Sunday, September 06, 2009

Proper 18

Mark 7
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.* He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir,* even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said “did you see the Star this morning,” I would be a wealthy man. Not only are Torontonians loyal to their local paper, but I seem to hang with people who like to quote it.

It seems, however, to be imprinted on my DNA to avoid the Star. My late grandfather was a Telegraph man who never really got over its demise. “The Star is nothing but a Grit rag,” he would say, and somehow we all took note. For me, I find the tone of the paper too “preachy,” something I get enough of when I hang out with my minister friends: so I read the Globe.

The downside of the Globe is a diminished local section. They pick up local stories, but they are often the ones related to business or development. Christie Blatchford (stole from the Sun) does her level best to highlight local stories, but most often it is the same old Christie but on a national scale.

This week proved an exception. The tragic encounter between Michael Bryant and Darcy Allan Sheppard dominated the Globe, a local story that seemed to interest people across the country. The circumstances that led to the death of Mr. Sheppard remain unclear, a situation that seems only to add to the public interest. Theories abound, and everyone, driver or cyclist or pedestrian, seems somehow invested in this story.

What I want to highlight, for our time together this morning, is the extent to which the story was translated into contest between competing interests. What began as a story about a famous person charged with a criminal offence became a story about drivers versus cyclists. Suddenly we were talking about bike lanes and the so-called “war on the car” rather than the matter at hand. The story was translated (or reduced) to two sides—both busy claiming the position of being more vulnerable in the face of the other.

The story will continue to be both local and national for many months to come. Already comparisons are being made between Michael Bryant and Teddy Kennedy, and I don’t think interest will die down. Concerning the tension between car and bicycle, snow will soon arrive, and the immediate tension will decrease. But the tendency to draw and take sides: that seems eternal.


The story of the Syrophoenician woman begins with Jesus on holiday. He has slipped away from an ongoing conflict with the religious leaders and goes to a place where he wants to go unrecognized. It was not to be. It seems the power of the Most High is too hard to hide, and before he has time to sit down a local woman needs his help.

Her daughter is sick, possessed with an unclean spirit, and she comes to Jesus in the very real hope that he can save the girl. Word got around, and the humble who seek out healing have been known to receive it from this miracle maker. She is on her knees. She begs that her daughter be released from the demons that have her.

In one of the most jarring moments in the Gospels he answers her this way: ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ In other words, he has come for the children of Israel, and not Gentiles such as the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter. That’s what he means to say, but the actual delivery is something else altogether. Somewhere between playful and rude, Jesus is setting out a viewpoint that would seem as natural to a first century Jew as breathing.

Faced with obvious refusal, or at least a religious and cultural response that would seem pretty fixed, she persists. She understands that this famous healer and Rabbi would only make miracles for the chosen people, but she cannot help herself. Putting her child ahead of the reasoned argument of a far-off teacher, she says ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’

Notice what she didn’t do: she didn’t curse him, she didn’t label him any number of potential labels, she didn’t continue to beg. No, her dignity remained intact. She made her clever counter-argument, a clever counter-argument that Rabbi Jesus couldn’t resist. Jesus “rewards” her for her cleverness, even saying that because she made such a fine comeback, her daughter is made well.

I’m not sure how I feel about the vacationing Jesus. He’s a little too edgy, too quick to dismiss. And when he does relent, since God always relents, he does it in such a way that you might think being clever will get you what you need, rather than the justice of the situation. No, I’m not sure about the vacationing Jesus at all.

A few years ago I wrote a children’s hymn that was inspired by this passage, with the first verse:

If Jesus grew then I can too,
And be like him in all I do.
If Jesus taught me how to pray,
Then I would speak to him each day.

Forgive me for quoting me, but I think it illustrates an important point from this passage. Jesus clearly grew from his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, and this is one of those rare places in scripture where we can realistically put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes (sandals) and take permission to grow. We can understand that even Jesus was conditioned by religious and cultural norms to the extent that he gave a standard response to the Syrophoenician woman: before she was able to draw from him the Christian response.

Let me tackle this from another direction, this time using the work of philosopher Ram Dass. Dass argues that all humans view the world through various levels of reality or “planes of consciousness” if you want to get all fancy. To get at the idea of people seeing the world through levels of reality, he uses the simple metaphor of television. He describes the channels we receive, and begins with the one or two that all of us get:

We all receive channel one. It is the view we begin with as babies, seeing the physical make-up of the people around us (young, old, light, dark, male, and female). As adults we still possess this channel and still view it with comfort.

On channel two we view the social world around us. We begin by placing our family of origin into the categories of father, mother, sibling and what these titles mean in terms of social interaction. Later we see other categories like teacher or doctor, blue collar/white collar and so on. Finally, this channel allows us to view psychological attributes like happy, sad, angry or afraid. Add to the list affiliations such as conservative/liberal, and we begin to see why this is the most watched channel and why so many people are stuck on two channels. (It also explains the popularity of trash TV)

Channel three is little known and seldom watched. It is about the myths and roles we place on ourselves and who we understand others. If you are aware that someone is struggling because they are trying to live up to ideal they have placed on themselves then you are watching channel three. This channel asks the "why" question and tries to understand behavior as part of a larger pattern.

The fourth channel is the place where we view the people around us and we no longer see differences but similarities. We embrace our common humanity ("we are all God’s children") and the connection between all people through the Spirit. We only get glimpses of this channel and some have never seen it. (Sharp, p.74)

It’s a helpful map of human understanding, one that can be applied to a variety of situations. The fascination with the Michael Bryant situation is on channel two, where the story is quickly reduced to drivers versus cyclists. It is the ordering channel where we try to reduce things to simple categories and quickly assess blame. The former premier who scapegoated the poor and exaggerated cheating amount people who receive social assistance never left channel two.

Jesus on vacation is watching somewhere between channel two and three. He understands the woman’s situation, but like a well learned reflecx he responses with channel two, highlighting differences and giving the standard response of his people.

But the Syrophoenician woman, she’s been watching channel four, the channel where the differences between peoples disappear and the only theme is our common humanity. She reaches this place in a moment of crisis, where the Holy Spirit gives her the strength and the insight to claim this common humanity and take it to the Son of the Most High. The Rabbi listens, and responds, drawn back to the channel where we know Jesus lives and moves and has his being.

The Syrophoenician woman she didn’t ask for symbolic crumbs from the children’s table. She reminded Jesus that the crumbs fell anyway, and anyone with a need will find them. The healing power of God, the power to heal people and make them whole belongs to anyone with a need. Even the people who claim the original portion acknowledge, as Jesus did, that the power of God is stronger and the love of God is broader than the human categories we are so eager to create and maintain.


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