We’re often urged to get out of our comfort zones as a way to learn and experience something new. But let’s face it, comfort zones are, well, comfortable, safe places to be in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world. Besides, not all things new are worth learning or experiencing. Relating to comfort zones is personal space. It’s the physical and emotional space that sets boundaries for intimacy or distance that we’re willing to allow others into our lives.
In Mark’s gospel, heard in many churches a few weeks ago, Jesus taught some important lessons about comfort zones and personal space.
The stories had to do with a Syrophoenician woman in the region of Sidon on the Mediterranean Sea and a deaf man in the region of the Decapolis east of the Sea of Galilee. As the story goes, Jesus decided to take a few days off by traveling from his home area of Galilee to the seaside area near Sidon. There his solitude was interrupted by the Syrophoenician woman who pestered him to cure her daughter, which eventually he did. Within a few sentences, the narrative has Jesus through Galilee into Decapolis, a good ten days’ walk from Sidon, where he encountered a deaf man and restored his hearing.
A great deal has been said and written about what Jesus said and did in those two linked episodes, but I think it’s equally important to pay attention to the context of his location, because it offers opportunities for insight on the question of comfort zones and personal space.
The way the gospel is written, it’s easy to assume the Syrophoenician woman was a foreigner, an alien intruding on Jesus’ personal space. In fact, it was Jesus who was the alien foreigner and in a very peculiar place at that. She was at home in her own territory, a native of the place. As a Syrophoenician, she was a descendent of Israel’s sometimes ally but most often enemy. For Jesus to go into her land for a brief getaway was to break out of his comfort zone, leaving the sanctity of his personal space behind to enter a potentially hostile place. In like manner, when Jesus had crossed back over his own land into the region of the Decapolis, he entered gentile territory that had seldom been friendly with Israel.
We often talk about the importance of breaking down walls that separate us from one another with the expectation that we will welcome the stranger into our midst. But in the case of these stories, Jesus broke out of the walls defining his comfort zone to enter the zones of the other, meeting them as they were, in the place where they were. He brought the kingdom of God near to them, but never pressured them to convert in the usual way of understanding conversion, or to leave their home territories to follow him into the strangeness of his home territory. Moreover, he allowed his personal space to be invaded by the demands of strangers to whom he was a foreigner.
We have no idea what the woman did after her daughter had been healed. I imagine she joyfully proclaimed what Jesus had done for her to anyone who would listen, and many who had no interest one way or the other.
The deaf man, we’re told, went off to proclaim throughout the Decapolis what God had done for him.
If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must certainly do what we can to break down barriers of separation and welcome the stranger into our midst. But we must also be willing to break out of our comfort zones to enter places where we are the alien foreigner with no ulterior purpose but to meet the other on their own terms. Bearing the presence of God’s grace, we are to have no other motive than to be a blessing as blessings are needed. We are not in another’s place to change them into our likeness or to demand that they follow our ways. We are simply to allow God’s presence to accompany us in whatever way it will. That means being willing to let our own personal space become more permeable than is likely to be comfortable for us.
Jesus’ way was the opposite to the ways of a typical American missionary who sought to enter others’ comfort zones and personal spaces, as if they were the alien foreigners. Missionaries acted as enlightened purveyors of salvations according to the customs and standards of their own comfort and space, all the while assuming their own to be the universal standard against which all others were deemed alien.
Following Jesus out of our comfort zones and personal spaces requires leaving hubris behind, carrying only the confident humility that, alien foreigner though we may be, we are also bearers of God’s presence. It can be done only with humility and respect for the people and places into which we go.
With that thought in mind, consider that the stranger whom we welcome into our newly refortified spaces may be the one bearing God’s presence into our midst, rather than the other way round.