Encounter at the Border

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 20
August 20, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: At life's borders, our determination to act in a Christlike way is often tested.

You don't have to look far these days for stories about borders. Whether it's boat people rescued in the Mediterranean from leaky vessels, or lines of asylum applicants trying to pass from Mexico to the United States, borders loom large in our awareness.

Borders are where two cultures rub against each other. Sometimes the friction generates a certain heat, as cultures clash.

Jesus at the border

Borders played a role in the time of Jesus as well. There were no such things as checkpoints or border guards, but there was an awareness among travelers when they were passing from one country into another.

In the border regions there were certain villages where people of one ethnicity, or one religion, predominated. Everyone knew this. Sometimes you only had to walk a few miles before suddenly finding yourself in a different world.

This is what happens to Jesus and his disciples when they cross into a certain village in the district of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus has left behind the lands he knows best and has crossed into the country we now know as Lebanon.

A Canaanite woman, a native of that region, calls out to him for help. "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."

But Jesus ignores the woman's desperate plea.

Moreover, his disciples say, "Send her away. She keeps shouting after us."

"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," Jesus says to the woman.

But this woman won't take no for an answer. She's got a daughter who's very sick. She kneels and repeats her plea.

The next words from Jesus are hard for us to accept, coming from him: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Jesus doesn't just brush her off. He doesn't just mumble some bureaucratic excuse and move on. He insults this woman.

To call someone a dog, in that culture, was harsh. No one kept dogs as pets. Yet they kept the rat population down, so they were allowed to hang around and forage for food.

You have to admire the Canaanite woman's persistence. Even after enduring the insult she keeps at it. She turns the slur around and makes it into a virtue: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

It's a startling moment. Whatever the disciples may have been saying among themselves, they break off, mid-sentence, and stare at this woman. Then they look over at their master to see what he's going to say next.

Something has changed in him: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And with that, the daughter is healed.

All eyes on Jesus

Was Jesus intent with the dog comment? The woman comes from the other side of the border. Her maternal desire to see her daughter healed is no different from any Jewish woman whom Jesus has helped, but in this case, he turns her down flat. He's come only for "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he says, and she doesn't belong to that flock. Ouch!

We are inclined to think of Jesus as perfect. The Bible tells us he was without sin, but some of us take that further, never imagining that as also fully human, he could make the smallest error. But this passage perhaps shows us otherwise. The Canaanite woman's quick wit has exposed Jesus.

Martin Luther was well aware of this. Commenting on this passage, he says, "She catches Christ with his own words. He compares her to a dog, she concedes it, and asks nothing more than that he let her be a dog, as he himself judged her to be. Where will Christ now take refuge? He is caught."1

But Luther takes comfort in the fact that Jesus still hasn't shut the woman off completely. He's quick to point out that Jesus' answer is still "undecided and pending." What Jesus does finally do, in response to this courageous woman's persistence, is the right thing. He doesn't let his off-the-cuff answer -- the typical, expected answer for a person of his place and time -- stand. He pivots, acting in a deeply merciful and loving way.

If it still troubles you that Jesus initially acted in such a way, then maybe you should ask what you think about Jesus in general. Yes, the Bible describes him as sinless, but that doesn't mean he never made a mistake. In this case, he quickly recognizes his error and corrects it. Maybe this story is an example of Jesus being tested, but coming out of that testing without falling into sin.

The power of borders

So, let's not dwell on Jesus' remark. He doesn't try to explain or justify it himself. Why should we? It's far more important to reflect on how we're inclined to respond ourselves, in similar circumstances.

As a way of doing that, let's consider a story of the sort of thing that all too often happens at the border.

There's a charming little movie -- a quirky comedy -- in which a border figures prominently. It's a 2004 Israeli film with English subtitles, called The Syrian Bride. If you can find it on one of the streaming services, it's well worth watching.

It's a fictional story, but it's based on some real-life situations that have actually happened -- and still happen -- in the borderlands between Israel and Syria.

It's the story of a young woman named Mona, a member of the Druze people. The Druze are an ethnic minority who've lived in the three nations of Israel, Syria and Lebanon for centuries. They have their own language and their own religion. They're grudgingly tolerated by the much larger nations within whose borders they live.

Mona and her family live in a Druze village in the Golan Heights -- that strategic region Israel captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967. The nearby border between those two nations is among the most heavily-fortified in the world -- and one of the most difficult to cross. Only a handful of people are allowed to pass through the border fences each year.

The problem is that Mona is engaged to marry a man -- one of her own Druze people -- who happens to live across the border in Syria. She's never met him, although they've talked on the phone. It's an arranged marriage, which is common in their culture. The two families know and respect each other. She trusts her parents to have chosen well for her, but she's sad at the prospect of leaving her family.

What makes the parting even sadder is the harsh fact that, once Mona crosses that border, the Israelis will never let her return. Unless relations between the countries thaw -- no sign of that at present -- the only way Mona will ever see her family again is if they can contrive to meet together in some neutral country.

Her wedding celebration is an odd one, because of the border that runs straight through the middle of it. First there's a lavish wedding feast, put on by Mona's parents, for all the people of their village. The groom is not present; he has not been given permission to enter Israel. As soon as the party's over, Mona and her family drive to the border for the tearful farewell, before she crosses through the chain-link and barbed-wire fences alone, to meet her new husband and his family. The actual wedding ceremony will take place on the Syrian side, with no members of the bride's family present.

It's taken months to obtain the necessary visas from the two governments. When Mona arrives at the Israeli border checkpoint, in her wedding dress, everything seems to go smoothly at first. The Israeli border officer stamps her passport, then a female officer of the Norwegian army -- a member of the U.N. peacekeeping force -- escorts her through the fence into no-man's land.

It is there that a complication arises -- you could call it a perfect storm of bureaucracy. It seems the Israelis have just changed the type of rubber stamp they use on the passports of travelers leaving the Golan Heights. The new stamp declares that Mona is leaving Israel, something that never used to be the case for earlier travelers.

This is decidedly not okay with the Syrian border guards, because their nation has never given up its claim to the Golan Heights. If they let Mona into their country -- if they accept this passport that says she's just left Israel -- does that mean Syria is giving up its claim to the Heights? Suddenly Mona, wilting in the hot sun in her wedding dress, has become a symbol of everything that's dysfunctional between those two nations: even though she, as a member of the stateless Druze people, doesn't belong to either one.

Tense negotiations ensue. Phone calls are made to Jerusalem and Damascus. Jeanne, the sympathetic Norwegian officer, borrows a metal folding chair from the Israelis and carries it over for Mona to sit on, and also gives her a couple bottles of water. Jeanne's practicing a kind of shuttle diplomacy, driving her U.N. jeep back and forth from one immigration-control booth to the other.

Both families are looking on in astonishment and horror: from opposite sides of the border. They can see each other through binoculars -- and they can see Mona, forlornly sitting there, surrounded by barbed wire. Her fiancee is on the scene as well, pacing nervously on the Syrian side. But he's helpless to do anything, because the Syrians won't let him cross into no-man's-land to sit with his bride.

The negotiations drag on, hour after hour. Finally, the Norwegian liaison officer gains a small concession from the Israelis. The Israeli immigration officer agrees to cover over the offending rubber-stamp image with White-Out. But the Syrians decide this is still not good enough. It appears that the wedding will be delayed by weeks, even months (if, in fact, it can happen at all.)

Just as everything seems impossibly tied up in knots, Mona -- who's been sitting there patiently all this time, the picture of composure -- takes matters into her own hands. She gets up without a word, and begins walking, with great determination, towards the Syrian border. She has no passport (it's still in the hands of the Israeli immigration people). She has no luggage. And she's wearing a wedding dress.

What will the Syrian border guards do? Will they shoot her?

Everyone is so completely dumbfounded by her decision to cut the bureaucratic red tape and just walk across that no one stops her. Mona walks right through the Syrian checkpoint unchallenged, and into the arms of her new family.

Love wins

At the end of the day -- despite all the assaults of racism and sheer bureaucracy -- love wins. It does so in the most unexpected way.

Much the same happens in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The same can happen in the borderlands of our own lives: if we let it!