What is this life for? What’s your life for?
[personal story about a friend diagnosed with cancer]
So I’ve been thinking about what life is for, this precious life: so brief and so breakable. These bodies, these friendships, these jobs, this family, all of it our lives—we have these fragile lives, and they crumble, never when you’re ready, never as part of the plan, never as expected, and so we wonder what to do with what we have, for the moment—what to do with now. At least that’s what I wonder about, late at night, as I think about my friend, laying in her hospital room—I think about my brief life, apparently so breakable, and what I’m supposed to do with it, how I’m to live with it, to live it for whom?
So we turn to the story of Jesus—it’s like a reflex for us. That’s what it means to think like a Christian: to wonder what the life of Jesus has to do with any of this, with all of this, with our lives, mine and yours and my friend’s—to wonder what these stories about Jesus do to us, as we think about how to live, how to direct our time and energy, our love and service: to live for whom.
This week the lectionary gives us one of the toughest passages of the Gospels. I struggle with this story because of how Jesus treats a woman who needs a miracle, because of what he says to her. “She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter,” it says. And Jesus replies, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:26-27).
He calls her a dog. The woman is begging for Jesus to heal her child, to set her free from a demon, to liberate her from oppression—and Jesus calls her a dog in response. This is as bad as it sounds. For the Jews, for Jesus, dogs were unclean because they were scavengers who ate from trash heaps, contaminated scraps of food. Jesus tells this woman that she is just like those dogs, part of an unclean people, a gentile, a filthy human being. She has no business bursting into a Jewish home to beg a miracle out of Jesus. She doesn’t belong there, at that table. She should stay away from him and his people because she is contamination, she is pollution.
Jesus does not recognize himself as available to her. He doesn’t see himself as her Lord, as her messiah. He belongs to Israel, to the Jews, not to gentiles, not to people like this woman, dogs begging for scraps. At least that’s how Jesus sees himself, how he thinks of his life, what he’s supposed to be doing with his life, how he’s supposed to direct his time and energy, who he’s supposed to love. She’s not part of him. He is not supposed to care about people like her. He has nothing to do with gentiles. Jesus knows that much. Or he thought he new that much.
The woman seems to know Jesus better than he knows himself. She doesn’t believe that Jesus actually believes what he’s saying. So she stays there, she refuses to be sent away, and she calls him, “Lord,” kurie in Greek. “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 29).
A new world opens up to Jesus here, with this woman. A moment of revelation, a revelation of God, of who God is, of who God loves, of how God lives in our world. Because of her logic (her logos in Greek), because of her words, because of the word she speaks, Jesus says, “the demon has left your daughter” (v. 30).
This is a story about how to love and who to love. It’s a story about how to let ourselves be exposed to the call of love in the world, the way love surprises us, interrupts us, and beckons us—the way God leads us by speaking truth through people we usually treat like dogs, to learn that they are part of us, that we are part of them, that our houses, our tables, our lives belong to them as much as they belong to us; that everything we have, everything we are, belongs to God, and that means all of what we have belongs to the beggars among us, the people suffering the oppression of demons, of the demonic injustice and violence of our world.
This has everything to do with the little boy, two years old, who washed up on a shore in Turkey—drowned, dead. He and his family were fleeing from war, Syrian refugees. “I don’t want anything else from this world,” the child’s father said. His children and his wife now dead. “Everything I was dreaming of is gone,” he said. “I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”
He’s one among many refugees who are begging, like the woman in our story, for their lives, begging for the lives of loved ones.
The story of Jesus and the woman has everything to do with the protestors standing in front of the new Marriot hotel in Durham, kids holding signs and chatting beside their parents, begging for the money that belongs to them, wages that haven’t been paid. “We are protesting here to let people know that we need justice, we need help”—that’s what Isaac Perez told me last week, when I stopped by to hear their story. He was there with his wife and children. “I don’t want nothing free,” he told me, “I just want to be paid.”
The story of Jesus and the woman has everything to do with the man who comes by my house, with a bucket and towel, begging to wash my car, because he needs a few extra dollars to get through life.
This story has everything to do with you, because I know you beg for things. I know that you beg God, that you beg for good things, for the good things that make life liveable, worthwhile, a life full of grace and joy. You ask for goodness, we all do. “Do good, O Lord,” the Psalmist prays, “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good” (Psalm 125:4).
We ask this of God, and we ask it of one another. That’s where we find Jesus in the story. We find him as he learns the ways of God, the way God moves in the world, as he learns that this woman, a stranger to his faith, a stranger to his people, a stranger to his table—that this woman belongs; that she is also part of him; that God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s healing is for her, too. This is a story about the revelation of love, of learning how to live as people of God’s love.
And that’s what life is for. To open ourselves to revelations of love, the newness of God’s life in faces we haven’t noticed before, people we haven’t yet recognized as part of us—for God to lead us to love the people God loves. That we may learn how to love, how to care for the people in our lives, our families and strangers, our friends and enemies, all who surround us, the people beside you now and the people who are kept from you, separated by walls and borders, but all who are nonetheless beloved by God.
That’s what this brief and breakable life is for. This love. I think of a passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. “Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live—and there is so much out there to live for.” I would only add that not only is there so much out there to live for, but that there is so much to love, to live to love. You must live because you must love.
James says that our faith without works is dead (James 2:17). I’d say faith without love is dead. Without love, our lives wither away—and our lives are too precious that, too brief, too breakable for that kind of existence.
The good news is that God captures us, that God surprises us, that God surrounds us with people, with people who are revelations of love, showing us how to love and who to love. People like the woman in our story, who is told that she doesn’t belong, who is told that she is beyond the horizon of God’s love, but who convinces Jesus that she is part of him, that his life has everything to do with her life, that God has woven their stories together.
That’s what God’s love does to us, what we see happening Jesus—that we are bound up in God’s life in this world, and that means we are bound up with each other, bound up with one another, and with countless others.