Seeing, Hearing, and Knowing

Sermon on Mark 7:24-27 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

There’s a beautiful scene in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting in which Will, a mathematical genius who works as a janitor at MIT, is sitting on a park bench with Sean, a psychologist who has been tasked with helping Will find direction in life. Noting that Will had never left Boston, Sean meditates on the limits of Will’s intelligence: “if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling…I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer…You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.” Sean’s point is clear: while Will understood plenty about the world, there is much that he did not know. More significantly, the kind of knowledge that Sean holds up requires a measure of vulnerability and a willingness to love with abandon.

The passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning is one of the more uncomfortable in our lectionary. Those of us who call ourselves Christians expect Jesus to behave a certain way: he is kind and open-minded. When he interacts with the Syrophoenician woman, however, Jesus is callous, dismissive, and downright rude. This story does not jibe with our normal image of Jesus. Moreover, it’s difficult to explain away his behavior. Of course, this hasn’t prevented people from trying. Some interpreters have noted that the Gentile residents of the Decapolis profited from the exploitation of those who lived in the Galilee. According to these critics, Jesus was offering a visceral and understandable response to years of economic marginalization. Other commentators have noted that the word Jesus uses to refer to the Syrophoenician woman can be translated as “puppies,” implying that Jesus’ remark was not nearly as harsh as it sounds to our ears. As interesting as these interpretations may be, all of them represent attempts to explain why Jesus behaves the way he does in the first place, and not why he ultimately responds to the Syrophoenician woman. I think the reason we are so focused on rationalizing Jesus’ apparent xenophobia at the beginning of this interaction is that we are uneasy with the idea that Jesus has a change of heart. After all, Jesus is supposed to be divine, and divine things aren’t supposed to change. Unless we acknowledge that Jesus has something of a conversion experience in his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman, however, we fail apprehend the true power of this moment.

One could argue that the theme of Mark’s gospel can be found in the fourth chapter, when Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “they look, but do not perceive,” he explains, “and they listen, but do not understand.” In many ways, the rest of the gospel is about exposing the ways that the people around Jesus fail to understand what is happening; the ways that they look without really seeing and hear without really listening. While the people around Jesus may understand plenty about the world, in other words, there is much that they do not know. We see this theme play out in this passage. Surprisingly, however, it is Jesus who looks without seeing and hears without listening, at least initially. Jesus ignores needs of the Syrophoenician woman because he understood everything he needed to understand about her. He understood she was a Gentile, a covenant outsider, and therefore unworthy of and, in all probability, uninterested in his attention. Jesus dismisses the Syrophoenician woman on the basis of what he knew about her before she even entered the scene. It is the woman’s response, not necessarily what she said, but the fact of her response that allows Jesus to look at her and see her, to recognize that for all he may understand about her, he does not know her. This is why he says, “For saying that, go.” That is the moment of recognition; that is the moment Jesus sees beyond the prejudices of his time and place and acknowledges that this woman’s plight is universal. Now, the theological sticklers among us may object to the implication that Jesus has to learn anything. Significantly, however, this was not something Jesus had to learn. In fact, the language Jesus used earlier in the gospel seems to indicate that we are destined to look without seeing and hear without listening. In this sacred moment, however, Jesus articulates a new way forward. He reveals that we do not have to be hamstrung by our blindness to the people around us. Indeed, Jesus models what faithful engagement with “the other” looks like and demonstrates that the gospel empowers us to look at other people and truly see them.

We live in an age in which we understand a lot about the people around us. Tech companies can tell us everything there is to know about us on the basis of our buying habits. Political pundits can guess at our education level, our ethnicity, our age, and our income on the basis of who we vote for. If we’re honest, we too make judgments on the basis of what we already know about people. After all, what do you think when you see someone wearing gold rings and fine clothes, or dirty clothes, or a hoodie, or a short skirt, or a “Make America Great Again” cap? How many people can we say we truly know? Moreover, how many people can we say we have endeavored to know? How many people have we looked at and really tried to see? What might happen if we, the people gathered in this room this morning, made an effort to know the people around us: not to learn about them, but to acknowledge and look beyond our assumptions and prejudices and truly see another person? The objective of this is not necessarily to change our minds about things or even to discover what we have in common with each other, but to overcome the blindness to which we are all susceptible. My suspicion is that a community dedicated not to a particular worldview, but to the discipline of truly knowing other people, has the power to transform the lives of those around them. This isn’t easy: it requires vulnerability and a willingness to be rejected. But the gospel invites us, dares us to love with abandon. When we do that, we will know each other in a way that transcends what we think we already understand.

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