I don’t know how it has been for others, but I would have to say from my past experiences, the Jesus encountered in Sunday School, the Jesus presented in stained glass windows and the Jesus talked about in tones of hushed reverence from many pulpits is absolutely unlike the Jesus presented by Mark in today’s earthy encounter. Today we find Jesus facing an embarrassing ethical situation in which his position was made doubly difficult by the dilemma of dealing with a woman who, according to tradition, had no right to talk to him let alone call on his help.
We listen again:
26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.27He 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.”
So what’s this? Jesus who taught we should love our neighbour and here he is in effect calling this Gentile woman a dog? Typical Sunday school lessons might lead us to assume Jesus would always act with tolerance, yet in this passage we find Mark suggesting by implication that even Jesus was the product of his religious setting and upbringing and, at least initially, one who reflected the standard prejudices of the Jewish community of his time.
While I acknowledge that some would claim Jesus was just pretending to share everyday Jewish prejudices when he called the gentile woman a dog, it seems equally as probable that Jesus may well have been simply reflecting a standard view of his time. The historians of the day assure us that was after all how Gentiles were treated by Jews… and Jesus, who was after all a Jew, presumably was exposed to such teachings as he grew in his home community.
I confess that discovering that even Jesus should have started with such attitudes does not particularly worry me. Of much more significance was that Jesus after hearing the woman’s reply, changed his attitude and treated her kindly from that point. 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
While we might assume that Jesus had such understanding and power that we should expect him to have treated the woman with kindness at the beginning, just remember if he had done so this suggests that Jesus is so far above where we find ourselves to be, that what he does is hardly relevant to our position as deeply flawed individuals. Nor am I sure that trying to make Jesus conform to our Sunday School stained glass image is even a good idea in the first place.
The Bible Scholar John Dominic Crossan in his latest book The Power of Parable shows how the authors of the gospels have crafted some parables, not only by Jesus, but about Jesus, into their accounts and in so doing help us to understand different aspects of Jesus’ teaching. The catch with understanding Jesus from these parable glimpses is that some of the preferred stories are bound to dominate. The stories that we tell and retell then shape our thinking and may even limit our vision. We should not however mistake any of our snapshot images from different parts of the Gospels for the complete image.
Very well then, what might we take from this story from Mark’s gospel. I am sure there are almost certainly layers of understanding of this event, yet for me, there are two points that speak to our situation. First, if Jesus himself can find himself caught up with a standard prejudice of his community, then perhaps we need to be particularly vigilant that we too are not missing seeing our own prejudices simply because they are widely shared in our community. And second, if Jesus can put aside his prejudice in the light of new understanding, and learn from one outside his faith, perhaps we too might be prepared set aside our prejudice so that we can act in a way that reflects our beliefs as followers of Christ.
Our other writer today – the author of the Epistle of James – was similarly determined that, rather than allow his listeners to think of themselves as plaster saints, we should recognise his insistence that we confront our challenge to be real people in real situations – and even perhaps have the readers catch glimpses of themselves as they really are. Today’s reading from the Epistle of James addresses a basic issue which in a different setting Jesus had to face in the Gospel reading. Just as Jesus started with an apparent attitude of favouritism for the Jews and preferential treatment for those who were not Gentiles – or in the eyes of the Jewish people – dogs, James gets straight down to the nitty-gritty and addresses the underlying issue which is almost embarrassingly topical, that of favouritism.
The background that gives rise to favouritism in the first place has many dimensions.
Biologically we are attracted to those like ourselves and there is something built into our community thinking that no doubt helped our ancestors survive by banding together against those recognised as not fitting. Our very identity as a group depends on identifying those who cannot belong. When the differences are taken to an extreme the results can be devastating. Why else are the current refugees finding it so hard to be accepted by nations such as ourselves. For centuries it has been easy to convince communities such as ours that other peoples are sufficiently threatening in their differences to make suitable enemies for us to go to war.
But it isn’t just at this international level that the differences are noticed. Within our communities and even within our churches, existing differences provide an excuse to treat different people with a differing degree of acceptance. In some traditional churches there is set seating to recognise those who have rank and in fact one of the reasons why John Wesley originally fell out with the established church was that he complained about such hierarchies from the pulpit.
Clearly this has caused problems in the Christian Church from the beginning. The gold rings on the fingers James refers to was indeed the standard way many of the wealthy demonstrated their power and position. Some of the leading citizens wore rings on every finger except the middle finger and often wore many rings on each finger. According to commentators like Seneca, some of the more ostentatious even hired rings so that others might be impressed by their incredible wealth.
These days, wealth and influence can be conveyed with more subtle touches but there is little indication that there is genuine effort to give the poverty stricken equal consideration even within most mainstream Churches.
James has a habit of touching a raw nerve or two with his examples. When he talks of different treatment offered to people who dress differently or who are treated differently because of their position, we ought to be able to recognise that his words apply to many social situations in our community. Curiously although the faith we follow teaches otherwise, it is very difficult in practise to recognise when our faith should affect our actions.
If we are to take Jesus seriously there must always be an uneasy relationship between his teaching and the actions of the rich. Jesus is recorded time after time speaking about his special relationship with the poor. In Jesus first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth he says: He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18) and Blessed be the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). When Jesus invited the rich young man to surrender his possessions and follow, the rich young man turned away in sorrow for he had great possessions. And the simple fact of the matter as William Barclay pointed out, was that the gospel offered so much to the poor and demanded so much of the rich, that it was the poor rather than the rich who found themselves attracted to the early Church.
Notice that James wasn’t so much condemning the rich, as the unjust actions by which many of them maintained their wealth at the expense of the poor. In James’ time if a person was unable to meet their debts they could be accosted in the street, seized by the clothing round his neck and half throttled as they were dragged off to the law courts. Where the emphasis is only on the debt and never on the well being of the creditor, we can understand James seeing injustice.
Adopting Christian ethics carries with it clear responsibilities. When the rich show tangible concern for the poor they can become an inspiration to many. I think for instance of Bill Gates and his wife with their Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding countless worthwhile helpful projects in a hurting world. How very different are those grasping millionaires who make their money by stealing it in dodgy financial deals and property scams. Nor is it clear that many of the rich in those wealthy nations where there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor are particularly focussed on doing something about the gap.
On balance there is still a considerable distance to go.
Adopting Christian ethics seems to fall short of encouraging poor immigrants, or ensuring that the city night shelters are well appointed and well provisioned. For example the only significant night shelter in Auckland is about to close through lack of support.
Richard Fairchild in one of his sermons refers to an incident in Los Angeles some years ago where 600 would-be lawyers were sitting their finals paper. One of the students suddenly collapsed and stopped breathing. Only three students in the whole group stopped to help and for the next 30 minutes until the ambulance arrived they rendered CPR while the others carried on carried on writing as if nothing had happened. Since the paper was on ethics it raises the interesting question. Should those in the vast majority who ignored the incident be considered to have passed the practical?
This week’s practical…. There is a serious refugee crisis as those fleeing the chaos of civil war and economic meltdown put themselves in the hands of people smugglers for risky journeys on sea or land. Should we only continue to give consideration to the rich migrants. Would that constitute a pass in the Christian ethics exam.
When James tells us that we shouldn’t treat those with the trappings of power and position any differently from those who appear poor, to recall his words might get us a pass in the theory paper of New Testament knowledge. But, as with those aspiring lawyers, our real question should be how do we get on with the practice?
James with his famous dictum about faith without works being dead is a direct challenge to those like ourselves who make time to worship but who may not necessarily see a need to find practical ways to live our faith. To admire the works and words of Jesus or to agree with James and his nuggets of practical wisdom would be shallow and hypocritical if we cannot make some room for the actions they recommend in our own lives.