The Virtues of Unreasonableness

Prelude & Fugue in C, Well-Tempered Keyboard II       J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

"In Christ There Is No East or West"


In today’s Gospel lesson we have the story from Mark 7 of the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus for healing for her daughter. Jesus replies (paraphrasing) "I was only sent to the house of Israel, it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." (Already Jesus was going against the social norms by talking to her at all. I’ve always wondered if He didn’t have a twinkle in His eye when He said this, as if He were thinking “let’s see what this woman is made of.”) The woman replies: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

There’s a little detail here in the Greek Text that I’ve always enjoyed. In dog packs there is the well known ’alpha’ — the top dog of the pack. On the other end of the spectrum is the ’omega’ dog (’omega’ being the last letter of the Greek alphabet) — the dog at the very bottom. In this passage ‘dog’ in both places is not the usual word for dog (KUON), but a diminutive form (KUNARION): ‘the little dogs’, ‘the puppies’ maybe, or ‘mutts’, or perhaps ‘omega dogs’. In other words, we’re not just talking ‘you dog!’ — already at the low end of the pack, but ‘you dog of dogs’ – at the lowest of the low end.

The social situation of the time would make this story something like a Palestinian woman in Gaza appealing to a prominent Jew in Israel for help. Or a Mexican child illegally sneaking into the U.S. and asking a congressperson for help. Not impossible, but definitely swimming very much against the rip tide of their social realities.

’Reasonable’ would have been for her to stay home and let her daughter suffer: “there’s nothing I can do.” Any ‘reasonable’ Canaanite woman of the day would have said to herself, “Self, there is no way Famous Jewish Rabbi Jesus is going to have anything to do with Nobody Canaanite Woman you.” But she was desperate enough to try the ‘unreasonable’, the ‘unthinkable’. And He responded.

Reasonable works most of the time. But not always. As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Sometimes the only way forward in the challenges we face is to take a step of faith out of the seeming ‘reasonable’ — into Mystery.

This morning’s prelude is from Bach’s Well Tempered Keyboard – an encyclopedic demonstration of playing and compositional techniques of his day. It’s also encyclopedic in that it consists of a Prelude and Fugue in each of the 24 major and minor keys – the first such set. It was also the second such set as he wrote two volumes. (‘Well Tempering’ is a way of tuning keyboards so you can play in all the keys – a new idea at the time).

By the way, the beginning student keyboard of Bach's day only had four octaves, 49 keys (even cheapie Casio keyboards from Costco have 61), and on such a keyboard, ‘Middle C’ is actually in the middle (not true of the modern piano or organ keyboard). The entire Well Tempered Keyboard can be played on this minimal 49 key student keyboard. It's hard to realize how small a keyboard that is without a visual aid — I'll have blocks on the piano keyboard to mark the available range.

One of the pathological beliefs of our day is that `happiness requires more, More, MORE!' A bigger house. With more stuff in it. And more income. And more everything. But with an ever increasing population generating more and more waste, and consuming more and more finite resources that are steadily dwindling, that belief will literally kill us. And is it even true? I say NO! Less CAN be more, but imagination will be required to come up with ways to replace 'greed for yet more stuff' with something both more sustainable and frankly more satisfying. I don't have the answers, but hells bells I think we need to start asking these questions.

In a tiny way the Well Tempered Keyboard reminds us of this. It's considered a cornerstone of Westerm music — pretty much every composer of note from Mozart through Stravinsky had copies on their desk and it them well. And yet — all composed for measly four octave keyboard. Sometimes less can be more than enough!