Everybody has their favorite diversions. In recent years I have become interested (my wife Kathy would say “obsessed”) with Japanese cinema. On my day off afternoons you will often find me sprawled on the sofa watching a movie by Akira Kurasowa, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Yasujiro Ozu. Kathy doesn’t usually join me in these enjoyments; indeed she says that when she walks through the room she is greeted either by the image of a screaming samurai or a whistling kettle. Japanese movies are not everyone’s cup of tea.
I’m not sure why in these last years I have found Japanese films so compelling. Certainly the great directors of Japan are masters of cinema in their own right. But something else is going on here. When I look at Japanese culture on screen, I see something that illuminates my experience of being an American. In the same way we learn foreign languages to understand our own, so we engage other cultures so we may better see ourselves. The poet James Merrill used the term, “a kind of clarifying mirror” to describe the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Her poems, he said, reflect and clarify the self-understanding of their readers. The “clarifying mirror” idea applies not only to art. It also works more broadly with cross-cultural experiences. Other people, other traditions, other languages serve as clarifying mirrors in which we can comprehend ourselves more fully. We cannot truly see ourselves until someone “other” reflects our image back to us.
I have had another—perhaps obsessive—viewing interest this summer, and I do not mean True Detective or Show Me a Hero. In the last months I have become nearly overwhelmed by the plight of refugees and migrants attempting to cross from Africa and the Middle East into the European Union. I think the discovery in Austria of a van with 71 dead Syrian refugees pushed me over the edge, but for months leading up to that horrible news we had been pummeled with stories of refugees drowning at sea, being preyed on by gangs, or jumping into trucks entering the English Channel Tunnel at Calais. And just this last week we saw new images—a Kurdish boy dead on a Turkish beach; thousands of refugees trapped on a train to nowhere in Hungary.
In the same way that samurai pictures tell us something about the old west, these stories of Africans, Afghanis, and Syrians seeking refuge in Europe have illuminated for me something in our own national character. While we Americans might decry the callousness of European nations refusing to offer shelter to those who suffer real persecution in their home countries, we seem to tolerate presidential candidates who describe Latin Americans seeking refuge here as rapists and murderers and who describe children born to immigrants as “anchor babies”. Yet many fleeing Central American countries like Honduras seek to escape the same violence and suffering that emigrants from Libya and Syria face in their homes. Demagoguery is easier to see from afar than it is up close.
The dead child, the packed train, the Austrian van remind us, as nothing will, of what occurs daily on our own border. Death in Austria, Hungary, or Turkey reflects back to us the hard truth about death in the Sonoran Desert. Sometimes we can only see our own callousness in the clarifying mirror of someone else’s.
A similar clarifying reflective process is going on in today’s Gospel [Mark 7:24-30], a story that I have always found truly shocking. Jesus leaves Israel and goes to Tyre, one of the major cities of what was once known as Phoenecia. A Gentile woman, called by Mark a “Syrophoencian”, approaches Jesus and asks that he heal her daughter. She is a foreigner, a Gentile, a non-Jew. Following Jesus around Galilee, we have come to expect that he will embrace her warmly and cast out the girl’s demon. Instead, he says a really ugly thing: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I always thought of Jesus as a nice guy, and here he is expressing a sentiment worthy of a demagogue. In Jesus’s figure of speech, Jews are children, non-Jews are dogs. The translation: go back where you belong.
So the first surprising thing about this story is that it shows us a rare instance of Jesus when he wasn’t compassionate, forgiving, or warm. But there’s a second surprising moment here. The woman, not cowed at all by Jesus’s holy man stature, responds in kind: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” OK, buster: you want to call me a dog, let’s carry that logic out to its completion. Even if in your eyes I’m a dog, I still deserve some kind of humane consideration. Although in Gospel wit duels, I usually root for Jesus, I’m happy here to score one for the woman.
And then here comes yet another surprise. Jesus gets converted. He changes his mind. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Something about this interaction—the woman’s perseverance, not to mention her audacity, I suppose—has altered Jesus’s understanding of things. In these seven short verses Jesus has moved from being an exceptionalistic religious rule-abider to a healer possessed of a new, expansive vision of what it means to be human. Something in the Syrophoenecian woman’s argument has showed Jesus to himself. As the representative of a culture outside of the one Jesus inhabits, she has served as a clarifying mirror of his own.
Once we’ve recovered from the several shocks this story delivers, Mark’s Gospel invites us to open ourselves to its transformative personal implications. If Jesus—the Messiah, not to mention the Word become flesh and the pre-existent Son of God—if Jesus can change his mind about something, then so can you and I. We tend to think about Jesus as an omniscient deity walking around the Holy Land in human disguise, but theologically we have always understood him to be truly and fully human too. And, frankly, to be truly and fully human means that one cannot help carry around a lot of unexamined social attitudes. In his interaction with the Syrophoencian woman, Jesus finds himself confronted by the ugliness of his attitudes and changed in the process. He has to look under the rock of his own prejudices, and he is not pleased with what he finds there. And so he changes his mind. He relents. He opens himself to someone he would have previously shut out. If Jesus can do that, so can I. So can you. So can we all, together.
Jesus changes because he sees himself in the clarifying mirror of someone from outside his own usual frame of reference. Jesus changes because the woman shows him himself, and in that moment of self-discovery he realizes what few of us ever get to know. He learns that he is not normative. He is not the standard. His way of being human is one way, but it is not the only way of being human. There are other, perhaps quite different, maybe even better ways of navigating the world. Jesus can learn this because he is lucky enough to be encountered and engaged by another, by a woman from a different race and culture. How many of us regularly hang out with people who come from someplace else? How many of us have the opportunity, much less the grace, to readjust our self-understanding in the light of an outside perspective? Lucky for Jesus that he entered that house. Lucky for us that he did, too.
As this summer marked by demagoguery at home and suffering abroad comes to a close, and as our leaders play to the fears of our national and international electorates to build higher walls and razor-wire fences to keep the refugees out, let us hold on to this precious gospel moment shared between Jesus and a woman who would not let him let her go. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In this moment, Jesus saw not only the truth but also the truth’s implications for his need to act. We Americans destabilized the Middle East in the first place. We should take in a generous share of these refugees as well.
It is an act of divine grace and mercy to get to see under the rock of our own social attitudes. God doesn’t always give us the chance fully to see ourselves, and then often only by the light of the clarifying mirror of someone from the outside. We need that mirror—we need those others—in our lives to show us ourselves in all our contradictions and complexities. We may not like what we see there, but if we never see it, we’ll never change. And if we never change, then we will never become the people God is calling us to be. If Jesus can grow, then so can we. That’s hard news, but it’s life-giving news as well—both there and here, today and always, for you, for me, for Jesus, and for the world. Amen.