A sermon based on Matthew 15: 21-28
There might not be, on the face of it much common ground between the gospel passage and the violence that we have witnessed in our country this week but the reality is of course that one of the central issues here for the gospel passage and for Paul writing to the Romans was whether the relationship between God and the Jews was exclusive or not and what was to be the relationship between the Jews and their neighbours.
In the disorder this week in Britain, though the causes are up for grabs and I’m sure each of us has strong views on the subject, surely central to the national debate is the various relationships between different ethnic, religious and social groups, living cheek by Jowl in our big cities.
Touching briefly on Paul, a Jew himself of course as were nearly all the early church, writes “I ask then, has God rejected his people, by no means”, because It could be said, and was said, that the Jews were now surplus to God’s requirements in the sense that their pre-eminent role in modelling the way of God to be an example to the world was now over. That role had been usurped in the mind of Christian followers by Jesus himself and the trans-national church. In Paul’s interpretation of Christianity which became the norm, God had broken the banks of the Jewish nation and gone global.
Paul has to somehow hold together in his mind the historic role of the Jews, the idea that they were the people of the covenant , a chosen people, and honour that role whilst propagating his own view that in Jesus this role had been superseded by the church.
Now these are just the first passing shots in the relationship between the Jews and the Christian church has been anything but rosy. It is a history of violent persecution and bigotry. It is a history of prejudice and pogroms. At one time Edward I expelled all Jews from Britain. The Jews in Spain were far better off under the benign rule of the Muslims than the Christians. When the Catholics re-conquered Spain from the Moors the Jews were in the direct firing line of the inquisition and persecution, forced conversion and expulsions were the order of the day. This unhappy history reached its horrific climax in the “Final solution” just seventy years ago in Europe when the extermination of the Jews was one of the main goals of the Nazis. The Catholic Church has only in the past decades officially absolved the Jews of their role in the execution of Jesus.
We often think that the cross is a positive, non-threatening symbol. But in a personal aside, when I took people to the Orthodox Jewish area of Jerusalem called Mea Sharim we were asked by our guide to cover up any crosses that any of us might be wearing. These Jews, refugees from Eastern Europe for the most part, saw the cross not as benign but as a symbol of bloody oppression by Christians and saw it as an inflammatory symbol that could cause trouble.
Inter-faith relations and inter-racial relations are extremely hard to negotiate. They are in 21st century Britain and they were in 1st century Palestine as well. Nothing much changes, just the time and the characters involved. If we can learn anything from Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman it is that ultimately through honest and sometimes bruising encounters we can actually learn from each other and grow.
From what was a very sticky tense encounter between two people divided by ethnicity and religion, it was the common humanity that won out. There was in the end mutual recognition. The woman recognised the depth, the goodness and truth of God in Jesus but equally Jesus recognised her trust in God and her deep human need in her love and concern for her sick daughter.
They were divided by race and religion but united in their common humanity and in Spirit.
One of the hardest lessons to learn from this parable which is directly applicable to 21st century Britain is that we must learn to look beyond and behind all the things that divide us as an act of the will, to see the person behind the religious and ethnic mask until it becomes second nature.
I believe God’s way is not to see someone and only see a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim Hindu or anything else. God’s way is to look at another person without the religious label around their neck and see a human being trying their best within their culture and religion to make some sense of this world.
The greatest example of this came this week when a Muslim man, Tariq Jahan, spoke to quell the anger of the mob just after his own son had been killed in Winsom Green in the Midlands. In the midst of his grief, he courageously asked all the people to just go home. That “Blacks Asians and Whites all lived in the same community “. As a Muslim he just asked that Allah would forgive his son and bless him, and that there must be no more violence.
A voice from the other side – a different race, a different culture and religion but it was the most Christian thing I had heard this week and it came from a Muslim.
I have learned that there is a difference between religion and spirituality and genuine people of the Spirit, people of genuine humanity will always recognise each other across the religious barricades. I will end by quoting you something I printed a few months ago about the difference between religion and spirituality by Brian Woodcock from the Iona community. I think it is directly relevant to our gospel story today and our current difficulties in the UK today.
“Being Spiritual is not the same as being religious. Religion is what you believe and do. Spirituality is to do with quality. It is a thing of the heart. Religion draws lines, Spirituality reads between them. It tends to avoid definitions, boundaries and battles. It is inclusive and holistic. It crosses frontiers and makes connections. It is characterised by sensitivity, gentleness, depth, openness, flow, feeling, quietness, wonder, paradox, being, waiting, acceptance, awareness, healing and inner journey.”
In the end, in Jesus’ encounter with this woman, religion lost. Humanity and Spirituality won.