The Republicans and Democrats alike, seem to have a different tactic. They assault you with the preconceived beliefs you already have, and don’t worry too much about the truth. As humorist Andy Borowitz said after both political conventions had ended, “With the fall campaign officially begun now, both Obama and Romney must spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars on TV to become President… of Ohio.” And it probably won’t be pretty, however you watch it, on TV, Hulu, Facebook, or whatever. Back in the day, of course, TV was the only social media there was! But even now, it still seems to have some influence, or else the Ohio local news stations wouldn’t be getting so rich this election year, right?
When the late Neil Armstrong, who died just two weeks ago, made the first moon walk, in July of 1969, it was shown on all the major television networks – all four of them. And because that was the only way to watch it, we took our black and white TV with us on our vacation to rural Wisconsin in anticipation of seeing the historic moment. A good 50 miles from the nearest TV station, the signal we got, through our RCA’s rabbit ears, was already quite snowy. Add on to that, the radio transmission from some 200,000 miles away, and the broadcast was pretty primitive by today’s standards! But it didn’t matter, because, as garbled as it was, we could still make out our American hero when he said, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Only years later did I learn that the line was scripted, and even at that, Neil had flubbed it! It was supposed to be, “one small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind” Reality TV can be so challenging, can't it?!
But it was another TV image, from that same period, that has made the biggest impact on me, in my life. I still remember trying to put it all together in my young, unformed, mind, as I stood on my front lawn, surrounded by the opulence and privilege I took for granted. We lived in the first ring of Milwaukee’s suburbs: well established, well connected, extremely segregated, contributing a sizable proportion of the city, county and state’s tax base, and yet somehow still having more than almost everyone else. Maybe it was in the summer of love, or one of those 60’s distinctive summer’s, when the rioting – just like I’d seen in Selma and Montgomery on TV, occurred also in Milwaukee.
I was old enough to know that looking straight east down my beautiful street, just a few miles, just out of sight, a whole different neighborhood existed. There were all kinds of derogatory names I heard used for, “that part of town,” in those years of my early teens, demonizing and dismissing it as, less-than. And I could picture the African Americans, and other people of color, living with less-than, red-lined and profiled, subjected to untold racist policies, large and small, by which my neighborhood benefited.
My TV showed the anger, the armed police & National Guard, and the burning buildings. And as I looked down my street, from the serenely-surreal beautiful front lawn I occupied, I wondered, how this could be? Why was I here and not there? What was preventing my house from burning? Who set up this separation between us, which might as well be like a cavern of space from here to the moon, every communication somehow garbled beyond understanding, seen by so many in polarizing black and white? There was no physical barrier as I looked down my street, or that I could recall, from when I rode the bus that way downtown! And finally, why are we not doing something about it? I suppose I could have been awakened through reading the newspapers too, but on television, the first social media, if you will, it was something more, a more powerful image that linked everyone together, in a common shared experience – however offensive and full of misunderstanding it was!
Jesus offends, in order to open hearts to faith. Or else the only option, like the Pharisees, is to stumble over this cornerstone, Jesus, and reject him. In Jesus’ day, oddly enough, early Christians would have been offended when Jesus challenged the Pharisees and called them hypocrites. But when Jesus equated the Gentiles, like the Syrophoenician woman, to dogs, they wouldn’t have flinched, for that was a common expression in Hebrew scriptures, and everyday parlance. For us, it’s the opposite, the opposition between Pharisee and Jesus doesn't phase us, while his treatment of the woman is highly offensive.
For the woman who “bowed down at Jesus’ feet,” had three strikes against her, her gender, her religion and her race. And-- she lived in the region of Tyre and Sidon, historic enemy territory to Israel. Yet when this charming woman whose little daughter has an unclean spirit hears about Jesus, immediately she comes to him knowing he has what she needs and is determined to get it. “Jesus said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first,” that is, the children of God, the Jews, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the [Gentile] dogs’.” Why is Jesus so mean, so down-right prejudiced? Other women have begged for healing and he always responded favorably. Other foreigners, like the man with the legion of demons in the Decapolis, Jesus had no problem helping. He didn’t berate any of them? Why is Jesus showing such moon-sized distance from, and such a red-neck attitude with, the Syrophoenician woman?
Jesus offends his opponents! That’s the only explanation I can come up with for Jesus’ otherwise inexcusable behavior. Jesus offends, by reflecting the human faith tradition and theological framework of his time – that Gentiles are like unclean, un-kosher, dogs. Pharisees had stumbled and fell over the offensive, and sharp-tongued prophetic truth-telling, Jesus used with them. But now in a surprising role-reversal, this woman, still standing, has the clever and snappy answer, instead of Jesus. The Syrophoenician woman – it seems significant – is the only character of the gospels to actually change Jesus’ mind! Certainly she has a right to take offense, and I hope she did! But, in the gospel of Mark’s telling, she becomes the teacher and preacher for Jesus. It is not her faith, but her “word,” Jesus says, that flips him, when she proclaims to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” For that word, Jesus tells her, “the demon has left your daughter.”
Healing and wholeness have arrived, through the learned charming feminist woman, not only for her little daughter back home, but for the mission of the Jesus movement. This offense- role reversal- and new faith, is the same process and conclusion the disciple Peter arrives at, when in the 10th chapter of Acts the Spirit hooks him up with the Gentile Centurion, Cornelius, and they eat together. “I truly perceive that God shows no partiality,” Peter said. Like an online social network, the immense distance of space between gender, religion and race, were bridged for Peter, as they had been for Jesus, by the Syrophoenician woman.
The truth that God reveals, can either offend or enlighten. If even Jesus can be preached to by a foreigner, a woman, and religious outsider, and not take offense, but be enlightened, why not us?! What is to prevent us from building bridges between our neighborhoods?
Jesus goes on, right after this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, to duplicate his feeding of the 5,000 insiders, with a feeding of 4,000 Gentiles. And once again, “crumbs” were left over at this feeding, overflowing baskets full! But now, the crumbs left over, this abundance of God’s love and grace, once just for insiders, is for everyone. All offense, and all barriers, are broken down in cross and resurrection. As we hear in the Thanksgiving Prayer around the table, all are welcomed, to make known God’s loving will for all humanity. The cry of the poor has become Christ’s own cry; our hunger and thirst for justice, Christ’s own desire.