Both the gospel reading and the reading from James’ letter are about not showing partiality in terms of race, culture and religion in the case of Jesus and in terms of social class and economic means in the case of James’ letter.
In the sight of God we are all his children and within the Christian assembly we see each others as brothers and sisters in God’s family.
We start in Mark’s gospel with Jesus meeting the Gentile woman in Tyre. At first sight Jesus can be judged to be quite rude if not downright offensive.
The non Jewish woman comes to Jesus wanting him to heal her daughter. Jesus says in reply “The Jewish people are to eat first. Why should I throw you scraps from the Jewish table to you, gentile dogs?”
Looked at a little closer, things are a little different. The word “dogs” used by Jesus is in fact a diminutive and affectionate form of the word which translates more accurately as “doggies”.
We probably have an image in our minds of Jesus po-faced and speaking imperiously when we read his words in the Bible but here I think that Jesus was in fact both teasing and testing the woman at the same time. You can imagine a wry smile on his face as he is saying it.
The woman, quick witted throws back the reply. “Even us doggies eat the crumbs that fall from the table”.
In that reply, this woman has recognised the power and sovereignty of the God of the Jews, a power, however dimly she understands that is obviously alive and active in this man before her.
Jesus recognises her response at once and immediately heals her daughter. God’s redemptive and healing power is a gift that knows no bounds. It is available but needs to be recognised and accepted to be of any power or use.
Any gift has to be received and unwrapped before it can be enjoyed and used. God will not force himself onto anyone, but anyone who does come is accepted no matter who they are.
From Tyre, Jesus travelled to the Decapolis –ten cities all founded and built by the Greeks and had a mixed Hellenistic and Jewish population, so Jesus was operating again on the boundaries.
In this area he healed a deaf man with a stammer. Mark may well have written “Those who have ears to hear...hear and speak clearly and loudly about the healing power of God for all people.”
One of the defining features of Jesus’ ministry of course was the total integrity of word and deed. This was a man free from hypocrisy who put his words into action.
This is what James is talking about in his letter, where we can be sure from the content that at least some Christian gatherings were showing great partiality towards the rich against the poor. This fault has plagued the church ever since then.
Even at a certain point in Gainford’s history there was a separate door for the rich so they didn’t have to mingle with the ordinary people. In some churches, the Lord of the manor has his own special seat, pride of place. This according to James is a sin and has no place in the church.
It is easy to fall into the trap of welcoming a man or woman who is well dressed and articulate and ignoring another who is perhaps a bit dishevelled and not so well educated, but our social class and economic position are no way of knowing the state of anyone’s heart, or how much they love and are loved.
We need this lesson because it is very common and even dare I say “natural” to do it. Birds of a feather flock together. When we have things in common with others it oils the wheels of communication and is easy. Not so easy when you have little in common and move in a different social circle.
I once did a stint of being attached to a church in Headingly in Leeds. At the 8 O’clock BCP service a very large woman started to come, who quite obviously had problems looking after herself. The smell was awful and got worse and worse as the weeks went by. People voted with their feet and just dropped off one by one.
I expect we prayed for her, I can’t really remember – but as James says in his letter today - so what! If you really want to prove your faith – do something for God’s sake.
In the end some of our ladies took her aside and went home with her and washed and bathed her and washed her clothes. They tidied up her flat and tried to help her. I don’t know what became of her. Perhaps she went back to her original state. Their help could well have been rebuffed in the first place. I don’t know, but what they did at that time for that woman was a living embodiment of what James is talking about. Christianity is about acceptance certainly but it doesn’t stop at mere acceptance. Leaving somebody to stew in their own juice, or their distress, or in terms of spirituality or morality to wallow in their sin is not an option. We have to turn to help them, but likewise, they have to turn and be saved.
Everybody remembers the woman caught in adultery and Jesus challenging everyone with the words “He who is without sin, let them cast the first stone” but not quite so well remembered in Jesus’ parting command to that woman. “Go and sin no more”. For those capable of a response, a response to the gospel is required.
No it is not easy, but I don’t think Jesus or anywhere in the N.T. says that this is going to be easy. We need the strength of the grace of God to be emboldened to step outside our comfort zones.