scandalized because I don’t want to believe that Jesus spoke in such a harsh, pejorative manner – even once.  The gospels typically portray Jesus as a wise, compassionate and gentle guy – who challenges people to open their minds to a broader understanding of the kingdom of God.  That’s the Jesus I want to believe in – the Christ I want to follow.  I don’t want Jesus to be the kind of person that tricks me into a new position by arguing for something he thinks is wrong.  But the truth is, Jesus is making what was (in his time and for his people) the common argument, and in this woman, he meets someone who is desperate enough, and faithful enough (and just far enough removed culturally ) that she is not intimidated by the idea of arguing with him to call it what it is;  wrong.

I’m scandalized because this argument that Jesus makes has found its way into our culture; into our churches.  Perhaps we don’t stoop to calling the outsiders dogs, but we have found, through the generations, a number of different ways to say the same thing: the things we do are for God’s children.  The church is not a building – the Church is the people; so goes the song – and we are quite sure we know who God’s people are.  We have, in the past, “fenced the table” – ensuring that one of our sacraments a “members only” club.  Our (Presbyterian) rules do the same for Baptism, requiring that the one being Baptized must be the child (or occasionally grandchild) of a member of the congregation (or of a ‘recognized’ Christian church).   Exceptions are made, of course – but no matter how we shape the argument it is a sanitized version of Jesus troubling statement; “It is not right to throw the children’s food to the dogs”

So I am scandalized by the notion of church membership, and by the often dismissive attitude that the church takes toward those who don’t believe, (or worse, toward those who don’t know what we believe).  We are all guilty of thinking that membership (in the church) has its privileges – it does not.  Membership comes with responsibilities.

I’m scandalized because I’m both guilty of agreeing with Jesus and guilty of ignoring the rules – of feeding the dogs to spite the children.  I am of two minds because I believe that a life of faith requires a commitment – something that does set the believer apart, but I do not believe that God makes such distinctions – I firmly believe that our ‘profession of faith’ is simply the act of recognizing that God has already claimed us.

I chose to seek ordination because I truly believed that serving as a lay preacher – no matter how much I was needed, no matter how fulfilling  – was just not “good enough”.  I’ve served communion to people who were not even baptized, never mind members of any Christian denomination, and I purposefully make my invitation to the table as broad as possible, because “it is the Lord’s table”, not mine.  And I will baptize anyone who asks (with the sessions permission, of course) because it was in the act of bringing Bethany to be baptized that I first began to ask myself what a life of faith was for, and what it was I really believed about the God to whom I made these promises.

This desperate Gentile woman recognizes something in Jesus that she needs – she has heard the stories.  She understands (because of her daughter’s distress) that the universe is larger and more mysterious than she can imagine, and somehow she imagines that there is a force that can influence the feeble efforts of humans as they wander between birth and death.  She appeals to the power of God in Jesus, and Jesus dismisses her – scandalous!  But while she cannot duplicate the rituals of the faith, nor recite the creeds, she knows about the necessity of God.  She trusts that God “IS” and that means that even those who don’t meet the minimum requirements for membership have access to grace.  and that even the tiniest bit of that grace is enough to work wonders.

Jesus knows this – I don’t think for a moment that this is new learning for him – but he needed a reminder.  More proof that this divine Christ was also painfully human.  And once I am through being scandalized, I too am grateful for the reminder. Thanks be to God.  there is no such thing as a person who is not worthy of God’s grace; no such thing as one who is not in the family of God.

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