A Palestinian Woman Schools Jesus (and Us) about small god faith

Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ISAIAH 56: 1, 6-7; PSALMS 67: 2-8; ROMANS 11: 13-15, 29-32; MATTHEW 15: 21-28

Today’s readings return us to the idea explored here a few weeks ago – Big God faith vs. small god beliefs. Today’s selections point to the latter as the root of diabolically deep divides like those separating Jews from Palestinians – as well as the rest of us from those we despise as somehow “foreign.”

This time however, the vehicle for making the Big God point is mildly sarcastic humor. And it comes from a completely unexpected source – a presumably uneducated Palestinian woman schooling a specifically Jewish prophet about his small god beliefs. It’s the only place in the early Christian tradition where Jesus is out bantered and rendered speechless in what can only be described as a contest of repartee. The joke is that the Great Teacher loses!

The woman in question is a Palestinian mom seeking a cure for here mentally disturbed daughter whom the reigning culture considered demon possessed. Within the story’s context, the demon in question seems to be a product of the dominant Jewish culture’s belief in a small nationalistic god who favors Jews over Palestinians. No wonder the child was disturbed; she had been told since birth that she was worthless. That, of course is the same demon that today not merely causes Palestinian children (and a whole list of others in our world) mental anxiety; too often, it costs them and/or their parents and siblings their very lives.

The woman is remembered by Matthew as “Syrophonician.” That meant she was not a Jew. She was a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria. She was living near the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon — a gentile or non-Jewish region of the Fertile Crescent where Matthew takes trouble to locate today’s episode. As I said, that would have made Jesus’ petitioner what we call a “Palestinian” today.

(By the way, Matthew’s geographical note serves to remind us that the Jews never controlled all of their “Promised Land.” Instead, they always had to share it with “Palestinians” including Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, Geshurites, Maacaathites, and Philistines.)

In any case, the woman’s daughter is troubled apparently by this culturally imposed anxiety.

So, identifying Jesus as specifically Jewish, the woman petitions: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Jesus responds by ignoring his petitioner at first and then by disrespectfully associating his petitioner with dogs — almost calling her a b*tch. Disdainfully, he says, “I have been sent for the lost children of Israel . . . it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

The reply seems out of character for Jesus, doesn’t it? In fact, such dissonance has led many to reject the saying as inauthentic. (On the contrary, I would say that the negative light in which this tale presents Jesus argues for its authenticity. After all, the evangelists were anxious to present him as favorably as possible. Why would they make up a story like this?) Whatever the case, Jesus’ reply only echoes the rabbinic saying of the time, “He who eats with idolaters is like one who eats with a dog.”

In other words, Jesus’ comparison stands in a long line of small godders likening cultural outsiders to animals. If Matthew’s account is accurate, in his initial silence and then in his harsh response, Jesus was showing himself to be captive to his people’s traditional norms.

However, the brave woman in today’s gospel doesn’t take no for an answer. She drolly replies, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

The witty answer evidently astonishes Jesus. We can almost hear him laughing as he shakes his head and exclaims, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” In other words, the woman “converts” Jesus; he concedes her argument. The one the gospels present as the master of verbal riposte is vanquished by this simple Palestinian mom.

Even more importantly, the woman’s daughter is cured. The demon that possessed her leaves. That is, by overcoming his reluctance and expanding his own nationalistic understanding of God, that broadened awareness was somehow communicated to the woman’s daughter. No more possession.

The lesson? Transcending small god religious convictions can vanquish even demons with supernatural powers. By comparison, overcoming more pedestrian foes is easy. Small god beliefs are diabolical. Setting them aside heals even at a cosmic level.

Today’s Readings

Notice how that encouraging Big God understanding is communicated by this Sunday’s entirely expansive vision communicated in all four readings. Here are my “translations” of their content. Please read them yourself here to see if I’ve got them right.

ISAIAH 56: 1, 6-7: What separates God’s People from the rest is not nationality, but their embrace of social justice towards everyone else. That’s what unites “foreigners” to our Great Mother. Doing justice makes their landscapes as holy as our own. It renders their altars sacred and their offerings meaningful. It designates their houses of worship as centers of joy. 

PSALMS 67: 2-8: Yes, according to their own customs, all people everywhere (implicitly or explicitly) recognize and worship the same Holy Mother. She is compassionate towards them all, guides them, and showers each with abundant blessings. That’s simply the divine way. All of us can be happy about such universal inclusion.

ROMANS 11: 13-15, 29-32: So, for our Mother there are no “foreigners.” There shouldn’t be for us either. Otherwise, we’re like petty jealous children vying for parental love and “telling on” each other for supposed disobedience. Accepting everyone as God’s gifted and forgiven children challenges every one of us to embrace a new form of living based on God’s universal love.   

MATTHEW 15: 21-28: Even Yeshua had to learn this lesson. When a Palestinian woman approached him as a specifically Jewish prophet, he at first ignored her and then nearly called her an unworthy “b*tch. He did! But she outsmarted him with a clever reply that made him laugh and melt. The demons of religious nationalism recoiled in disappointed disgust.

Conclusion

Off hand, I can think of about 10 conclusions to draw from today’s remarkably “Immense God” readings – and especially from today’s especially noteworthy story about the humbling of Jesus and the forced shift in his small god convictions. Here they are organized into two groups, one particular (i.e. related to our Gospel narrative) and the other a bit more general:

Particular

  • Small gods are seductive: Even Yeshua succumbed.
  • They are bad for mental health: Small god religion can drive people crazy as it did the daughter in the story at hand. (No religion at all seems preferable.)
  • Mother power is unstoppable: Very few need convincing here. Mamma bears will defend their cubs no matter what. Like most mothers, this Palestinian mom wouldn’t take no for an answer.
  • In general, women have much to teach even the wisest of men: To this day under patriarchy, it remains difficult for many to accept that mother usually knows best.
  • Change in consciousness can be miraculous and contagious: Who knows when this schooling of Jesus occurred in his life? If it happened, it probably came at the beginning. If so, it represented a radical and transformative shift in his approach to God.

More General

And that leads me to more general conclusions about Jesus’ conversion. Following the Big God insight that he learned from the Palestinian mom, Jesus’ revised understanding evidently led his most universally admired followers to conclude that:

  • Borders are arbitrary: They were not part of the original divine plan. As the universe comes from the hand of God, there are no borders. (And anyway, they keep changing all the time.) Human beings should be free to roam the earth as they wish.
  • Nationalities are random too: Even in the Jewish Testament, it’s only gradually that humans “fall” from their original unity into the sin of national distinctions. In the divine order, there are no Jews, gentiles, Syrophonicians, or Palestinians, blacks or whites.
  • Laws are entirely questionable: For the sake of human welfare, Jesus easily set aside even the “holiest” of laws (such as Sabbath Law). He recognized love’s law as supreme relativizing all others (Matthew 22:37-40). Those other regulations usually exist only to protect the rich and powerful. That’s who made them!
  • Racial distinctions are equally meaningless: What could be more relevant for us today?  Syrophoenician lives matter. Palestinian lives matter. Black lives matter.
  • Bold humor conquers all: This is perhaps the most important point driven home by today’s readings. Getting us to laugh at ourselves and our petty beliefs can melt hearts, overcome deep-seated prejudice, and restore sanity for everyone.

Ted Yoho & Small God Christians vs. AOC

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 55: 1-3; Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-18; Romans 8: 35-39; Matthew 14: 13-21

Nearly everyone is celebrating New York City Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s (AOC) brilliant speech last week in response to two attacks by her colleague, Ted Yoho, a Congressional representative from Florida. Some are calling her speech the best statement of feminist (and even specifically Catholic) values in generations.

Both attacks on AOC occurred on the Capitol steps where Yoho first accosted her directly, calling her “disgusting” for suggesting a connection between poverty and NYC’s rising crime rate. He then turned from his flabbergasted colleague and within earshot of a reporter called her a “f_cking b_tch.”

Ocasio Cortez delivered her now famous response after Yoho offered what everyone described as a “non-apology.” It’s that pretense that I want to focus on here.

That’s because this week’s Sunday readings highlight the issue of hunger and poverty – the issue that precipitated Yoho’s anger. And following his disingenuous remarks the congressman was asked to resign from a position he held on the board of directors of Bread for the World (BftW), a Christian organization focused (according to its literature) on “working to make hunger, poverty, and opportunity a priority for candidates. We are moved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ to work for justice for hungry people in our country and around the world.”

Yoho’s words also deserve attention this Sunday, because of his self-identification with a type of Christianity that sharply contrasts with the Bread for the World approach.  Adherents to Yoho’s brand of faith might be called “small god Christians” – at least when compared with the immensely generous God depicted in today’s readings and embraced by BftW.

Yoho’s Non-Apology

Let’s start by recalling Mr. Yoho’s non-apology. Although his brief statement’s ambiguities and irrelevancies reveal an evidently hasty composition, Congressman Yoho’s self-defensive remarks might be fairly summarized in about a dozen points. Taken together, they unrepentantly underline his supposed respectfulness, innocence, heroism, and devotion to family, country, and God.

His Commitment to Respect  

  1. I apologize for my abruptness with Representative Ocasio Cortez.
  2. Political differences should not lead to disrespect.
  3. My 45-year marriage and fathering 2 daughters have made me aware of my language.

His Innocence

  • What I said to others about Rep. Ocasio Cortez was misreported and misinterpreted by the press.
  • And I apologize for the media’s error.

His Heroism

  • I am passionate about the poor.
  • My wife and I were once poor ourselves.
  • However, we pulled ourselves up by sheer hard work.
  • That proves that any else can do the same without breaking the law.

His Admirable Devotion

  1. Such passion and bootstrap convictions will continue to inform my positions in policy debate.  
  2. They also express my love for my family, my country, and God.
  3. There is no need to apologize for any of that.

Readers should note that in his “apology,” Mr. Yoho uses that key word three different times. With the first, he expresses remorse for his abruptness (not for actually calling his colleague a “f_cking b_tch”). He is also sorry for the errors of the press in reporting his words (i.e., for the alleged mistakes of others, not his own.) Thirdly, without helping his listeners understand the connections, Mr. Yoho actually refuses apology, as he says, for his passion, loving his family, his country, and God.

Small god Christians

It’s that reference to God at the end of his remarks that deserves special comment. In these Sunday remarks, the allusion contextualizes everything else. It also illustrates the tininess of the god worshipped by what I’m calling here, “small god Christians.” (Today’s readings call us to something infinitely grander.)

Notice that Mr. Yoho’s focus is on law, self-justification, family, his own district’s constituents, his nation, and even (with his dog-whistle disconnections between poverty and crime) on his race and class. Presumably, that too is the focus of the god the congressman and his faith community worship.

That’s what I mean by small god Christians and their sharp contrast with the biblical God described below in today’s biblical selections. Small-godders are ethnocentric. Unlike Jesus [who said law was made for human beings, not the reverse (Mark 2:27)] they are law-and-order people. The object of their faith is essentially concerned with “Americans,” and has little or no concern for others, especially if those foreigners belong to other religions – let alone if they are Muslims.  

Little-godders are also (according e.g., to the self-identification of Catholic Attorney General William Barr) “micro-moralists.” They are convinced that the Christian Gospel is limited to matters of personal morality and has nothing to do with social justice. Even more narrowly, they focus on the single issue of abortion as overriding every other moral concern.

Accordingly, small-godders find themselves able to support a candidate like Mr. Trump despite his lifelong problems with marital fidelity, his self-identification as a sexual predator, his association with and sympathy for convicted pedophiles, and his appointment of a Secretary of State who brags about lying, cheating, and stealing. All is forgiven, as long as any candidate is anti-abortion, which is nowhere in the Bible even identified as a moral issue.

That’s the small and morally challenged nature of small god Christianity.

The Generous Biblical God

Now compare all of that with the infinite reality some (as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) call “God.” Immediately below you’ll find his her/his description in this Sunday’s readings. I’ve “translated” them as usual but recommend that everyone read the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.

Note how that God has constructed what some have called a Gift Economy. In that arrangement, everything is free for everyone – with special emphasis on the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants. Yes immigrants! Biblically speaking, they (the poor) are the special focus of God’s attention and Yeshua’s preaching of Yahweh’s Kingdom (Luke 4: 18). Those who justify themselves as self-made and self-sufficient are ridiculed (Luke 18:9-14).

Isaiah 55: 1-3: In God’s order everything is free for the poor and exploited. Our Mother’s is a gift economy prioritizing the needs of the destitute (not the rich) and insured through laws enforced by government. Water, bread, milk and even the finest wines are provided to everyone without charge.

Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-18: Yes, because She is gracious, merciful and kind, our Divine Mother feeds us and answers all our needs without charge, exactly as She does for the birds, animals, trees and grass. Free food is a matter of God’s generosity, justice and truth. We are all so grateful.

Romans 8: 35, 37-39: Yeshua embodied our Great Mother’s Gift Imperative. We love him for that; we love our Mother for that. So, even though the world’s contradictory ways impose anguish, distress, famine, nakedness, danger and violence, we refuse to abandon the ideal of free food and drink for everyone.      

Matthew 14: 13-21: You say it’s impossible? Recall Yeshua’s “miracle of enough.” When everyone was hungry in the desert, his example of sharing five loaves and two fish caused the provident Jewish mamas there to follow suit by sharing the food they brought along. They turned a desperate crisis into an unforgettable picnic. It was a miracle!

Conclusions

With its self-justification, ethnocentrism, single issue and unbiblical micro-morality, small god Christianity contradicts the One described and exemplified so marvelously in our readings for the day.

Granted that in the Bible’s “battle of the gods” as depicted in last week’s homily, we also find more narrow, ethnocentric concepts of God in that ancient Book’s description of Israel’s long drawn out search for what we’re all looking for – meaningful lives and right relationship with what’s ultimately important in the universe.

However, the Yeshua tradition clarifies the resulting confusion. The Great Master himself turns out to encourage everything that contradicts small-godders as represented in the words of Congressman Yoho and by less enlightened figures in the Bible.

As I pointed out last week, Yeshua incarnates the real causes of hunger and poverty – houselessness (at his birth), immigration (in Egypt), rejection by his community and family (Luke 4: 14-30, Mark 3: 12-20), investigation by the state, torture and ultimately, capital punishment.

That Yeshua has nothing to do with a small god.

As for Mr. Yoho and Bread for the World. . . We can safely assume that he brought his small god approach into board meetings at that organization too. That’s what the small-godders do in such venues. They attempt to shrink to size the generous God that non-profits like BftW promote. At their directors’ table, you can bet that he was as adamant about self-sufficiency, micro-morality, and American-centered law and order just as he’s been each day in the U.S. House of representatives.

Again, that’s the mission of small-godders. Don’t let it be yours.