It’s not likely you’ve heard about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (BMP). In fact, you’re probably hearing about it for the first time this morning. What is likely, however, is that in the next few days you will read or hear about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon not only once, but several times.
What is BMP? It’s sometimes called the “frequency illusion.” It can be as simple as the effect of deciding to purchase a blue car because you haven’t seen many on the roads and then immediately noticing the highways filled with blue cars. Typically, however, it is the experience of stumbling across a piece of arcane, esoteric or weird information – something you’ve never encountered – and then in subsequent days and weeks noticing this same piece of weird data again and again. And because the previous paragraph is a strange snippet of news and a hitherto unknown piece of information, you can expect the same idea to ambush you when you least expect it … tomorrow, perhaps.
Similar to the frequency illusion of BMP is the experience of leaving town for a much-needed rest and vacation — as Jesus does in today’s gospel reading — only to run smack-dab into someone you know, and worse, someone who’s very chatty and behaves as though you’re his or her new BFF.
There are no expressions or words to describe this annoying phenomenon, one to which we all can relate. Well … perhaps there are some words, but they can’t be used here in church.
The attempt to “get away” could even be as innocuous as trying to take a lunch break from the office. You want to be alone for 30 or 45 measly minutes with Peace and Quiet as your only companions. You need to be alone! But suddenly, you see Harold and Priscilla entering the restaurant – yes, Harold with the greasy comb-over and Priscilla from the mail room who always has an Eberhard No. 2 pencil nested in her bouffant. You jerk your menu to your face, but the menu is the size of a post card. Harold and Priscilla are delighted to see you and join you in your small booth without asking. As they do, your good friends Peace and Quiet vanish like – to quote Goethe – “an echo or a dream.”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is feeling this same frustration for which there seems to be no name. Jesus is afraid that He, too, will not be able “to escape notice” (v. 24). He goes to His vacation rental in Tyre on the coast of the “Great Sea” and “entered a house and did not want anyone to know it” (v. 24).
Of course, He did not escape notice; His reputation as a healer has preceded Him. He is known as somebody. The word on the street is that when all else has failed, when there’s absolutely no hope, when salvation or deliverance seems absolutely, unequivocally, positively impossible – try Jesus.
This is precisely what happens when an unnamed Gentile lady known to us through subsequent millennia as the “Syrophoenician Woman” contacts Jesus (“as soon as she heard about him,” v. 25). Her little girl, she told Jesus, had an “impure spirit.” She either didn’t know that Jesus wanted a break from the Messiah job, or she didn’t care, because the Bible says that “she came and fell at his feet. … [and] begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter” (vv. 25-26).
For some reason, the woman seems to wind Him up. Jesus is harsh and teachy, but in the end, He casts out the demon without even so much as visiting the girl herself.
This done, the next word in the text is “Then” (v. 31). We don’t know how much time elapses between the expulsion of the demon and the word “Then.”
What we do know is that He leaves His holiday hideout where He’d gamely tried to lay low, and heads back to Galilee. The locals must have known He was coming. “They brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk” and begged Jesus to heal him (v. 32). Jesus “sighed” (v. 34) and looked upwards to the heavens. He touched the man’s ears and tongue, said, “Be opened,” and the nameless man was immediately healed (v. 35).
Jesus pleaded, even “commanded,” the crowds to keep quiet about all of this. But “the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. … saying ‘He has done everything well’” (vv. 36-37).
Whatever this phenomenon is, Jesus could not get away from it. He had this reputation for doing “everything well” and wherever He went, even if He tried to sneak away, people found Him and told every living soul — a rapid-fire means of communication 2,000 years ago.
“He has done everything well.” That was the word then, but the news now is that a ton of people are repulsed by what is happening in the name of Jesus and by those who wave the Christian flag loud and proud.
In fact, the authors of a new study on religion, secularism and politics published at the end of 2020 note that the number of nonreligious people in the United States is rapidly rising. Their data show that even one news story about Christians doing something stupid and offensive is enough to push an “undecided” over the edge, slipping over to an already burgeoning nonreligious and secular component of our society. One news story.
So, it’s not really a surprise that according to this study, the nonreligious or “nones” now outnumber any other religious group. They’re more numerous than Catholics. There are more nones than evangelicals. The nones do not yet outnumber all religious groups combined, but if present trends continue, it’s only a matter of time until there’s more religious nothing than there is religious something.
Jesus is hardly to blame for this unsightly situation, but His followers have a bad rep right now, and it’s going to be tough to change unless we get to work.
And it will take work. People of faith, people who love Jesus, absolutely must live and love by a higher standard than the one to which they are living and loving now.
When Jesus slipped out of sight and went to Tyre, He hoped no one would notice.
Jesus probably feels the same way today. But, darn it, guess who shows up? Bad Christians! And unlike the Syrophoenician Woman, they do not fall at His feet and beg Jesus to expel demons – which they surely should do. Instead, they beg Jesus to endorse their cause and movements.
Showing up uninvited to meet Jesus are, for example:
- Christian PACs and lobbyists who exist on the liberal left and the conservative right, each one committed to polishing Jesus’ reputation in the halls of Congress to advance their own agendas. According to a study released in 2017 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, advocacy organizations have grown from fewer than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today. “Together, [they] spend $390 million per year advocating on about 300 domestic and international issues, from bioethics and moral issues to economic and poverty concerns.” Some Christian groups are spending millions to argue positions opposed by other Christian lobbyists, who are also spending millions. You can certainly make a case for the good and necessary work they’re doing, but would Jesus be thrilled if they showed up at His cabana on the Mediterranean when He’s on a spiritual retreat? I’ll let you decide.
- Christian hate groups who demonstrate at funerals and wouldn’t recognize Jesus if He wore a name tag. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a hate group is one “whose goals and activities are primarily or substantially based on a shared antipathy towards people of one or more other different races, religions, ethnicities/nationalities/national origins, genders, and/or sexual identities.” By this definition, estimates are that there are more than 900 hate groups currently operating in the United States, many of which are religiously driven.
- Sanctimonious Christians. People with an aura of narcissistic self-righteousness, we used to say those who had a “holier-than-thou” complex. Perhaps it is this last group to whom theologian Karl Rahner was referring when he said that “the number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim him with their mouths and deny him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.”
The good news is that many people see through the religious patina, understanding that Jesus and “Christian” are code words and brands that have zero to do with the historical Jesus Himself, and the Jesus we call our risen Lord and Savior.
But you can understand that when Jesus goes to Tyre for a little rest, He’s praying that these people are not going to show up. Apparently, they didn’t. But they did during Passover, and we know how that turned out.
But some needy folks – people who needed a healing touch – did appear in Tyre and Galilee. A lady whose daughter was in distress, and a man who was deaf and dumb. And Jesus stopped what He was doing and touched them, healed them, made them whole.
If we are going to interfere with Jesus’ vacation plans, the very least we might do is to follow the Syrophoenician model and ask Jesus to expel the demons of religious nationalism; influence peddling; sectarian, political and racial hatred; provincial blindness; and self-righteous arrogance.
If we could do this, the nones of the world just might reconsider and say – as did the local crowds in ancient Galilee – “He has done everything well.”
We don’t have a word for the experience of traveling to a far location for peace and quiet, only to run into someone who insists on consuming large portions of our time. Yet, even in this circumstance, Jesus had a reputation as being someone who did “everything well.”
This needs to be our reputation as well. Let’s remember to state the obvious: There is no Jesus in this sorry world, unless it’s you; unless it’s us.
Let’s be Jesus people, who are willing to listen to a distraught mother, or a man out of work, or a teenager who has lost her way.
The public might not notice. So much the better. Even Jesus cautioned His friends to keep quiet.
The yeast of kindness will leaven the dough of belief, and those close enough to witness will say “everything was done well.” Amen.