The logic of charisms/3 - Communities are able to stay alive if they allow the encounters along the way to convert them.
by Luigino Bruni
Published in the Avvenire 05/09/2021
"There are nights that never happen and you look for them by moving your lips. Then you imagine yourself sitting in the place of the gods. And you can't tell where the sacrilege would be"
Alda Merini, There are nights that never happen/Ci sono notti che non accadono mai
Even Jesus changes his mind, as in the episode in Tyre. And the civilization that the Gospel continues to generate teaches us about fidelity and overcoming hurdles along the path that is history.
In our analogy between current charismatic communities and the first Christian community, today we look closely at a well-known episode from the Gospel of Mark: «Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter”» (Mark 7,24-30).
Mark tells us that Jesus found himself in pagan lands (Tyre) not to evangelize, but is nonetheless tracked down by a Syro-Phoenician woman who asks him to cure her daughter. The dialogue between the two reflects a very important problem of the first communities, that is, the link between the new Christian community and non-Jews (or Gentiles); a huge issue, which runs through the whole New Testament, as a tension that has never been completely resolved.
Once again, as with the episode with the Gerasene demoniac (Mark, 5,1-20), a pagan comes searching for Jesus and is hence not sought out by him. Hence, the first message: Jesus did not go to that region with the aim of performing miracles or evangelizing. That woman happens to come by him, and puts Jesus in front of a choice. Tradition gives the following names to these two women: the mother is Husta, the little girl Bernice (Pseudo-Clement, Homilies) - a lot of Christian tradition has given names to the anonymous characters of the Gospels, thus continuing the love that Jesus had for them. The sentence that Jesus pronounces in front of a mother's request appears rather harsh to this day. Calling non-Jews dogs (or "puppies", which however was not a term of endearment), although it was common language at the time of Jesus, continues to disturb us today, even if it is Jesus who says it.
Quite obviously, we find ourselves in front of passage that is greatly affected by the heated disputes of the time. However, we can always read an important message between the lines: not all the words of the Bible, not even all the words of the Gospels can be used today by us when we want to speak our best. There are some that, as children of their time, have been Christianized over the centuries by history also sprinkled by Christian history, making the very words of the Gospels "more Christian". Thanks to the development of humanity and thanks to the maturation of the words of Jesus in the Church and in history, today we would never use the term "dogs" to describe people of other creeds and religions. Even the Gospel, even the words of Jesus, have been made better by history fertilized by revelation, to the point of even forgetting some of them - if only this one. The Bible contains many words that are better than our own words. Enriched by those better words, over time history has enable us to improve other biblical words that in the meantime were no longer up to the level of the civilization that the Book had generated.
One day my niece Beatrice read for the first time in a framed letter hanging on the walls at home, the motivation for the gold medal "prize of kindness" that her mother had received as a child. The text included the expression "handicapped schoolmate". Beatrice let out a kind of cry, because the word handicapped was a dirty word to her. One generation was enough for an already good word to slip through to the wrong ones. Something similar also happens with biblical words, which have been made more beautiful by humanity enhanced by the spiritual sap contained in the Bible itself. This is one of the wonderful laws of history. It is, furthermore, very probable that in a few decades this same story will lead to an increase in the number of words of the Gospels that the evangelical spirit of tomorrow will surpass. For some, this overcoming is bad news; in reality, it shows the mysterious reciprocity that exists between the word of God and our own words. They are children of the Word, but like all good children, if they do not also become fathers and mothers of their own parents they end up becoming their annihilators or, what is really the same thing in the end, to forget about them in complete indifference. «Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away» (Matthew 24,35); but among the words that will not pass there are also some that we, thanks to the Gospel, will understand that we will not be able to use if we do not wish to betray it.
Moreover, if we cannot even use all the words in the Bible and not even all the words spoken by Jesus to say the good things we wish to say, then a fortiori the charismatic communities cannot and must not use all the words of their founders either. The wisdom of each generation of members of a given spiritual community also, and in certain aspects above all, lies in knowing how to identify which words to use and which not to use, while keeping them all in tradition (as the Church has done). However, while the words spoken by Jesus that the very maturation of Christianity taught us better not to use are few and far between, the words of the founders that should no longer be used by subsequent generations are plenty. Here, the order is reversed: the "eternal" words are few and those that are waiting to be overcome are many. And when a community does not make this distinction and considers all the words of yesterday endowed with the same charismatic value, unwittingly, that community will quickly end up aging all the words of its beginnings. Theophoric words, moreover, are like salt in the mass of all other words. There is no criterion for identifying what these salty-words are, and we almost always make mistakes when we try to recognize them, leave some made of salt in the mass and vice versa. However, the truly deadly mistake is not to attempt this operation at all, and even to fight those who attempt it. Knowing, full well, that salt and mass make good bread when mixed together, but only in the right combination.
There is so much more in that Gospel episode. Jesus changed his mind thanks to the encounters he made along his journeys. The road, an essential dimension of his mission, is not the background but the content of his existential landscape, teaching him new things. Here he meets a woman, who talks about her sick child, and thanks to that pagan woman with whom he enters into dialogue, Jesus discovers a new dimension of his mission: universality. He changes his mind. A woman's insistence makes him change his mind. We have no good exegetical reasons to think that Mark created this story, and that it therefore does not go back to ancient oral tradition. Hence, if the Son of man also changed his mind by talking to his people, then dialogue should change our minds too, never changing your mind is not a good Christian sign.
The first answer that Jesus gives to the woman is an affirmation of common sense; it is part of the natural right of every civilization: it is not ethical to feed the most distant if you have not first fed those who are close to you, to take care of others without having solved the problems of your family first. It is the practice of a good family father, of mothers, of communities, of those who do not feed those who are outside if they cannot feed those already inside, of those who do not give money in alms, if they have to buy what is necessary for a child with that same money. Yet, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus narrates the parable of the Good Samaritan, built exactly on the opposite thesis to this common sense: a neighbor is not a neighbor (the neighbors of the victim were the priest and the Levite), and the duty to love your neighbor does not follow the hierarchy of affective or natural closeness. That pagan woman, even if she did not know it, was telling Jesus the parable of the Good Samaritan. And Jesus let himself be converted by his Gospel told to him by a mother.
The Gospel first and, then, the Church, are full of people who are converted to the words of Jesus: in this story Jesus is the one who is converted (and changes his outlook) with the words of a pagan woman. And he continues to do so throughout history, every time his Gospel has been converted, through the centuries, with the words of women and men, who, Christians or not, have explained to the Church its own Gospel, with words that spoke of human rights, respect, equality and fraternity. Sometimes, the Church has learned, converting to its Gospel, which has become all the "more Christian" thanks to those words spoken on "pagan" land. The Church would not have said the words it says today about women without the feminist movement which, sometimes from outside, reminded it of Paul: "There is neither man nor woman", while explaining it. Many Christian economists would not have understood what poverty is today without the secular teaching of Amartya Sen and Muhammad Yunus. It is the splendid earth-heaven reciprocity of which biblical humanism speaks to us, where man learns about heaven from God and God learns about the earth from men and women.
Communities discover their charism by meeting people along the road, especially in the roads beyond their borders. If we read their most beautiful stories, we realize that the founders have almost always understood new things, sometimes opposite to what they originally believed, meeting concrete people who reminded them of and revealed to them their own ideals. They understood new dimensions of their charism because someone told them parables of the Good Samaritans, before they were even written. And communities can continue to be just as full of life, creative and generative, if they continue to allow themselves to be converted by the people they meet in the street. If they are able to change their minds even when these conversions seem to take them away from the words of their early days, including the words that had already been the fruit of conversions of their founders. On the other hand, a community will inevitably die, or at the very least decline, if it stops having encounters with Syrian-Phoenician mothers beyond their borders, or because they simply do not leave their homes. For fear of hearing the wrong stories and betraying our roots, we refuse to listen to others and end up betraying our future. In reality, communities would only have the need for children capable of loving their founding 'fathers', helping them to become greater than their words, experiencing that reciprocity between equals together, that they almost never come to know in life. Who knows how many "pagan" women are narrating evangelical parables to us today, without us being aware of it. Meanwhile, the demons do not let our children sleep: «She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone» (Mark 7,30).