Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favour is better than silver or gold.
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord is the maker of them all.
8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
9 Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.
James 2: 1 – 10
Warning against Partiality
1My brothers and sisters,* do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?* 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’,* 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.* Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
Mark 7: 24 – 37
The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.* He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir,* even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Cures a Deaf Man
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus* ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
Jesus is not willing to get side-tracked from his mission of bringing the Gospel to the Jews. His reference to the Gentiles as (literally) little dogs is an insult indeed. These are dogs without a useful function. They are a drain on the household; they certainly are not working dogs who have a positive impact on the finances of the household.
The 1548 version of The Book of Common Prayer picks this imagery up in The Prayer of Humble Access which reads, 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 be 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, in these holy Mysteries, that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood. Amen.
“We be not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
In the discernment for ordination process I was once asked by Bishop John what my earliest memories of church were. I remember two in particular, and they were the priest’s shiny shoes and the image of an unworthy spurned in his attempts to gather crumbs from under a table.
Every time the words were uttered I had an image in my mind of a man on his hands and knees under a table with a booted foot shoving him to one side.
Now James tells us 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
Is Jesus not showing partiality in favouring the Jews above Greek-speaking Gentiles? What is going on here?
Is Jesus just tired and grumpy? After all we do read that He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
The Syrophoenician woman is approaching Jesus with a desperate and legitimate need. Her little daughter has a demon problem, and Jesus, implying that she is a useless little dog, essentially tells her to stop bothering him.
This is the same Jesus who scolds his disciples for preventing children from having access to him; who said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19: 14)
It’s not so much that we have evidence that this particular woman is anyone special, but rather that Jesus’ words sound ominously like the words of any Jewish bigot at the time.
But is this so?
We know that the plan Jesus had was for him to preach the Kingdom of God to the Jews and for his disciples to take the Gospel to the rest of the world. Luke’s Gospel tells us 43But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ 44So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea. (Luke 4: 43 – 44).*
But does that explain what is going on here?
I don’t think so.
I believe that the experience of the Gentile woman is the kind of thing every single one of us has faced at various times.
We encounter a problem, we come to God for help and (in our case) there is silence. God doesn’t seem to answer us. Have you been in that situation? I bet you have!
To illustrate what is going on here I want us to consider another request Jesus had from a Gentile to heal someone. In Luke 7 some Jewish elders approach Jesus on behalf of a Roman centurion whose servant was ill. They say to Jesus “This man really deserves your help. 5 He loves our people and he himself built a synagogue for us.”
Jesus sets off for his home but he is met by the man’s friends with this message from the centurion: “Sir, don’t trouble you. I do not deserve to have you come into my house, 7 neither do I consider myself worthy to come to you in person. Just give the order, and my servant will get well.
And here it is:
9 Jesus was surprised when he heard this; he turned around and said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel!”
Nowhere in Israel, says Jesus, has he found faith like this. What Jesus responds to is faith!
What Jesus is providing the Syrophoenician woman with is an obstacle to test her faith!
What Jesus expects you and me to exercise when we ask God for anything is faith!
Hebrews 11: 6 tells us And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
I could go on endlessly. Faith moves the hand of God. It is a spiritual principle that applied in Jesus’ time on earth and still applies today.
You see you cannot exercise faith towards God without moving towards God positively – the exercise of faith says, I trust you, I depend upon you, I acknowledge you for who you are, I have no other alternative God.
Jesus presents an obstacle to the woman to test her faith – in fact more than testing it, he is giving her the opportunity to exercise her faith so that she will get what she desires. In the process she draws closer to him.
And her faith proves strong. She says, ‘Sir,* even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ This woman is not to be denied. She is not going away empty-handed. That is the persevering and believing spirit God responds to.
I don’t know what the woman’s background was. It seems the Roman centurion had it easier because he had already demonstrated faith in his life of dedication to the Jewish people – especially in building them a synagogue. He was what was known as a God-fearer – a Gentile taken by monotheism. His understanding of how the spiritual principle worked showed this.
The woman, on the other hand, needs to be prompted to exercise her faith so Jesus tests her by seeming to reject her.
If faith is so important the question most of us would ask is how can we be sure we have it? How can we be full of faith?
Well, by exercising a constant and vital prayer life for a start. Jude 1: 20 But you, dear friends, must build each other up in your most holy faith, pray in the power of the Holy Spirit.
But also by soaking our minds in the Word of God. Paul tells the Romans in Romans 12: 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
The transformation of our minds is going to open them up from the narrow left-brain dominated and self-centred mechanisms that they can become towards their development as expansive receptors for faith as a kind of “fuel” and faith as a kind of “engine” that moves us towards God in eager expectation.
Faith is neither of these things on its own. It is not something we can store up. Faith is inextricably linked to action. As James 2: 17 says, In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. True faith builds up but it is no sooner developed than it translates into action and it as action that surrenders its own self-sufficiency as it moves towards and experiences the nature of God.
The transformation of our minds gives us the capacity to understand and the ability to move towards God.
A little earlier in Chapter 10 Paul says Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.
Spending time reading and letting God speak to us through Scripture builds faith.
You see Jesus does not simply bring Good news to make us feel better. He wants the whole of us transformed, fit for God’s company.
One of my favourite verses, repeated more than once in the pages of Scripture is By Thee have I run through a troop and leapt over a wall. (Psalm 18: 29, and 2 Samuel 22: 30) I think the appeal in that verse lies in its understanding that there are obstacles in life, but that they are not going to hold us back because by Thee i.e. with God’s help, we will overcome them.
If you decide to make progress in God, he will test your faith. There is no option to run round the troop or run round the wall, no By Thee have I run through a troop and leapt over a wall. The spiritual life toughens us precisely because there is opposition, because in the process we lean on God and our relationship with him becomes that much more intimate, more trusting, more robust as we respond and step out in faith.
Faith is not static, and the Syrophoenician woman seemed instinctively to know that. She would simply not give up. She persevered, passed that particular test of faith and received the healing she needed for her daughter.
We don’t have to be thrown upon our own devices as she was, having suddenly to exercise faith in this Rabbi she had heard about. We can be ready. Through prayer and Scripture, through fellowship and worship we can grow a faith that sees us ready to respond to whatever God places before us. It’s that kind of faith that will see us moving forward as a part of the Church of Christ.
So where to now? Well, God will always provide opportunities for you to grow in faith if you show yourself willing to do so.
[Comments on Father’s day and the Syrian refugee problem not included in the prepared sermon.]
So let us pray:
Loving God, we do not want to stagnate in our faith. We certainly don’t want to go backwards, Lord. We long to grow in you, dear God. Bring before us, we pray, opportunities to exercise our faith. Grant us the ability to see these opportunities, to recognise them for what they are, and help us to be bold and to step out, to feel the fear and do it anyway; for we know that you will never leave us or forsake us. We look forward to what you have for us to achieve together, Lord, and we thank you for our life in you.
God bless you.