If we take her words at face value, a demon was tormenting her daughter. Any mother would become desperate. Seeing the miracle worker from the south, whose reputation had spread like wildfire, she ran towards him, flailing her arms and shouting for mercy.
The miracle worker desired solitude. He tried to ignore her with a cold shoulder, while his followers wanted rid of her completely. Although this woman had a real need, she was a foreigner and therefore not part of his mission.
But he was part of her mission. The miracle worker was the distraught mother’s last hope. She barged her way in and bowed at his feet, pleading.
His response was heartbreaking: “Dare you disagree with the prophets? I have been sent to restore my own people to glory. Afterwards their blessings will spill over to dogs like you. Sorry, but your daughter is not my concern right now.”
Fast forward to 2012. It is a bitter election year and the more the candidates bicker about the national budget deficit the more they heap onto the nation’s more fundamental deficit, the deficit of trust. Calloused to power plays and propaganda from these so-called leaders, the public tunes out their politicians, especially those from the other side.
We’re drenched by trickle-down effect. Anyone not with us may have plotted conspiracies against us. It is uncomfortable to share the sidewalk with those who do not look like us, act like us, believe like us. We prefer strangers to remain strange.
The art of understanding has been lost. In the information age, we find it more important to “be right” than to “be corrected.”
Which means more than ever, we must cultivate the virtue of open-mindedness.
A virtue is a strength of character, sharpened by everyday circumstances but revealed in moments of challenge. Aristotle noted that a virtue lies between two vices: for example, courage is between cowardice and recklessness.
For the virtue of open-mindedness, the first vice is obvious: the vice of close-mindedness, the refusal to consider ideas we have already decided not to believe in.
A recent church billboard almost got at the other vice. It read, “Don’t be so open-minded your brains falls out.” Their concern was legitimate, they just gave it the wrong name. Open-mindedness is the virtue. Open-unmindedness is the other vice.
Ideas come from experiences, and new experiences can be tough. We have to “process” that conversation, that trip, that book. The vice of close-mindedness assumes an experience is false when it contradicts our prejudices. The vice of open-unmindedness claims an experience is true, despite glaring contradictions with what we believe. It is hiding our beliefs for fear of seeming racist or sexist or angry or stupid.
When we refuse to be vulnerable to the experiences that defy expectation, we drop the chance to expand our horizons about how we view ourselves and the world.
Some imagine the experienced person as being the old pro who, after life’s trials and errors, has maxed out on experience. My inner middle schooler remembers long Game Boy sessions of Pokémon, where after gaining enough experience points my Venusaur reached level 100, and suddenly there were no more moves to learn, forms to evolve into, or attack points to gain. Game over.
The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, who lived to the age of 102 so he must have done something right, thought differently about experience. Gadamer believed instead of reaching some imaginary upper limit where new experiences became further and farther between, the experienced person “is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and learn from them.”
If Gadamer is right, the more exposure we allow ourselves to new experiences, the easier it becomes. The ability to grow from new experiences becomes a second nature. This second nature is the virtue of open-mindedness.
Back to Jesus however. By faith, I claim Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life. If I had to bet who would be the exemplar of the virtue of open-mindedness, my money is on the Son of Man.
When Jesus told the desperate Gentile mother “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he repeated a belief inherited from his Jewish context. He was, after all, human – meaning he had not only flesh but a culture.
Something remarkable happens next. The mother counters rejection with genuine faith: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Impressed and surprised, Jesus heals the daughter instantly.
By acting out and expressing his Jewish tradition, Jesus did not fall to the vice of open-unmindedness. But from listening to this Gentile woman, even when he doubted she had anything significant to say, neither did Jesus succumb to the vice of close-mindedness. In sum, Jesus was moved more by her hope than his culture’s ethnocentrism.
And so a Gentile woman, who just wanted her daughter healed, sparked Jesus to live more deeply into his role as Messiah. New Testament professor David Rhoads argues, “Jesus has a genuine change of mind here. He begins the scene by assuming that the kingdom is for the Jews now and only later is it for the Gentiles. He ends the scene with a willingness for Gentiles to benefit significantly from the kingdom even now.” In Mark, Jesus’ biggest miracle before encountering the Gentile woman was feeding 5,000 Jews with five loaves of bread. Shortly after this encounter, Mark relates the feeding of 4,000 Gentiles in the Decapolis with seven loaves.
By numbers alone, the feeding of 4,000 is insignificant: it proves nothing the reader did not already know about Jesus the miracle worker. Rather, it shows Jesus now understands how even Gentiles can benefit from his presence.
Simply put: if Jesus, of all people, benefited from exercising the virtue of open-mindedness, we best pay attention and ask how we could cultivate it in our own lives while resisting the vices of close-mindedness and open-unmindedness.
Here is to hoping we recover the art of understanding.
Update 5/9/12 – This piece appeared on Burnside Writers Collective (under the Politics section of all things!) The BWC version contains at least one important change from this one, you get a high five if you can find it.
Update 10/8/2013 – I expanded on my thoughts in this blog post, and released a much more in-depth essay this summer. Download it at Amazon.com now.