Saturday, August 13, 2005

When God Walks Away

It may be the tiny figure in the incubator attached by wires and tubes to machines, her miniature chest moving up and down so slowly, so strained, the little veins popping out with each tortured breath. Or the spouse who’s been there beside you for a lifetime, through good and bad times, and whose body is wracked now with pain that no medicine can relieve. Or your business, so carefully planned, so perfectly executed, unwinding in a maddening spiral of losses, careening towards bankruptcy. Or your teenager, drowning in rebellion, suffocating under the weight of drugs and sex and loathing.

Whatever it is, you’re desperate, and your prayers seem to bounce back off the ceiling. God is too busy making new galaxies or preventing humanity from destroying itself to even notice your plight. So you think of something to get God’s attention. Some bargaining chip, some ploy, some sacrifice. I’ll never be unkind to anyone again, God. I’ll stop drinking. I’ll stop sleeping with him. I’ll be in church every Sunday for the rest of my life. Please God, whatever it is, please just tell me. What will make you answer my prayer? But God just keeps on walking away from you, muttering something about feeding the dogs.

What kind of God is this, anyway?

This week’s Gospel reading is a troublesome one for our conventional view of Jesus and God. Jesus has left the realm of Palestine and gone up to the Lebanese coast, to Tyre and Sidon, the gentile towns north of the border, where the traditional enemies of the Jews live. Today, it’s a place of desperation and poverty, where 300,000 Palestinians live in squalor, hated by the Lebanese, unable to return to the land where they lived for millennia. Jesus has gone to a place inhospitable to Jews because things have gone rather badly in Israel—John the baptizer dead, a price on his own head. Herod’s vile reach does not extend here, so maybe he can get a little peace and quiet before he resumes his mission to the lost sheep of Israel.

But he finds neither peace nor quiet in the gentile country. Walking with his disciples, he is spied by a woman whose desperate need for his attention over-rides all sense of propriety.

We don’t know much about her. We don’t know if she was married. We don’t know if she was rich or poor. We don’t know if she worshipped Baal and Ashera, like Jezebel did centuries before. We don’t know how she knew about the out-of-towner who walked so deliberately away from her. All we know is that she had a daughter who was desperately ill—and whom she loved so much that she is willing to humiliate herself before her enemy if it will mean saving the child’s life.

So she falls in behind Jesus and his friends and begins to cry out “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” She is risking everything. Women in her society were even more oppressed than in Israel. She is forbidden to talk to strange men. She is forbidden to make such a public display of anguish, to beg so openly for a bargain with the Son of David.

All her anguish is rewarded with the silence of Jesus. Her cries are met with annoyance from the disciples. She is embarrassing them and embarrassing Jesus. They walk on, hoping that she will go away. Finally, they tug at Jesus’ sleeve. “Please send her away. Heal her daughter for crying out aloud. Jesus, she’s driving us nuts.”

Jesus just keeps on walking. Jesus, please. The disciples echo the woman, not because they care about her, but because they don’t. She is wailing, they are crowding around him. Jesus, please shut her up.

He looks at them in wonder. The only sound is the woman’s sobs. “But I was sent only to the lost sheep Israel.” It is half-statement, half-question. As if to say, “That’s right isn’t it? I’m not supposed to go to the gentiles, am I?”

The woman runs into their huddle and throws herself into the dust at Jesus feet. He watches her shoulders heave. Her tears pour onto the dry, Lebanese ground. She looks up at him, little wet trails running through the dirt on her cheeks. “Lord, please help me.”

We want our spiritual leaders to be perfect. We don’t want to have them reflect our own weaknesses or mistakes. We want them to be certain abut everything—especially who is in and who is out of God’s favor. But Jesus, for a moment, is uncertain. For a moment, he is just another Jewish man in the presence of a gentile woman. For a moment, he wavers.

When he speaks, it is in words of rejection. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” All the years of Jewish and Canaanite hatred, all the blood shed between them, the ancient curse of Noah on Ham’s son Cannan and the ancient resentments of a people displaced by the conquest of their tribal lands, all spilling out into an ugly, racist, bigoted reaction, by the man who will die to save the world, including Canaan’s children.

At least he has spoken. He’s reacted. He’s acknowledged her. Her heart leaps in hope. She smiles. “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She is wrestling with God.

In that moment, in that urgent, quiet, funny, desperate moment, Jesus understands the fullness of his mission. His is not an exclusive call to the Jews—he is called to the whole world. To undo the hatreds, the wars, the racism, the demonic torments the death that threaten the very existence of creation. It takes the world, struggling with Jesus, challenging his own humanity, to make him into its much-more-than-human Savior. Jesus is transformed.

He shakes his head with a smile. He no longer sees her as a dog, an unclean gentile. He sees her as one of his own. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Even Jesus learns from those on the outs with society that no one is on the outs with God.

Never before have we needed this Word as we do right now. Our world is divided by religious hatreds that think nothing of destroying the innocent. We are all—Christian, Jew, Muslim, pagan, religious or religionless—aware that our children are being tormented by demons. We are desperate for a cure, and we will try anything. We have tried destroying the demons, only to have them lunge back at us, pushing us towards the eternal fire.

This week the world marked the 60th anniversary of the only wartime use of nuclear weapons. Horrific weapons used to stop a horrific war. For the past seven decades we have tried to stuff the genie back into the bottle, but it won’t fit. Like a parent, snuffing out a cigarette and warning his children not to smoke, our nuclear children have ignored us.

The reactors in Iran are in operation once more. The Pakistanis have fired a nuclear-capable cruise missile. The Iraqis still don’t have a functioning government. The Gaza strip is being evacuated. Africa is dying and Malaysia is withering with drought. And we are all crying out, “Lord, please help us.”

The God of the universe smiles at us: “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. There are no foreigners in my realm—you are not going to be cut off from my love. There are no dried up trees, no dogs without table scraps, no children who will ultimately be lost. For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

We can wallow in the hatred and bigotry of our world. Or we can actively engage the people on the outs in healing and reconciliation. Paul says that it may look for all the world like rejection, but there is reconciliation going on here somehow, somehow there life here from the dead. The Canaanite woman is healed: she is included in the grace of God. Her daughter is healed, she is included in the grace of God. Even the disciples are healed: they can no longer pretend that Jesus is for them only. What about us? Are we willing to be healed? Are we willing to throw ourselves at Jesus and ask for the healing of the world’s children?

God has opened the way for all people to enter God’s house. If only we can hear God’s quiet comforting words :"Great is your faith, let it be done for you as you wish." Then we can go home to check on the children of the world, and find them healed, rather than trusting in our own bigotry and hatred. There are no outsiders here.

1 comment:

seth said...

Thanks for the provocative and powerful exegesis in this passage, and on prayer as well. I just heard a sermon this past Sunday on the fully human and fully divine Christ and it's always such a potent thing to wrap one's mind around. The past week as it turns out has been one of tough discussions about prayer and its utility with different acquaintances, not to mention a week of deep reflection on my own prayer life.