Readings: Isaiah 35: 4-7a; James 2: 1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7: 24-end.
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be forever pleasing in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Edmund Blackadder needed help. To find it, he went in search of The Wise Woman, about whom he was given the following warning: “Two things ye must know about the Wise Woman. Firstly, she is… a woman! And secondly, she is… Wise!”
Similarly, in reading Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophonician Woman, we must bear in mind two things. Firstly, she is Syrophonician, and secondly she is a woman.
Why are these two facts significant? Let’s consider the placement of this event in Mark’s chronology. Jesus has just had another of those mild, blazing rows with the Pharisees and Scribes that add so much colour to the Gospels. He criticises them for honouring human traditions over God’s commandments, and having had his fill of being frustrated by them, decides to go to the gentile lands around Israel for a bit of a break. In the region of Tyre he meets a woman and heals her daughter, and then moves on to the Decapolis and heals another gentile, this time a man. This broad view of events affords us two observations.
Firstly, God is interested in and works through more than one particular nation or people. While this may seem obvious to us, there have been times when the branches of the Church in our own country or region has seemed to think the message of the Gospel is only known by and indeed intended for very specific types of people.
Secondly, and perhaps even more fundamentally, God is interested in and works through both sides of the gender divide. Of the two gentiles who are healed, it is a woman who petitions Jesus to heal her daughter first.
But surely we are not the first Christians to consider the issue of the status of women? Certainly not, and amongst other things it is our poor history of theology that pandered too much to the social constructs of the time that led us away from seeing the important details in gospel stories like today’s.
Our epistle reading calls for an end to favouritism and a true living out of the commandment that we should love our neighbours. What James is arguing against, the trap that we in the church have so often fallen into, is the temptation to decide which of our neighbours deserve our love. We love to categorise and evaluate to help us understand the world, so unlike God we categorise and evaluate the people around us.
This has meant the subjugation of women to spiritual second-class status, the labelling of the disabled or chronically Ill as unrepentant sinners, the assumption that those with poor mental health are possessed, and that slaves are okay. Now in the church we deal with questions over whether a woman is fit to have authority over other men, and whether partners in long-term, monogamous, loving relationships should be allowed to be a part of the church or should be made to repent of because they are of the same gender.
As much as this is true of our attitude to individuals so it is also true of how we’ve tended to view the entire human race as a collection of peoples. One can argue, and many have, that God focussed his attention through history on one people, his chosen nation, Israel. But out of Israel came his incarnate Son to bring salvation to all of creation. Israel was not the chosen nation because it is the only nation worthy of God’s attention, but rather because through creation, all nations belong to God, so Israel acts as example to the world. And what an example God chose. Is there any one nation he could have chosen better for an example of the ‘other’ compared to everyone else? A people more used to being ruled by other nations than by themselves; often sent into slavery far away; dispossessed, dispersed, discounted. Yet these are the people God chooses to be the nation into which Christ is born.
And so here we are today, worshipping that Son of the line of David here in a nation of Gentiles. Westcott House, where I trained for ordained ministry, has a number of catchphrases associated with vocation and mission, including: ‘Unity in diversity’. It’s an attitude that has attracted many, including myself, to go there to study, but it can be hard to live out. Unity in diversity is not ‘Uniformity in Many’. It can be uncomfortable and messy, but through it we can find a stronger common identity through sharing and celebrating each-other’s uniqueness. It’s what we try to identify and exemplify here through our signing of the Inclusive Church statement.
Bearing this in mind, let us return to the gospel. This account includes a strong testament to Christ’s incarnate humanity. As a human, difficult as it can be for us to accept, Jesus knew what it was to make mistakes and learn from others. As my New Testament tutor once said “all sins are a mistake, but not all mistakes are a sin.” Jesus was capable of making mistakes; it is important that he was able to make mistakes, because that is a part of being fully human. He was also fully divine, however, so he didn’t sin. He explained all this very simply: as a carpenter, Jesus probably hit his thumb with his hammer, but he never swore.
Here I would argue Jesus makes a mistake regarding the Syrophonecian Woman. It’s understandable: Christ is feeling pressured and needs to get away from it all. And then he meets this woman who wants more from him. He is initially dismissive of her, and indeed of her people. But through her persistence and wise words, he is gently reminded that God’s plan is creation-sized. It is meant for all people. Jesus is mistaken in dismissing her, but shows the proper human response in accepting what she has to say to him, humbling himself as a Jewish man to learn from a Syrophonician woman.
For Jesus and for all those who follow him, this encounter serves as a reminder that not only are those who are different worthy of our time and the message of the gospel, but they are just as likely to be able to teach us something about God and ourselves.
So what have we found? God created us all in great and surprising diversity. God created many nations, not to belittle the human race and weaken us, but to strengthen us; to broaden our experiences and understanding.
We are charged by James, and by the experiences and teaching of Jesus himself, to acknowledge and celebrate our diversity and variety: we need to allow our differences to be the things that unite us. Like Jesus in the Gospel, we need to be ready to receive the other; even more importantly, we must be prepared to learn from them.
And so let us pray for ourselves and our church, that the words of Isaiah’s prophesy might be true of us:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
“For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”