Mark 7: 24-30; James 2: 1-10
Next Sunday is marked by some churches as Racial Justice Sunday. You might wonder why the churches feel they ought to get involved in action against racism. But today’s reading from the letter of James certainly states quite clearly our responsibility as Christians to the ‘other’ or the ‘stranger’. James writes:
“If you are observing the sovereign law laid down in scripture ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ that is excellent. But if you show partiality, you are committing a sin and you stand convicted by the law as offenders.”
Racism, exclusion of any kind, judging others by their skin colour, or clothes, or background, is a sin. It is laid down in law that we are to love our neighbour, and in the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus makes it crystal clear that our neighbour is the foreigner in need we come across on the road just as much as it is the person rather like us who happens to live next door.
And yet what a puzzling Gospel reading we had. This same Jesus, who told people to love their neighbour, even the despised Samaritans, seems at first to reject this mother’s plea for healing for her daughter, on the grounds that she is a Syrian and not a Jew. We shouldn’t think that tensions in what we call the Middle East are anything new – Jews, Syrians, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, were all living cheek-by-jowl in and around the narrow strip of land where Jesus lived.
Jesus begins by being very clear that he has come for the people of Israel “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”.
The woman comes back at him “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps” – and Jesus changes tack and heals her daughter.
This is an amazing story – it comes right in the middle of Mark’s gospel and in many ways it signifies a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.
I think for many years I went along with the understanding that Jesus was just testing this woman – that he meant all along to heal her daughter, but he was wanting to make sure she understood what a big thing she was asking for and that this was, indeed a turning point. Rather like the teacher who waits for the child to catch on before revealing the answer,
Jesus only seems to be saying ‘no’ to her. He’s actually saying ‘healing the daughter of a foreigner doesn’t look right, does it?’
So she can realise ‘no, but I’m a person, too!’
And he can smile and say ‘that’s right, you are’.
But what if Jesus himself is really changed by this encounter?
It could be that Jesus meant it when he said ‘no’ to her at first – that he was only seeing his mission as being to Jews – and maybe to Samaritans, who were like ‘first cousins’ rather than true Gentiles, true foreigners. And it could be that this woman opens Jesus’ eyes to the truly global nature of the gospel and makes Jesus realise that the kingdom of God really does mean a message of love, healing and acceptance for the whole world.
If this seems too much, there is a middle way of understanding what is happening here – that the Syro-Phoenican woman forces Jesus to revise his timetable for salvation. Jesus had come ‘first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ but then, through them to the whole world. This woman may be bringing the time for the Gentiles to experience God’s love forward to right now, rather than waiting for some time in the future.
Whatever is happening in the heart and mind of Jesus in this conversation, the message is clear that God’s love is for all people, even those previously considered a foreigner.
God’s love demands racial justice, impartiality and love for all, an end to discrimination and an embracing of true respect for diversity.
So racial justice becomes a Christian concern, not just something liberal-minded Guardian readers need to think about. And how we read or hear the stories of our world is a spiritual matter, not just a political one.
Robert Beckford is a black British theologian who has presented TV shows on channel 4 about the church and also written, particularly about how the black-led churches need to get involved with issues of racism. He writes:
“If every urban church were to set up a media watch group to listen, critique and when needed complain about oppressive imagery and language, it would go someway towards changing the current negative media approach to representing black life”.
I think what he says could be applied to all of us in the church. When we read stories of a great influx of Polish people looking for jobs, can we ask whether what is written is fair and just to those people – are they stealing the children’s bread, or just gathering up the crumbs? Most people I meet from Poland, Romania and Ukraine and so on are doing the jobs I don’t want to do, and for a lot less money than I think I need to live on.
If Jesus is teaching us to show God’s love to the foreigner, how can we do this, as individuals or as churches: in our attitude to the people we meet or those presented to us in the media? The challenge for us, as it was for Jesus, is to broaden our horizons.
We accept the fact that we are called to love our neighbours and ask for God’s Spirit to save us from falling into the sin of intolerance.
We remember that we were once the foreigners and that God’s love has embraced us and the whole world.
And we take on the responsibility to get involved with building God’s kingdom where all races are honoured and each person is precious. To God’s praise & glory. Amen.