14th Sunday after Trinity
James 2 1-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
Mark 7 24-37
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I don’t usually have both readings in the sermons that go on the website but they are so well linked this morning I have broken with tradition! The letter of James is full of teaching that is hard to put into practice and we will return to it after looking at the gospel.
This is a rather strange gospel story – strange because it shows Jesus in a different light and strange because it probably makes us feel a little uncomfortable.
There is a connection between the New Testament readings and it is about being included. We are called to reflect on the generosity of our God who has created us all, not as equals, for with the best will in the world we are not all equal; you only have to look at the starving in third world countries, the homeless refugees, people born into and who die in abject poverty and so much more that is not equal in society. But, and it is a huge but, we are of equal worth or equal value; and the generosity of our God who gives us more than we dare hope for and certainly more than we deserve.
This account is in two gospels and both Mark and Matthew tell us about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. I will draw on both of the accounts as they give us a complete picture of what went on. Thousands must have come to Jesus and countless numbers of them were healed. The gospels tell us of some of them and out of those a few who were healed were commended for their faith and this was one of them.
She was Syrophoenician, a pagan and considered unclean by the Jews. She was despised by the religious establishment, a ‘dog’ and a female one at that! The Pharisees were desperate to see how Jesus would deal with this woman. It is true to say that the Syrophoenicians despised the Jews in return, so the barriers that had to be to overcome were great , but she had a great need, her daughter was sick, she was desperate, she had heard about Jesus, she came in faith and Jesus knew it.
Just picture the scene -
She fell at his feet:
She begged Jesus, the translation from the Greek is a present continuous tense it means not just once but she kept on begging. She was not only persistent but Matthew tells us she was noisy as well. Crying out 'Jesus son of David have mercy on me.' Knowing the heart of Jesus as we do his response is remarkable. It would seem to be indifference and absolute silence.
The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
Indifference says ‘I care nothing about you’
How could Jesus ignore the woman at his feet and treat her with cold silence? Jesus has seen her faith but he is at pains to tell them once again that he had come first to the Jews then the gentiles. Of course we can’t see his face, to see if there is a twinkle of humour in his eyes, or listen to the tone of his voice when he said; ‘First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’
Jesus compares this woman to a dog, and the Jews to children sitting around the table being fed bread. How might we have felt if that had been said to us? Would we have felt angry, humiliated and insulted?
I suspect it depends on what comes into your mind when I say dog. Is it Labrador, Poodle or Spaniel, large or small black or brown? It is a companion or a nuisance? Does it bark, bite or lick?
Surely dogs are better than humans.
Dogs do not have problems expressing affection in public
Dogs miss you when you are out
Dogs feel guilty when they have done something wrong
Dogs are very direct when they want to go out
Dogs understand what ‘no’ means
You can train a dog.
And here is Jesus calling the woman a dog. She knew she was a dog, a gentile despised by the Jews, she knew there was no merit in her that would win Jesus over, and she depended entirely on his goodness and grace. She had come to the feet of Jesus the one who says ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ She had listened very carefully to the words of Jesus, not just what he said, but how he had said it. The word Jesus used for dog is more like our word for puppy and she had taken notice of that. One final thing about this woman’s faith – she took Jesus at his word. Her reply went something like this. ‘Lord, if you say I am a little dog a puppy, then I am. But that means I have a Master, and that must be you. It means I am part of a household and that I can claim the crumbs you save for me. Matthew tells us Jesus said ‘Woman you have great faith,’ Mark records ‘for such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’ That is all we know about her as Jesus tells her she can go as her daughter has been healed. What then can we take from this account? Can we identify with this woman, do we have a need today, a need for healing, of body, mind or spirit. Do we have a need to be valued, a need to belong? Have we been upset by someone’s careless use of words, or a cold response when we have asked for help?
There is only one place to go. The place that this woman found. The feet of Jesus:
The place of mercy
The place of humility
The place of reverence
The place of worship
The place of love
The place of obedience
The place of blessing
The place of honour
The place of peace
The place of contentment.
This is not just another story of Jesus healing, for there are many surprises in this story.
Jesus says something that sounds offensive to someone who is seeking his help.
The woman chose not be too offended.
She understood what Jesus meant; she understands that she is not a Jew, not one of the ‘children’ but one of the dogs.
She understands humility, but most of all she understands that Jesus is the one that gives out bread. She is willing to stoop merely for the crumbs she knows she doesn’t deserve and she appeals to Jesus for mercy not for his justice. Pride makes us appeal for justice but humility makes us appeal for mercy. I don’t know about you but I don’t want the justice of God I want his mercy.
She accepts what Jesus implies, yet she is persistent. Jesus is talking about his mission, first to the Jew and then the Gentile, but she is saying okay I get all that but I am here now. All I want are the leftovers. The crumbs. The tossed away pieces. The pieces the children leave behind and won’t miss at all.
That is the faith that Jesus saw. I do not believe for one minute that Jesus set out to offend her, but to test her faith and sincerity. Jesus still offends the proud, and he still tests the humble. The humility that helps us to admit when we were wrong, and the humility that makes us easier to live with when we were right.
Muhammad Ali was in his prime and as he was about to take off on an airplane flight, the stewardess reminded him to fasten his seat belt. He answered brashly “Superman don’t need no seat belt” Quick as a flash the stewardess replied “ Superman don’t need no airplane either” Ali fastened his seat belt.
Some of us will come to take bread from Christ’s table at a communion service.
We will take a morsel, a crumb from the mercy of God. But the miracle is that we will receive so much more. Not just a wafer, or a small square of bread, a few crumbs, but by faith we receive mercy that transforms us who were outside of the love of God into adopted children, heirs of the promise, we who deserve nothing are included in God’s family and all through the love and mercy of Jesus.
Knowing God helps to make us humble, knowing ourselves keeps us humble. But what if God tests our humility as a church to be inclusive? What did James say in his letter?
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? The instruction from James sounds fine but what if we are tested to value each other, the ones we know and like, and the ones we know and don’t like. Those who might smell, or be tattooed, wearing hoodies or have dreadlocks. Then those whose children misbehave, and those who are noisy when we are quiet. There are bound to be people who are poor who will need more from us than just our prayers. James says we are called to be inclusive and to value each other as God values each one of us, for we are all of equal value. We hear about value all the time especially that meaningless phrase ‘value added’
shops advertise it
bosses demand it
schools measure it
the government taxes it
and we in the church – we often forget that we are the ones who should be doing it -
Valuing each person we meet, making them feel they are the only one that at that moment matters to us, listening to them with interest not judgment; valuing the treasure that God has placed in these earthen vessels. Above all remembering the only wealth that will last is the unsearchable riches of Christ, who, though he was rich with all the glory of heaven; for our sake became poor, to purchase what money can never buy: our salvation. Amen