Sunday 9th September - Trinity 15: Proper 18
Isaiah 35: 4-7. A beautiful poetic account of salvation. Before salvation can be experienced, evil must be defeated.
James 2: 1-17. All followers of the "way" have the same rank in God's eyes. We are all children of God, which means that all other ways of distinguishing between ourselves (in particular wealth) are worldly logic and unbecoming to a Christian.
Mark 7: 24-37. What binds the two separate instances of healings together in our passage of scripture is that one explicitly happens to a gentile (the Syrophoenician woman) and the other happens in the region of the Decapolis, gentile cities mainly inhabited by Greeks, so is implicitly means that the deaf and mute man was a gentile. Ethnic partiality is challenged here. Although the Jews are God's chosen instrument for revelation and disclosure of His will, He is and always will be Lord of all.
There is an intrinsic tension between the fact that the Jews were “God’s chosen people” and the fact that God is the Lord of all creation, and so all the different people’s of the world are loved equally by God.
In fact being “chosen” is often seen as a burden as much as it is a privilege.
I often think at this point of Tevye, the father in the film “fiddler on the roof”, who after yet another pogrom raises his eyes to heaven and says,
“Lord, I know we are your chosen people, but just once in a while, couldn’t you choose someone else?”
Chosen to be a light to the gentiles, a light to the whole world, as a revelation of god’s will and purposes, but it was inevitable perhaps that many Jews just so themselves as
“chosen, special, better than everyone else, blessed by God”
And it is that underlying tension that underpins the gospel reading today.
The first woman is explicitly named as a foreigner, and the second healing takes place in the region of the Decapolis, which were ten Greek cities of a mostly Greek or mixed population, and was therefore a shorthand way of saying non-Jewish people.
The first healing miracle of the woman’s daughter is a masterclass in addressing that tension I spoke about.
When the woman came on behalf of her daughter Jesus said,
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”
Now Jesus’ expression and tone isn’t recorded, but I can picture Him with a big grin on his face, because the word he uses for dogs is actually a diminutive form and means “doggies” and he is teasing her with this outwardly stern understanding of Jewish privilege.
But she was a quick-witted person and joined in with the analogy,
“Sir, even the doggies under the table eat the children’s crumbs”
And Jesus, underlining the fact that he is just teasing, does so in the most direct and straightforward way he can and He heals her daughter”
The message for the church is plain.
We are the new Israel. We too are to be a light to those outside the church, so while we too are chosen; we are in no way to think of ourselves as superior. Our role is to model the love of Christ in our lives so that it is attractive to those outside the church, drawing people back to God.
Just like the Jews, we have discovered that this can prove a mixed blessing sometimes, and I’ll leave the question open, and for you to ponder as to whether we have been any better than the Jews were in modelling that vocation.
So for Jew and non-Jew in that instance, read Christian and non-Christian today. Our vocation is to model the new creation in Christ and make it so attractive that people are naturally drawn to us no matter who they are or what they currently believe.
And everyone believes something. Atheism is a belief system as much as Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam.
When we move to the letter of James, we move to one of the characteristics that should define Christian communities. Our internal disposition towards each other.
The example used by James is the issue of wealth. We are not to show partiality towards any other Christian because they are wealthier than another Christian.
Why? Well there is a lovely phrase that I think sums it up, and which also has a much wider application.
“Don’t hold any man in contempt for whom Jesus was content to die”.
As Christians we have a new identity. Who am I? I am a child of God.
And so are you.
We are brothers and sisters in the same family. God is our Father and Jesus is our adopted brother.
Unfortunately, we act less like a family and more like a business sometimes, and even when we do resemble a family we enflesh the worst traits of dysfunctional families such as rivalries, endless bickering, always looking to be the favourite in God’s eyes and taking advantage of each other; instead of modelling the unmerited support and love of our brothers and sisters, and always looking to encourage each other and build each other up.
If we to model it in our church communities it would provide such a contrast to the febrile, shouty, dismissive and cynical world of social media that seems to define modern society nowadays it would help create an oasis in our churches.
There used to be a saying “If you’ve got nothing good or constructive to say, don’t say anything at all”
As Christians of course, our burden, should you choose to see it that way, is to go far beyond that and be and say constructive things that build us up and encourages us to be better people and better and stronger communities.
It is this, as a basis, and developing that to be of practical help to people that I think James means when he says that faith by itself, if it has no works (or outcomes) is dead.
I believe that the fruits of the Spirit are a work of God and when I read works I see fruits as they are grown in individual lives as they grow into God.
The capacity for growing into the full stature of Christ is and always was here.
Accepting Jesus into our hearts by his Holy Spirit is an act that must see results in the way we see and treat each other, and also others outside the fold. Otherwise says James, our faith is dead.
We have something precious, the pearl of great price that is the knowledge of God and the experience of his goodness and love for all his “potential” children out there.
In modelling how this affects our lives, we become that light on a hill offering both a direction and a destination for people’s souls.