There’s a story in the Bible found in the book of Mark 7. It’s particularly relevant today given the events covered by the media about the influx of Syrian refugees into Western Europe.
The story begins with Jesus interacting with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious elite that had considerable power in Jewish culture and worked hard preserve that culture (and their power). On this particular day they were calling out Jesus’ disciples because they were not following proper traditions before eating food. Jesus responds by pointing out their way of thinking was not only backwards, but admonished them for being more concerned about upholding vain traditions over the commandments of God.
The scene shifts to the port city of Tyre, which is in present day Lebanon. Jesus’ popularity has grown over time and now he’s attracting crowds everywhere he goes. On this particular day, while trying to find some solitude, a woman tracks him down and throws herself at his feet. The scripture is intentional in outlining she’s not Jewish, but in fact a Greek. The next exchange is stunning. She asks Jesus to heal her daughter back home. His response?
“Healing is reserved for the children, and shouldn’t be waste on dogs like you and your daughter. – Mark 7:27”
The exchange is shocking because this doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus we are familiar with. What’s happening?
Jesus is in fact parodying the previous interaction he had with the religious elite. To them (the Pharisees), keeping Jewish traditions was of the utmost importance. Jesus is acting as if he was a Pharisee, and they would refer to a Gentile woman as a dog. But there’s another layer at play. In the Jewish worldview at the time Jews were a chosen people (the children referred to in Jesus’ answer) selected to be exclusive recipients of God’s kingdom. Their hope was a king would return to deliver them from occupation by booting out anybody who wasn’t Jewish.
The woman’s response challenges this assumption. She is indeed a prophet, revealing God’s truth to her contemporaries. “Even the dogs will eat the scraps from the children’s table,” she replies. Jesus agrees and heals the daughter. Suddenly the kingdom of God is accessible to anybody, not just the Jews as the Pharisees would have liked.
The story continues and she returns home to find her daughter healed. The connection to our present day is profound. She is from Syrophoenicia which was Roman province covering modern-day Lebanon and Syria–the source of tens of thousands of refugees; men, women, and children, pouring over the borders by the thousands with millions behind waiting for an escape from war. Many succumb along the journey to exhaustion, boats are capsizing, children are dying.
What does God have to say about our participation in righting this wrong?
As news filters to the West we wonder what our government can do, but more importantly we need to look inside of ourselves and how we can deal with the 21st-century problem of human migration and refugees.
In the very least we should NOT be making the same mistakes the Pharisees made. The first: the gift of God’s kingdom is for all and everybody wants a foretaste of what is to come. That foretaste the dream God has for all of creation: the restoration of all things. The second: the Pharisees only included people that looked like themselves. Jesus turned that expectation on its head. Look at Mark 7:31-33 and note how Jesus’ interaction with the woman wasn’t a one off. He goes on to heal people in the middle of a Roman city square, literally a melting pot of humanity, and the opposite of what the Pharisees pictured. Jesus is driving home the point that the Kingdom of God is for everyone of all shapes tribe, colors, nation and tongue.
How should we respond to the refugee crisis in our world right now? We can uphold Kingdom by standing for the oppressed, setting the prisoners free, feeding the hungry, praying for those who face the oppression of war. [You can read this post on ways you can help in relief efforts.]
With notes from James Atack.