As I sip my coffee in a cozy shop at an upscale mall in western Canada, reading the international press on my laptop, I find I am quite concerned with the plight of Syrian refugees washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean. I’m also upset about climate change and the attitudes of Big Oil, about our addiction to a source of energy that is proving toxic for our planet while other – admittedly more expensive – energy options are available.
The reason I’m having a coffee? I’m waiting. Waiting for my car to come out of the garage, hoping it will serve me for many more miles. Oh, and did I mention that I’ve just done an online search for the best air tickets available for an upcoming trip?
It’s so easy to express concern, to be passionate, about what is distant from us, what doesn’t impinge on our own lifestyles and behaviour. Creating distance – physical, social, legal, emotional – insulates us from any sense of personal responsibility. By habit, our attention is drawn away from the immediate, the part of our world that is most obviously given us to influence, and focused instead on the problems other people should deal with, if only they would face up to it. Come on, EU, where’s your compassion? Get real, Big Oil, show us you can innovate!
Jesus and his friends headed north to the coast, where no-one knew them, presumably for a little break from the crowds. But their fame preceded them and before long Jesus was again confronted with someone who wanted his attention.
…a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about Jesus, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
Dear woman, your problem is urgent but I’m afraid it is outside my brief. I’m a Jewish prophet, not a Gentile one. I’m not even on home soil; we’re outside my jurisdiction.
Distance, in this case ethnic and religious, absolves, alleviates, and excuses. There must be someone else you can see. Jesus, shockingly, is cast as the antithesis of the Good Samaritan.
But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
The woman is not put off so easily. She comes forward, closing the distance between them, and personalizes her plea. This has nothing to do with the nation of Israel vis-a-vis her daughter, both parties not present; this is between her and Jesus: Lord, help me.
I’m not at the children’s table asking you to take their food away in order to meet my need. I’m at the master’s table, your table, asking you to let a few crumbs fall to me.
Forget the distance between our peoples and our religions; forget your foreign tour, your holiday; forget the parameters of your vocation, of decorum and what others will think. This is just between you and me, between a “master” at his table and a “dog” in desperate need of some crumbs.
Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Suddenly the distance is closed entirely, the excuses for inaction are gone. Jesus, congratulating the woman for understanding how compassion works, grants her wish.
We pray so earnestly and work up our anxiety so easily about what is far from our own beds. We make our monthly donation to support poor children in developing countries, we sign petitions to stop drilling in the Arctic, we rage against far-flung injustices. All good and wonderful, truly.
But what are we doing here, in this place, with the brokenness of our world which is right around us, about which we can actually do something? Are we willing to break down the barriers, even the ones we have erected ourselves, let go of our excuses and let our lives be touched by the needs of our neighbours?
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2)