Us and them. This is a powerful idea that infects the human race and is very hard not to think. It is human nature to classify, categorize, slip everything into neat, orderly boxes in order to help us understand life and maintain a reasonable picture in our minds of how the world works. Otherwise, when we imagine a world where everything and everyone is unique, it is too much to take in. It is anarchy. It feels out of control.
It is also not entirely true.
Us and them is not entirely an irrational way of viewing the world. Cultures, for example, do divide naturally. Mexican culture is not exactly the same as American culture. This accounts for some of the friction in the American debate over immigration, and some of the differences are not unreasonable to point out. We don’t even speak the same language. Likewise, Southerners and Yankees to this day don’t always seem to speak the same language, even when they do. Likewise Arabs and Jews view the world in entirely different ways, even when they both speak English.
Us and them thinking is not entirely unreasonable, then. Certainly in this American political season, Republicans and Democrats believe and propose very different things for this nation. In one sense, they may be two sides of the same coin, one heads and one tails, and far be it from me to point out which is which, but for many there is clearly a deep rooted sense of us and them – us versus them. It drives the political season. It causes the worst characterizations and generalizations of “them,” even while it tries to persuade the undecided to join with “us.”
On our best days, the human race recognizes what the United States has codified: that we should not discriminate based on race, creed, color, and so on. Sadly, most of us don’t live often in our best days. Us and them causes people to fly airplanes into World Trade Centers. Us and them is the source of all prejudice, bigotry, hatred and on. Us and them is hard to escape.
Jesus perfectly understood the us versus them mentality that guides our hands, minds and actions in so many ways. He was born and raised a Jew. He came for the Jews first, as we are told. He knew full well how the Jews regarded the “them” called Samaritans. He shocked people with a parable once about a good one. He knew how the Jews regarded the purely pagan people that surrounded them – not only Greeks, but the Romans who ruled them.
So here comes a woman from Phoenicia, in Syria. She was a pure pagan, yet somehow she heard about Jesus. Many commentators talk about what great faith she had, but I am not convinced she had such faith. She had some words, but even they may have been given to her by the Holy Spirit, along with the boldness to speak. Jesus, you see, was not speaking to the woman. He was speaking to the crowd and in a language they could understand – the language of us and them.
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” he said. That is how non-Jews were considered by many Jews, as hardly better than dogs.
“But even the dogs eat the crumbs…” she responded. Something needed to be said. Somehow, those watching and listening needed to hear that she was somehow not quite as much one of them as they were thinking. And here, they needed to see and hear for the first time that the grace of God might be something more than their own personal Jewish blessing as they imagined it to be. They needed to see with their own eyes that the Messiah was indeed a light to the gentiles and the promise given to Abraham might indeed come to pass, that “All the peoples on the earth would be blessed through him.”
It would be a long time yet before Peter would bring the gospel to the gentiles and the house of Cornelius. That would be after the resurrection. But before that, in stories about a good Samaritan, in the healing of the Centurion’s servant, and here in this little story, Jesus is preparing the people and showing them God’s true will. That the world is presently divided in only one real and meaningful and universal way. There are those who know Jesus and those who need to know Jesus. It is God’s will that this world where people think in terms of us and them become the Kingdom where people think in terms of us and us.