Generosity in a Pluralistic World

Monday, March 19, 2012 — Week of 4 Lent

Saint Joseph

Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 955)

Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) // 89:19-52 (evening)

Genesis 49:1-28

1 Corinthians 10:14 – 11:1

Mark 7:24-37

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

How do we live rightly in a pluralistic world? Today’s New Testament readings raise old issues that are new every day.

Paul returns to the subject that occupied a great deal of his attention in chapter eight of First Corinthians. Jewish Christians and Gentile converts are learning how to live together. They have different dietary, social, and religious customs. In the new multi-cultural society of the followers of Jesus, they are experiencing the stimulation and strains that are the fruits of diversity.

Paul tells the new community: Be sensitive to one another. Do not give offense over diverse customs. Respect the scruples of those who have customs that seem odd to you. Do not use your knowledge or freedom to insult the conscience of one who comes from a different belief system.

One of the reasons Paul’s churches are having to deal with these complex social interactions is a direct result of the example of Jesus, chronicled in today’s reading from Mark and elsewhere. Both of today’s Gospel stories occur outside Israel. Jesus heals among the Gentiles. In doing so, he violates the purity and holiness codes of his own religion and culture. He is among unclean people, according to his Jewish tradition.

The story of the Gentile woman who interrupts Jesus’s house visit seems like a watershed. Up until now in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has confined his healing and preaching within Israel and only to his Jewish brothers and sisters. His initial reaction to her interruption is to reinforce this boundary. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The children are the heirs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Biblical language and common speech referred to Gentiles as “dogs”. What Jesus says to the woman is exactly what a Gentile would expect him to say.

The woman’s response is remarkable. “Sir (or Lord), even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Amazing! Jesus hears her disarming words — words of faith — and instantly he responds with compassion to heal her daughter. His next activity will take him to the Gentile territory on the other side of Israel, the Decapolis. There he will heal and touch those whom his religious tradition regards as unclean and untouchable. In Mark’s gospel, from the moment Jesus meets this Gentile woman, there is no distinction in Jesus’s ministry. He offers his message, friendship, and gifts to the Gentiles as freely as he does to the Jews. His generous, open practice caused great offense, scandal, and opposition. It is one reason he was killed.

Our culture experiences similar strains. We have our own boundaries between clean and unclean, native and foreigner, people-like-us and people-different-from-us. Will we treat them like dogs? Or will the compassion and table fellowship of Jesus and Paul be extended through us in our generation?

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