Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Difficulty of Crossing Boundaries
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

In the Gospel for September 9, when Jesus crosses a boundary into what is now Lebanon, he finds himself offering the classic snub to a foreigner.  "You and your daughter are just dogs," is basically what he says.  (Mark 7:24-30 = Matthew 15:21-28)

I (Fred) have no trouble relating to this Gospel reading.  I remember well the time when I was extremely rude:  May 12, 1990 in Bethlehem.  I still have the Sunday Jerusalem Post with the front page story of the 12-year old boy shot and killed that Saturday in the Bethlehem market in the pre-Oslo days.  Pastor Mitri Raheb, then a relatively new pastor had invited me to bring a group for an extended visit, meeting with young people and worshipping with the congregation on Sunday morning, as well as visiting other programs.  It was my first time staying in Bethlehem, there at the newly renovated Casa Nova guest house next to the Church of the Nativity—and I should add, the first of many wonderful experiences in Bethlehem, but that first time was out of the ordinary.

I still remember that moment on that Saturday afternoon when touring the Children’s Orthodopedic Hospital (later closed), and shots rang out and smoke from burning tires filled the sky and our hospital administrator told us of trouble in the market.  Already word quickly had filtered back that at least one youth had been shot and a full scale riot had broken out.  “At least all of your students are safe here with us,” said the administrator. 

 “Not exactly.  Several failed to show up.”

And one of my students chimed in.  “They were going to the market.”  

 And so the worried look on the administrator’s face.  And a brisk walk back to the guest house to find the missing students.

But there outside the guest house where a crowd had gathered to watch the developments from a distance, a strange voice called to me in broken English, “Professor, Professor.”  I walked by ignoring him. 

But persistently he called out, “Your students.” 

“Not now, I’m busy.” 
Now it wasn’t the first time I had encountered this aggressive shopkeeper.  Earlier that morning while walking across Manger Square, he had called out to me, “You must come visit my shop.”  He was leading a couple of my students in that direction. 

 “No we have an appointment at the Women’s Cultural Center.  No time for shopping.” And I emphasized the ‘we” and walked on not giving him the time of day. 

 “No please, it will just take a minute.”  And I gave him the cold shoulder.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I was extremely rude to him.
And so there outside the guest house that afternoon he was pestering me once again.  And you want to see rudeness, I turned on a double dose. “Out of my way. I have to find my students. I don’t have time for you.” 

And calmly he pointed out, “your students are okay.  They’re safe in my shop.”
“Then I need to go get them.”

 “No, it’s too dangerous, you stay here, and send the rest inside,” he instructed me.  “I’ll bring the others to you.” And one by one he led the others back to the guest house, in spite of the way I had treated him.  And then he facilitated a transfer to the Jerusalem Casa Nova up by New Gate, and arranged for three taxis, explaining, “They’ll be soon announcing a curfew and you don’t want to be stuck inside for three days or longer.”
And only later while driving off in the taxis did I get the full story how he had remembered seeing the students in the market and when the commotion broke out, he had gone out into the streets to bring them to safety in his shop, and then when realizing that several had been overcome by tear gas, he went down the street to purchase onions and then cut them up for them to make their eyes water to cleanse away the irritation.

It was an amazing example of Arab hospitality, undeserved hospitality, in the face of close-minded rude behavior.
So why was it that I was unwilling to give him the time of day to his open welcome?  As I look back I guess it’s merely an example of the difficulty we have crossing boundaries, moving beyond our comfort zones.  In our heads, we recognize a certain reality, but deep down it’s more difficult to embrace the stranger.  I had been able to move physically to Palestinian turf.  But embrace the stranger?  That was a bit too much. In this case, a Palestinian, a Muslim, and a shopkeeper—a stereotypical outgoing shopkeeper, overly friendly, aggressive.  Perhaps one of those boundaries could be easily crossed.  But three?  Three strikes and you’re out.  And yet grace comes when it’s the other who crosses the boundaries in our direction.  Grace comes when the other reaches out and accepts us the way we are, rudeness and all.

And that seems to be the case in today’s Gospel with the encounter of Jesus and his disciples with the Canaanite woman, after crossing the geographical boundary into the region of Lebanon.  A woman confronting Jesus in a world where men and women do not interact in public.  A foreigner, described in Mark as Syro-Phoenecian, or in Matthew as Canaanite, the ancient inhabitants of Palestine.  A Gentile in a world where Jews simply did not associate with non-Jews.  And in Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus makes that clear, “I have come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Gender, ethnicity, religion.  Three strikes and you’re out.
 And so we have one of the most difficult episodes in the gospels with Jesus and the disciples giving her the cold shoulder or worse.  "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 

And this language about dogs seems overly offensive in a world where the other is portrayed as less than human, and especially the wild dogs, not the clean well groomed house-hold pets. 
I’m reminded of the line in the novel Mornings in Jenin at the patriarch’s funeral in 1953 when family members finally realized a return to their home village near Haifa would never again be possible:  “We are refugees,” Hasan said.  “Even our Palestinian countrymen from the towns look down on us.  If we must be refugees we will not live like dogs.”
There is a            custom among Pales-tinians today, that bread is never thrown away.  If there is a left-over piece, place it on a wall, a place free from dirt, so that a hungry passerby can benefit from the crums falling from another's table.
With the Gospel encounter coming so soon after the feeding of the 5,000, where the last lines emphasized the abundance of bread and the inclusion of women and children, we can only ask why this abundance couldn’t cross over the boundary.  But in the end it did.
But again, it’s the other who crosses over, adapting to Jesus’ own religious terminology. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy,” the woman says in Matthew’s Gospel, using acceptable Jewish titles, and humiliating herself in begging, and being uncharacteristically  assertive and quick witted.  "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

And God’s mercy falls down upon her and her daughter.  And God’s mercy falls down upon us as this encounter becomes a turning point in salvation history as the gospel is extended beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and religion, the door to the gentiles is open.  In the end, Jesus and the woman have both crossed boundaries to accept each other. 

Crossing boundaries is not easy, but the result is often surprising and full of grace.

So we can only respond with smiles and appreciation for what this woman accomplished in breaking down these boundaries.

And as we reflect on the story today, we can only be amazed at the generosity and unrestricted abundance that is prepared at the Master’s table for us. 
Whether we identify with the child in the story, coming to the table with our burdens and pains, coming in need of God’s mercy,

or whether we see ourelves as this determined woman, the advocate, frustrated by a world deaf to our pleas for openness or concern,

or whether we are like the disciples, as Matthew describes them, acting as gatekeepers and restricted by policies and procedures,

or whether we are the decision makers who are called to break with tradition and norm, who hear the cries of those in need,

there is room at the Master’s table for all of us.  For the words are spoken with the sharing of the bread, “All are welcome.  There is room at the table for all.”


by Fred & Gloria Strickert