There are essentially two ways for Christians to relate to non-Christians. We can emphasize what is different between us or we can emphasize what we have in common. that is, we can build walls or bridges. My own inclination, based on my understanding of the biblical portrait of the character of God, is toward being a bridge builder. I want to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
Think, for example, of the story about Jesus in Mark 7:24-30. Jesus has walked out of Israel to the north. He is in the area we now call Lebanon. A woman comes to him and asks for him to exorcise a demon from her daughter. Mark is meticulous to note that not only is the story set in Gentile territory but the needy person is a woman, a Gentile, a Syrophoenician.
She is an outsider to Jesus’ Judaism, just as he is an outsider to her non-Jewish faith. She overcomes the wide cultural and religious barrier that separates her from Jesus, driven by her love for her daughter. Love has a way of making our barriers seem a bit smaller, doesn’t it?
At first, Jesus seems to rebuke her and we find ourselves thinking he is going to honor the differences between himself and her more than he honors her motherly love. He sounds quite rude: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That seems to be both a denial of her request and an insult, calling her a dog, as was common among Jews of the day.
Oddly enough, that’s not what she heard. There is no sign that she is put off or that she feels insulted. She is moved by love, not by pride in her own culture. She doesn’t mind that Jesus says other people have a higher priority. And she may well have known that at the time Jews sometimes referred to Gentiles as dogs but that Jesus uses a very specific word for “dogs.” There is one word for “outside” dogs who stay in the yard or roam the streets freely and another word for the household pets who love to lick the floor after the humans have enjoyed a messy meal. Jesus, contrary to the custom, uses the more affectionate term meaning little dog or pet dog.
He could have excluded her and she could have taken his words to be rejection. Instead, she engages him in a bit of conversation that would be admirable even among rabbis. Rabbinic discussions were conversations in which each speaker built upon the comments of the other. A rabbi would show understanding by adding the next step to his partners comment.
That is exactly what this woman does. “Sir [or “Lord”], even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She accepts his word and adds her own to extend the image Jesus has used. Whether from theological sophistication or simply a purity of heart, the woman has spoken a perfect complement to what Jesus said.
His response is immediate: “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” The Greek word Mark uses to tell this part of the story is logos, which in this context means the fundamental idea behind the specific words she has spoken.
The woman, potentially excluded from Jesus’ world by gender, race, religion, and culture, has shown she is in perfect harmony with him. In the eyes of many, she is an outsider but Jesus hears her as an insider. And he does not call her to change her religion or culture.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, that’s exactly what I want to do in conversations — looking always for the points of harmony, not the differences. When I look at a Hitler or an Orwellian Big Brother or a Trump, I can find no harmony between us. When I look at most Jews or Muslims, I find lots of bridges I want to cross as I invite them to cross the bridges toward me and my love for Jesus Christ.