More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Love Your Enemies

by Herb Montgomery

Woman holding protest sign which reads "love your enemies."“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

The saying we’ll look at today from Sayings Gospel Q builds on the passage we looked at last week. The last saying blessed those being persecuted while working toward the social changes Jesus imagined and invited us to imagine as well. This week’s saying goes one step further and addresses how we are to respond to our persecutors.

Let’s look at how this saying is written in our companion gospel texts.

Luke 6.27-28: But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Luke 6.35: But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Matthew 5.44-45: But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Arguably, the most prominent American champion of enemy love in a context of working toward social change in the last century was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On November 17, 1957, King stood before the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and delivered an sermon titled Loving Your Enemies. In that sermon, he said:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Last summer, I spoke at a convention, and sat in the audience during another speaker’s session. At the end of that session, a participant asked the speaker the question, “What is it that prevents the present hegemony from simply being replaced by another hegemony when it is overthrown?”

(As we’ve shared before, a hegemony is another word for a domination system in which one group holds hierarchical dominance over a group it has subjugated.)

Jesus’ vision is not a hegemony. It is a world where there is no more domination, and no more subjugation, a world where every person has treated with the same indiscriminate egalitarianism that is expressed in the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.

But the audience member’s question about replacing one hegemony with another is a serious and important one. The challenge with most revolutions is that the revolution’s “enemy” is framed as someone to be defeated and then subjugated as they had subjugated others. This approach doesn’t remove pyramids of oppression but simply replaces them with a different pyramid of oppression founded on a different set of values. And this is not the vision of either Martin Luther King or the Jesus of the gospels.

The answer to the problem is in King’s concept of “double victory.” Not only can we win liberation from oppression, but we can also win our oppressors to join us in this liberation work. The goal, again, is that everyone gets to enjoy the sunshine: everyone is equal.

And this paradigm of a double victory is rooted in Jesus’s enemy love. Rather than seeking retributive justice against the revolution’s enemies, which too often becomes an attempt to extract an eye-for-an-eye, Jesus’s enemy love is rooted in restorative, transformative, liberative justice, justice that frees all parties involved.

Enemy love requires us to see our enemies as in need of liberation from a system of injustice as much as we are. Their liberation is of a different character than ours, yet they still have a need.

I do want to say a word of caution though, about this teaching. Jesus was a poor Jewish teacher in first century Palestine and lived under Roman rule. He was not, as many of us are, a citizen of any of the most powerful nations in the world. To illustrate this difference, Howard Thurman once wrote, “Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected [like Paul] by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as Paul did]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch . . . Unless one lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul at this point.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 33)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was not part of the Jewish wealthy elite. Jesus belonged to the community of the poor (Luke 2.24 cf. Leviticus 12.8). Jesus did not tell wealthy people, “Listen, we need to be charitable toward the poor impoverished people around.” No, when Jesus spoke of generosity, he was speaking to his fellow poor craftsmen and rural peasant farmers in Galilee, giving them teachings on how we can create an alternate society where each of us trusts God to send people to take care of us to the degree that we let go of what we may be hoarding out of insecurity, and instead listen to the God that sends us to go and take care of them. Jesus called this alternate society “the rule of God”.

In the same way, when Jesus spoke about loving one’s enemies, just as he was not part of the wealthy elite speaking about the poor, he was also not part of the wealthy Jewish elite telling the oppressed and poor Jewish craftsmen and rural farmers they needed to love wealthy oppressors in spite of the hardship and injustice the elite had caused them. Let me explain why this is important.

First, Jesus was speaking to his fellow impoverished Jews, inspiring them with an approach that, rather than destroying their enemies, had the potential to transform their enemies. And although Jesus did not use the language King used two thousand years later, what he taught was in essence, King’s “double victory.”

Recently, a police officer who was attending one of my presentations objected to my support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  His objection was based on his perception that a sector of that movement sees using more violent means, in order to be heard, as a viable option.  (Being a police officer, the irony of his concern over the use of violence was lost on him.)

The important difference I want you to consider is that Martin Luther King, Jr. had to be a man of color telling other Black men to work toward transforming their White enemies. Gandhi had to be a brown-skinned Indian inspiring his fellow Indian citizens to seek the transformation of their British oppressors. Had King been White, or Gandhi been a British Colonialist, a message of enemy love would have been a subtle form of self-preservation and violence toward the oppressed and served to continue their oppression.  The exceptions to this are when there are internal variations, within the larger groups, that we must consider.  King was Black speaking to Black people, but he was also a middle-class, highly educated Black male from the clergy class.  Gandhi was an Indian speaking to Indians, but he was also light-skinned, a Kshatriya (as opposed to the so-called “untouchables”), and a lawyer (from the 2nd top caste in their social pyramid.)  Sometimes there are intra-group variations who (within the same community) can speak to these matters less oppressively.  They may look different in other words, but they share other facets of the oppressed people’s experience more than those whose appearance is the same. For example, I am in community with a person of color who upon hearing Justice Clarence Thomas speaking on race, she would not respect him, but equally feels that Jane Elliot could credibly speak on the matter.  There are ways for people who look the same to sustain the same oppression that the mainstream sustains.  The point is that commonality and solidarity can’t be assessed on the basis of one characteristic alone. Intersectionality as a theory highlights these intra-group distinctions and they are important. (If you would like to explore these ideas further please read We’re not all alike, and that’s not a problem by my dear friend Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD.)

An Accompanying Call For Restoration

Jesus spoke powerfully and convincingly to the poorer class of Jews of his time, yet Jesus’s message of enemy love to the oppressed was accompanied with a strong requirement that oppressors restore justice toward the oppressed. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he did not call this charity. He called it justice.

Luke 12.33: Sell your possessions and give to the poor.

Luke 19.8: But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Luke 7.29: All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right . . .

To only call the oppressed to love their enemies without calling for oppressors to make reparations and restore justice is a subtle form of violence to those who have been wronged. If enemy love is going to be taught, it must, with the same breath, be taught alongside emphatic calls for justice to be restored.

The goal is not to replace one hegemony with another, to place the oppressed on top instead. The goal is rather a world where every person participates in equity, where each can share abundance, enjoying the sun and rain side by side, and where there is enough for all.

One last word: loving your enemies is not “letting them off the hook.” It is not ignoring what they have done, lessening its value, or pretending that it’s nothing. It takes their offense seriously and also desires their transformation. Loving your enemies is the desire that they don’t face mere retribution but rather encounter a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and choosing. It is the desire for them to experience healing and to choose to reject their place in great machines of injustice. And who knows, they might just join you in trying to transform the very ones who they used to resemble.

The question we must wrestle with is whether the radical transformation of the Zacchaeuses in our lives is enough. Do we need them to pay as a form of penance for what they have done? If they should be brought to a place where they desire to give out of a sincere wish to restore, would that be enough?

It really does come down to asking the question of intent. What do you desire for your enemies? Is it a world where now you are on top, dominating those who once wronged you? Or do you desire a “double victory,” a world where your enemies have undergone radical transformation? Is your desire a world where there is no more domination, no more oppression, no more subjugation, discrimination, or injustice?. A world where the sun shines and the rain falls on all alike? Could you share a world with those who have wronged you if they were “won” rather than just defeated, transformed rather than just destroyed? Could you live in a world alongside them if they, too, were radically changed?

If your answer is yes, you are moving toward the heart of the message of the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q as he admonishes us to love our enemies.

As we progress through  Sayings Gospel Q, we will encounter Jesus’ strong words to those who need to restore the justice they have violated. That part of the message is as vital is the part we looked at today. Both messages are what we must wrestle with if we want a world that is truly safe and compassionate for everyone:

“Love your enemies and‚ pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and unjust.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:27-28, 35c-d)

HeartGroup Application

Is transformation enough or do we want retribution?

  1. This week I want you to begin with an private exercise. Picture the person on this planet that you like the least. When you have them in your mind’s eye, ask yourself: Would it be enough for you if that person came to understand what they have done to you, if they were more than sorry, and if they actively sought to repair the wrong they have done to you? Not all wrongs can be undone, but if that person was transformed, could you forgive?
  2. Jesus, in Sayings Gospel Q, calls us to pre-empt this transformation by initiating the process with enemy love. This does not mean that you accept what they have done. It means that as you imagine and interact with them, you have in view the end result of their transformation. As you ponder these questions, write down the questions, emotions, struggles, and challenges these questions present to you.
  3. If you feel comfortable, share what you learn with your HeartGroup. Discuss with each other how, whether we belong to the party of the oppressed or the oppressors or to both parties in different ways, we can move toward a safer more compassionate world for all, where equity is as indiscriminate as the shining of the sun and the falling of the rain.  Then make some choices to act in the way of forgiveness and reparation. These steps don’t have to be huge at all. You can take small steps, but take a step. Step toward either transformative forgiveness, or restorative reparation in one of the ways you discussed with you group.

Enemy love and enemy transformation was at the heart of Jesus teachings in Sayings Gospel Q. It was at the heart of Gandhi’s ahimsa (love or compassion), as well as King’s struggles for racial equity and his final movements in the Poor People’s Campaign.

Yes, if you take these steps, there will be push back. When you call for change, there will be pushback from those ill-treating you. Keep calling, all the while, learning to love transformationally those who oppose you. And remember, as the Dalai Lama has said, “It is the enemy who can truly teach us to practice the virtues of compassion and tolerance.”

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

No Such Thing As “Dogs and Pigs” . . . Only “Children.”

How “Listening” is the Cure for our Blindspots

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Happy kids embracing and smiling in the elementary schoolyard. Interracial  friendship.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

This week, I want to place some puzzle pieces on the table for you that may not seem to fit together at first. Once we get them all on the table, though, I hope that we’ll see something fresh and relevant in Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Let’s begin by defining three terms.

The first term is intersectionality. Intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. It describes oppression as an interlocking matrix. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality.

The second term is kyriarchy. Kyriarchy is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other dominating hierarchies that encourage people to internalize and institutionalize the subordination of one person or group to another.

The third term is colonialism, the establishment, exploitation, acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of colonies in one territory by a political power from another territory. Colonialism depends on a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between colonists and the territory’s indigenous population.

Let’s use intersectionality, kyriarchy, and colonialism to look at the relationship between Rome and Jerusalem during the life of the itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Ponder the status of Jerusalem in the world during that time. Consider the Hebrew people and their own history. Jesus emerged from a people who had participated in forms of kyriarchy and colonialism but, under Rome, was now disinherited.

Jesus presents some images in his teachings that are directly related to this oppressive context.

Dogs and Pigs 

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6) 

Dogs and pigs are both scavengers, and the Hebrews considered them to be unclean. You may have heard that Jews called any non-Jew “dog.” But this is not correct. According to the IVP Background Commentary of the New Testament, Jewish people reserved the slurs of “dogs” and “pigs” only for those gentile foreigners who oppressed the Jewish people, such as the Romans. Today, some use the term “pig” to refer to police constables who have become oppressive.

Jesus’ teaching in this passage critiques how Rome was being permitted to co-opt the sacred and valuable Jewish Temple for Imperial purposes. That’s the most direct interpretation of the passage. Yet I also believe there is something deeper here as well.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been speaking of inward realities—objectifying women in one’s heart, hatred toward one’s enemies—and not merely outward ones. So I have a hunch that in this passage, Jesus is speaking about the ways that oppressed and disinherited people can allow the sacred and valuable space within them to be co-opted and used for hatred toward their oppressors. Howard Thurman writes about this in his book Jesus and the Disinherited.

Tyre and Sidon

As well as teaching about dogs and pigs, Jesus also taught about Tyre and Sidon. (See Luke 4:25-26; Luke 10.13-14; Matthew 11.21-22)  In our story this week, Jesus had retreated to the region of Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenician cities, for a respite.  Yet what many miss is that while Jesus is there, he is met by a woman described as Syro-phoenician.  “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (Mark 7.26)  It is the “Syro” part that the gospel authors desire to turn our attention. This woman, being from Syria, was of Seleucid decent. (Syria was the short-hand name used by Rome to refer to the Seleucid Empire.) Why does this matter? These were the ancient oppressors of the Jewish people before Rome! Under the influence of Antiochus Epiphanies, the Seleucids had sought to exterminate the Jewish people. And although the Seleucids and the Hebrews now shared the same fate under Rome, there was a time when the Seleucids conquered and occupied the Hebrew nation. Jesus’ exchange with this woman, a descendant of those how had sought to wipe out the Hebrew people under Antiochus, takes place in a time when this was not yet distant history for the Jewish people.

Syrophoenician Woman

Before I talk about the Syrophoenician woman, I want to turn to Howard Thurman’s insightful comments on Jesus’ exchange with her.

“Opposition to the interpretation which Jesus was giving to the gospel of God had increased, and Jesus and his disciples withdrew from active work into temporary semi-retirement around Tyre and Sidon. The woman broke into his retreat with an urgent request in behalf of her child . . . ‘What mockery is there here? Am I not humiliated enough in being misunderstood by my own kind? And here this woman dares to demand that which, in the very nature of the case, she cannot claim as her due.’” (Thurman, Howard; Jesus and the Disinherited [pp. 90-91] Kindle ed.)

The issue here is not that this woman was a Gentile. Though the most prominent Phoenician woman in the Old Testament was Jezebel, Elijah also helped a Phoenician woman (1 Kings 17:17) So her non-Jewishness is not the point. In addition to being Phoenician, the woman was also of Syrian descent: she was Syro-phoenician. As Mark writes, “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:26). Syria was the term Rome used to refer to the historical Seleucid Empire.

The issue in this story is that Jesus understood that his announcement of “the favor of God” was to apply to Gentiles too (see Luke 4:25-29; Matthew 8:5-13). But this Gentile begging him for a blessing was of Seleucid descent. This would be the equivalent of descendants of a Holocaust survivor being asked to share survivor reparations with a descendent of the Nazis who had fallen on hard times. It would be comparable to a White American asking to receive reparations intended for the Native American community here in the United States. It would be as if, two hundred years from now, a same-sex married couple were asked to help the descendent of a fundamentalist-evangelical business-owner from Indiana.

The encounter between Jesus and this women is set up to prick our sense of justice. Jesus came to liberate the oppressed. But now one of the oppressors was asking him to liberate her daughter too! Jesus question is valid:

Is it right to give the childrens (the Hebrew people) bread to the dogs (the Seleucids)?

According to the Torah, there were foods that were not to be eaten by the Hebrews but that could be thrown out as dog food (see Exodus 22:31). Jesus is here asking: is it just to give that which was intended to liberate my people to a person belonging to those who violently oppressed us in the past?

There are two ways I have heard this explained. One explanation is that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach the on-looking disciples an important lesson in generosity. The other explanation, which I think is more plausible, is that Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

Yes, this woman belonged to a people who had endeavored to wipe his people off the face of the earth. But she was also a woman. Where is her husband? Why is her husband or father not making this request as the father does in Mark 5.22? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to be speaking for herself and her daughter as if she were a single mother?

Whatever her circumstances, Jesus asks, is it right to help her? Is this how the liberation and reparations for Israel are to be used: not only to benefit those who have been oppressed but also to benefit the suffering oppressors too?

This is where intersectionality comes in. A person can be both oppressor and oppressed simultaneously. After all, the Hebrews were not innocent. Just as the Seleucids had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews from existence, the Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews participated in the cultural patriarchy that those in Hellenistic Tyre and Sydon lived by as well. And although the Jews in Jesus’ time suffered economic poverty under Rome’s high taxes, the Hebrew had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Seleucid woman belonged to a people who had historically oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she, too, needed liberation. Was there enough mercy in Jesus’ merciful theism for her as well?

In this story, the compassion of Jesus wins out. It’s worth asking ourselves just how Jesus made even a small space in that room to listen.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

There is theoretical knowledge and then there is experiential knowledge. Jesus understood a love of enemies in theory and gained a deeper understanding of it that day through experience.

I’m thankful for a Jesus who took time to listen. I’m also thankful for a woman who didn’t give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her need and their blind spots. Had Jesus sent her away, a great injustice would have been committed. But he listened. And he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethic that day instead. Henry David Thoreau wrote, ”Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

I cannot fault Jesus for asking the question he asked. Jesus, after all, emerged from the community of the disinherited poor. Jesus faced the same dilemma we face:.how does one embrace enemy love without betraying one’s own people?. How does one stay faithful to both justice for the oppressed and the transformation of the oppressors?

Jesus and his disciples, I believe, left the region of Tyre and Sidon that day with a fuller experience of the truth that there is really no such thing as dogs or pigs.  There are only children. We are all siblings of the same Divine Parents. We all walk this earth side-by-side, and we all wear on our faces the very image of God.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Here are just a few of the categories of intersectional privilege and disadvantage in our society here in the West:

White            Wealthy        Certified Educated       Male        Straight            Cisgender

Non-White     Poor            Uncertified Education   Female     Non-straight     Transgender

 

These categories combine to create intersectional experiences of domination and oppression.

Consider how each of the following experiences simultaneously includes some level of privilege in our society and some level of disadvantage. Name where they are privileged first. Then look for where they are disadvantaged.

a. A White lower-class, cisgender, straight, blue-collar male

b. An African-American male president of the United States

c. A White cisgender gay female living in inner-city America

d. A bisexual cisgender woman of color living in rural poverty

e. A single White father of three living in suburban America

f. A middle-class White fundamentalist-evangelical, transgender female

d. Wealthy highly educated White, cisgender straight female

2.  We need each other. What does it mean for us to trade our dominations systems for Jesus’ heterogeneous shared table? How can we learn to listen to those who are not like us? How can we learn to incorporate each person’s varied life experience into a beautiful and coherent whole that leads to a safer and more compassionate world for all? How can we allow others to show us where our own blind spots are and also share our stories that can help others see their blind spots?

3. Discuss your thoughts with your upcoming HeartGroup this week.

I’ll close this week with Howard Thurman’s Three Hounds of Hell that dog the soul of the disinherited—fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. The ethical teachings found in the values of the Jesus story as it has come down to us today, I believe, offer the disinherited in any area of society a way to escape those three hounds nipping at our heels. This week, if nothing more, may we all learn to sit around Jesus shared table and simply listen.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, and listening with compassion, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each one of you,

I’ll see you next week.