Friday, September 7, 2018

The Grace of Gaffes

Mark 7:24-37

Every public figure knows how dangerous it is to speak off the cuff. 

Ronald Reagan once took the world to the brink when he tested the level of a microphone with a joke about Russia. “We begin bombing in five minutes,” he said with a broad smile, not knowing the mic was live. The Kremlin – not known for a sense of humor – went on high alert.

Joe Biden, also famous for going off script when addressing crowds, decided to introduce a state senator: “Chuck, stand up. Let the people see you.” Senator Chuck Graham of Columbia, Mo., who had been confined to a wheel chair since he was 16, could only shake his head.

Gaffes are especially costly when every mic, camera, and smart phone are hanging on your every word. Hillary Clinton’s reference to “deplorables” galvanized a segment of her opposition, and very recently Donald Trump obscured the point he was trying to make by pronouncing “anonymous” as “ominous.”

Blunders take many forms and we’ve all been susceptible to serious solecisms. The chaplains I worked for in the Air Force never forgot that I typed “Jesus Galls Us” in the worship bulletin. And in my first newspaper job for a fledgling daily called Today’s Post, I described the details of the placing of a large Christmas tree in the town square: “The erection took 30 minutes with the use of a crane.” I still see nothing wrong with that, but it was quoted in the Associated Press’s New Year’s Eve round up of the year’s silliest news stories.

Okay, so we all make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.

But what if you are perfect? What if you’re Jesus

Jesus, tired and cranky after days of being jostled by crowds, blurted out a sentence that made observers think he was comparing a shiksa to a dog. 

There were no smart phones then but smart apostles hung on his every word and some were eying a lucrative book deal. Once Jesus said it he couldn’t unsay it. And there it is, prominently quoted in the earliest Gospel.

On closer examination of Jesus’ statement to the woman, it gets worse.

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus seems to be saying that his fellow Jews should benefit from his largesse before it was extended to inferiors. His tart dismissal of the woman seems blatantly racist and more than a little sexist. Worst of all, it seems unneighborly. Evidently this as not one of Jesus’ finest moments.

Certainly the women in my family, including my spouse and five daughters, hesitate to cut Jesus a lot of slack here. Jesus has clearly messed up. And it takes the unmitigated gall of a shiksa to point out his error:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
That was a retort for the ages. I have raised a lot of crumb-spilling children and our dogs know under the table is a holy place. Atop the table are bread chunks, corn chips, and scattered peas, but under the table is canine grace and divine revelation.

Jesus gets it immediately. I can see him removing his hand from his tired brow and chuckling with embarrassment. Yeah, right.

“For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” 
The story ends happily. The little girl is healed and the fact that Jesus can accomplish it without even seeing her is a measure of his power.

But is there another miracle here that is equally powerful but not so easily seen?

Us guys who have been mansplaining this story for centuries would have us believe that Jesus was not dismissing the Syrophoenician women with xenophobic rudeness. In fact, our mansplaining continues, Jesus never turned away anyone who came to him in need, and the fact he once cast a Samaritan in the starring role of a good neighbor proves he had nothing against Syrophoenicians. Indeed, he immediately recognized the woman as a person in need and decided to test her faith so he could help her.

That’s all well and good, but at the risk of tripping over my Y chromosome, I think the writer of Mark makes it abundantly clear what is really happening. 

God Jesus has had a rough week walking around, healing, preaching, and being pummeled by crowds. Human Jesus was tired to death and he needed a break. 
“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there,” Mark reports. “Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.”
Seeing yet another supplicant in his way, Jesus must have groaned in his spirit. His instant reaction was annoyance and he snapped at the woman without thinking, using words he may have regretted immediately.

The other miracle in the story is two-fold:

First, the woman persisted. She loved her daughter too much to react angrily to Jesus’ angry, ill-chosen, and insulting words. Her resolute response melted Jesus’ heart.

The second miracle is that Jesus the man immediately recognized he was wrong and, if we interpret his response correctly, repented.

Whenever any man repents after being confronted by a woman and shown the error of his ways, it is a miracle of sorts.

And the next time this story is mansplained in a Sunday sermon, I hope it is told with the same redemptive humility that Jesus so readily displayed.

None of us are perfect and we all say things we don’t mean. But the ability to face our errors and repent is nothing short of Christlike.

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