Some of you might remember when, some years ago, people were expressing shock and even grief at an instructive issued by the Catholic Church. Speaking on behalf of the magisterium, then Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to say that one must embrace the Roman Church in order to be saved. Of course, our “shock and grief” have found their home in our own communion. Anglicans have engaged in battle for some years now over the nature of human sexuality and what the Bible says or doesn’t say about it. Both sides have fumed at each other. Both sides have claimed the right. Pronouncement has been answered with pronouncement. In our own country, some congregations have decided that the issue is too important to remain within the Episcopal Church and have migrated to less objectionable quarters of the Anglican Communion. There have been law suits, mostly about property rights (ah, that’s code for money). It’s not a pretty picture.
Why should we be surprised that those outside the church looking-in grow more and more confused and turned-off by what they see?
The problem of exclusion and inclusion seems to have afflicted our species even in our pre-history. The early biblical story of Cain and Abel reflects this problem; so do other biblical stories usually about wives and brothers locked in rivalry for the inheritance. The very story of salvation history as recorded in Hebrew scripture dwells repeatedly on the exclusive nature of God’s relationship with Israel. There were Jews, the chosen people, and there were the Gentiles, the other.
The question of who is saved and who is not has dogged the Christian Church since its inception. In another place in his gospel, Mark included a story of Jesus’ encounter with a Syro-phoenician woman. It’s a remarkable story because it seems to show us a less-than-perfect Jesus struggling with his own issues of inclusivity. The woman, clearly a non-Jew and therefore an outsider, approached Jesus and asked him to cure her very sick daughter. Now, first century Palestinian Jewish men did not speak to strange women and certainly not gentile women. There was always danger of ritual defilement which had to be guarded against. Obviously Jesus knew this because at first he drew back from her and basically told her to go away. I think that Jesus had been taught to fear the other.
So, why should we be surprised at Cardinal Ratzinger or ourselves? Even the Son of God seems to have been challenged when faced with inclusiveness.
But, with an important difference which is, I think, instructive: Jesus never closed his heart. In facing his own fears, he was able to offer salvation and heal the beseeching woman’s beloved daughter.
I was raised in a small town, sharply divided along ethnic lines. Those divisions were a legacy of early twentieth century mass migrations of European and Canadian immigrants to the mill towns of New England. The divisions were often exploited by mill owners to keep workers from organizing themselves in support of better working conditions.
I am the descendent of French and Italian immigrants and I was raised Roman Catholic. I was taught fear and suspicion of the Poles, the Portuguese, the Ukrainians, and the Irish who lived with me in that small town. There were no Black or Hispanic people. I don’t think they were allowed. But I was taught to fear them anyway just in case I came into contact with any. I won’t say what I was taught about Protestants or Jews. But, I was quite comfortable in the knowledge that I was saved and they were not.
Some of us remember the proliferation of American flags seen after the events of September 11. They seemed to be everywhere. People felt a strong need to state who they were and where their loyalties lay. The image conjures for me the circling of the wagons portrayed in many of the television Westerns I watched in childhood.
Human beings have a long history of seeking comfort in numbers; of “circling the wagons” to protect themselves against either the real or supposed threat posed by the other. And although sociologists never tire of telling us that we have lost our sense of shared commonality and community, we still try to find ways to belong. I think that there are also less benign aspects to displaying flags, aspects that tap into a darker side of human nature. While I would say that belonging is important, even very important, I think that we are sometimes confused about what this really means; how often belonging seems to be defined by excluding others.
When Jesus poses the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” I would suggest that he is asking us to look closely at that darker side. The question’s impact on Jesus’ audience is lost on us unless we know or remember that family literally meant everything in Jesus’ world and that to be without genealogy placed an individual outside the possibility of relationship with other Jews and with the performance of temple rites necessary to ensure the integrity of one’s relationship with God. Family was everything. To know one’s origins ensured good standing in the community. To have to ask the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” pushed a person into the category of bastard and that was a place that no one would wish to be.
So Jesus’ question is, I think, another one of those instances where the world of social and religious expectations gets turned upside down; like in the story of the Syro-phoenician woman. Jesus’ audience knew that everyone who was anyone knew their parentage for at least five or six generations. They were quite certain that they knew who were the chosen and who were not, who were saved and who were lost, who belonged and who did not. Not unlike all those flapping flags seeming to say, “We know who we are, and the rest of you, whoever you might be, better watch out.”
I am not sure what underlies our need to do this to ourselves and to others. I think that it has something to do with our fear of God, our fear of the Other (and here I refer to that Other spelled with a capital “O.”) Our fear to do what Jesus has told us we must do: to die to self so that we might live. Dying is so scary because we have to do it alone.
Jesus’ question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” might be an invitation. An invitation for us to look long and hard, to look and see again and again how we define ourselves; to become radically conscious of what effect our own sense of belonging has on those with whom we share this planet. A challenge to question systems that say that blood, family, nationality, ethnicity, race, sex, sexual orientation or even religion somehow settle important questions about life and purpose. It’s an invitation that asks us to embrace a world of uncertainty, unanswered questions, and even insecurity; a world where too much smug comfort probably means that we are dangerously out of touch with how God is calling us to be and to become.
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