What about the Bread Crumbs?
When I first encountered Liberation Theology years ago (from reading Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Miquez Bonino, Jon Sobrino, among others) I learned that theology and faith have political implications. You can’t separate them out from each other, because what you believe about God and God’s vision of humanity of creation can’t remain private. It was as I read their writings, which emerged largely in a Latin American context, that I discovered that God was especially concerned about the fate of the poor and those who live on the margins of society. In contrast to the rugged individualism that I was raised with as a white middle class Protestant American, I heard the call to community. In their writings I learned of the importance of sharing life and its resources with each other in responsible ways. This encounter changed both my theology and my politics.
One of the phrases that I encountered back in the day, and a phrase that continues to resonate with me is “God’s preferential option for the poor.” When you begin to read the Bible, and take the biblical story seriously, you begin to notice the way in which God stands up for those on the margins. You see laws implemented and prophets speak. You hear Jesus speak of caring for the least among us. There is this call to love one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self. And if you try to separate love of God from love of neighbor, beware of the word you find in 1 John 4, which reads: “those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20b NRSV).
Sometimes lectionary texts appear that seem both prescient and inconvenient. Such is the case this week. As most Americans, at least, recognize, we’re in the midst of a political season, and standing at the heart of the current political debate is the economy. As Christians, if we take our Bible seriously, what does the biblical story say to us about the current situation? How should we act?
As we read these texts, it’s clear that a social justice focus is present. This reality is both prescient because the texts speak to matters of importance at this moment, but they’re also inconvenient if people are hoping to find a respite from the political when they head off to church. The question is -- can we be faithful followers of Jesus and not deal with the political and the public? Since I wrote a book on the subject, you’d expect me to answer in the negative. You’d be correct, because whatever our approach, we can’t retreat from the world. The good news of Jesus isn’t that he rescuing the perishing and sends them off to heavenly bliss. The good news is that the kingdom is coming – on earth as in heaven. So, if we let these texts speak to us in clear tones, will we hear in them a call to participate with God in the planting of God’s realm on earth? But, as we hear these words, especially those in James 1, will we recognize the difficulty of living out this calling with consistency?
I entitled this mediation “What about the Bread Crumbs?” as a reflection on the word that the Syro-Phoenician woman delivered to Jesus. When Jesus told the woman that the children would have to be fed first, before the bread is thrown to the dogs, she answered: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” Mark 7:28 NRSV). We’ll talk more in a moment about this interchange, and Jesus’ apparent racist or ethnocentric sentiment, but the point is – even Jesus learned something about justice that day, and certainly, we can learn something important about justice at this very important political moment.
When I think of the Proverbs rarely do I equate them with a concern for justice? More often than not the message I hear when I read them is one of retribution – you reap what you sow. So I didn’t expect to hear about God’s “preferential option for the poor” in this book of wisdom. No, I expected to find a word about how the pursuit of wisdom leads to wealth and honor (Proverbs 3:16). But something very different appears in the 22nd chapter. In these verses, we hear that God stands with the poor – that is God has a “preferential option for the poor.” In the 23rd verse we hear that when the poor are exploited, YHWH “will take up their case.” These proverbs are short and pithy statements. They’re memorable and poignant. They’re summations of wisdom, and in this summation we’re reminded that God has created each of us, whether rich or poor. We hold this truth in common. The poor are not of a lesser stock, which the wealthy are free to enslave and abuse. Indeed, it appears that those who sow injustice will reap calamity (Prov. 22:8). The generous on the other hand will be blessed when they share food with the poor. Yes, the point here in verse 9 isn’t that we should “give” food to the poor and thus are blessed, but that we should “share” with the poor. The difference may seem slight, but it’s powerful – when we share we enter into the lives of the other – their journey becomes our journey. And when their journey becomes our journey, then we won’t exploit and oppress the poor, for if God is on their side, shouldn’t we want to be where God is found?
In the Letter of James, this theme of justice introduced by the Proverbs is taken up. Now, James’s letter is a controversial one – especially in Protestant circles. Luther didn’t think that the Gospel was present in it, but I think that Luther, at least at this moment, had a rather narrow vision of the gospel. What James does is confront us with our tendency to separate our walk from our talk. So, if Proverbs 22:23 introduces God’s preferential option, James hammers it home. He puts some meat on the bones and develops the story, and in the course of doing this he steps on our toes more than once.
The key point in James 2 is that we have a predilection toward favoritism. Admit it, if a rich person enters the church you will, like me, rush over and show them great hospitality. Both the pastor and the treasurer recognize the value of bringing in a bit of wealth! But, what about the poor person, the homeless person, how do we respond? Remember sometimes they appear in clothes that are dirty and they may have an unwelcome odor. So, do we send them elsewhere? Do we give them a couple of bucks just to get them out of the way? And James asks us with a rather indicting tone: “Have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:4). I think I’d rather avoid answering that question, and yet there it is.
As we wallow in this word of judgment, perhaps we can be drawn to God’s vision. God has chosen “those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him.” But James isn’t finished. It would seem that the recipients of the letter aren’t necessary wealthy themselves, but they desire to be. They want to hang out with people of wealth – don’t you? Be honest! But James says, isn’t it the rich, the wealthy, the ones you honor, who drag you before the courts. Isn’t it they who blaspheme the name of the LORD? So, why do you honor them? Why do you bow to them rather than embracing the poor?
So what shall we do? James points us to the “royal law” – the call to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Here is the answer. If you do this, you’re doing right. But if you show favoritism, aren’t you walking away from the royal law of God? Won’t you find yourself on the wrong side of the law? So, remember - -the one who “keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking it all.”
God is just. It’s clear from reading the scriptures. The question is – will we heed the word?
If Proverbs, at least this set of Proverbs, suggests that God stands on the side of the poor, taking up their case in the courts, and James tells us that to show favoritism to the rich over the poor is sin, what do we make of Jesus’ odd encounter with the Syro-Phoenician Woman?
In Mark 7 we go with Jesus north into Gentile territory. First he goes to Tyre, an old Phoenician city and then on to the Decapolis, another Gentile territory near the Sea of Galilee. The first encounter offers a rather ethnocentric perspective on the part of Jesus. That he encounters a Gentile woman is understandable considering his location. He’s the visitor, the stranger, in this land. He goes to Tyre and tries to slip into a house without being recognized. Is this a Jewish house? It must be. But this woman figures out that he’s there and she has a request to make of him. Her daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit, and she wants Jesus to heal her daughter. But will he?
This encounter is one of two in which a woman speaks in the gospel of Mark, so this is an important conversation. What’s interesting is that this woman seems to school Jesus as to what it means to truly welcome the other. Jesus responds to her request with words that are both harsh and alarming: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” Is this the Jesus we have come to love? Is this the way we should respond to the other? Do these words represent to us the love of God? We need to face the reality that this isn’t the way we envision Jesus – and yet, it’s often the way we treat the other.
Before you turn away in disgust, consider the woman’s persistence. Well, if you think we’re dogs, don’t the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs that fall on the floor under the table? The woman doesn’t back down. Her need is too great. She needs relief for her daughter, so even an insult won’t hold her back. And so Jesus gives her what she asks. The demon leaves her daughter, and she returns home to find her daughter whole. We need to ask the question – how do we hear this exchange in light of James 2? Did Jesus have a conversion experience at that moment? That’s not a very orthodox question, but it’s one we must face.
As we ponder this question we continue on with Jesus to this next stop in Gentile country. He encounters a man who can neither hear nor speak clearly. We don’t know the man’s religious or ethnic identity, but this is Gentile territory. We don’t hear the same ethnocentrism in Jesus voice, but he does take the man off to the side and heals him in private. He also uses what looks like sympathetic magic. He puts his fingers in the man’s ears and then spits on his hand before touching the man’s tongue. The result – the man is healed. And the people are struck with wonder. But Jesus, as portrayed in Mark, doesn’t want to let the word out. Don’t tell anyone – as if no one would notice when a man spoke who couldn’t speak before.
As we attend to these texts, what do they do they say to us about how we should live in the world? What is God requiring of us? Justice, Mercy, humility? What is God’s preference?