23d Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading: Mark 7 (vv. 24-37)
On the news we have probably all caught glimpse of the little body on a Turkish beach of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi. For weeks and months we have been hearing stories and watching news clips of desperate refugees in boats washing ashore or the horror stories of wrecks and mass drownings; we have been watching the terrible images of desperate crowds cramming refugee camps, European railway stations and scrambling over barbed wire barriers.
Yet the image of this little child’s body seem to have transcended the barrier of public indifference or emotional exhaustion and become a trigger for a more concerted approach in Europe and has rippled around the world – even in New Zealand -to focus attention on the tragedy that is happening. To focus on this one tragic death makes us identify and empathise; we look at our own children and grandchildren and start to understand the wider disaster more personally. This is an imaginative connection that transcends the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
At the heart of the refugee crisis is that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’: it may be cultural or religious; it may be economic with we who ‘have’ not wanting to give way to those don’t. It can be we who are the insiders and they who are the outsiders, the strangers. It can be expressed in violence, abuse, and xenophobic language. Have you heard the refugees shouting at police and border guards ‘We are not animals.’
Our gospel this morning speaks directly to such boundaries. We encounter a Jesus we don’t want to recognise; a Jesus who contradicts himself – after all, just a few verses earlier he had declared all foods clean and so abolished the boundary between Jews and Gentiles; yet now he meets someone who is a Gentile and a woman and he dismisses her and her gender and culture with abuse – as dogs.
It is uncomfortable to read this. That is a good thing. We should not try to soften the harshness here with equivocation. Matthew’s version of the incident attempts to soften it. The truth is the gospels are drawn mainly from oral tradition and we don’t know exactly what Jesus said. This incident has been placed by an editor into a section where Jesus crosses the boundaries between Jew and Gentile – and the focus is on the crossing of various boundaries not the political correctness of the words or sentiments.
I am tempted to consider what the incarnation may involve culturally – and whether bias against women and Gentiles might be included in the person of our Lord. That is a speculation for another time.
Yet in this Jesus – who may speak in that moment as a Jewish man of his time with the usual prejudices against women and Gentiles – do we catch a glimpse of ourselves, remembering the diverse biases that we ourselves may carry and that are revealed in habits of unconsidered thought and casual speech? And do we remember the moments when we have heard ourselves or reviewed our thoughts and been embarrassed at our bias and resolved in our hearts to do better?
In this encounter of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman – the boundaries are crossed when the woman turns Jesus’ language of prejudice (dogs) against him and reminds him of how at the dinner table the children are prone to drop food for their pets. It is a bold and witty inversion of the language – here is a woman of spirit and wit who trumps Jesus’ dismissal of her request – and Jesus immediately acquiesces. A boundary has been crossed, in his mind; and also for the church and for the world. The crumbs of God’s grace are for all, not just a select few. Once that realisation dawns the way we see God, the world and one another changes.
One of Archbishop Cranmer’s original collects for The Book of Common Prayer holds this Gospel moment of discovery at its heart and has been a gem of our liturgical heritage – I mean of course the collect we know as “The Prayer of Humble access” used in the Eucharist.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he is us. Amen.
Think then of the boundaries we set between us and others and how this gospel shows us that the crumbs of God’s grace are for all. At the borders of Europe dare we turn the desperate away? When a refugee shrieks “We are not animals” can we hear the rebuke of this gospel and change how we live as people who believe that the crumbs of God’s mercy are for all?