Michael Shermer, a famous skeptic and psychologist, has popularized the insight surrounding pattern recognition. Humans, he suggests, are pattern recognition machines. With any set of inputs—sight, sound, taste, touch—the human brain is set to identify patterns.
Amidst the noise and chaos of everyday life, humans are amazingly adept at picking out patterns. That’s why parents in a crowded McDonalds can distinguish the scream of their child amid the screams of a herd of other children.
It’s why when you’re driving faster than you’re supposed to and you look in the rearview mirror and you see the distinctive grille of a Crown Victoria in the rear view mirror, you automatically take your foot off the gas pedal.
Babies, for example, at one day old will focus on edges and stripes. Within a relatively short period of time, they are able to distinguish the face and voice of their parents from other faces and voices in an already crowded world.
From an evolutionary standpoint pattern recognition is essential to survival. If you’re out, stumbling about in the African Savanah and you hear something in the bush, you have a choice to make.
You can assume it’s a predator, and take appropriate action. You can assume it’s the wind, and ignore it.
Shermer says that if you choose to believe it’s a predator, but it turns out to be the wind, you haven’t really lost much except a little extra adrenaline.
On the other hand, if you choose to believe it’s the wind, and it turns out to be a tiger…well, your genes have to get out of the pool.
Consequently, humans have developed a keen ability to find patterns everywhere, since the cost of being wrong about danger is too high. Unfortunately, while this kind of super-tuned threat detection is helpful for survival in an environment where the chances of being eaten are genuinely great, it doesn’t serve us nearly so well when the biggest threats we face day to day aren’t real aggression, but passive aggression—when the threat isn’t that we’ll be eaten, but that the yogurt we left in the fridge for our afternoon break will be eaten by Janice—who apparently finds it impossible to leave her hands off other people’s micro-lot kombucha.
Why, for example, do you think there are boneheaded white guys shooting people in the Kroger, or in a Pittsburgh synagogue, or sending poorly constructed bombs to critics of the president?
Because there are a lot of cynical people who make political hay by convincing the rest of the world to be afraid of anything that doesn’t look like them. White supremacy and the politics that go with it are an especially deadly form of pattern recognition.
But in modern life we’re also prone to pattern recognition that ensures not just our safety, but our comfort level. I take it that that’s why most of us are so ill-disposed to change.
Change represents a break in the pattern, and therefore, a potential threat—if not to my safety, then to my sense that the world is a hospitable place, and basically designed to provide me a disruption-free existence.
Jesus, the man who graduated from Nazareth High, bumps into this problem with pattern recognition in our text for this morning.
Jesus has been accosted by the big religious muckity-mucks, who’re uptight about some of the ritual hygiene practices of his disciples; they don’t follow the hand-washing purity rituals.
He makes the case that the thing that’s dirty and needs cleaning isn’t on the outside of the body, but on the inside. Moreover, he argues that treating our personal customs as divine mandates can lead to people—who are already at the top of the heap—treating those at the bottom of the pile like gatecrashers.
In other words, religious customs that at one time had been a way of throwing open the doors to make it easier for everyone to practice faith, have come to be the very mechanism by which those doors get slammed shut—often keeping out the people who most need to get inside.
But, as I say, after this run-in with the Pharisees, Jesus is apparently disgusted enough that he needs a break—and not just a short little breather, either. According to our text today, Jesus hit the road and didn’t stop until he got to Tyre. Tyre, as we say in the mountains is a “fur piece” from where Jesus had been in the region of Galilee.
We pick up our text for this morning as Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, whose daughter is stricken by an unclean spirit. The woman falls on her feet and asks Jesus to cast out the spirit.
How does Jesus respond?
He insults her by calling her and her daughter dogs.
She responds rather snappily: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Boom!
Pretty good, huh?
Jesus is impressed enough with her answer that he heals the woman’s daughter.
Now, there are any number of explanations that have been given to explain Jesus’ motivation for calling this woman and her daughter dogs. Is Jesus just using some kind of common idiomatic reference to point out the fact that they’re Gentile?
But that’s a problem for a couple of reasons: 1) A slur is still a slur, whether it’s common enough that “everyone says it”; and 2) drawing attention to Gentiles as “unclean” this way seems especially odd, since we’ve just gotten a huge lecture from Jesus on purity, and our proclivity for using purity as a way of keeping people out.
Are they “dogs” because Syria and Phoenicia have historically been aggressive toward Israel?
Are they “dogs ” because Tyre, according to the prophet Amos, had at one time sold Israelites into bondage?
We don’t know why Jesus uses a slur like “dog” when referring to the woman and her daughter. Whatever his motivation, though, this whole episode strikes a discordant note. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus who always seemed to stand at the ready to offer healing to whoever asked. This is one of the most difficult stories in the Christian Scriptures.
The problem, as Matt Skinner points out, is that we have an interpretive choice to make with this text: Is Jesus making this woman pass some kind of test by having her answer a riddle, or does this woman win an argument with Jesus?
If you choose to interpret this as Jesus testing the woman, you first have to account for the fact that this is the only place Jesus makes someone jump through rhetorical hoops in order to be healed. It helps us feel a little better about Jesus—at least he’s not a bigot—but not much—since it makes Jesus look like he wants the woman to approach him with the requisite humility…and if she doesn’t, he’s prepared provide her with all the humility she needs by making her own the “dog” slur before healing her daughter.
The second option, at first blush, seems even worse: that is, Jesus, for reasons known only to him, has no intention of casting the demon out…until the woman persuades him otherwise.
Now, I understand why you might be put off by this line of interpretation, since it requires that a woman reveal something about the very reign of God Jesus is busy proclaiming. We tend to like our Jesus neat: no ice, no water, no mixers—no doubt, no sweat, no fear, no sadness, no anger.
We’d be reluctant to say so in public, but we kind of like the idea of a purely divine Jesus who knew everything—nuclear power, manned space flight, and how the midterm elections are going to turn out in a week and a half.
But that doesn’t leave much room for the human Jesus—the one who had acne, bad breath, and a fear of asking a date to the senior prom. In other words, we often find it difficult to conceive of Jesus as “like us,” except in the most superficial of ways.
Consider with me, for a moment, the possibility that the Jesus Mark wants to tell us about in this story hasn’t yet wrapped his own head around just how expansive is the welcome in the reign of God he’s announcing. What if it takes a woman with a sick daughter to help Jesus catch a glimpse of what he’s just announced in his confrontation with the Pharisees…of the implications of purity laws and God’s desire to continue welcoming all people, whether or not they’ve gotten the USDA stamp of approval from the religious big shots?
What does that do to your faith?
What if the woman with the sick daughter isn’t just clever…quick with a turn of phrase—forcing Jesus to admire her wit?
What if she’s God’s messenger to Jesus about just how huge this whole enterprise is that Jesus is busy unwrapping for the whole world really?
How do you feel about that?
I’ll tell you how I feel. I love the idea that the Jesus I’ve spent my life learning how to follow is big enough to allow himself to be stretched by a Gentile woman with a sick kid—about the very last person in the whole world Jesus ought to be taking religious instruction from.
I love the idea that Jesus is big enough to listen for the voice of God in even the most unlikely places—not in the institutions busy authorizing and credentialing everything, making sure that it meets all the government standards for cage free, free range faith.
I love the fact that what Paul announces in Galatians—that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female”—that this reality gets played out in real life in the middle of the Gospel of Mark.
But you know what I love even more is what this might mean for us.
Think about the folks who come here on a Sunday morning. Think about all the stuff they have to overcome just to get out of bed and consider the fact that they might want to go to church—some for the very first time.
Think about how difficult that is. They’ve had to screw up their courage to walk through those strange and intimidating doors, come sit down in the midst of a room full of people they don’t know, and risk looking foolish if they don’t know when to stand, or when to sit—having to talk to people they don’t know about stuff they’re not sure they want to share.
I’ll just tell you. I’m an introvert and I have nightmares that look exactly like what I just described.
But somehow these folks muster up whatever it is they need to muster up…to come be with us.
We love having new people come and worship with us. But let’s be honest, anything new is a break in the pattern we’re used to.
But here’s what I want to propose: I think this Syrophoenician woman challenges us to encounter newness and change not as a threat…but as God trying to break in among us and stretch our understanding of how big this welcome is we’re supposed to be giving, how expansive is the vision of just who God wants to offer hospitality to.
So, here’s what I think: We ought to be asking ourselves what kind of gifts God is sending us in people courageous enough to seek us out to spend an hour with on Sunday morning, through the opportunities to minister to people who come in search of healing.
Sometimes God comes to us broken and scarred—one who’s left the bed of a sick child searching for some word of healing—or if not healing, then for understanding, for someone to look in the eye just to prove that this isn’t just some terrible nightmare.
Sometimes God is embarrassed with kids who have so much energy they just can’t keep still and must move their bodies as a kind of embodied prayer of praise and joy.
Sometimes God shuffles into this sanctuary old and afraid that tomorrow holds only more pain and less relief, a new day to remember what being forgotten feels like.
Sometimes God shows up gay, having been estranged from God’s own house by God’s own people so many years ago now, but hopeful that some little bit of the compassion of the Jesus they learned about as children still exists somewhere among the people who claim to follow him.
Sometimes God walks down the aisle to take a seat in the pew, having lost a job and not knowing how making it through another week looking for employment won’t lead to utter despair.
Sometimes God enters with the world on a string and a song in the heart, everything’s great and cares seem like a distant and unfamiliar proposition.
Every week God shows up here in the people who come in search of a meal—or if not a meal, then just a crumb of hospitality and dignity. We gather around the table, and God comes to us again and meets us in the gift of broken bread and poured wine.
As David Lose has said: “Let’s face it: Hospitality, for most of us, means being patient and polite while we wait for newcomers to become more like us.”
But what if hospitality isn’t just us waiting for people to change to become more like us?
What if hospitality is learning to see people as God’s gift to stretch us to become more like Jesus?
If it comes from the table of God, and we don’t block anybody from it, but welcome everyone to gather around it, a few crumbs might just be enough.
That’s a pattern I’d love to learn to recognize.