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. . . of Greeks and gifts

February, 2001

I can only imagine the desperation with which the Syrophenician woman approaches Jesus in Mark 7:26-30. When I read this story I see this woman far from her homeland in Greece--unpretentious, humble, alone in a strange country and desperate to save her dying daughter. When she approaches him, Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees and scribes about the law. It is a sophisticated argument and Jesus is fully immersed in his own culture, weighing the fine points of requirements for living a faithful life among the Jews. She knows this is an inopportune time. Her hopelessness makes her desperate and she interrupts. "She besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter."

Jesus' initial response to the woman is one of dismissal. She, a Gentile, has no place to call upon him. He rejects her, "Let the children first be filled; for it is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs." Unquestionably this woman loved her daughter very much. You can almost feel the heart ache in her courage to challenge Jesus. She combines supplication with challenge in a way that mothers have done for their children since time immemorial. "Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs." In my mind's eye I can almost picture Jesus looking at this desperate woman, whispering a long, slow "Ummm" to himself. It is an important moment in Jesus' ministry. He is stretched. This woman, made rash through despair (How many of us have held that very emotion when faced with a critical situation for someone we love,) to see beyond his own people, and begin to see all humanity as children of God.

This moment of understanding for Jesus is an important story in Mark as it defines the scope of his ministry, a new radical understanding of the breadth of the kingdom of God. The movement to include all of humanity and not just the children of Israel in the fundamental message of God's experience now and in the future has moved through cultures and time, remaining vital for two thousand years. Certainly it has been misused. It has also given hope and strength to the dispossessed and the downtrodden. Certainly it has been exploited. It has also given a model for generations of people to live their lives simply and with quiet purpose. One of the great beauties of the message is that it cuts across time and through cultures. As the message moves it grows and changes. As it melds to different cultures at different times it supplies the answers that are needed in ways that can be understood. It is one of the places where Christianity meets and intertwines with the other great religions. A gift from a Greek woman.

There is no need to beware this gift, but to celebrate it. But there are other hidden gifts. From my early days of a cardboard Jesus being without error or growth, I've come a long way in reading the story of the Gospels, and of spiritual writing in general, with an open eye. Friends have taught me to be prepared for the message between the words, to read while open to the work of the spirit of God.

A couple of weeks ago Philadelphia and central Vermont shared a snowstorm. My lunch time walk was astoundingly beautiful. Of course I wasn't driving or I might not have been so taken with it. And of course it wasn't as beautiful as snowstorms are from my dining room window at home, but it was stunning. The more distant sky scrapers were giant gothic shadows, perhaps buildings but more likely the shadows of hulking Celtic or Norse gods. The closer buildings were veiled in a midst of snow so that their shapes blurred. It reminded me of photographs of cites from the fifties, with a kind of innocence and underpinning of excitement that can be easily lost in current urban day to day life. The streets were another matter. Slushy, slippery, most folks out and about had their heads into the wind, hats pulled low and umbrellas situated so as not to invert. Whether in their cars or on foot, they plainly had the their destination in mind. Their loss. They were missing the mystical, wondrous curtain laying over the city. It was a little like being inside a child's tent made from bed sheets and kitchen chairs.

For some time I've refused all beggars. It's become one of my rules. I still am easily identified as someone to ask, but I don't give them anything. I've made it a point to educate myself about these folks, and have come to believe the local experts that giving these men handouts exacerbates their problems of drug use and alcohol abuse. On early morning jaunts I've seen many of these same men (and they all do seem to be men) in the liquor store with dimes and quarters and pennies buying a pint of something cheap. It's become quite easy not to give them any change. As I was on my way I was well past the usual gauntlet of beggars that hover around the entrance to the subway. Under an enigmatic giant statue of a clothespin they endlessly repeat "Can I have some money for food please," to everyone who ventures within ear shot. I no longer even cross the street to avoid them.

Four or five blocks past the gauntlet on Fifteenth Street I walked past two folks standing face to face, talking intensely. The man, dressed for the weather and dressed well in a leather coat and broad hat sported a pony tail and well trimmed beard that could have placed him in downtown Philadelphia or in downtown Montpelier. The other was a boy of about 14, dressed in one of those soft light weight warm up suits popular with some kids. The material was wet, and he was shivering. As I walked by I heard the kid saying to the guy, "I just need enough to get home to Delaware." I knew that that destination was within the realm of possibility on public transportation as I had returned the day before from Delaware and a visit with a long lost cousin. The boy, unsuccessful with the guy, moved on to the next person on the street, a woman. He wasn't successful there either. The timing of my walking by made me one of the people he missed on the crowded street. Most people begging stay still; this kid was walking while pan handling.

I walked by but instead of a beautiful city scape I was very cognizant of my cold feet and creeping wetness up my pant legs. Instead of the wet snow hitting my face, I was aware of the sleet. What was that catch in that kids voice? I turned around to see him asking the next person. He didn't seem to have the right cadence to be doing very well. I walked further up the block. I turned around again. What was that little catch in his voice? Who did that remind me of? Hmm. He turned the corner, stopping another woman. The really good panhandlers focus on men I've noticed. I turned around and continued walking into the storm. "He was shivering, you know," I said to myself. But I've made it a practice not to give to beggars. It was my rule, founded in fact and researched. But this wasn't really a beggar, this was a kid. And he was cold. Was that little catch an act, or was he going to cry? I said aloud, "Jeeze." And turned and jogged down the street slipping and sliding -- avoiding pedestrians and cars. Around the corner, and up to the kid. He looked at me in the face. I pulled a dollar out of my pocket and said only, "Here." I don't know if he said thanks or not. I walked away before he had a chance to at any rate.

Later that evening I e-mailed my favorite cousin describing the interchange. He made some comment about the blinking "sucker" sign on my forehead. "If they don't hit you up, you go chasing them down the street." That made me laugh. And it's true. The dollar certainly wouldn't get him where he was going, if indeed the case he was making for himself was true. What am I, some masculine version of an earth mother, needing to comfort any kid shivering on the street?

Well maybe. Maybe the kid took advantage of me. Maybe not. In Mark's story it is not only that Jesus learns that all of us are God's children. But he changes his mind. And, at least that one time I changed mine.

One of the things I hold dear is the prayer of Saint Francis:

"Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow charity;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and
Where there is sadness, joy.

Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in
dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life."

And to live that I sometimes need to back away from decisions both large and small. And perhaps even be taken advantage of occasionally. It is little enough to do, a small price.

All contents of this page -- Copyright 2001 Carl Williams, All Rights Reserved