A home-accident survey showed that 90 percent of accidents on staircases involved either the top or the bottom stair. This information was fed into a computer to analyze how accidents could be reduced. The computer’s answer: “Remove the top and bottom stairs.”
The answer we get is not always the answer we would expect. When Jesus enters the region of Tyre the Syrophoenician woman comes to him and begs for help for her daughter. Jesus’ response, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Definitely not the answer we were expecting! How do we explain saying of Jesus?
In truth, there are many who are a lot smarter than me who have attempted to understand these events and in reading them, I cock my head to the side like a dog trying to understand its master. For me, to discover the answer, we have to to put it into the context of the incident and verses that immediately precede this encounter. We read these just last week. It is the discussion over what is clean and unclean.
In last week’s Gospel, the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him why his disciples ate with unclean hands, because the disciples did not wash their hands according to tradition. Jesus answered them, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” The religious leaders used their traditions as weapons and lorded it over the people to beat them down and held themselves superior to those who did not keep the Law, that is, the Gentiles; which is why the Jews would have nothing to do with Gentiles.
Remember the time that Jesus went to the well at Samaria. His disciples went into town to look for something to eat and left Jesus alone at the well. The woman arrives and Jesus asked her for a drink of water from the well. Her reply, ”’You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan – a gentile -woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).” Because the Gentiles failed to adhere to the Law and the traditions, the Jews would have nothing to do with them and looked down on them.
From this animosity grew other contentious practices and traditions. The tradition that has baring on our Gospel today is the tradition of Jews calling Gentiles “dogs.” It’s not that the Gentiles were eating with unclean hands, it was that the Gentiles were believed to be unclean through and through and no better than the wild dogs that roamed the streets.
Long before Jesus encountered Syrophoenician woman a precedent had been set: Jews don’t associate with Gentiles. Therefore, when Jesus is speaking to the woman, he knows this precedent, she knows this precedent, the disciples know the precedent, and everyone else in this house knows the precedent, so by Jesus referring to this woman as a dog, he fulfills everyone’s preconceived ideas of how this encounter should play out. On hearing Jesus speak to her in such a way, those gathered around him probably responded in their hearts, “Good, he is maintaining the proper order of things.” Let me ask you this: When have you ever known Jesus to maintain the proper order of things?
The woman demonstrated great faith and boldness in her response to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In those few words she is saying, “I know the world thinks I’m no better than a dog, I know these people here with you think I’m a dog, but I do not believe that you think I am a dog.” Now, I have no biblical proof or great theologian or other expert to back me up on this, but when that woman said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” Jesus smiled. He probably even laughed out loud.
We have the Law and we have our traditions that protect us from getting dirty. We know what is right and what is wrong. We know what is clean and what is unclean. We know that you are a dog. And the Syrophoenician woman thumbed her nose at them all. Of course Jesus laughed and then he rewarded her faith: “‘For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”
The world looked at her and had certain expectations about who she was and how she should behave. She was a dog and dogs have their place. It wasn’t until she encountered Jesus that not only was she seen as something different, someone worthy of God’s favor, but it probably wasn’t until that encounter with Jesus that she even saw herself as someone worthy of the blessings of God.
Fortunately, the world no longer has such problems as this. We don’t look at one person and think them as being different from anybody else. In our eyes, everyone is equal and treated fairly. Maybe not.
In the Epistle of James that we read this morning, James asked a question: “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” His answer: “Yes.” He begins by stating the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and then states, “If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
We understand him to be speaking of our treatment of the poor, but I would suggest to you that our understanding of this scripture only begins there. No, I’m not going to politicize a sermon, never will, but what if we replaced a few words? For example, “If a person with white skin comes into your assembly, and if a person with dark skin also comes in, and if you take notice of the white person and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one with dark skin you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” Yes we have. And yes, we’re only being naive if we think the opposite of that isn’t also true. But who else might we apply these verses to? Who else do we judge as unworthy? What about the woman standing in line in front of us at the grocery store with two kids, paying for frozen pizzas and ice cream with food stamps? What about the person we disagree with politically? What about… ? I’m sure you have your own answers.
When presented with this type of scripture reading, we must be willing to apply their teachings to more than one issue, even when they make us uncomfortable. And in these lessons, both Jesus and James were addressing the fact that we may all have a tendency to at times look at a person or group of persons and based on their outward appearances or practices, judge them according to our perceptions of them. Or put into the language we’ve been discussing, we have a tendency to declare them “clean” or “unclean”, worthy or unworthy based on our perceptions of them, but in doing so, we end up judging ourselves. Jesus and James both demonstrate this.
The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (if you haven’t read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, I highly recommend it to you) said it best, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
We may look at some around us and based on our perceptions of them, think they are of lesser value than us or others, that perhaps they are not worthy of the blessings of God, but in the face of such judgments, Jesus only laughs. Why? Because Jesus is not interested in maintaining our determined order of the world. He came to establish God’s order. God’s Kingdom. “For the old order of things has passed away.” Jesus said, “Behold, I have come to make all things new.” Don’t allow the judgmental precedents established by others cause you to commit sin. Instead, imitate Christ and dismantle those barriers that divide the children of God.
Let us pray: O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.