syrian refugees

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.

English poet Malcolm Guite recalls the story in his newly released Advent book Waiting on the Word:

“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.”

And later:

“…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.”

And finally:

“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.”

refugeesMalcolm 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







7 thoughts on “JESUS, STILL A REFUGEE

  1. Good on you. I love it all. Sorry I will not be at Tim’s book launch. It saddens me that I keep missing you….rick

  2. Bruce Marchiano did an incrdible job portraying Jesus in the Visual Bible’s book of “Matthew” video. Bruce plays this scene in a way that never would have ocurred to me and it makes a lot of sense. It comes across as though Jesus is fully aware of the depth of this woman’s faith and humility and is about to make a “public demonstration” of it both to heal her daugter and challenge the minds and hearts of his own disciples. Well worth checking out.

    I too was thinking this week about refugees in the bible and how more than once Israelites migrate to Egypt to avoid starvation. I wonder what the “welcome” was like in Egypt to this mass of immigrants?

  3. So thought provoking and sobering. You have such prophetic words – wish you could be a spiritual advisor to the next prime minister but in the meantime we will ponder our response to yours and Malcom’s words.

  4. Good words, wise words, Steve! Reminded me of this I rec’vd from a friend the other day: “”We Christians gather every week to worship a Refugee. Our prayers are raised up to the One whose parents carried him across borders without permission or documentation. Our music celebrates Him for rescuing us when we had no hope, nowhere else to go. We raise the cup to drink the blood that provides amnesty for our sin. We preach to freely welcome exiles across the borders of a Kingdom they did not build, earn or deserve. We wash people in the waters that tell them that they fully belong – wherever they are from, whatever they have done, no matter what they bring or don’t bring with them, whatever it may cost us to make them a part of the family.” – Shawn Duncan @ Red Letter Christians

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