Williamstown Uniting Church
6th of September, 2015
James 2:1-10, 14-17
I’m a bit of a news junkie. I subscribe to two newspapers and three online news sources; I watch the ABC news on television every night; and if I’m working at my desk or driving I usually have Radio National on in the background. Personally I blame my parents and grandparents for this need to know what’s going on in the world at all times – but at least I’m not as bad as my brother who, when he’s at home, constantly has either ABC News 24 or Fox News on the television.
So this week I have been feeling completely overwhelmed by the news of refugees around the world. I read, hear or see desperate people in danger, and I want to turn away; switch off; ignore what’s happening. But I know I can’t, because these are fellow human beings. (And even if I wanted to, the front page of this month’s Crosslight wouldn’t let me!) There are already nearly two million refugees from the Syrian civil war in Turkey and over 1.1 million in Lebanon, and over the past few weeks we have watched as millions more Syrians have sought refuge in Europe. On Thursday media organisations showed images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi from a Kurdish town on the Turkey-Syria border, who together with his five-year-old brother and thirty-five-year-old mother drowned trying to reach Greece. It is in order to prevent such children drowning on their way to Australia that Australia’s Government and Opposition both support off-shore processing for asylum seekers. The trouble is that, as we’ve seen with the boatloads of Rohinga asylum seekers escaping Myanmar, no matter how hard we make conditions in detention centres persecuted people still get on boats if there’s no other way to escape. And when other countries follow Australia’s lead and turn the boats away, asylum seekers like the Rohinga are simply left adrift on the sea.
In order to ‘Stop the Boats’ Australia has tried to make off-shore immigration detention centres as bad as humanly possible. This week a Senate report was released into conditions in the detention centre on Nauru. It found that ‘conditions at the Nauru detention centre aren’t adequate, appropriate or safe for the asylum seekers detained there’ and called for a ‘full audit’ of allegations of sexual abuse, child abuse and other criminal conduct. In the light of the report the Uniting Church has once again called for the Nauru detention centre to be closed completely. But the Government has said the report was a political witch-hunt; the Opposition has simply called on women and children to be removed from the centre and placed in the community in Nauru, but has not called for off-shore processing. Both major parties agree that off-shore processing of asylum seekers and off-shore resettlement of refugees needs to continue, despite the harm we know it does.
Today’s Bible readings remind us why the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, even those on the other side of the world, is our business as Christians; why we can’t simply turn away. It is not simply that we are human, that, in the words of the poet John Donne: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me/Because I am involved in mankind’. It is because we are the followers of Jesus, the people who bear his name, and we know how he would respond.
People often speak of charity beginning at home (not a biblical phrase, by the way, but one that has been attributed to a 17th century English theologian). In today’s gospel reading, it at first appears that Jesus would agree with that sentiment. When a Gentile woman approaches Jesus and asks for healing for her daughter, his first response is ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ As I said when I preached on Matthew’s version of this story last year, commentators have tried to excuse Jesus for using the term ‘dogs’ by saying that it was almost affectionate; that the Greek work quoted is the equivalent of ‘puppies’. But basically the equivalent would be an English-speaker calling this woman a bitch. It might be a fine word for referring to a female dog, but it’s not a good word when applied to a female human. But this bitch argues back, and convinces Jesus to change his mind. Her daughter is cured.
Some commentators have suggested that Jesus was just testing this woman’s faith; that all the time he intended to cure her daughter and he just wanted to see how far she was willing to go in her quest for healing, how committed she was, how much she trusted him. After all, Jesus has deliberately entered Gentile territory. But that still seems to me to be unbearably cruel. Is a Jesus who tests the faith of a desperate mother like this any better than a Jesus who turns away from her because she’s a Gentile? Either way this is not the Jesus we know.
It is possible that, given that the mystery of the Incarnation means that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, he may just have been responding as a Jewish male of his time. And that in this encounter with a Gentile woman Jesus heard something that made him change his Jewish male mind. After all, the argument that the woman makes is a clever one. She doesn’t challenge Jesus’ characterisation of her and her people as dogs when compared to the children of Israel. She doesn’t demand that Jesus treat her as an equal of his own people. Instead she takes up Jesus’ use of the description ‘dogs’ and turns it to her benefit: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ There is room for even the Gentiles at the feast of the kingdom. The Jews may come first, but there is a place for Gentiles, too, at the banquet. And Jesus accepts her argument: ‘‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’
As one who was both fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus isn’t just the one we worship. He’s someone for us to emulate. Here we see Jesus originally expressing a racist stance, only to abandon it when challenged and shown a new way of seeing. Whenever anyone says that ‘charity begins at home’ or suggests that refugees and asylum seekers aren’t our responsibility because they’re not ‘us’, remember this encounter between Jesus and a Gentile woman.
And just in case we think that it’s okay to be concerned about asylum seekers and refugees, to read and watch and hear the news and then go on with our daily lives unchanged, we have the letter from James.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
Martin Luther hated the Letter of James, but it is a necessary correction to any tendency we have to purely passive piety. James is not arguing that works without faith is sufficient; he’s arguing that if belief in Jesus does not lead to action in the world, then it is not actually faith. Spiritual words without physical deeds are contrary to the example of Christ who fed both the spiritually and the physically hungry and healed both the spiritually and the physically sick.
James, in reproaching his readers asks them whether they really ‘believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’. James knows what the Scriptures show us, too; Jesus’ great love of and identification with the poor and the oppressed. In that love, Jesus was drawing on parts of his own faith tradition like today’s reading from Proverbs, which declared that God had not only made rich and poor alike; God also acted as advocate for the poor, and blessed those who shared bread with them.
James demands that Christians follow the ethical direction of Jesus’ life, the way Jesus cared for people. He challenges his first readers, and us, to be involved in justice in the same way that Jesus was. By caring for all those whom God has created, by poor and rich sharing with each other, we demonstrate our love for God. It is hard to do that alone when the needs of the world seem overwhelming, but luckily we do not have to do anything alone. As Christians, we are part of a local, national and international community, the Church, which worships, and serves the world, together. We have many opportunities to help welcome and care for refugees and asylum seekers, and as followers of Jesus we cannot turn away. Do we really ‘believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’? Let our actions show that we do. Amen.