Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause.
A big part of me wishes I could un-see that picture. You will know the one I am talking about, and perhaps you feel the same. The picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the surf in Turkey, the soles of his shoes making clear just how little he was. But that picture travelled so far and wide, it is so heartbreaking, that we cannot un-see it. The afflicted are at the gate; what shall we do for them?
It is uncanny how our lessons for this morning speak to the recent turn of events in the migrant crisis that has finally forced us to decide: what kind of people we will be? Will we will be those who wish good fortune on the poor – who say, “Go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,” – but do nothing to combat war, to fight the cold, the stave off hunger? Or are we people of faith inspired to do good works? Are we to be blessed as those who are generous, those who share their bread, as Proverbs tell us? Will we choose to see what we would rather un-see?
In our gospel, we are offered the story of a poor woman at the gate, asking to be let in. This woman’s daughter is terribly sick and she is doing whatever she can to save her. But Jesus is not kind to her. Yes, it’s true, in the original Greek, “dogs” actually translates to housepets, not strays on the street, but that’s splitting hairs: Jesus uses the negative description of an animal to describe a person. And, yes, he is tired. He has finally taken the disciples away from the crowds to rest, and here is one more desperate person, an outsider, pleading for his time. And what does he do? He acts like a jerk. Basically, he tells her to get lost. He has other priorities right then – and she isn’t one of them.
But the woman refuses to go, and she stands up to Jesus. She plays upon his metaphor and says: but don’t the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master’s table? Some theologians have interpreted the woman’s response to be some larger metaphor about the abundance of faith, but let’s put ourselves in her shoes. She wants to save her daughter. She believes that Jesus, this miracle man of God, can do it. She will say what she has to make him pay attention to her. Who wouldn’t?
That is exactly what we are seeing happening across the world among Syrian refugee families. Parents so desperate to save their children that they send them alone on leaky boats to cross dangerous water, and hope for the best. Families willing to risk everything to escape poverty and war. People willing to be treated worse than animals in container ships for the slimmest of hope. These families are the woman who has come to Jesus, who is begging him to help her. Call me what you want, she says to Jesus, but throw me just one small crumb.
And Jesus sees her. He hears her. “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter,” he says. For some, this has been interpreted as an example of the woman’s faith earning the mercy of Jesus. But the woman’s response forces Jesus to see his wrongdoing in that moment. By turning her away, he was rejecting his own teaching, he was failing his own gospel. Her words were not so much a testament to her own faith but a challenge to the capacity of the faith of Jesus in that moment.
When we are overwhelmed, and exhausted, when the problem feels too big to solve, it is harder to be generous. Just like Jesus, in our humaness, we all know that feeling. But, as Jesus realized, that is no excuse for not helping someone in desperate need when you have the power to do so.
A month before we knew the name Aylan Kurdi, I was sitting among friends in Nova Scotia, who were unanimous in their laments for the death of African lion, whose picture also travelled the world. Something should be done, everyone insisted – criminal charges, sanctions, new laws. It felt easy: the shooting was deliberate, the perpetrator named, the crime clear.
Now this week, the sorrow was so much deeper, and so much more complicated. As someone suggested to me this week: this death wasn’t deliberate, the perpetrator shamed on Facebook. But is that true? Throughout history, we know what happens when people pretend not to see persecution, when nations avert their eyes from first flames of war, when those who need help don’t get it quickly enough for those able to offer it. In this current crisis – have we opened our gates? Have our humanitarian efforts been enough? So what would make Aylan Kurdi’s death deliberate? Aren’t we already realizing the collaborators who should be ashamed?
We cannot un-see the need around us anymore – just as Jesus realized he could not put off the woman begging for his help. Did healing her daughter, destroy all the demons in the world? No. But he fixed a problem that he had the power to fix. Let’s not kid ourselves. We also have power in this situation. We, living in a prosperous nation built on immigrants, can insist on our governments accepting more refugees – and we can reach out to those refugees when they arrive. We can make foreign aid an election issue. We can send more humanitarian aid – we can take the money we might use to eat out, or to paint the kitchen – and give it to Canadian Lutheran World Relief.
The afflicted are at our gates, and God pleads their cause. We cannot un-see them.