Both our New Testament and Gospel readings for today address a key aspect of our calling as Christian disciples: What is to be our attitude to the ‘other’? To the person who is different, or even, as we see it, disadvantaged?
Years ago, when this reading from James about the rich and poor man appearing in the assembly, came up in the year before the millennium, I started the sermon with a white lie. I announced to the congregation that in the millennium year, the Queen and Archbishop of Canterbury had decided to visit a parish in every Diocese in the country, and that ours had been chosen by that Diocese to be honoured with their pastoral visit. There was a very audible gasp of delight from the whole congregation and loud shuffling in seats and murmuring to each other in approval. I actually had to pause the sermon, and very quickly had to disillusion them.
But I then asked people to imagine the amount of preparations and pride that would go into such a visit. It would no doubt be months in the planning. Imagine it here, or anywhere. The Church would be looking its finest. The finest hospitality would be on offer. We would all be looking our finest. And no doubt everyone in the community would be present – the most honoured in the most visible spot! And yet, if you think about it, every single Sunday, we invite into our presence someone much more important than the Queen or the Archbishop of Canterbury… we invite the Lord of all Creation, and we invite his children, who are you and me, from the richest to the poorest, from the most successful, to the most down on their luck – all made in the image of God. Do we accord Him, and each other, such honour and such pride?
The message in James is quite clear. If we make distinctions amongst ourselves – which we all do all the time – then we become judges, and that brings on evil thoughts. This is not the way of Christ. It is something we are called constantly to guard against. James reminds us that simply having faith is insufficient if our faith does not result in action, in the living out of that faith. In fact he goes so far as to say that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Now I don’t want anyone of us to despair here. Because living out that faith is a hard task. It takes a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of growing, and of failing in part, and re-trying. And that is why the community of faith is important. All of us are pilgrims, flawed pilgrims, on a lifetime journey of learning and growth where none of us have yet reached perfection, but we strive towards it.
The Gospel reading is a powerful illustration of Gods power at work amongst us. Significantly, both these healing stories – the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, and the deaf man in the region of the Decapolis, take place in Gentile territory. The beneficiaries of Christ’s healing power are not Jews but Gentiles, outsiders. They represent the ‘other’.
Firstly, I want to contextualise the location of these healing miracles. The first takes place in the region of Tyre. Today Tyre is in Lebanon. The remains of the Syro-Phoenician Greek/Roman city there are impressive and reveal the importance of this Mediterranean seaport for trade. Jews would have been a small and possibly disadvantaged minority. The Gentiles who dominated this coastline were regarded as culturally and socially alien and religiously unclean – in modern Christian terms we might say ‘beyond salvation’. It is likely that Greek and Roman religion prevailed. Greek and Roman culture certainly permeated the region at the time of Christ as archaeological sites throughout the region testify.
The second miracle takes place as Jesus returns to the Sea of Galilee “by way of Sidon”, which is actually north of Tyre, only about 30 miles south of modern day Beirut in Lebanon, also a Syro-Phoenician port city. But quite a long way round on foot, to return to the Sea of Galilee, about 50 miles south of Sidon.
Everything about these healings is counter-cultural. A Gentile woman approaching a Jewish rabbi would have been unthinkable culturally, socially and religiously, for her and for the rabbi. Neither had any right to engage with the other. But something much more powerful was at play here. Her daughter was profoundly ill, and this woman had seen in Jesus someone who was able to heal her. Her faith and her courage in approaching him was astounding. His initial response was even more shocking – not for the circumstances – but for what we know of who Jesus was. We expect Jesus to say immediately: “Of course I will heal your daughter”. But instead he says: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This highly derogatory response has been described by one commentator as Jesus being caught “with his proverbial compassion down”. The response is that which an Orthodox rabbi would be entitled to make to an outsider according to the religious and cultural traditions of the time, and of the Jewish faith, but it is not what we expect from Jesus. Some have suggested that Jesus was testing the woman with the response that she would have expected from any ordinary rabbi. But to do so given her courage in simply approaching him in itself seems unfair.
But her response shows her faith, and represents a divine revelation to Jesus as well. Note, from the mouth of a Gentile – the alien – comes the revelation and purpose of God. Many theologians see this as a turning point in Jesus’ ministry – the moment when he recognises that his ministry is not just to the lost people of Israel, but to the whole of humanity. For in her response, Jesus sees that the compassion and love of God that he exudes is not just to be restricted to Jews, but expands beyond all barriers. It is the wisdom, courage and determination of a woman that helps Jesus apparently change his mind or enlarge his mission. After all, this Gentile woman has shown more faith than those closest to Jesus in his home town who had rejected him. Through her actions and her faith, Jesus vision and mission are radically re-orientated. There are no longer any boundaries. And it is her faith that results in the healing that she so desperately sought for her daughter.
This new mission is illustrated immediately afterwards as Jesus returns towards Galilee through the Gentile Roman occupied region of Decapolis.
On the way, he meet a deaf man with a speech impediment. In the first century, such an impairment was not just a physical disability. Physical disability barred people from the social and religious institutions of the day and was seen as a punishment for sin. An element of this attitude still lingers in some quarters. People sometimes say: “What have I done to deserve this?” A few years ago when I preached in a Cathedral in Africa and reflected on my own experience of receiving a slightly disabling injury in an accident, someone afterwards came up to me and said quite bluntly that its cause was undoubtedly a response to some sin I must have committed! Of course, whilst some sinful acts may indeed cause some illnesses or accidents, they are not generally why people fall ill or have accidents! But this person was literally outcast by society for reasons over which he has no power to control.
Now Jesus has no hesitation in responding. Is this the first indication of his new realisation of his universal mission and the universal application of Gods intention of healing and transformation? Theologically, the possibility of this change raises big questions about our understanding of Jesus. If we see him as both fully human and fully divine, then we have to accept too that on earth he has limitations. Part of his suffering is to experience the limitations and sinfulness of human existence. And in these readings, it is a non-Jewish woman who helps him expand those human horizons.
And so, in the deaf man, Jesus immediately sees the value of the deaf man as a child of God. His sensitivity in the process of healing is notable. He respects the privacy and intimacy of the moment. He takes the man aside, puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches his tongue and says in Aramaic: ‘Be opened’. Immediately the deaf man is physically healed. He is also immediately restored to ordinary relationships within the community.
Then Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone. He feared perhaps that people would either view him as a miracle worker, or as the kind of hero Messiah for which people longed, who would overcome the powers of oppression and injustice. But we are told, the more he told people to stay silent, the more they proclaimed his words and deeds.
From this point on, Jesus’ ministry and teaching has universal application, and this causes the exclusive theology of the Jewish authorities great offence. But what we see here is that the results of Jesus’ overwhelming compassion and healing to the ‘other’ are transformative not just for the individuals concerned, but for those around them as well. They are all empowered by the transformation they have seen to witness to the power of God’s love and presence amongst them.
All our readings today reveal the breaking down of barriers. The result of allowing Jesus into our hearts, our minds and our lives is to have our humanity ‘opened’ to the humanity of others, and the overwhelming love of God for all. Our differences are God given but status is a product of our imaginations and is imaginable to God.
Some years ago, I experienced a lovely parable of that, when I attended an early morning Communion at Westminster Abbey in a small lady Chapel. Present were a nun, an office worker, a homeless man off the street, myself, the Dean, and just as the service was about to begin, Archbishop Desmond Tutu walked in and knelt down beside me. It was a beautiful symbol as the five of us knelt beside each other at the altar to receive Communion… equal before God. This is what happens each Sunday in Church. Whether we are royalty, Archbishops, professionals or homeless, we are equal children of God. In him, there are no walls or barriers, and through, love and mercy flow unfettered into the world, and we are called to be its channels. Therein lies our lifelong challenge as his disciples.