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Jesus and the Dispossessed

Hilton Head Island, SC – November 4, 2018
The Chapel Without Walls
Luke 16:19-31; Matthew 15:21-28
A Sermon by John M. Miller 

Text – He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” – Mt. 15:24 (RSV)

     Jesus had a special affinity for the dispossessed. Perhaps it is because he was born dispossessed. If the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are accurate, especially Matthew, Mary gave birth to Jesus in very trying circumstances. “There was room no in the inn,” Luke tells us. Thus Mary birthed Jesus when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem in the only available space for the holy family, a stable. Because King Herod wanted no usurper to seize his throne from him, he ordered all the male babies born in and around Bethlehem to be killed. Therefore Joseph and Mary left everything they owned back in Nazareth and fled to Egypt as political refugees, says Matthew. Thus Jesus always had an affinity for refugees, because he was born one.


     Jesus also had an affinity for poor people, and that is likely because he himself was poor. In one of his parables, Jesus told of a poor man named Lazarus who camped outside the door of a rich man. Lazarus hoped to be given some of the scraps of food left over from the rich man’s table. It happened that both Lazarus and the rich man died. The poor man was carried to Abraham, but the rich man was sent to Hades, far away from the great patriarch. He asked Father Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his parched tongue. Abraham told the wealthy man that there was a wide gulf between him and the beggar who used to sit pathetically by his doorstep. So the rich man asked Abraham to warn his brothers not to neglect those in need as he had done, but Abraham refused. In that story Jesus displayed his affinity for those who possess nothing except God, but whom he implied are never dispossessed by God. 


     In the time of Jesus, most Jews kept their distance from Gentiles. No doubt merchants and traders had business associations with Gentiles, but most Jews kept to themselves. Reading the Gospels, it seems likely that Jesus himself initially tried to stay at arm’s length from Gentiles. We see a hint of that in our first scripture reading. For reasons which are never explained, Jesus and the disciples went into what now is known as Lebanon, but back then was called “the district of Tyre and Sidon,” which means southern Lebanon. A woman of that region had heard that Jesus was a famous healer, so she brought her daughter to Jesus to be cured of what Jesus and everyone else back then would describe as a demon within the girl. We would call it a mental illness.


     In Luke’s account of this episode, he calls the woman a “Syro-Phoenician,” but Matthew calls her a Canaanite. The difference perhaps is explained by the facts that Luke was a Greek-speaking Gentile, and Matthew was an Aramaic-speaking Jew. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” the woman said to Jesus. “My daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” Astonishingly, Jesus did not acknowledge that she even was speaking to him, nor did he say a word to her. Then she implored the disciples to help, and they begged Jesus to send her away. So Jesus said to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Apparently Jesus initially perceived his mission to be directed to irreligious, outcast, poor Jews, and to no one else.


     She persisted; “Lord, help me!” she said. Jesus answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” What kind of thing was that for Jesus to say to this poor woman? Her daughter constantly acted in strange ways, and he was ignoring her! But she was not to be deterred. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus was so impressed by her perseverance that he said, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Then Matthew writes, “And her daughter was healed instantly.”


     I have never known quite what to make of this story. I can believe that Jesus originally perceived his calling was to move among the lowest strata of Jewish culture and society: the poorest of the poor, the down-and-out, the sick and disabled. But did he begin his Galilean ministry intending only to spend time among Jews? Did he mean to avoid all Gentiles?


     If so, this Canaanite/Lebanese/Phoenician mother may have instantaneously changed his mind for him. From then on, he also turned to other “lost sheep” in what now is Lebanon, Syria,  Jordan, and Samaria. He cured a man of Gadara on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, in Syria, of his mental illness. One of his best known parables has four main characters: a traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a Jewish temple priest, A Jewish Levite, and a Gentile Samaritan. The Samaritan was the central feature of Jesus’ parable. Samaritans were shunned by Jews, but Jesus went to Samaria. In the fourth chapter of John, the woman at the well was a Samaritan. A Samaritan was the only one to thank Jesus for being healed of leprosy. Unlike many of his fellow Jews, Jesus learned not to despise dispossessed foreigners.


     In their early history, during the conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua and the Judges, the Israelites properly considered themselves to be dispossessed. They had lived in Canaan during the time of Abraham and the Patriarchs, and then became slaves in Egypt. It took four and a half centuries for them to escape captivity, when Moses led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land.


     Until they secured the land, however, the Israelites still perceived themselves as dispossessed refugees. In Psalm 39, David says, “Hear me prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry….For I am thy passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers” (vs12). Leviticus 25:23 quotes God as saying, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (v.23). Later God tells the people, “And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you” (25:35). God wanted His people to welcome dispossessed foreigners, whom the Bible calls “strangers and sojourners.” They were not to keep them out of the land of Israel, for they themselves had been strangers in strange lands .


     Many if not most of the people who emigrated to the American colonies from Britain and elsewhere in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not rich people seeking greater wealth. They were mainly poor people hoping to establish themselves in a land far larger and more productive than any of them could imagine, where there was no king or aristocracy or ancient caste system. They wanted to stake claims for the vast lands they believed awaited them. Immigrants who followed them to America after the founding of the new nation came for the same reasons, and with the same hopes and dreams. Except for the native tribes already living here, all of us are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Thus we are all strangers and sojourners in a land not originally ours.


     Because Abraham led his family into Canaan, a land not owned by the Hebrews, and his descendants lived there for only a century before the Hebrews became enslaved in Egypt, in a sense Jews have always perceived themselves to be dispossessed sojourners. After Moses organized the exodus from Egypt, it took two centuries to complete the conquest of the Promised Land. Once the conquest was secure, the most enlightened of the Israelite religious leaders urged the people to accept other foreigners living among them. They repeatedly reminded them that they themselves had once been immigrants, strangers and sojourners in the land they believed God had promised to them. A once-dispossessed people truly turned the land they eventually possessed into “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  


     In the years following World War II, thousands of refugee families streamed into America from European nations which had been ravaged by the war. They were called “D.P.s--- Displaced Persons.” Perhaps many of us are old enough to remember some of them personally. We had two DPs in our high school class, George Jakab and Manfred Jankowski. As I remember they both came from western Poland. In the land of their birth I presume they would be “Gay-org Yah-cob” and Mon-fred Yon-kof-ski.” Because they had been living in Madison, Wisconsin for several years before coming to the West High School, neither spoke with an accent. Both went on to get Ph.d.s. George worked for the US State Department, and Manfred taught history at Loyola University in Chicago. They were the epitome of the immigrant success story, but their families began life in this country with almost nothing. They were all dispossessed DPs.


     A few weeks ago a large group of Central American refugees walked over a bridge on the  Honduras-Mexico border. At the time some reports said there were twenty thousand people, depending on the media making the reports. Then it was said the caravan actually has seven thousand people. Now there apparently are thirty-five hundred. The rest have sought asylum in Mexico or have been sent back to their homelands in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.


     The President has ordered 5,200 soldiers to the border to keep any of the asylum-seekers in the caravan from crossing our border illegally, even though they are still many weeks away from the closest border points in their slow, headline-grabbing, intentional walk. Another 2,100 National Guard troops were already sent to our southern border months ago.


     According to a nonpartisan poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the top three concerns of American voters in general are 1) health care, 2) the economy, and 3) guns. However, immigration is the Number One concern of the self-identified voters of one of our two major political parties. Strangers and sojourners have become a central fear to many people, all of whom themselves are ultimately strangers and sojourners.


     As a nation we have become too fearful of “others” --- refugees from war-torn countries, would-be immigrants from elsewhere, people whose skin color is different from our own, those who look or act or think differently from how we act, whoever we are. We are living in a time of social and political unrest unlike any other period in the lives of any of us, and in such circumstances, we tend to look inward upon ourselves. Who are we, and who should we be?


     Probably most, but not all, of those migrants are truly seeking asylum, but some likely are just trying to find a new place for making more money. There might be a few terrorists among them. The INS has been interviewing would-be Americans for many decades, and they know how to separate the legitimate from the others. Besides, 3500 people do not represent World War III.      


     The people of the Bible were alternatively called Hebrews, then Israelites, then Jews. At many points in their long history, they too, like many Americans today, figuratively “circled their wagons.” They turned inward, even though they didn’t have any wagons to circle. When people feel threatened, they often look for “scapegoats” to deflect their fears, to use a biblical term.


     The vast majority of people who would like to come to America shall never actually go to American embassies or consulates in their home nations to apply for permission to enter our country as guest workers or as official immigrants. That is very fortunate, because there is no way we could absorb everyone who wants to move to the United States. Far, far more are turned away than ever are invited in. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has a very thorough system of investigating who does and who does not gain admission to the US.


     Vincent Cannato wrote an interesting, inspiring, informative, and dismaying book called American Passage. It is the history of Ellis Island, which was the primary port of entry to a majority of immigrants to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The period from 1885 to 1915 saw proportionally the greatest number of newcomers who ever  came as strangers and sojourners into our midst. Since then, that total has never again come close to being duplicated over any thirty-year span. Furthermore, there are half as many people applying for immigrant status now as there were ten years ago.


     American Passage chronicles how well or poorly various administrators and others at Ellis Island did in assisting would-be Americans in the process of entering our country. Some were very caring, and others were callous and cold-hearted. Various citizens of New York City either helped the new arrivals or took terrible advantage of them. In the end, America is a far better, more vibrant, and more cosmopolitan nation than it otherwise would have been had not those adventuresome souls left their homes in Europe and elsewhere and come to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.


     A heavy majority of immigrants who go into any country at any point in history, including the United States, leave their homeland mainly because of terrible adversity: wars, famines, plagues, or political or economic collapse. They leave only because it riskier for them to stay than it is to leave. Thus most immigrants are self-perceived refugees of one sort or another. They are Tevye and Golda from Fiddler on the Roof, fleeing yet another pogrom in Russia. As they vacate their village of Anatevka for the last, doleful time, they sing, “Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place/ Searching for an old familiar face from Anatevka”  It is at once one of the most uplifting and sorrowful moments in the entire magnificent musical.


     Though we are the descendants of immigrants, few of us are actually immigrants. Being a stranger in a strange, new place is never easy. It is a daunting challenge. Only the most daring are willing to risk it. That Canaanite mother twenty centuries ago may have opened Jesus’ eyes wider to a situation he intuitively knew existed but by which he had not previously been confronted. Others in another country needed his compassion as much as did his own fellow Jews. Therefore Jesus broadened his ministry to include us, the ultimate outsider strangers and sojourners.


     Jesus and the Bible are relentless. They will not allow us to forget those who are much less fortunate than we are, especially the very poor, those who are most disadvantaged, and those who are uprooted into others lands by chaotic circumstances in their own homelands.


     We are living in a time when one group is deliberately pitted against another, where fear causes us irrationally to lash out at  “others.” This trend is not getting better; it is getting worse.

Our political parties, the media, and we as individuals all seem to be tearing one another and everyone around us to shreds. Deep anxiety has replaced deliberate altruism.


     We live in a liberal democracy which became the first major democracy in the world. Nevertheless, our government frequently treats the dispossessed in much the same way monarchies or autocracies past and present have always done and continue to do.


     Therefore we need to ask ourselves a couple of very important questions. Whatever can citizens in a democracy do to overcome that? And what is the single most important act that all citizens of a democracy, as citizens, can do? Today and tomorrow, think hard about that. 









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