Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Of dogs and lions


There’s a wonderful book in the Bible, called Qohelet in Hebrew and Ecclesiastes in Greek, a book of wisdom and philosophy, attributed by tradition to king Solomon. It is full of memorable images, such as the idea that pretty much every human activity imaginable is an attempt to herd, or shepherd, the wind. This, of course, conveys a sense of futility. But wind is also breath, and breath is the fleeting gift given over and over by God, and from ancient times God had been understood to be shepherd of a shepherding people; so there is also the sense of being made in God’s likeness, that our work participates in God’s work, and, perhaps, the idea that we habitually seek to be god of our own lives, to no avail.

There’s an idea swirling around the Gospels, an idea no-one can really grasp and hold on to, that Jesus is the Son of David, and in particular, the new Solomon the Wise. One who might even succeed in shepherding the wind.

In Mark chapter 7, we hear an account of Jesus in conversation with a culturally Greek, ethnically Syrophoenician, woman. Her daughter is afflicted by a demon, and she asks Jesus to help her. In Matthew’s account of the episode, though not Mark’s, she calls him Son of David. Jesus responds, it is not fair to take and children’s food before they have eaten their fill, and throw it to the dogs. The woman replies, yes Lord, but even the dogs beneath the table get to eat the crumbs that fall from it. For this, Jesus does as she asks. When she returns home, she finds the demon gone.

Some argue that Jesus is guilty of a racial slur and is schooled by the woman. I don’t find that convincing. Though Jesus is divisive, I do not see him ever as initiating or perpetuating distance between God or neighbour. There’s an exchange taking place here, on terms both understand, this Jewish man and Greek woman. On ground such as philosophy. Moreover, like the woman, I am a gentile; so, whatever it is Jesus has to say to her concerning dogs concerns me, so I want to understand too.

Qohelet/Ecclesiastes chapter 9 opens by observing that time and chance impact upon the righteous and the unrighteous, the clean and the unclean, without distinction. This is vexing (evil, though not in a moral sense). The end of all is death. ‘But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.’ (Qohelet 9:4) This being so, the best advice is ‘Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.’ (9:7)

(Lions are interesting. Not only is Jesus identified by his followers as the lion of Judah—a dead lion, though not one that stays dead—but Mark the evangelist will become identified with the image of a lion, becoming his symbol.)

What if Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman’s conversation is grounded in the wisdom of the son of David? What if by referencing a highly memorable phrase from that wisdom, Jesus is joining the woman with all the living? With those who, despite the seemingly cruel randomness of life which has left her daughter distressed by a conflicted spirit, still have hope? What if he is not so much connecting her as recognising—affirming—her connection before others?

What if Jesus’ central advice is to eat bread with joyfulness and drink wine with gladness? Eating with the righteous and the unrighteous, the clean and the unclean, Pharisees and tax collectors. Enacting on earth the heavenly banquet of a God who approves of you. Sharing bread and wine, to remember.

And what if the woman recognises that this wisdom of the Jewish people is not only for the Jewish people, but that even the crumbs that fall from the table are enough to sustain people like her, like me, joined to the living hope?

What if the crumbs of communion wafers, distributed from the Lord’s table at Holy Communion, keep that hope alive?

What if joy and gladness make my daily bread, breakfast, lunch and evening meal, a participation in the goodness of God, that drives out my restless vexation?


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