By Kristen Pungitore
“Oh, you’re from Cleveland?” is usually followed by “Have you seen the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism videos on Youtube?” or “Didn’t the river catch on fire there?” I always use the time spent in Ubers in other cities as an opportunity to evangelize about how cool Cleveland actually is and how proud I am to be a resident of this fine city with a great food scene and exciting infrastructure.
Where I call home is an important piece of who I am and one of the labels I use to begin to describe my identity.
Throughout scripture, there are countless examples of the writers identifying people by the place they live, their religion, or their race. In today’s Gospel reading, a woman approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter of unclean spirits. Want to know how old she is, what she’s like, what she cares about, what her zodiac sign is, how big her family is, if she has any pets, what she likes to do for fun, what gets her out of bed in the morning?
Too bad. The Bible tells us none of those things.
Actually, the only thing we know about the woman is that she has this daughter, she has a bit of a sassy response to Jesus, and that she is a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. The word “Greek” is used to let the listener know that she is not Jewish and the word “Syropheoenician” probably describes her race. The Bible tells us her religion and her race. In a way, the Holy men writing this Holy text failed to give us the complete picture of who she is, although I do recognize that is a challenging thing to do in one short selection of text.
In another section of the Gospels, Jesus also takes some heat for the place that he, out of pure chance, happened to be born. Nathanial asks Phillip, “Can anything good come from Nazareth (1:46)?” Ouch. Also in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ brand new (hot off the fishing boat) disciples ask him where he’s staying in order to begin to get to know something about him (1:38). Jesus answers by not telling them where he’s living, but inviting them to “Come, follow me (1:39).”
Why does this matter?
It matters because for Jesus, being with someone and getting to know what makes them tick is far more important than where someone lives, what they look like, or how they worship God. We read headlines every day that attempt to divide people into neat categories that determine their worth and value. For me, it’s hard not to think about the current refugee ban and the desire some Americans have to separate people based on where they’re from, what they look like, and how they worship God. When we do this, we fail to see the complete picture of who they are (persons made in the image and likeness of Christ) and how they play a part in the body of Christ. Instead, we write them off because we immediately assume something about them instead of welcoming and caring for the stranger, having compassion for the suffering, and remembering that we all belong to each other.
These are messages that could not be clearer in scripture.
Is there a risk involved in loving and welcoming the stranger? Yes, of course. There is a risk involved in loving and welcoming anyone. This is why heartbreaks and deaths hurt so badly. There is no doubt in my mind that this means it is not worth it or it is not what we are called, in the Gospels, to do.
Each of our identities is complex and made up of so many different parts, some we chose and some that are chosen for us.
Allow us to encourage the other, the stranger, the refugee, and know them, and welcome them, and see them as a person with dignity whose life is precious.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristen teaches theology and plans service immersion trips for students at Saint Joseph Academy in Cleveland, OH. She enjoys teaching students about the beauty and complexities of Scripture and challenging them to engage the "other" in service in the world. She is in love with community, the outdoors, America's National Parks, and her golden retriever puppy Finn.