At Church, on the first Sunday of September, just as the Syrian refugee crisis was staggering the rest of the world with the terrible picture of a young boy washed up dead upon a beach, the lectionary reading for the day’s worshipping community was the troubling story of Jesus’ encounter with a Syrian woman, presumably at a feast, who asked the compassion-weary Rabbi for a miracle: that her daughter might be healed of a terrible affliction. Mk 7:25-39
Jesus’ response makes us squirm, quite possibly because it echoes uncomfortably forward into our own day as governments and citizens of the more safe and cozy countries of the West wonder why they should open their doors in vulnerability and inevitable responsibility to the “other” when we have our own problems to solve.
“Let the children first be fed,” Jesus says, “since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”
We recoil in horror at the callous condescension, but if we are to be honest, Christ’s response, if softened in tone somewhat, can sound quite reasonable if the basic truth about the world is of a limited resource-base for which the sentient must cruelly compete.
Whether or not we read a wink and a nod into Jesus response, the text allows the beseeching woman to teach Jesus that his own privilege need not mean that her daughter has no hope. For the sake of her daughter she swallows the insult and courageously pushes back:
“Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps dropped by children!”
In the later 19th century, devotional poet Christina Rossetti wrote, “He (or she) cannot be an efficient Christian who exhibits the religion of love as unlovely.” It’s hard to think of a story more unflattering to the Christian faith than this one, incriminating as a poser, as it does, the founding leader of the “religion of love,” and, by implication, followers who act in kind. Yet, it is possible that in God’s wisdom the story has been preserved just for a time such as this—to demonstrate the intolerability of the current situation given a God who so loved the world (ton cosmon, meaning: whole cosmos), that He… well… gave himself. Jn 3:16
Given the urgency of today’s Syrian refugee crisis, Pope Francis has encouraged 150,000 churches to each host a refugee family. My own church is in the initial stages of looking into what that might mean. I can’t help but remember that Jesus, in early infancy, was with his family a refugee himself, fleeing the terror of the egomaniacal King Herod who felt his power threatened by the very possibility of a would be child-king who had only been noticed by a few shepherds and band of wandering philosopher/astronomers.
“The story of Herod’s jealous rage and the massacre of the innocents would be too appalling to bear were we not called upon to contemplate it almost every day in the news. What Herod did then is still being done across the world by tyrants who would sooner kill innocent people than lose their grip on power.”
“…we must contemplate the experience of the Christ-child as being exactly as that of the disturbed and bewildered children we see being carried by mothers in desperation out of war zones. These children cannot possibly know the cause of the quarrel that has destroyed their homes; they could not name or articulate the name that has made them enemies of the state; utterly innocent of the long, hideous adult agenda that has visited such devastation upon them; they are “fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel.”
“Likewise, if we are going to take seriously Christ’s teaching at the end of Matthew…that he is really and substantially in the lives and the bodies of those who are oppressed, and whatsoever is done to them is done to him— then we must become aware that the risen Christ is still a refugee.”
Malcolm wrote a sonnet called Refugee that, with his blessing, I mucked with, added a third verse and turned into a song. It is worth contemplating as we consider our possible response, individually and communally, to the horrors before us.
What if 150,000 churches adopted a refugee family? How would self-donating love and compassionate hospitality play out against the shoring up of borders over which to lob missiles?
Oh…and by the way, as the story goes, after her encounter with Jesus, the Syrian woman went home to find her daughter healed (Mk 25:30). Just sayin’…
REFUGEE Malcolm Guite/ Steve Bell
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want
For even as we sing our final carol
The hounded child is up and on that road
Fleeing from the wrath of someone else’s quarrel
Glancing behind and shouldering their load
While Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power
And death squads spread their curse across the world
How terrible, how just and how ironic
That every Herod dies and comes alone
Defenseless as the naked embryonic
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne
I can’t resist the burning urge for turning
This song into a cautionary tale
The Savior whom this song has been discerning
Once occupied the belly of a whale
To reach as deep as love could ever fathom
To rescue from the tentacles of hell
The wretched, the beleaguered and forgotten
Surprisingly, their enemies as well