Preacher Canon Robert Titley
What is the life of one rich man in California compared with thousands in the Middle East? It’s a non-question – each person is unique – and anyway, despite the rich world’s obsession with its celebrities, it didn’t seem too wrong that the news of Robin Williams’ death on Tuesday topped the news bulletins for a few short hours.
In his 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam Williams plays the manic presenter of a forces radio show. The film’s contention (a timely one for these days) is that when things are grim it is important to laugh. And those who are best at making you laugh often have tough lives themselves (as was true of Robin Williams, despite his gilded circumstances). According a comedy exhibition I once visited in Lancaster – Grin Up North – the funniest region in England is the North West, home of some of the nation’s most deprived places, and home also of Hylda Baker, George Formby, Ken Dodd, Les Dawson and Peter Kay. Up there you trip over natural comedians everywhere, like the man at the motorway services who asked a woman if she could direct him to the Wigan turn-off: ‘I can, love,’ she replied, ‘I married him.’
In the comedy Olympics, the gold medal would surely go the Jews, no strangers to grim times, but the funniest person in the New Testament is a Gentile, and we meet her this morning’s gospel treading. Things are certainly grim for the Canaanite woman. Her daughter is in a bad way – not the ideal circumstances for stand-up, but in desperation, try anything, even humour, which she does.
Let’s think first, however, about what Jesus says to her cry for help: ‘You don’t give the children’s food to the dogs’. This is inconvenient for the way we see Jesus, because it sounds really bad, calling someone a dog. What is going on here? Well, consider how it sits within the context of humour, a neglected aspect, I think, of Jesus’ teaching style. There are certain jokes that only particular people can tell, and Jesus the Jew and the Gentile woman meet in a particular context. This is a region where Jews and Gentiles share the tough experience of life under the heel of Roman imperial control. As Jeanette Winterson says of poetry, a tough life needs a tough language and we know from other sources that Gentiles and Jews have a pretty irreverent, no-frills approach in talking to each other. In such a setting, Jesus’ words still shock, but they fit – kind of. And they provoke a great reaction.
‘You don’t give the kids’ food to the dogs.’
‘But I bet you give them the scraps. Saves opening a tin.’
I added the last bit, but that is the woman’s point. Jesus uses a bit of home economics wisdom; then, like a comic with a heckler, she fires back her own homely adage to get across what she wants. ‘Touché!’ says Jesus, heals her daughter, and changes the focus of his mission: from this point on, Matthew describes him giving prominence to Gentiles as well as Jews. What is going on here?
Faithful Jews believed (as you and I should) that God has a plan for the world. They thought the Plan was that God would sort the world out by first sorting out the people of Israel and then moving on to the Gentiles, the rest of the human race. Isaiah this morning say pretty much that. The first Christians believed that God had begun to execute the plan in Jesus as he proclaimed as the Kingdom of God; and (of course) it would be Jews first into the Kingdom, then Gentiles.
But then came a puzzle. When St Paul started spreading the good news of Jesus, some Jews accepted it, but before long, most of the people who said Yes and became Christians were Gentiles. But that was not the Plan. What was going on? This story may be Matthew’s response to that question: Jesus begins by going with the ‘Jews first’ strategy, but then – thanks to this Canaanite comic – the plan changes.
Plans. The things that make God laugh. We all have them, or we ought to. Paddy Ashdown spoke last week about how we mustn’t be caught by each new catastrophe in the Middle East but have an ‘integrated strategy’ – a big plan – for what is a widening war. More happily, we have plans here, in the Richmond Team Ministry: plans for the building at St Mary’s – scaffolding there, drawings over here – which are part of our Mission Action Plan’s priority: to put our churches at the heart of the community in Richmond. Planning is good and important – ‘fail to plan, plan to fail’ and all that – but sometimes plans need to change as things change around them. As a former Royal Marine, Paddy Ashdown will know the military saying that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Or, perhaps, contact with God. We’re busy planning to make our building more user-friendly to welcome the community in, but what if God is saying, ‘My plan for you to be at the heart of the community is for you go out, out of these four walls, out to where the community actually is.’ How might we plan to do that, do you think?
There is a second way in which this story may be inconvenient for the way we see Jesus, because it seems to show him changing his mind. Wasn’t he perfect? And if he was perfect, how would he ever need to change his mind? Well, perhaps he didn’t know all the answers in advance. Perhaps that was the cost of being born as one of us, sharing the flesh and blood of our humanity. And he was a pioneer, as the letter to the Hebrews calls him (Hebrews 12.2), on a mission that had never been done before, to make flesh God’s presence and purpose in the world. Perhaps he walked by faith, as you and I try to do. Hebrews also says Jesus was ‘made’ perfect (Hebrews 2.10), so perhaps perfection refers not just to a static state but also to a process, the dynamic practice of getting it right as you look and listen in response to a world of mutation and flux and challenge. Perhaps Jesus’ perfection lay in the very way he did that, so that he didn’t make a false move.
In 1845, John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman wrote about how, in following Jesus, we must take the risk of putting the Christian idea to work as we live our lives in this messy and surprising world. He said this:
In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
Newman The Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter 1
[W]hatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. Nor does it escape the collision of opinion even in its earlier years, nor does it remain truer to itself, and with a better claim to be considered one and the same, though externally protected from vicissitude and change…. It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become wore vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.