Road Testing Jesus and the Australian Christian Lobby - Mark 7:24-30

There is this thing called moral dumbfounding.

It's when we meet something that seems totally wrong but we are not able to say why. It's like when someone offers us snails and we find the thought of eating them disgusting, but we happily eat oysters. There is no logic here, but something deep and undiscerned within us which tells us snails are disgusting but oysters are a delicacy. (Personally, I'm not up for either, so my undiscerned story is different again!)

I understand Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman to be a story of moral dumbfounding.

Our instinct when we are morally dumbfounded, is to shy away. It is to follow what we "know and feel to be right." I think that it is also an opportunity for growth. When I am dumbfounded, I have the opportunity to discern something about my self, to understand, and to grow closer to what really is. I can let my reasons inform my passions.

Richard Beck says about moral dumbfounding that

The shocking thing about Haidt's research is that it tends to turn our understanding of moral judgements upside down. Specifically, we tend to think that reasons drive our moral feelings. I judge that X is wrong and, as a consequence, feel that it is wrong. Cognition precedes emotion. Judgment causes feeling.

But Haidt's research suggests that this just might be backwards. Emotion precedes cognition. Feeling causes judgment. We feel something to be wrong and then go in search for a reason. Moral warrants (the stuff of an ethics class) are, essentially, post hoc justifications. And, for most of us, we operate with a "good enough" search criteria. That is, people, seeking to justify their knee jerk moral judgements, generally land upon warrants that provide "just enough" justification. Doesn't matter if these judgements are logically consistent or coherent upon inspection, all that matters is that they quickly help us reconcile our feelings with our self-concepts. This is why moral reasoning, as any philosopher can tell you, is generally so poor and unreflective....

So can we change, morally speaking? Yes, just not through sharing reasons. The only way to change ..... is to change emotionally and experientially. When your feelings change then you begin to prefer different kinds of moral warrants. Your heart has softened in some way and what previously sounded persuasive no longer moves you. It doesn't ring true. And some verses in the bible now seem cold and distant while others seem warm and alive.

For a respectable, conservative Christian Jew of Mark's era, the story of the Syrophoenican woman and Jesus is "just wrong" at every level. Jesus has shown his Lordship in the feeding of the five thousand. He shows he can "bring heaven," when all are safe and fed. But then...

then he goes into Gentile territory, not what a good Jew did. And not just any Gentile territory but the area to the north, with all its Baal cultic assocations. It's like a good bible belt Christian going to stay in Kings Cross-- or Las Vegas-- why does a good man go there for a break? And while he is there a woman comes to him, and not just any woman. Her identification adds to the moral tension of the story; she is clearly pagan and a sinner of the worst kind. Matthew's telling of the same story ramps up the moral murkiness; she is, in his words, a Canaanite woman, proverbially evil and sinful.

Staggeringly, Jesus still talks with her! We have a sketch, I think, of a rabbinic debate, something with which she should never have been favoured. And while telling her the truth-- we all know that salvation is only for the Jews-- he lets himself be out argued into healing her daughter! Jesus who always wins the argument, lets himself be defeated by a woman, by a gentile woman of the worst kind, and heals a gentile who, as you would expect, has an unclean spirit; a gentile who is also a female, and a child. Disgust is piled upon disgust.

For some of Mark's sisters and brothers in the faith, the disgust felt at this story would match the distress and disgust some of our contemporaries feel about gay sex. (Don't mention marriage.)

How can we let our hearts begin to soften? Can we look and see the healed child who has an an unclean spirit is "a little daughter?" Can we think of our own children and be softened, and then think again about who it is that God may choose to love?

Steve Taylor tells of a communion service where a dog appeared.

It’s Sunday night and the people of God are gathered around the communion table. The youngest is Sam, all of 10 months. The oldest is Gavin, all of 60. A visitor wanders in late and takes a seat on a empty couch. Complete with dog on a leash. Rotwieler cross pup.

The people of God stir. Two teenagers quiz the minister. “What’s he doing here?”

“Same as you,” replies the minister, “Being part of church.”

“Why a dog in church?” the 6 year old quizzes her mother.

Delicately the mother picks her way toward an answer. All strangers are welcome. Yes. But are all animals? You see, the 6 year old is a bright one. The 6 year old has a rabbit! If the dog is welcome, then is this a precedent. Mother pictures rabbits lopping up aisle and fish bowls balanced delicately on child laps.....

The loaf of bread is broken. Gifts of God. And the broken body of Jesus is passed down the table. For the people of God. People tear a hunk of God’s body. Crumbs shower on carpet.

Out of the corner of the eye, a blurr of movement. In a flash, the body of Christ is gone, woofed down by hungry jaws. Teenagers stare. The 6 year old is agog. Eagerly the dog looks up, licking the crumbs of Christ off salivating jaws.

My colleague Dianne has commented at the end of the post:

We normally have dogs at communion. They are not supposed to eat the crumbs because they should be paying attention to their duties not being distracted by food. But they do. It doesn’t take away from our celebration of communion. It adds to it. The children around the table are blessed by the dogs eating the crumbs.

Read Steve's Blog in full here.

I know one of these dogs: Keeley. Keeley, a "seeing eye dog," works very hard at behaving whilst on duty, but the crumbs must be a sore temptation. She melts people's hearts, and they keep offering her food at church.

Again, for some of us, moral dumbfounding. Or a softening of hearts to see something new of God and God's world.

Is Jesus showing us how to have our heart melted by a little daughter? If we are to ask "What would Jesus do?" it seems we are to do those things which, somewhere, we have learned are "just wrong" in the way we accept people. And to accept people who are "just wrong."

Consider where Mark lies in the chronology of the church. Mark is not an eyewitness statement of Jesus' behaviour, reported in the newspaper of the next day. Mark is a gospel written a generation, or even two, after the death of Jesus. Stories have circulated through the churches, but they are late stories. Paul seems never to have even heard them; or not cared about them. If we think about the stories within our own families, we know how they will have changed; we know they will have been embellished, suppressed, perhaps bear little resemblance to the origninal event, and even been loaded with significance that the early tellers never envisaged. A casual observation of the internet shows us how truths and insights arise and are attributed to worthy figures of the past. Snopes could almost survive on correcting wrong attributions alone!

What we have in this story of the Syrophoenician woman and her child, and Jesus, is not a fresh challenge from him. It is not a new parable he just made up, or an insight he gained from his encounter yesterday. This is a Jesus who has been well roadtested, and found reliable. Otherwise, this strange and embarressing story would not be there. It would not have been found worthy to include in the gospel. And that's before we come to it with our modern sensibilities about race.

Mark's community had learned that embracing its moral dumbfounding, rather than rejecting those whom it found morally repulsive, somehow brought it into the presence of God.

This is not to say that "anything goes." But perhaps it is to change the burden of proof. We too easily accept our received moral feelings about people, instead of letting them be challenged. It is only after we have played under the table with a little girl, and met her humanity that we have any right to moralise.

Who would ever say to a little child who is starving, that she may not eat even of the crumbs on the floor? Yet if I do not explore why her presence so upsets me, this is what I will do. If I simply rationalise that the gay lifestyle is more harmful than smoking  and do not face the moral dumbfounding that makes me so unable to relate to gay people, then I am not only a byword for intolerance, not to mention a laughing stock. I am morally equivalent to those who let little children starve in the presence of food.

Andrew Prior



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