“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Racism
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 28, 2021
Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 7:24-30
This morning we continue the Lenten sermon series, “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us.” I encourage you to join me for our final segment of Holy Conversations via Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. to share your perspectives and to pray with others who are seeking God’s wisdom. While we all look forward to next Sunday when we will gather in-person and online to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with “Radical Optimism,” today we pause to consider the issue of racism. Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their race or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized; the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another. While we may have seen prejudice in the world, in our country, in our neighborhoods, in our families, and even been guilty of it ourselves, I daresay none of us expect such discrimination to be recorded in Scripture—especially not by Jesus. But that is certainly an explanation for what we find in our reading from the Gospel of Mark.
In his Bible study, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, Walter Brueggemann notes that Jesus’ ministry is conducted in large part in Galilee. Just prior to our reading from the Gospel of Mark, in response to a hungry crowd gathered around Jesus in a deserted place, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the people so that 5000 are fed with 12 baskets of bread left over. (The 12 baskets left over represent the 12 tribes of Israel.) Afterward, Jesus enters a house to catch his breath. While presumably enjoying the hospitality and the respite, his peace is rudely interrupted by a Syrophoenician woman. She is NOT a Jew. She is a Gentile, an ethnic “other.” Make no mistake, her intrusion is disruptive, disturbing, and unwelcome. But she is not concerned about decorum. Having heard of Jesus’ powers of healing, she is a woman on a mission to get help for her beloved daughter who suffers with an unclean spirit. Humbly she bows at his feet and begs Jesus for help. Instead of responding with the kindness we expect from Jesus, he retorts, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Make no mistake, is clear to the woman and to everyone within earshot what he is implying. The children are the entitled Jews, the dogs are the “other,” the Gentile, the woman and her daughter, and the food is the power of God to transform life. Interestingly, the woman does not dispute his statement. She accepts that the children, the Jews, should be served first. “But sir,” she reasons, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
I cannot overstate the problematic nature of this text. In fact, whenever it comes up in the Lectionary, I cringe—I, along with every other preacher I know. Wells of ink have been spilled to explain away Jesus’ uncharacteristic behavior with some saying he is tired and others arguing that even Jesus has a bad day on occasion. But Brueggemann has another take on the matter. He contends that what happens between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman alters the course of Jesus’ ministry. In Brueggemann’s words,
[Jesus] was from Galilee. He apparently understood himself…in the limited provincial categories of Jewish Galilee, and that was the proper scope of his ministry. There had thus far been no challenge to that scope. There was enough to do in Galilee among Jewish peasants…His own people had received him gladly, and that was surely enough.
But now an outsider, a woman, intrudes and contradicts Jesus and now he must answer. Again, Brueggemann:
Would he dispute her? Would he defend male privilege? Would he argue for Jewish chosenness? Would he stubbornly insist that he had it right the first time: He has no ministry to the “dogs”? No; he does none of that. He makes a different response. He commends the bold woman…Because she broke the silence in a daring, insistent way that reeducated him, her daughter is set free.
Indeed, this encounter does mark a change in Jesus’ ministry for immediately afterward he moves on to the region of the Decapolis and there in Greek territory among Gentiles, he heals a man who is deaf and mute. And then, in the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus performs yet another feeding miracle, this time to 4000 people. Starting with seven loaves, Jesus takes, thanks, breaks, and gives so that the crowd eats and are filled with seven baskets left over. The use of “seven,” notes Brueggemann,
…is an allusion to the “seven nations” that ancient Israel had displaced in the Old Israel tradition. These nations had been forcibly displaced, and their religious icons had been violently destroyed. But now Jesus sets them alongside his own people in Galilee as those who are able to share with Jews the “food” of the new regime of God. The woman’s speech has set in motion a wholly different history. And we have arrived at a narrative symmetry of twelve baskets of bread for the twelve tribes of Israel and seven baskets of bread for the seven nations of the tradition…Now it is no longer “bread for the chosen people.” Now it is “bread for the world.”[i]
I subscribe to Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation and in recent weeks he has explored how difficult it is to see our own biases and how only love can overcome them. Wisely, he observes that no matter what our viewpoint is, it is a view from a point. On the subject of bias, Brian McLaren insists that the more we bump into folks who are so-called “other,” the more we are stretched, the more we are pulled out of that bias and have new truths because we have tangible evidence of the beautiful, powerful creativity of our God who made all of this diversity for us to enjoy.
As Christians, we are called to be people who love. That is our life’s work. We love God. We love ourselves. We love our families. We love our friends. But we must move beyond that. We are called to expand love out into the universe—to people who are not like us, who do not look like us, who may not worship as we do, who do not see the world from our point of view. To do otherwise, is to fail Jesus who modeled how to expand our thinking and modify our behavior when the need arises.[ii]
Over the course of my 22-plus years of education, I have to say that my time at Columbia Theological Seminary and at Shalem Institute were the most life-changing. While there are many reasons for the impact these institutions had on me, one that stands out is the diversity of the faculty and students—people representing different continents, different countries, different faith traditions, different races, different life experiences, different perspectives. In the company of such diversity, I often gave thanks to God for allowing me to see from different points of view, for allowing me to glimpse God’s kin-dom—a place where everyone is welcome, everyone is included, everyone has a voice, and no one is offered crumbs. Instead, baskets overflow with bread for the world. Glory be to God. Amen.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, 46-54.
[ii] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?ogbl#inbox/FMfcgxwLswFxwjnhhMSjqBJmRFBwLFss
*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission