The Syrian Child

Proper 23,  September 6, 2015

Mark 7:24-37

We have all seen the picture this week – or if we haven’t seen it, we have probably heard it discussed.  The tiny toddler, dressed in the bright red t-shirt and blue shorts, little running shoes attached by velcro, lying peacefully, face down, arms at his sides, as though asleep.  Except that he wasn’t lying in a cot, surrounded by his toys, safe and protected, but on a Turkish beach, face down in the water that had just washed his body up.  Just one of so many thousands, drowned in the desperate attempt to flee warfare and grinding poverty in the Middle East and Africa, to the safety of Europe.  In Aylan’s case it was a bombed out city in Syria, prey to violent factions in a never-ending brutal civil war; and the destination was Canada, the country where his aunt had found a new life.  Just one child among so many thousands; yet somehow, this one child, this one photograph, has shaken the conscience of the world like no other.

We read Scripture here according to a lectionary, a fixed schedule of readings that tell us which passages to read each week, without regard to what is going on in the world.  But as I have discovered over 25 years of preaching, the lectionary is full of miraculous coincidences.  And so it doesn’t really come as a surprise to me that this week, when the world is so heartbroken about the fate of a Syrian child, that our gospel reading tells us the story of a Syrian woman, coming to Jesus, begging for healing and safety for her child.  Just another nudge of the Spirit, reminding us that the issues we face today are often not as new as we think; and that the people we read about in the Bible were flesh and blood people with real problems, not so different from little Aylan and his family, not so different from you and me.

I think what strikes us most when we hear this story is the harshness of Jesus’s reply to the woman: ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’  Commentators have struggled over Jesus’s rudeness here: maybe he was using an affectionate nickname, maybe he winked at her as he said it.  Nonsense. Let’s call it what it is: Jesus is using a racial slur here.  He is calling her a dog, a common insult in the Middle East, then as now, and he is doing so on the basis of her race, because she wasn’t a Jew.  And that is a problem for us, or at least it should be: is this the gentle Jesus we believe in, is this the fully divine, sinless Son of God?

Now if this story were in the gospel of John, it would have been told differently.  St. John would immediately scurry in to tell us: “He said this to test her” – because that is what John does, again and again, whenever Jesus says or does anything that sounds too, well quite simply too human. John would rush in to assure us that Jesus is only pretending, that he is still the eternal Son of God who knows all things and has everything under control.  But unfortunately it is not John telling us this story, but Mark. And Mark’s Jesus is altogether a creature of flesh and blood, fully human, even as he is the Messiah and beloved Son of God.  There is a roughness and earthiness to Mark’s story.  He was the earliest of the gospel writers, and it always seems to me that in Mark we come closest to Jesus as he lived and breathed, although perhaps that is just my fantasy.  In any case, Mark’s Jesus is exhausted.  He has spent the last several chapters pursued by the crowds, desperate people in need of healing, of hope, of love. Whenever he slips away to be alone, they find him, and surround him with their needs.  If Jesus has crossed over out of Galilee into the Gentile region of Tyre, it is not to expand his mission there, but to escape the exhausting neediness of the crowds, to take some much needed time out.  And so it is perhaps understandable that he greets this latest interruption, this latest claim on his time and energy, with irritation.  But more than just compassion fatigue, Jesus has an ideological barrier to helping the woman.  Matthew spells it out, in his telling of the story: “I am sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.  Jesus is pushing up against the limits of his self-understanding. It seems he really did understand his mission as being only to the Jews. Not a surprising conclusion for a first-century rabbi, in a tradition that treasured its own relationship to God, and assumed that the surrounding peoples were beyond the pale.

And then there is the woman’s response.  She can’t afford to go away, beaten and empty handed.  Nor can she afford to take offense, to throw back at this strange teacher the cutting insult he has given her.  It is not about her, it is about her child, all about her child and the healing the child needs.  And so she swallows her fear and her anger and her pride: looks him in the eye, and, accepting the insult he has given her, nonetheless continues in her request: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’  And somehow, with these words, she has reached behind whatever had separated her from Jesus, reached behind the prejudice or exhaustion or role-confusion, and caused him to see her need and hear her plea, and to rescue her child.

What has happened here?  It may be that she has changed his mind somehow: he certainly helps her, and, while his mission will continue to be to the people of Israel, it may be that his eyes have been opened to the larger perspective, that he will be more generous toward the Gentiles as well.  But I don’t see that it is the cleverness of his argument that has reached him, as clever as it is.  What has happened is surely what happens again and again: he saw her as a human being, simply and completely.  All prejudice, all preconceptions, all abstract argument falls away when we really see the stranger’s humanity, and we are moved to compassion and fellow-feeling.  It is surely exactly what has been happening this week on a massive scale, with little Aylan and his family: suddenly we saw, not the Refugee Crisis, not the faceless masses, not the problem: we saw a child, who could be our child or grandchild, and in that moment it all became so much simpler.

I don’t know what to do with Jesus’s harshness, with his racial slur, except to be thankful for it: because it gave him the opportunity to demonstrate to us another virtue. Shall we call it the virtue of repentance: remembering that the New Testament word for repentance, metanoia, is not about wallowing in guilt, but about changing our minds, changing our way of thinking.  Or perhaps, in this case, changing our hearts.  Jesus shows us how to move beyond prejudice, beyond ideology, to discover in the other the fellow human being, and to respond accordingly. He shows us that compassion must always trump ideology, even religious ideology: a lesson we seem to have to keep learning.

Sure, it is still not easy to know what to do.  The refugee crisis remains a political crisis.  We have to have some sympathy for the dilemma of the European nations, many of which are trying to do the right thing: but if they simply throw the doors open, there will be another 100,000 next month, and a million after that. And, sure, we have to understand our own immigration policies, and the need to plan and manage this aspect of our national life.  And yet even as our political heads try to figure out what to do, we must not let our hearts lose sight of the fact that we are talking about human beings, human beings who demand and deserve our compassion, caring, and fellow feeling.

I think people around the world and across this country have seen that this week.  We have seen that, and we are saying to our politicians: we can do better.  We can do better than the mean-spirited throttling of the process, where we agree to accept a measly few thousand, and then don’t even let that many in.  Yes, it would be nice if the economy were in better shape, but these people have real problems, and we can help a good deal more of them, because that’s the kind of country we want to be.

To look beyond the statistics and the faceless masses, and to see fellow-human beings.  That is the repentance Jesus calls us to, and models for us.  That has been the gift that little Aylan Kurdi has given us this week.  May God in his mercy welcome him, his family, and his fellow passengers into eternal life.