Sermon: Not just those like us

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 5th of September, 2021

James 2:1-10 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

If you have been following the news over the past few weeks you will have seen what has been happening in Afghanistan as the United States of America and its allies have withdrawn and the Taliban has taken over. The scenes at the airport as desperate Afghans tried to get on evacuation flights were awful even before an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed more than 170 people. Australians have been trying desperately to get family out of Afghanistan; defence force veterans have been trying to get colleagues and their families to safety; and the saddest stories are perhaps those of the Hazara refugees who fled Afghanistan and arrived in Australia by boat, who are unable to even try to help their families to come to Australia because of the limitations on temporary protection visas. As one of them said, ‘I am human first of all. Why does it matter how I got here?’

Australia has seen similar scenes before, and in the past we were more helpful. This week, on his final day as Governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le said:

Looking at the television news in the last few weeks and seeing the situation in Kabul in Afghanistan brings back so many sad memories to us. We relate it back to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. I was there. I have a deep, strong feeling of what the people there are going through, so I wish the world will look into this with a very generous and receptive view. They need help, and we need to provide them with whatever help that we can.

The Uniting Church has joined the campaign ‘Christians United for Afghanistan’ which has four requests of the Australian government. The first is that the government allow an additional 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan to come to Australia. In 2015 the government welcomed 12,000 refugees from Syria on top of the ordinary humanitarian intake, so this has been done before. The second and third requests are that all Afghans currently in Australia on Temporary Protection Visas be given permanent protection, and so be allowed to apply to bring their families from Afghanistan. The final request is that the government increase the support given to reputable NGOs and organisations working in the region.

The reason that I am beginning a Reflection on a two-thousand-year-old Bible story by talking about such immediate political issues is because today’s Bible readings remind us that welcoming and supporting asylum seekers and refugees, even those currently on the other side of the world, is our business as Christians. Christians do not simply care about asylum seekers and refugees because we are human, although that would be enough, as in the words of the poet John Donne, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me/Because I am involved in mankind’. We care for those unlike us because we are the followers of Jesus, the people who bear his name, and we know that is 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 agrees. When a woman, ‘a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin,’ 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.’ This is a profoundly difficult encounter for us to understand, and yet it was so important to the early church that both Mark and Matthew (Matthew 15:21-28) told it. It is the only story in any of the gospels in which Jesus’ first response to human need is rejection, and because it portrays a Jesus who is so different from the Messiah seen in the rest of the gospels it is likely to have been based on a historic incident in Jesus’ life. Equally, because it portrays a Jesus who is so different from the Messiah seen in the rest of the gospels, biblical commentators have worked hard to rehabilitate the Jesus this story portrays.

Some 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 dogs were not loved pets in the Hebrew Scriptures, they were contemptible scavengers and the enemies of the people of Israel. (See, for example, 1 Samuel 17:43; 2 Samuel 9.8; 1 Kings 21.19; Job 30.1; Psalm 22:16; Proverbs 26:11; Isaiah 56:10-11; Revelation 22.15) When Jesus suggests that this woman is a metaphorical ‘dog’, the equivalent would be an English-speaker calling this woman a bitch. Another attempt to rehabilitate Jesus is made by the commentators who suggest that Jesus was simply 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, the story does end with the daughter healed. 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 wants to turn away from her because she is a Gentile? Either way this is not the Jesus we think we know.

An icon of an elderly woman wearing traditional Palestinian dress with one hand raised about her head.

Icon by Robert Lentz, from the book Christ in the Margins.

One suggestion of the reason behind Jesus’ first response is that we see here an example of the reversal about which Mary sang in the Magnificat, when God ‘has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’. It is likely that as a Gentile in this ethnically mixed region the unnamed woman would have come from one of the wealthier urban trading areas rather than from one of the poorer farming communities. Although Mark has placed this story immediately after one in which Jesus declares all food clean (Mark 7:1-23, which we heard last week) and so makes it about the distinction between Clean and Unclean that the early church had to overcome in order to baptise Gentiles, it might originally have been about the distinction between rich and poor, with a wealthy woman willing to give up her privilege and take a lower place as one of the dogs underneath the table in order for her daughter to be healed. But even if that was the original context of the story, the power imbalance between rich and poor does not apply when one of the participants is Jesus, the hero of the Gospel, and the other is a nameless woman desperate for her daughter’s healing.

It is possible that, given that the mystery of the Incarnation means that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, in this encounter we are simply seeing Jesus initially responding as a first-century Jewish male. In that case Jesus hears something from this Gentile woman that makes him change his mind. The argument that the woman makes is a clever one. She does not challenge Jesus’ characterisation of her, and presumably all her people, as dogs when compared to the children of Israel. She does not 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.’ As Mark writes this story, the argument that she is making is that there is room even for Gentiles at the feast of the kingdom. The Jews may have come first, as they did in the Jesus movement from which the church grew, 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 is not only someone to be worshiped. He is someone to be emulated. It appears that here we are seeing Jesus express a racist and sexist stance only to abandon it when challenged. For us as Christians, living two thousand years later in a time when there are no longer questions about whether Gentiles can follow Jesus and women can speak up, this story reminds us that Christian charity should not simply begin at home and that our responsibility to love and care for others does not only extend to those who are like us. This encounter between Jesus and a Gentile woman can remind us of the words attributed to John Wesley: ‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.’ That is why I began this Reflection by talking about the current situation in Afghanistan. Since there is good that we as Australian Christians can do for the people of Afghanistan and those who seek refuge among us, we should do that good.

Just in case we think that we can be concerned about asylum seekers and refugees, read and watch and hear the news and then do nothing about their situation, we have today’s reading from the letter from James. James asks his readers whether they really ‘believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’. He 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.

We can feel overwhelmed as individuals by the needs of the world, but luckily we do not have to do any of this alone. As Australians we belong to one of the wealthiest and safest places in the world, a nation that has welcomed newcomers from every country and refugees from every conflict. As Christians, we are part of a local, national, and international community, the Church, which both worships and serves the world together. As Australians and as members of the Church 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.

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