(James 2, 1-10 & 14-17; Mark 7, 24-37)
There’s been a lot of comment in the media recently about the use of language. David Cameron and Nigel Farage were roundly condemned for talking about ‘swarms of migrants’ and the need to ‘protect’ our borders from them, as if they were a plague of wasps or locusts. The Defence Secretary referred to towns in the East of England being ‘swamped’ by migrant workers’ and feeling themselves ‘under siege’, as if they were facing an armed incursion. And only on Thursday, the death of a small Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, drowned while trying to reach Kos on an unseaworthy boat, was blamed by UKIP PPC Peter Bucklitsch on his parents being ‘greedy for the good life in Europe’ and ‘queue-jumping’.
Many people were profoundly shocked by the use of such language about people who are, most of them, fleeing from countries torn apart by civil war, where education, health care and justice have collapsed, and where they are constantly at risk of violence and death because of their ethnic background, or their religion, or their gender or their sexuality.
I wonder if we are equally shocked by the language Jesus uses in the passage from Mark we heard this morning. The Gentile woman in the story also came from Syria. Like the refugees we have been hearing about in the news, she was at the end of her tether, desperate to find help for her sick child. She lived in an area where there was a mixed population, but where ethnic groups kept strictly to themselves, but in her desperation, she decided an appeal to someone from another community was her only option. So she approached a celebrated Jewish healer with her request for help.
Not only was her request refused, but she was rebuffed with insulting language. To put it bluntly, Jesus called her a bitch, comparing her people to the dogs who scavenged for the scraps thrown out after the meal, animals that the Jews regarded as unclean.
Any church leader who used such language today would immediately be exposed and condemned in the media. But I doubt any of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would have found it shocking. That was simply the way they thought. All Gentiles were unclean, just like the animals Jews were forbidden to touch or eat. God wasn’t actually concerned with them. The salvation that the Messiah would bring, the new creation that arrive after this world was destroyed would be for faithful Jews to enjoy, not any other people; and, from this exchange, it seems that Jesus initially thought the same.
The woman’s persistence and her witty answer, which acknowledged that his own people must be his first priority, but asked for a share of the left-overs, seems to have changed his mind. So Jesus extended some of the benefits of the Kingdom to her daughter; and the gospels record a handful of other occasions when he healed Gentiles, almost always at a distance.
The second miracle story in the Gospel is less striking, but still speaks to the human fear and exclusion of those who are different. No doubt the man who was deaf and suffered from incomprehensible speech was difficult to cope with. As someone who suffered from a disability, he would have been excluded from full participation in Jewish religious rites, which were closed to anyone who was considered imperfect. When Jesus healed him, he was restored to a full and honoured place in the community.
The lesson that the benefits of God’s Kingdom were meant for all, that the divisions of race and status and gender and ability did not apply in the divine economy were lessons that the Early Church had to learn again and again. We hear James reminding his community not to give the best place and the warmest welcome to the well off. We hear about Peter being taught in a prophetic dream that the division his religious tradition made between clean and unclean people was not one that God subscribed to. We hear about Paul’s arguments with the leaders of the Jerusalem church about how far Gentile converts had to adhere to Jewish food rules, and admission ceremonies before they could be included in the community of the saved.
And this is a lesson that the Christian Church has had to relearn again and again as it has grown, and moved into new situations and new parts of the world. Again and again, the Church has fallen back on what seems to be a natural human instinct, to prefer and prioritise ‘people like us’ and to demonise and exclude those who are different.
The Church has not only tried to exclude those of a different race or different religious tradition. It has also excluded those of different genders from leading in the church; it still tries to exclude those of different sexualities. It has even excluded those who are sick or handicapped from full participation in church, preferring those who are ‘perfect’ according to worldly standards.
God speaks to us today, through the miracle stories which Mark records and through the letter of James to his early church community, as God speaks to us through many of the Old Testament prophets, reminding us again that this is not the way the heavenly Kingdom works. And this message is not just theology or theory, it demands practical action from us.
The Old Testament prophets were forthright in their condemnation of religious practice that wasn’t accompanied by practical action to relieve the suffering of our fellow men and women, both those of their own community, and aliens and refugees. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy urge the Israelites to give food to the aliens within their land, and not to discriminate against them and apply different legal standards to them, reminding themselves that they were once aliens in Egypt. Isaiah and Micah preach that God is not at all interested in religious rites and sacrifices; what God wants of us is that we love kindness, seek justice and walk humbly before our God.
James reminds his community, and us, that faith without works is useless. He reminds them, and us, that the heart of God’s law is loving our neighbours as ourselves, and that demands practical action to meet their desperate needs. It’s no use, in God’s eyes, to say “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill’ and do nothing to provide those in need with peace, shelter, clothing and food.”
And the Gospel stories remind us that in God’s economy it’s not acceptable to say “My first priority is for my own people. No matter how desperate your need, I can’t do anything that means they get a smaller share of the good things of this life”. It’s not acceptable to leave people without a voice or unable to hear the Christian message of reconciliation. It’s not part of God’s plan to exclude people from full participation in community and religious life because of physical or mental handicap.
In God’s kingdom, there is no such thing as ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘our people’ and ‘others’; no one has a higher status, or a superior claim to be be first in the queue, or to occupy the best seats; there are no such things as aliens, migrants, illegals; nobody is a threat, nobody is to be compared to an invasion of insects, nobody is to be regarded as unclean. Nobody is to be left to suffer, or denied human love and companionship, simply because of where or how they were born. Everyone is simply a child of God, everybody is a brother and a sister, everybody is entitled to a share in all the good things of life that God has provided for us.
As we look at the pictures of that small boy lying lifeless on the shores of the Mediterranean, and boatloads of refugees crossing the oceans of the world, and desperate men and women fighting to board trains to get to places where they can build a new life in peace and security for themselves and their families, may the words of the Scriptures echo in our ears and influence our thoughts. May our worship this morning prompt us to watch our language as we comment on the situation; and may we be be prompted to show our faith in works to help the least of these, our brothers and sisters; and may we demonstrate that our faith is living and life-giving, not dead.
Map of drop off and crowdfunding points for aid https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=z0IlKDKjh8U0.kynDNxGpqDP4
Facebook page for help to Calais and Kos https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromUK/