This week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading is Mark 7:24-37, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of a man deaf and mute. The Lectionary very helpfully pairs it with a passage from Isaiah 35 in which the restoration of hearing and speech (along with sight and movement) are connected with the return of the people from exile to Jerusalem and their restoration to Holiness and intimacy with God.
This passage with its report of Jesus making a stark and definitive distinction between the “children” (of Israel) and the (pagan) “dogs” and declaration that it is not good to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs is one many struggle with. They can’t reconcile their idea of Jesus with his calling (by implication) this suffering faithful woman and her afflicted daughter “dogs”. Of course the blow is softened by his response to her appeal to let the dogs eat crumbs by declaring her daughter released from the demon. This does not, though, mean that the designation “dog” is rejected. It is accepted by the woman in her answer and Jesus does not at any point object to it.
This passage falls in the middle of a longer unit formed by the two feeding miracles (of 5,000 and of 4,000) that many scholars believe enact the movement from a mission only to Israel to a mission that invites those outside Israel to participate in God’s kingdom. The 4,000 are the dogs who are fed with the crumbs from the feeding of the 5,000, on this reading.
This would make the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman a key moment in the move from one to the other and thus a crucial staging point in the journey to Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ messianic status after the healing miracle that follows the second feeding as this week’s follows the first.
All of this in turn echoes and draws on the crucial passage from Isaiah 35 that we are offered by the RCL and that many think stands behind this week’s Gospel. Isaiah 35 is a brief outburst of eschatological hope and exaltation in the transition from the first part to the second of that extraordinary book. Here the prophetic word suddenly breaks free from its moorings in the historical reality of Judah’s struggle for survival in the face of Assyrian hegemony to take a view of God’s faithful restoration of Israel after her humiliation and near destruction by Babylon.
By invoking this vision in the context of Jesus’ ministry the text reminds of a series of crucial claims:
- the appearance of Jesus marks the moment of the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, the day of the Lord, when God will reign in Zion and all the peoples will recognise his sovereignty over the world, leading to universal peace and justice
- the breaking in of God’s rule will be marked by the healing of people and by abundance of food and the flowering of the desert
- the God that comes will be the God of Israel, finally revealed as the God of of all creation
We are confronted by these passages, with their national-historical and universal-cosmological roots and ambitions, at a time when the world is being tested by a crisis of enormous magnitude and great depth. The collapse of the Syrian state and the disintegration of that country into a dystopic nightmare of civil war and frenzied repression is the main driver of the current movement. Of Syria’s roughly 18 million people it is thought that nearly 10 million have had to leave their homes and that around 4 million have left the country. Most of these are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
In Britain the response to the global flow of refugees is dominated by a general reluctance to admit migrants of any kind. (Ipsos Mori report on attitudes to migration). It is difficult to determine why the population of this country (including former migrants) are so keen to keep newcomers out but it should be remembered that we are not unique in this. Even the United States of America, where the current population is made up almost entirely of the descendants of relatively recent immigrants, has a consistent record of high levels of support for “nativist” politicians who want to close the country to new arrivals going back into the eighteenth century. This suggests that arguments about factors like jobs, housing and other public goods like health and education may be rationalisations of motivations that people are less willing to express (as I believe to be the case).
What do our Lectionary passages have to say to us Christians as we contemplate the appalling situation of those fleeing war and seeking to break into a Europe they believe offers them the chance to rebuild a life worth living?
First we should remember that as gentile Christians we should see ourselves as displaced persons, as “dogs” without a home. We have, in Christ, subjected ourselves to the God of a nation (Israel) that we have not joined. Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that we should regard ourselves as resident aliens in the nations we inhabit and in the current context there is great value in this argument. We should not see ourselves as native to the United Kingdom or to any other state or nation in this world. We are the dogs of Biblical Israel, those hoping that God will feed us with the crumbs from the children’s table. We have, from this point of view, no more right to be where we are than do those encamped at Calais or in Lebanon. We do not, or we should not, recognise national distinctions that we reject (whether we know it or not) when we try to enter the kingdom of God.
Second we should not expect our states, as states, to agree with us on this radical rejection of national boundaries. The other half of Hauerwas’ argument (with which I would not always agree but which I regard as wonderfully helpful in our present situation) is that we are aliens because our states are not Christian, are in fact anti-Christian. Hauerwas can sometimes seem to come close to advocating a complete withdrawal from political life and at the moment that seems a tempting course of action. At any rate if we engage in the argument about what should be done we must be aware that whatever outcome emerges it will be less than adequate to the horror that is unfolding. We should not be tempted to imagine that there is a “right” answer available in the political sphere, however strong we believe our duty to seek the better rather than the worse.
We have to stand up for the humanity of the displaced. The language of “swarm” and “horde”, the refusal to recognise ourselves in those fleeing war, persecution and poverty, must be resisted. The refugees are people like ourselves. Ultimately I can’t see any kind of closed border as compatible with Christian ethics BUT I am aware that the argument for open borders will not be won this side of the return of Christ and the final establishment of the direct rule of God. In the meantime it is necessary (if we are to engage in politics at all) to be realistic about what is possible and what the results of any particular course of action will be.
In the current European moment it is clear that the UK should, must, do more. It is less clear how much more and for whom. There is, in fact, some merit in the argument of the government that the additional people to whom it offers refuge should be taken from the camps in the countries neighbouring Syria rather than from among those already in Europe. Those left behind will inevitable include the most needy. On the other hand it is also clearly an attempt to avoid being drawn into comparison with Germany (or Sweden or indeed Austria) which are hosting, proportionately to their population, many times more of those who have got to Europe. This is a cynical manoeuvre and should be denounced as such but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t, perhaps, be better to take some tens of thousands from Lebanon or Jordan than it would be to open the border.
At any rate the practical politics of the situation are much more complex than the very simple tasks that we cannot evade of insisting on the humanity of those in distress and demanding that they be viewed with compassion and care rather than hostility and rejection.