We misrecognize. We get people wrong. We interpret the lives of others according to the ideas in our heads. We make evaluations based on our inventions of types of people. We make decisions on what a person is like according to our preconceptions, which are based on piecemeal experiences. We put one person in the same category as another person because of the assumptions we’ve made about race or gender or class or personality traits. We invent so many ways to classify someone before actually getting a chance to know them, to let the person be who they are. We presume to know—to know what someone is like, to know what they want, to know how they’ll act—because we’ve already made our evaluations.
Something like this seems to be the case for Jesus in our passage from Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had already decided on the place of gentiles in his life, he already had a sense for the people from the region of Tyre and Sidon, like this woman who showed up to dinner uninvited. She’s a stranger, an outsider—she’s part of a people with questionable ethics, she’s a member of an ethnic group who believe wrong things about the world and wrong things about God. Even worse, her people have a history of harm against Jesus’ people, she’s a representative of an enemy people group.
I’m sure she knows that this visit is not acceptable, that she will bring legacies of hostility when she steps foot into that house. She knows that for her, as a Syrophoenician, as a Gentile, to show up without an invitation, to barge into someone’s home while they’re eating dinner—she knows that this kind of interruption would tap into the animosity, the antagonisms, between her people and Jesus’s people, that her visit would be seen as a provocation.
But she’s desperate, she’s desperate for a miracle. So she does what is not permitted for her people. She intrudes upon Jesus and his meal. And she begs for him to heal her daughter, she needs a miracle, she’d do anything for her daughter, even this, this humiliation.
Jesus already knows his answer. He dismisses her without a second thought. He identifies her and her people as outside of his concern, she as a member of an unclean people, unclean like the scavenger dogs that roam the alleys looking for scraps. “It is not fair to take the children’s food,” Jesus replies, “and throw their food to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).
I’m sure his words sting. But the woman persists, she refuses his dismissal. “Lord,” she responds, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (verse 29). Her reasoning shocks Jesus out of his preconceptions. Something shifts for him. He sees her in a new light. Jesus seems to realize that he had not yet grasped the reach of his ministry. “By reason of this logic [logos in the original Greek],” Jesus acknowledges her argument, “you should go because the demon has left your daughter” (verse 30, my translation). This encounter recasts Jesus’s vision of who belongs with his people and to whom he belongs—that this foreign women isn’t outside of God’s care. She confronts Jesus with his misrecognition of her.
Our passages from Proverbs 22 and James 2 name money as a source for our tendency to misrecognize each other, the accumulation of wealth as a fundamental impairment to our ability to see each other, to recognize ourselves. We’re tempted to show partiality to people with lots of money—a favoritism based on classism. “You take notice of the one with fine clothes, and ignore the poor” (James 2:3). James hates what money does to us, how possessions distort our perceptions and ruin community life. Riches are a liability, we read in Proverbs: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Prov 22:1).
We misrecognize others. That’s the reality we’re confronted with in our passages for today. We’re confronted with our temptation to presume to know, and to judge others based on our presumptions. Our only hope is God’s mercy. Our passage from James reminds us to show mercy, just like God is merciful: “Mercy triumphs over judgement.”
To live as merciful people comes with an acknowledgment of how much we don’t know about our world and each other—a recognition of how little we know about ourselves, how this life that we share is mysterious beyond comprehension, that every day offers another surprise, another ordinary wonder.
Everything we have, all of who we are, comes from the mercy of God—the sheer existence of our lives comes from God’s life, each of us as a living testimony to the goodness of God. “The rich and the poor have this in common,” Proverbs says, “that God is the maker of them all.”
Wealth deceives us into believing that we’ve made a life for ourselves, that we’ve somehow managed to become owners of a tiny corner of the world.
In all that we do, in all that we claim as ours, in our judgements, we try to forget the fundamental facts of our existence: that we are born as beggars, each of us as beggars in need of mercy, not judgement.