Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's Not About You

If you can remember two weeks ago--back before Ashley Madison was the only thing we had to talk about--there was a brief Internet sensation involving James Harrison, linebacker for Pittsburgh Steelers, who made his sons return the trophies they received at a youth football camp. You can read a little bit about that in this Huffington Post article. For some people, this was a cause for celebration. As the sarcastic article states, "Americans are getting tired of self-indulgent socialization, in which kids are praised and rewarded for just showing up." Judging by the social media firestorm directed at Harrison and those who picked up his cause, others considered the no-trophy movement a big mistake. My favorite perspective came from the article's author, Galanty Miller who wrote, "Within our absurd 'you get a trophy just for participating' society, literally getting a trophy just for participating is probably the one aspect of today's horrible parenting that doesn't make children believe the world is all about them" (emphasis in original). Whether you like the trophies or not, I hope you can appreciate that sentiment.

On Sunday, Jesus is going to bark at a sweet Gentile mother, who is desperate to have her daughter's demon-possession cured. She will ask him for some help, and he is going to call her a dog: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." We don't like that Jesus. We want Jesus to help her. We want Jesus to be nice to everyone. We want him to respond openly and willingly to everyone's need. We aren't comfortable with his racist language. But that's the Jesus who is coming to church on Sunday, and we'd better figure out how to handle it.

Tomorrow, I want to write about race and culture, but today I want to focus on the woman--the humble, faithful, bold, feisty, patient, tenacious, mother who gets what she came for. When Jesus calls her a dog, essentially refusing to help this woman because of her race, she responds not by rejecting the premise of his argument but by accepting it: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." In response, Jesus says, "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter." Note how Mark tells the story. Jesus doesn't reward her faith. He rewards her statement and the fully deferential, fully accepting, fully willing-to-eat-crumbs attitude behind it. There is no "your faith has made you well." One could argue that, as a Syrophoenician, she has no recognizable faith. This time, it's the statement itself that turns Jesus around.

Let me stop for a moment and acknowledge that I'm also uncomfortable with this. As I'll point out tomorrow, Jesus is shockingly race-conscious in his initial rejection of the woman's request. I'm sure I'll refer to it again tomorrow, but Steve Pankey's post from today makes the important point that Jesus' racially biased response to the woman was fully appropriate and fully expected back then. Yes, Jesus' remarks are racially loaded. Yes, they would be inappropriate today. Yes, it's wrong, then, to conclude that the woman should be praised for her acceptance of her racially marginalized position. Again, I'll tackle that tomorrow. For today, though, let's leave the tacit promotion of racism through praising the woman for accepting the oppression she is given aside (if that's even possible) and let her deference teach a lesson to those of us who identify as privileged but who, in the story of salvation history, are not.

It is not all about us--and by "us" I mean Gentile Christians. Jesus did not come to earth to save us...at least not directly. Yes, his outstretched arms on the hard wood of the cross was the means by which God has gathered all nations unto himself, but Jesus didn't come looking to save the Gentiles. He came only "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"--Jesus' answer to the woman in Matthew's version of this encounter. News flash: that's not us. That's Israel. Where is our place in the divine economy? When do we get a seat at God's banquet table? Actually, we don't. We get to gather up the crumbs under the table, and we should be thankful for that.

This woman's statement is remarkable in at least three respects: 1) for her remarkably bold wit, 2) for her willingness to accept her place as a dog under the table, and 3) for her ability to see that God's salvation is abundant enough even for those who eat the leftover crumbs. And the only way she can see that there's enough for her--and if for her then for everyone--is by remembering that she doesn't need a seat at the table in order to be saved.

God's salvation is bigger than we expect, but it's bigger than we expect because we're less significant than we think. It's not about us. It's about God saving God's chosen people and using them to save the world. Those of us who know the deep promise of salvation through God's son, Jesus Christ, have been given a remarkable gift. But that gift is not primary. It's an afterthought. We're getting the leftovers. We're not supposed to have a place at the table, and that's ok. God's abundance is big enough. And we need to spend some time gathering up crumbs to see that.

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