Openness to Change

sunset

Herb Montgomery | September 3, 2021

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 387: Openness to Change]


“In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like. We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, for it is not right to take the childrens bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.” Then he told her, For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the mans ears. Then he spit and touched the mans tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, Ephphatha!” (which means Be opened!”). At this, the mans ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. He has done everything well,” they said. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:24-37)

This week we read one of my favorite stories in the gospels of Mark—the Syrophoenician woman. I love this story because it paints a very human view of Jesus. This woman is the hero in the story who points out Jesus’ limited way of viewing Gentiles and the scope of his liberation. I believe this story was specifically aimed at early Jesus followers who suffered from the same limitations as Mark’s Jesus did.

The story illustrates what we would call intersectionality today. Intersectionality is a way of describing the relationships between systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes oppression as an interlocking matrix and 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 woman in this story experienced multiple social oppressions that also connected to the oppression of Jewish people under Rome: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.”

Jesus questions her using the worst language: Is it right to give the childrens bread to the dogs?”

No human should be called a dog, especially a woman of another race or ethnicity than one’s own.

Two of the most popular interpretations of this story explain that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach onlooking disciples an important lesson in generosity. I find this interpretation lacking, motivated not by honesty about the narrative but by a desire to protect Jesus from anything that might make him look bad. While I sympathize with this protectiveness, it is unconvincing.

The other more plausible and valuable explanation is that, in real time, Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

This woman belonged to a people group that had once oppressed the Jewish people (i.e. Greeks), yet there is absolutely no indication she felt superior to Jewish people herself. She was also a woman trying to survive in a patriarchal culture. The patriarchal setting of this story begs the question, where is her husband? Why is her husband or the girl’s father not making this request of Jesus as other fathers do in Mark (cf. 5:22)? Is she a single mother? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to speak for herself and her daughter?

The author of Mark has Jesus wrestling out loud: is it right for a Jewish male to help her, a Gentile and a woman?

Intersectionality helps us that every person has a complex identity. Just as the Greeks had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews, the ancient Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews also participated in cultural patriarchy similar to that in Hellenistic Tyre and Sidon, and though they suffered economic poverty under Romes high taxes during Jesus’ time, the Hebrews had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Greek woman belonged to a people who had once oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she needed liberation. Did Jesus have enough mercy for her as well?

What I appreciate about this story is that this woman has the courage to push back against Jesus’ harmful language to get him to see her humanity and the ugliness of his language. In the end, Jesus does understand and his compassion for her wins out. But we must not fail to see the depth of his struggle between genuinely questioning what was right, and allowing his questions to give way, not to rightness,” but to compassion itself.

I think of Christians who still need the permission of their own sacred text to tell them that compassion is allowed or “right.” In this story, Jesus doesn’t wait for permission. He allowed compassion to govern his thinking, and ultimately arrived at the right choice.

Im thankful for a woman who didnt give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her shared humanity and immediate need despite their culturally conditioned prejudice. In that moment, she was the teacher of the teacher.

Im also thankful for a Jesus who was willing to listen to her, a Jesus open to being shown a larger view even of his own world. Had Jesus sent her away, one could have argued, he would have done the right” thing according to some of his peers, yet a great injustice would have been committed and therefore it would have been wrong. Instead he listened to her, and he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethical teachings of love and justice that day, thanks to this woman.

Jesus models for us how we, too, can grow in the way we understand our world by being open to listening to the experiences and stories of those who are unlike ourselves. We are not all the same. We are all of the same worth. Yet there is vast diversity within humanity, and these differences should not only be celebrated, they should also be heard, attended to, and learned from.

In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like.

We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.

As a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class male, I’m reminded of the times those who are different from me have called me to understand the world in much larger ways. I’m thankful for my feminist, womanist, LGBTQ, Black, and Brown friends, and many others who, like the woman in this story, cared about me enough to push back on my limited way of perceiving the world. They expended energy to help me understand how hurtful my behavior was, and they not only called me to be better, but also believed I could be. For each of them, I am deeply grateful. They didn’t have to do that. They could have just left me as ignorant as they found me, but instead, like the Syrophoenician woman, they engaged a labor of love on my behalf. I’m also glad I chose to listen.

This story also calls me to continue this process. It calls me to look out for places I still need to grow in my understanding of others and our work of making our world a safe, just home for everyone.

In a way, the Jesus of this story in Mark faced the same dilemma we each face when navigating social realities, and so Im thankful to see this side of Jesus. Im just as thankful for the woman who helped him grow in compassion and justice.

I wish we had more time to discuss the second story in this week’s reading, but we’ll get to it another time. It’s a story with a long history of ableist interpretations that have done much damage to disabled people.

For now, may we show the same willingness to perceive the world in much larger ways that we see in the Jesus of our story this week. If Christians would follow Jesus in just this one thing alone, what a difference it would make!

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share an experience of where you choose in a difficult moment, not to get defensive, but to apologize when your own faults were pointed out, and chose to be humble and willing to embrace change. Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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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.