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The Provocative Jesus

Two versions of the same Gospel story, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

First, Mark’s version:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 

Then, Matthew’s version:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark calls her “Syrophoenician”, Matthew “Canaanite” – either way, a pagan, an outsider to the community of God’s people. She comes to the Jewish man of God as a beggar. Matthew writes that she called him Lord and Son of David. Perhaps that is the title that she heard other people calling him, for she a pagan would not “son of David” in her vocabulary. But more likely it is simply Matthew’s insertion, as Matthew among the four Gospel writers is the most concerned to refer to Jesus as son of David – 9 separate times in Matthew, only 2 in Mark, 2 in Luke, and none in John. And only in Matthew’s version does Jesus speak of “the house of Israel.” And only in Matthew does Jesus commend the woman’s faith! In Mark he simply commends “this word” (διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον) that she spoke to Jesus. I prefer to see Mark’s version as the more original version. Both Gospel writers recognize the Jewish-pagan contrast at the heart of this story, but by calling the woman a “Canaanite” Matthew places the encounter in the context of the ancient conflict between the Israelites and Canaanites. Matthew’s hand in his version is heavy indeed.

The much-missed late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan reflected deeply on this passage in the Epilogue to his book, Sorrow Built a Bridge, Friendship and AIDS, a book in which he recounts his care of people with AIDS during the 1980s in the Supportive Care Program of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Berrigan’s ministry toward people with AIDS was one more chapter in his extraordinary life of resistance to the culture of death that reigns over much of human affairs. The fight against AIDS went hand in hand with his life-long fight against war and nuclear weapons and against social and government institutions that are indifferent to suffering, poverty and exclusion.

After quoting the passage from Mark’s version, Berrigan went on to write:

I commend this text to you, and to my own soul. Many of us have, we are told, for different reasons, something less than a human claim on the bread of Christ; which is to say, on his attentiveness, his response, his healing. Certain claims are neither large nor persuasive. What, after all, is the worth of a canine claim, proceeding as it does from a dog’s life? … Those securely in possession, established where they sit – they are given to glances, words, slamming of doors in faces, such acts as might improve the occasion when a stray dog enters a banquet hall. Or a church.

Berrigan is speaking to me and you. He is provocative as he always was in his books and in his life work. As a Catholic who devoted his life’s work to human suffering and exclusion, he cannot avoid bringing the “bread of Christ” into his meditation – the exact thing that most Christians, and certainly we Orthodox, do not date to do. Imagine that, bringing the holiest of the sacraments into a discussion about AIDS and a pagan woman’s encounter with Jesus!

The church has more rules about participation in the Eucharist – the communion of the body and blood of Christ – than about anything else. The modern rules that most people grew up with are pathetic – rules about food, sex, and other trivialities. Of greater importance are the developments during the formative centuries of Orthodox theology and jurisprudence. The bishops who met at the various ecumenical councils could not find enough reasons to exclude as many people as possible from communion! They were certain that God had entrusted them with protecting the holy sacrament from defiled hands and souls.

Jesus provoked the Syrophoenician woman by calling her a dog. In doing so, Jesus was parodying the way most Jews mocked pagans. But the woman had substance, she would not go away just because a man treated her this way. She met Jesus’ insult head on and earned his respect and her daughter’s healing. When the church today refuses communion, are we treating people as “dogs”? Do we exclude where Jesus included?

Last Sunday morning an elderly man of a rather haggard appearance walked into our church during Matins and clearly wanted to speak with the priest. I was in the midst of a service and obviously I could not attend to him. I actually felt bad as I saw him leave the church, and I placed myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was I like the priest or the levite who were more intent on their religious duties than to care for the wounded man? Had I put my liturgical responsibility above hearing a man’s cry for help? I struggled with those thoughts as I continued Matins and Liturgy. However, after Liturgy was over, I was told what this man uttered on his way out: “I thought this was a church for whites!” Clearly he was disappointed to see black people in our church. He walked into our church that morning, intent even to interrupt a service in progress, to ask for money. This happens quite often in our church as we are an inner-city parish. And yet, this needy man could not avoid spewing out his racist filth.

Very rarely indeed are moral lines clearly drawn or visible. Human behavior never ceases to surprise and confuse. But whether it’s a man spewing racial hatred or governments keeping people out or religions seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are heading for disaster unless we begin to take Jesus seriously – not in the apocalyptic terms that many American Christians do, but in the terms he defines in the various Gospel stories that show us his true face.

The December issue of National Geographic magazine has a challenging article by Jared Diamond that paints in convincing terms competition for the earth’s limited resources as more and more people and nations aim to achieve the same standard of living we are used to. The results will be disastrous for the planet unless governments – starting with our own – take steps to decrease income inequality and the chasm between rich and poor. Unless a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources is achieved, the growing clamor of people to have what we have will spell disaster before this century is out. The article is available online. It’s well worth reading if you care about the world around you, or the world your children or grandchildren will live in.

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is a parable for today. It should provoke us to think deeply about how we view others. But more importantly, it is a parable for governments and churches. Who do we exclude? Who do we treat like ‘dogs’? And when are we who call ourselves Christians start following the example of Jesus?


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Reflections on the Sistine Madonna

I came upon a story called The Sistine Madonna, by Vasily Grossman, a writer and survivor of Soviet and Nazi antisemitism. A black and white picture of the painting Sistine Madonna was included in the story, so my curiosity was piqued. I found a good quality color reproduction of this painting and I wish to share with you my thoughts.

The Sistine Madonna (click to enlarge)

The Sistine Madonna is a painting by the great Renaissance artist, Raphael. It shows Mary in full standing form holding the Christ child who is looking straight at us. It is called the Sistine Madonna not because it was in the Sistine Chapel, but rather it was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto. It is an incredibly human painting of the young Mary, her face glowing with motherly love. As a matter of fact I would say that this painting shows Mary as a human mother more than any icon I have ever seen. Our icons tend to emphasize the transcendent rather than the earthly. 

I like talking about Mary, the mother of Christ. Yes, she is Theotokos, the Mother of God, and all those other amazing titles the church has bestowed upon her. But I like to think of her simply as Mary, Miriam, the young Jewish girl who was chosen by God for a most amazing miracle. In three days the Orthodox Church celebrates her entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem. The sheer irony never ceases to amaze me. The church celebrates the entrance into the holy of holies by a girl – something strictly forbidden by Jewish laws – and yet after 2,000 years the church still does not allow women or girls to serve in the altar in any way! As I said, irony.

I was so overcome by the beauty of this painting that I took the upper portion of it and made it the wallpaper of my computer. So when I turn on my computer I immediately see the two faces touching each other and looking out toward me, toward all human beings. Mary looks a bit to her left while Christ looks straight at me. It is with my humanity, with your humanity, that Christ looks out. Looking at Christ I see my humanity in all its glory and all its sorrows and deficiencies. It’s all there. And Mary holds the Christ tenderly but firmly, as if to protect him from what the world will unleash against him. And we know that Mary did precisely that. The Gospels tell us that she kept a close watch on him and even tried to pull him away from combative encounters with the religious leaders.

Sistine Madonna – enlargement of top portion (click to further enlarge)

The Mary that I see in this painting is the Mary who sang the Magnificat in Luke, chapter 1. Do you know it? She spoke these words when she was pregnant. We sing her words at every matins service. 

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

She considers herself a humble handmaiden – but she is also a rebel and rejoices in the downfall of the mighty. As she looks slightly to her left in this painting she is perhaps imagining those centuries in the future when the mighty of the earth will try to refute her prophetic words by enlisting her son to their ambitions. And she holds her child tight. She does not want to see him used and abused by 2,000 years of human greed and hatred. But she does not hold him so tight as to restrain him from facing his destiny – his destiny on Golgotha; but also his destiny as Savior and Judge. So the child looks straight at us and 2,000 years of human history, with a look of defiance and already a look of judgment. The face of the Christ child in this painting reminds me of the Star Child at the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both images strike deep chords in me. 

Regardless the subtext that I’m reading into the Sistine Madonna, it remains a profoundly beautiful painting. It is profoundly humane, full of sorrowing compassion. It confronts us with questions: Do we see our humanity in Christ? Do we see the love of a mother and the love of a savior who is one of us? And do you see the unity that calls us forward in these times of profound danger? There is one body and one spirit, Paul tells us today in his letter to the Ephesians. We are called to unity, despite how much division and hatred keeps spreading in the world around us. Grossman lived through the decades of Nazi terror, world war, and Stalinist tyranny. As humanity was disappearing around him, he found humanity in this painting. Every one of us can be a beacon of humanity, Christ humanity! Only then do we prove to the world that Mary’s life was not in vain. That she who once held Christ in her arms is now held in his arms. It’s there, in his loving embrace that we find our true humanity.


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Leviticus to the rescue!

What is the least popular book in the Bible? Most people would say, Leviticus! For very good reason, as Leviticus consists mostly of laws that Moses gave to the people of Israel. And many of these laws are the kind of thing that give the Bible a bad name among many modern people. And yet, the central theme of Leviticus is HOLINESS. God is HOLY, and God’s people are called to be holy. God “separated” the Jews from the peoples of the world in the sense that they were set apart to be holy. This was to be the quality that identified them as God’s people. This matter of holiness was not meant for the people of Israel to feel superior to others; it was not a matter of ego inflating! It was a matter of their mission in the world.

I needed some uplifting inspiration when I logged into my Logos account at midnight to see what today’s verse might be, and I was very happy to see this verse from Leviticus. I had spent the afternoon watching Simon Rattle’s final concert this past June as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The program was Mahler’s 6th Symphony, an overwhelming 85 minutes of music and an overwhelming performance by the greatest symphony orchestra in the world.  I got into the Mahler mood and continued by listening to couple older recordings of Mahler symphonies. But in the midst of Mahler, I turned to my Apple Music library and came upon John Lennon’s Christmas Song. One verse caught my attention: “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, for rich and the poor ones, the world is so wrong,” But for some reason, I didn’t hear “the world is so wrong.” I heard “the world is so young.” And I thought, wow, what a great line, John! But then I went back to play the song again and I turned on the Lyrics that Apple Music provides and I realized that I had not heard correctly. “The world is so wrong,” were the words John Lennon sang. But I think the song would be better if John had sung what I thought I heard, “the world is so young”! “Young” brings hope, and it seems that’s what I wanted to hear. “Young” brings hope that we can overcome what is wrong with the world and once again rediscover God’s call to be holy. “The world is so young” can be the antidote we need to apocalyptic visions of an aging world and a humanity that has lost its ethical moorings and will to live.

I still have not recovered from the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue two Sabbaths ago. It continues to haunt me and it has caused me to question so much of who we are. I can’t shake off the conviction that we Christians will be judged by God for how we have treated the Jews through the centuries. Every year I cringe at some of the words we read or chant during Holy Week services. The blatant anti-semitism that the Orthodox Church still promotes in our theology and hymnography is indefensible – especially after the Holocaust. And especially as we see antisemitism again on the rise. Will the Church ever wake up to the poison that medieval words and superstitions perpetuate? All the shows of solidarity with the Jews that our ecclesiastical leaders parade for photo ops will not erase our continuing guilt. When will we say, Enough, we will no longer use such horrible words in our worship?

There is wrong in the world, John Lennon, but the world is not wrong. As long as there is a holy God and people who are called to be holy, we can hope that we will see again that the world is beautiful and longs to be holy together with God’s people. Even Paul said something like this in chapter 8 of Romans. Read the whole chapter, you won’t regret it. Leviticus tells us what is the mission of God’s people in the world: to be holy, to bring to reality a different standard by which we live and by which we view each other and our beautiful world. The Jews through their adherence to those antiquated laws of Leviticus are showing that they have not forgotten their original calling. And they have survived thousands of years of persecution because they are and always will be GOD’S PEOPLE! I wonder when we Christians will realize that our calling and destiny are to unite with them in holiness. Holiness is not limited to monks who supposedly pray for the world; nor is holiness for those who the Church decided should be called “saints.” Holiness is the mission of all God’s people. Two thousand years later we still don’t get it. And that’s why “the world is so wrong.”


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Parables of Surprise

The Sunday Lectionary after feast of Cross in September offers various combinations of Epistle and Gospel readings that break the normal pairings – at least in the Greek tradition. Today’s readings, Ephesians 2:4-10 and Luke 16:19-31, offer an interesting juxtaposition: faith or works? Paul says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” But our Gospel passage today seems to focus only on whether the rich man showed kindness on Lazarus.

Chapters 15 & 16 in the Gospel of Luke are rich with parables – and all deal with what it means to be lost. After two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus turns to three big parables with human characters. As if to underline that these are human, all-too-human stories, each parable begins with the phrase ἄνθρωπός τις – there was a man, anthropos. The parable of the prodigal son we read every year before Lent. The parable of the shrewd manager we don’t read on a Sunday, but it also is a gem of a story. The third parable is the one we read today, the rich man and Lazarus.

Each story features central characters who are lost in different ways. Then in each story grace enters and reverses the plotline. Paul told us today: God “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch that? It’s not just a promise of a future life; we’re already sitting with Christ in the heavenly places! The immeasurable riches of grace are a future promise, but the present is already a life lived in rich fellowship with Christ. This is precisely what happened to all the main characters in our parables.

The younger brother was lost in sin; but he repented, changed his mind, and entered life. The older brother was lost in pride and ego, but the door was opened to him also to join the celebration of life. And let’s not forger that Jesus’ favorite image for eternal life was a banquet! The father in the parable was not lost, but he also found redemption of sorts by showing kindness to both his sons. You don’t have to be lost to receive grace and redemption. The father found a deeper life through the redemption of his two sons. Profound!

The shrewd manager in the parable we don’t read on a Sunday was lost because of his dishonesty, but found redemption by using his dishonesty in a way that somehow met with Christ’s approval. Who ever said the Gospels are boring or irrelevant? Maybe Jesus was a capitalist after all! (Okay, I’m joking.)

In today’s parable, Lazarus is lost in poverty, hunger and invisibility. But he is raised from the dehumanized squalor of dogs licking his wounds to life in “the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man is lost in his self-absorbed luxury. Redemption of some sort comes to him too! He now sees Lazarus as if for the first time. Is it too late for him? The parable clearly indicates that it is; but he does try to prevent his five brothers from coming to the same end as he. Plus, he is in Hades. That’s not Hell. As a matter of fact, Hades was a Greek mythological concept: the place of the dead. Luke, the writer of this Gospel, was a Greek, not a Jew, so it is very possible that he inserted the language of Hades and made it a place of torment; whereas for the ancient Greeks it was not necessarily a place of punishment or torment. It’s highly unlikely that Jesus himself would have used the word Hades. He might have said, Sheol, and Luke turned it to Hades. Sheol in the Hebrew mind was not much different from the Greek Hades – not a place of torment, but a place of darkness and separation from God.

So all three of these parables with the ἄνθρωπός τις headline, have surprising elements. In each parable something takes place in and around grace that reverses “the way things are.” There’s a message there for us too. Never settle for the way things are. Our Lord is the master of surprises. So the entire question of faith vs. works is meaningless. Grace is the only thing that matters. And grace is unpredictable in its coming and in its effects. Prepare to be surprised – here in this life and in the life to come.