The Wisdom of Indifference
PENTECOST 16 | James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mk 7:24-37
When I first started to study Buddhism seriously, one of the most difficult concepts to wrap my head around was the cultivation of indifference. This is often the way the Pali word “upekkha” is translated, and it has caused some cognitive dissonance for more folks than just me. I mean, if we’re supposed to have compassion for all sentient beings, how can we be indifferent?
This is harder to tease out than it first appears, because what the Buddha seems to be saying is that life has more than its shares of ups and downs, but if we hold fast to our center, those ups and downs don’t have to shake us or upset us. This is fine for us, but what about the ups and downs of others, should we be equally sanguine about those?
We see a similar concept in Ignatian spirituality, where St. Ignatius advises us to cultivate “indifference” in our spiritual lives. In the Spiritual Exercises, he writes, “We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed… Consequently…we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.”
This is a healthy kind of indifference, but it is an exceedingly rare variety—and we’ll come back to it later. But a much more abundant species of indifference is on ample display in our Gospel reading from Mark. This variety is not a virtue at all, but a vice. And, amazingly, the person exemplifying it is Jesus himself.
Picture the scene: Jesus is tired, and he just wants to get away from the crowds and those nitpicky Pharisees. So he holes up in a house in Gentile territory, and lets everyone around him know that he does not want anyone else to know he’s there. He is “out of the office,” unavailable, gone fishing, all euphemisms for “leave me the hell alone.”
But does he get the peace and quiet he so longs for? He does not. Instead, he gets harassed by a Syreo-Phoenician woman—we’ll call her Alice. Alice is in pretty dire straights, she is at the end of her rope, she is desperate. And when she hears Jesus is around, she heads straight for him, ignoring everyone’s denials that he’s in the house, pushing past the woman saying, “He’s not to be disturbed.” She throws herself at Jesus’ feet and begs him for mercy.
And Jesus is, not surprisingly perhaps, pretty darn irritated.
To his credit, he listens to her, which is not something some of his Pharisee critics would do. I mean, she has a LOT of strikes against her.
First, her request is inconvenient, to say the least. Second, she is a gentile, not a Jew. The gentiles are responsible for all the Jewish troubles since time began—why should he give her the time of day? Third, she has in tow a daughter who is—how shall we say this delicately?—possessed by demons. Not someone you want hanging around the living room or crashing your dinner party. Demons are rarely considered fit for polite society.
And Jesus, not surprisingly, responds to her with indifference…the bad sort of indifference. First, he is irritated that he has to be bothered by this when he desperately needs some rest. Second, he understands himself to be a Jewish prophet—what concern are gentiles or their troubles to him? Third, can someone get the demon out of the house as soon as possible, please, before it breaks ALL the pottery?
Jesus’ response is pretty darn human. It’s one of the most vulnerable, broken, human scenes we have about him. We all say things we regret when we’re tired. We all have trouble caring about others when we’re utterly depleted ourselves. And Jesus, like all of us, is a product of his time and his culture, and like all of us, it takes some prodding to get him to see the bigger picture.
But Alice is nothing if not persistent in her prodding. She confronts him with his indifference. Indeed, she doesn’t just confront him with his indifference, but with his racism and his elitism as well. And Jesus, to his credit—inconvenient as this woman was, as irritating as she no doubt was to him—is chastened by her words. He repents of his indifference, and more than this, he HELPS her. “The demon has left your daughter,” he tells her.
In some ways, it’s comforting to see Jesus struggle with this kind of indifference, because none of us are strangers to it. Indeed, it seems that indifference to the suffering of others has become fashionable in our society. Just since I started working on this sermon:
• US citizens of Hispanic descent are being denied passports on suspicion that they MAY be illegal
• A white republican candidate for governor warns voters not to “monkey up” the election by voting for his black Democratic opponent
• Children and parents applying for asylum who were separated at the border are STILL separated…
The epistle of James, traditionally the work of Jesus’ brother James, is one powerful and hard-hitting letter. In it, he performs for us the same function that Alice did for Jesus. He stops us cold when he says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?” (2:14-16).
The problem with liberals—myself included—is we’re really good at the whole, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill” thing. Intellectually, we agree that prejudice and favoritism and poverty and corruption are all bad things, but we don’t actually DO very much about it. We talk a good game about social justice and leveling the playing field and equality and human rights and so on…but we can’t really be bothered to sacrifice our time or money or convenience to change anything.
I have been feeling powerfully convicted by the Holy Spirit lately about precisely this issue. I understand that homelessness is a terrible thing, but I walk right by the person begging, pretty much every day. I tell myself that the problems in society are overwhelming, that there’s no way I just one person can do very much, and as a result, I end up doing nothing at all. So, I’m not pointing my finger at you in this sermon, I’m asking the hard questions of myself.
How is this message Good News? you might ask, because it sounds pretty blaming and bad-newsy. Yet I submit that confronting our indifference is an act of grace—uncomfortable grace, but still grace. Alice no doubt irritated Jesus, but she made him a better savior. James’ letter is plenty inconvenient, but if it saves us from indifference to the suffering of others, that IS a blessing.
What we need is not indifference toward others, but toward our own status and privilege and comfort and convenience. This is what the Buddha and St. Ignatius were really getting at when they spoke about indifference. Bhikku Bodhi defines it as “freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings” (Toward a Threshold of Understanding).
This distinction is the tipping point—between indifference as virtue and indifference as vice. We need to discern, “What are we indifferent toward, and whom?” The Gospel calls us to indifference to our own status, our own comfort, our own convenience, our own reputation, precisely SO THAT we can care deeply and act sacrificially on behalf of others.
What that sacrifice looks like will be different for all of us, and requires some discernment. I am in the midst of that discernment for myself, and if you are not currently giving of your time and effort sacrificially on behalf of others, with indifference to your own loss or gain, I invite you into that discernment too. Because if we follow Jesus, we follow him to inconvenience, to discomfort, to irritation at times, to sacrifice, to the cross. Let us pray…
Jesus, we get so caught up in our own dramas, that we easily lose sight of how hard things are for the people around us. Wake us up, just as the Syreo-Pheonician woman woke you up. Give us the grace of sensitivity, of caring, and of action for the well-being and benefit of others. Help us, too, to make the Word flesh, turning our sympathies into boots-on-the-ground help for the people around us. Make us your body, in our actions as well as well as our understanding. Amen.