The Evangelist Mark, tells of a period in Jesus’ ministry when he appears to be off-line or off the radar, to use an older expression. Mark relates Jesus turning up in the region of Tyre. Tyre was historically the capital of the Phoenicians, an area we would recognize today as Lebanon. By Jesus’ time, this region had become a melting pot of Phoenicians, Canaanite-Syrians and Greeks. Jesus has wandered into and area where Jews were not always welcome. The Middle East was always, as it remains today, a hotchpotch of diverse ethnicities and faith communities living cheek by jowl, not always in amicable terms with one another. Mark does not explain why Jesus journeys into foreign territory. Furthermore, it appears that Jesus is alone. Mark offers no explanation for this, either.
Jesus roams beyond his Jewish homeland into a borderland. I am interested in the term borderland not merely as a geographical reference, but as a psychological designation. The borderland is the place where our psychological references shift.
Within our habitual environment – our habitude, we become programmed to expect only certain things, and to interpret them in familiar ways. Our habitude, an old French word once frequently used in English is from a psychological viewpoint a construction, a mental space inhabited by familiar expectations. Our habitude is by its very nature designed to minimize the possibility of being surprised by the unexpected. Even when we are, there’s no guarantee we will even recognize it.
Mark relays an encounter in the borderland with the unexpected that surprises Jesus. What’s more, being surprised by the unexpected seems to bring about a huge shift in Jesus personal perspective on the world presaging a huge shift in the nature of his mission.
An encounter that changed the world
We all know Mark’s story (Mk 7:24-37) about Jesus’ encounter with the gentile woman who request healing for her daughter. Distance in time and culture insulates us from the tensions running through this encounter. We miss the fact that Jesus’ response to her is from his place of habitude. He rejects her request because as he puts it, it’s not right to give the food reserved for the children of Israel and feed it to the likes of her a gentile dog. Micah Kiel in his commentary on this text comments:
Mark’s Jesus here uses the Greek word for “dog” in the diminutive, but this does not mean Jesus is calling her a “cute little puppy.” A colloquial translation today might be: “little bitch.” Jesus seems unsure of the relationship between the Gentiles and the Kingdom of God.
The reason Mark gives us this vignette is because it presents Jesus as a man, confronted by the unexpected, being jolted into a new understanding of his mission. The woman receives her request and her daughter is healed not because she has skillfully bested Jesus in argument, though this is clearly so, but because Jesus is confronted with a new understanding that expands his mission beyond the confines of his Jewish-shaped -habitual expectation.
What kind of Jesus do we want?
What I mean by this question is, is Jesus a prisoner of our habitude, or is he a figure that surprises us and jolts us into the hitherto unimaginable? So much of our traditional way of viewing Jesus pictures him as omniscient – knowing all things, seeing all possibilities ahead of their happening. This presents a curious picture of Jesus who knows his end and simply journeys towards its fulfillment. It is as if we see Jesus as the key protagonist in a play, who going through the motions knows, as we also know, the end of the story ahead of time.
Speaking plainly, I do not find this Jesus of much help to me. I see this traditional image as an expression of our human desire to put a wide blue distance between Jesus and ourselves. In raising him to a higher plain of consciousness – an omniscient being, Jesus earns our admiration, someone to look up to. Yet, we seldom notice that such an elevation also conveniently excuses us from the now so-called higher – as in beyond our reach -elements of his mission. Our elevation of Jesus gives us an excuse from following Jesus because it’s now a futile exercise in comparing apples with oranges.
The phrase Mark most often uses to refer to Jesus is Son of Man. Most of us seem to prefer Matthew’s more elevated reference Son of God. In Jewish etymology, their meanings are technically interchangeable, yet for us they nuance this question of what kind of Jesus do we want? Do we want a Jesus who unlike us, is omniscient, knowing all things ahead of time? Or do we yearn for a Jesus who like us, can be surprised? Mark presents Jesus as very much like us, a man who was confronted by surprise; a man who could be jolted out of his habitude of familiar expectations and learn.
Learn is the key word here, for learning can be pleasurable, but is most often painful, arising out of a conflict between the familiar and the challengingly novel. The idea that Jesus learns comforts me because I too learn – usually painfully, and I can only imagine that it was as painful and initially disorienting for Jesus as it usually is for me.
A local implication of Mark’s story
At St Martin’s in Providence the Labor Day Weekend signals our entry into the new program year. We do so this year supported by the spiritual inventory program, RenewalWorks. Like many Christian communities we are powerfully confronted by the challenge to grow- growth measured across the board: in numbers, income, levels of engagement, but most significantly, measured in terms of our spiritual deepening. It’s clear to many of us that the key to drawing others, to attaining better financial sustainability, and levels of community engagement is completely reliant on the members of our community learning; learning more about our spiritual needs and the discrepancies between what we spiritually long for and our spiritual practice.
Key to this learning transition is our willingness to close the safety gap –mind the gap – keeping Jesus and his call to mission, at a comfortable distance.
A global implication of Mark’s story
As we watch the agony of the flood of refugees fleeing the carnage of Syria and adjacent regions, as a citizen of the European Union I am appalled at the failure not simply of human charity, but of the amnesia that blinds the more xenophobic countries of the Union to the echo between the historical images of the holocaust and what we all see unfolding across our TV screens. The current crisis is a European crisis, and one that is challenging the EU at its core to learn from its own painful history. Yet, in America the lesson should not be lost on us either, for we are more than willing to look the other way in the face of increasing pressure on our own borders.
The mission of Jesus is not his mission, it is our mission also. Mark’s story is a pivotal point that shows Jesus being (uncomfortably) confronted to expand the boundaries of his mission to reveal the power and urgency of God’s love and acceptance for the entire human race. Let’s stop hiding in our habitude, safely insulated from the demands of too much accountability for one another and allow ourselves to be confronted by the message of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman.
The problems of our world are huge, and the solutions always partial and incomplete. This does not excuse us from our need for a change of heart!