People Matter

Posted: September 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 16B, 2018
Mark 7:24-30

People Matter

What we have to explore today is an interesting and different story from our gospel tradition. It is a single-entry story (Mark 7:24-30) that not only paints Jesus in a not-so-positive light, but also seems to question the very spirituality that initially shaped him. Jesus is seen as being critical of a gentile woman’s social behaviour and a judgmental temperamental exorcist. Feed the children first rather than throwing the food to the dogs. Then accepting her claim that the dogs eat the children’s crumbs he casts out the demons, first of the daughter and then the deaf man.

Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in last week’s story, the storyteller we call Mark now has Jesus challenged (and by implication, the Markan community somewhere in Syria) to put that teaching into practice by ministering to those often seen as ‘unclean’—or just different. We might say in our everyday language… Take the time to look beyond external factors like nationality, religious heritage, or social position, which by their nature often exclude. In the language of ‘Marcus Borg’ we are asked; what ‘lens’ did the storyteller Mark use and why? What ‘lens’ can we use to hear this story with twenty-first century ears?

Rex Hunt talks of a gathering he attended several years ago in Queensland at which a keynote speaker was feminist theologian and Catholic religious, Miriam Therese Winter.
He speaks of the experience as a stimulating and awakening experience for many of the males present as they began to hear some of the biblical stories through the eyes and ears—through the ‘lens’—of women. Again, this reminds us of the importance of the lens through which we look at the text. So. In that spirit we might explore a couple of comments on Mark’s story.

It seems that through the storyteller’s ‘lens’ we have a Phoenician woman, and her unconventional behaviour as determined by social convention, and we have her getting one over Jesus and if we believe the storyteller, it caught him on the back foot, so to speak. What initially draws the dominant male’s wrath by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness, eventually subverts that discomfort into agreement. Mark’s Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need. Now, Mark suggests, Jesus is faced with having to learn that social conventions, ingrained in his spirituality, should not do so either. And if it was good enough for Jesus to have a change of heart, then what seems implied in this story, is: why shouldn’t it be also good enough for others, especially Mark’s own community, to be so challenged?

On the surface the story is presented as one about healing. But if we dig a little deeper we can will find Mark intended it to be a story of inclusion and distributive justice. And it is a story where a woman becomes the lead actor or ‘lens’ in the interaction. The storyteller’s teaching moment seems to be as our title suggests: people matter most. No one can be excluded. None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’. None! Like I argued in our discussion last week; the restoration of the individual is sacramental of the restoration of society and like that which undergirds our communion this week; what we do at the table when we intentionally take our selves to the table we restore society together.

Changing tack a bit and changing the ‘lens’. We might look through the lens Arthur Dewey author, progressive theologian and Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar takes In one of his many articles he explores the possibility of viewing Jesus through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman. Why? Because Dewey reckons this could help us work out what Jesus was about.

He writes: It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision… What can we make of those words?

In answering this Dewey goes on: “Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision.”

So, what might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audiences that Jesus is speaking to? Well! We, can probably say that there are some common sociological realities that we can identify in his audience.

  1. There will be disputes where the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality; Look after oneself first and so on.
  2. There will be a need to admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal and perhaps even legal immigrants – whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’;
  3. There will be the challenge to all to reshape one’s social categories, especially those of others, formed by fears and rumours and innuendo. Who is in or out, who is appropriate or not.

Dewey asks how this change might happen and he suggests it begins with our imagination. He suggests that we imagine ourselves acting differently towards those outside the circle of our people. Not only to re-imagine our response but also to offer our oppressor a chance for a more humane reply.

In the words of Nelson Mandala and Desmond Tutu we are being challenged to practice ‘ubantu’. Tutu explains the meaning of this Zulu word when he says: We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I de-humanize you, I inextricably de-humanize myself. The solitary human is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.

The challenge in looking through another lens is to acknowledge that there are still many in our communities who know what it is like to be without a voice, to be flattened,
to be destroyed. And when we seek to change laws to enable the church or businesses
to exclude or denigrate minority groups, it is no wonder that others in the community think it natural to also treat them: asylum seekers, gay, lesbian, and transgender folk,
the homeless that way.

In our own space right now in this country we are being asked this question of who’s in or who’s out. We have had the lets reduce the number of immigrants and we have without much acknowledgment raised the numbers back up. Economics has overridden the social concerns. The discussion about the correctness of the Prime Minister visiting Nauru is a smoke screen to the question of the abhorrent practice of locking up asylum seeker children in immigration detention centers, often in poor countries outside our own. A former ‘Australian of the Year’, Professor Patrick McGorry, described such places as “factories of mental illness.” And author Tim Winton said in his 2015 Palm Sunday address: “We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatized children. And if they flee their

war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening.”

Here we have the challenge of the text for today, who’s in and who’s out? And right about now the even bigger challenge unfolds. We cannot escape some responsibility as we are social beings, We know we cannot survive as isolated individuals. We know we are at our best when we love, when we care for each other, when we seek justice for each other. Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay called this attitude of sensible avoidance of the issues as ‘disengagement’. In a newspaper article some time back, he wrote: “We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed… We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices”. And the result of this disengagement many, perhaps most of us is that we ignore the plight of others. Just a few years back many of us would have said that ‘trickle-down economics’ is the answer to every question. Even it seems, if the planet burns!

Until as our text reminds us a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her,
gives the ignored or the forgotten, a voice. Prophets come in all shapes and sizes and they don’t look the way you would expect. Don’t tell me who’s in or out, even the out eat the same crumbs.

What this says is that every generation must work out its values and its faith responses
to changing circumstances, just as those who preceded us were required to do. Not everything passed down has the same value for life in the modern word, and we must discern towards Justice. And that goes for science, for politics, for education, and for religion. When all is said and done, we actually live in a new present, that is qualitatively different from any of our human pasts. In this present, as we think about ourselves and others, how do we find the energy to nurture a creative and compassionate lifestyle?

I want to finish this talk with some words for Sir Lloyd Geering, who suggests we need to take a few things with radical seriousness: We need;

  • An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.
  • An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.
  • An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.
  • An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.
  • Responsibility for the care of one another.
  • Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.
  • Its value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.

He goes on to say: “In developing a spirituality for today’s secular world we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves…  Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet”.

It’s time for your creative imaginations to become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways. Look with a new lens to be a human community in the world. Especially when everything around us seems fragile and unsure. Amen.

Bibliography:

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-Realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.

Clayton, P. “Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity”. 27/01/2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com

Dewey, A. J. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.

Geering, L. G. Coming Back To Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2008.

Hunt, R. A. E. Against the Stream. Progressive Christianity between Pulpit and Pew. Preston. Mosaic Press, 2013. (Re-issued by Morning Star Publishing, 2014).

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