Fourteenth Sunday of Trinity
Readings: Prov. 22:1-2, 8-9,22-23 Ps 146, James 2 1-17; Mark 7:24-end
Hymns: Teach me my God and King; Nada te turbe; Just as I am; Sent forth by God’s blessing
I’ll start with two texts. The first you heard today, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ addressed by a cocksure Jewish man to a female Gentile. Despite our hero having just been teaching that pollution comes from, not to, a person, his words suggest he saw himself potentially defiled by this unimportant Greek woman from Syria. The second text you heard fifteen weeks ago: ‘And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues as the spirit gave them utterance.’
Without the consequences of these two pivotal texts, I wonder if any of us would be gathered here today to worship God in Trinity, for despite the incarnation, baptism, death and resurrection of Jesus, this Gentile woman’s challenge to God incarnated as a Jewish man had great significance, just as the coming of God in Spirit coming to the many peoples assembled in Acts 2 enabled and inspired this faith to be for any and every person.
Commentators wriggle a good deal over this story, for implying a person is as lowly as a dog, or is a dog, is hardly courteous. Some say he was giving her a chance to be assertive, others that ‘Jesus didn’t really mean to be insulting when calling her a dog, for he had a twinkle in his eye.’ Says who? The woman? Does a twinkle in the eye when addressing older men of different colour, class or caste as ‘boy’ diminish the insult? Don’t ask the speaker, ask the man! I’ve spent much time over the last fifty years in colonial and neo-colonial contexts to soft-soap the words: despising, demeaning words, whether consciously used or not, demean both parties. It is irrelevant that Jesus used the word for a domestic rather than a feral dog: if he wouldn’t like to be called ‘dog,’ he shouldn’t have used it to imply she was not fully human but ‘just a Gentile’ and therefore, sick daughter or not, she and her ilk would have to wait till all Israel had been served with God’s truth. Thankfully for her daughter, and for us, that despised woman asserted her daughter’s need and her right to survive!
We can massage Jesus’ unacceptable comment –he didn’t really mean it, the meeting was part of God’s plan, and so on, which comes rather close to ends and means, and probably won’t change us one jot. Or, and this could be our challenge, we can see that in recognising his words hurt (whatever he had intended) Jesus responded to her demand that salvation was not a limited good but should be open to all who ask: he changed his mind and then his actions. God in Jesus accepted her right to challenge his view of her, Rabbi that he was, and secure the healing of her daughter. Jesus told the woman to go, just as he told the deaf man he healed so visually to go, and live.
Still demonstrating God incarnate through teaching and healing his own people, from then on Jesus faced outwards as well as inwards, teaching others to live in faith and active love for others, a direction which God as Spirit completed at Pentecost. The rest, as they say, is history – or the past, present and future for the world. I cannot emphasise enough just how crucial this was, for before Christ’s coming, religions were both locally and ethnically limited: Hinduism had been essentially within South Asia with slight extension eastward; Confucianism was for China, Judaism for Israel, and while Buddhism did move to China from India, it did so after the time of Christ. Because of this Greek woman, because of Pentecost, and obviously because of coming of God to earth in the form of Jesus our teacher and guide and his return to the creator, within 100 years, God in Trinity was lighting the path of peoples in South India, North East Africa, Arabia, and patches of the Mediterranean coast especially in the east.
That’s all very well, as James might say, but how is this faith actually lived? James’s ethical treatise which we heard today is primarily addressed to people identifying with faith, but his ethical stance is followed by far more. The Swiss theologian Bouvet rejected the view that Christians, whether active or idle, might look down on people for whom Jesus was ‘just a good teacher’ worth following, >and who follow it: a journey which begins modestly can evolve into a life-changing miracle, but faith without practice is like a stage-play, over the when lights go out. James’s plea for praxis was not new, for the thread of justice for the widow, the orphan, the poor, recurs throughout the Hebrew bible in Leviticus, Isaiah, Hosea, and in today’s Proverbs, which relies on ancient Egyptian texts: ‘those who sows injustice will reap calamity…do not rob the poor or crush the afflicted.’ Psalm 146 is even more explicit: ‘The Lord watches over the strangers, he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.’
Taking Jesus’ statement, the challenge, and the outcome as each is written can be our lesson for the week: live the fact that all are equal before God and therefore, unless we know better than God in Jesus, before us. People in general, and therefore Christians as well, are not too good at this: certain Asian students- pastors to boot- in Edinburgh were appallingly racist to students from Africa; the Vatican has just decided trans-gender people cannot be godparents; some mourners refused to shake a female officiant’s hand after a funeral… the list goes on.
‘The Lord God is the maker of the rich and the poor;’ neither education nor origin is a guide to wisdom; and each person can learn from and act in love towards every other person. Sweet words without action leave the bad smell of death not the joy of faith. Jesus learnt from the woman, and we can learn from him, as we praise the Lord for a living faith which we try to demonstrate in our lives!
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
September 7th 2015,
Fourteenth Sunday of Trinity