A priest friend of mine wrote on Twitter this week, as he was preparing his sermon, “the book of James could have been written TODAY.”
“But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life
difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?”
This letter of James, with it’s appeal against favoritism, could have been written today. It is one of the texts we consider timeless. Who do we honor? Who do we put at the center? To whom do we give the preferred seat?
Now, lest you think I am dodging the bigger, stinkier, more difficult Scripture today, I’m not. I know sometimes preachers like to simply ignore the hard stuff in the Bible. I’ll admit, I’ve done it from to time to time. But I started with James to introduce the story from the Gospel.
This is perhaps the messiest story we have of Jesus. It seems clear what Jesus, and followers of Jesus should do when a woman comes asking for healing for her daughter. But Jesus does not want anyone to know he is there. Still this persistent woman finds him. But when she finds him, it doesn’t immediately get better. She comes asking for healing and Jesus calls her a dog. We can try and rationalize and explain away Jesus words, but they are there, even in Scripture. Jesus uses a racial/ethnic epithet, common among his people, who viewed themselves superior to the Greeks, the Syrophoenicians. Jesus demeans this woman using racist language.
Sometimes it can seem like the Bible is an old dusty collection of documents that have little relevance for our own time. Then sometimes, you encounter stories and readings like the ones we have today. The Scripture asks that uncomfortable question we all must ask in our workplaces, our schools, even our families. How do you engage when you encounter racist and demeaning language? How do you engage questions of power and justice?
Make no mistake, this questions is our question here at church. The Episcopal Church has been complicit in some of the most heinous forms of discrimination we have known. The Episcopal Church blessed the institution of slavery. We had special baptismal rites for enslaved people. White adults who were baptized promised to follow Jesus as their lord. Enslaved Africans, in order to be baptized, had to promise to obey their masters. We have repented, officially, as a body. But the demon is still with us.
We are still one of the most segregated denominations. People who identify as white make up roughly 90% of our membership, across the Episcopal Church. (Holy Communion is helping those numbers, but it’s a big church).
We still struggle in our churches with racism, sexism, homophobia, agism, able-ism. How do we combat these evils, even in the church?
Today from Jesus we learn one strategy that will not work: silence. Jesus’ silence, his desire to hide, is problematic. You know that saying: “Silence is Violence.” It applies here. Why would Jesus demean this woman’s pleas? Why does he hide away? Why won’t he heal her daughter? This Gospel is a mess. Thankfully the Syrophoenician woman won’t put up with Jesus’ hiding. She persists. She tells him even dogs are fed. Jesus finally responds. “Good Answer!” The woman’s daughter is healed. Jesus’ desire to hide, Jesus’ racially charged slur didn’t push her away. This may be the only place in Scripture where Jesus doesn’t have the last word. Jesus is corrected. The woman persists.
This story from Jesus has been one of the most difficult for scholars. They have tried to explain away Jesus’ words, said that he was simply testing the woman and his disciples (though there’s no evidence of a test in the text).
Black Womanist and Latin American Feminist Theologians have pointed to another potential reading, one that I think helps us to manage the mess. Liberation theologies famously point to the “option for the poor” the “option for the marginalized.” They say if you want to understand what is happening in Scripture, look to the poor. God seems to be working, across the length of the Bible, for the liberation of the least, the lost, and the left-out. God is to be found there, among those who have the least.
Womanist and Feminist scholars take the argument further. They say, if you can see this pattern is Scripture, apply it to the newspaper as well. If you want a Christian analysis of economics or of a violent situation, if you are a politician or a business leader attempting to make a difficult decision, make the “option for the poor.” Look to how the decision or situation will affect the most vulnerable. God sees the world through the eyes of the marginalized. And feminists and womanist point out, the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor, tend to be women. If you want to see the tables turned. If you want real change in our city, our nation, our world, you have to go all the way to the root. You have to conspire with the poorest, the most vulnerable, for liberation.
This woman that Jesus encounters, could she be inviting him and his followers to re-consider? Question the stereotypes, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because her and her daughter’s life and livelihood are at stake? In this case an ethnic slur isn’t just impolite. If Jesus had stayed hidden away, if he had denied the healing, the consequences would have been huge for this woman. And dare we ask: “would Jesus be Jesus if he had stayed silent?” If he hadn’t listened to this woman, this persistent woman, if Jesus had kept believing he was only sent to Israel, where would that leave this room full of Gentiles?
Which brings me back to James, and the question of favoritism toward the wealthy. James could have been written today. We still give deference to the “haves” and we ask the “have nots” to make room. Part of what Jesus learns today, part of what Jesus teaches in the rest of his ministry, part of what becomes the DNA of the Jesus movement is this: If you want to change the world, change who you favor. Change your priorities.
If you find yourself in a place of power. If you find yourself managing a business or and academic department. If you find yourself heading a task force or a government division, make sure you are paying attention to the most vulnerable, to those society might brush aside, to the poor, the women, the queer community, the people of color the outsider.
Do you know the name of the person who empties your trash can? Do you know their child’s name? Do you have the kind of relationship where they can come to you if they have a problem?
Today’s Gospel story is difficult, problematic. But there is a certain grace, a certain grace that Jesus allows himself to be to be corrected. There is a certain grace in the woman’s persistence. If you find yourself in a place of power, listen for the voices of the marginalized. Prioritize the voices of those at the bottom of the management chain, the voices of those who live downriver from the manufacturing plant, the voices of those who are most affected by your decisions. Expect to be corrected. Welcome the correction. Know that your decision to be in relationship, to listen, can change our world.
If you find yourself on the margins, if you find yourself in a place of need, be persistent. Question those in power. Know that in Jesus’ kingdom, you have a place of pride. Don’t let anyone, anyone, tell you otherwise. God is with the poor. God is with the women. God is with the LGBTQ+, the Latin/x, the immigrant, the people of color. God is with those who are marginalized. If you find yourself at the margins, be persistent. Look for the leaders who will listen, who have not hardened their hearts like pharaoh. Look for those leaders, and bring them your needs, your ideas, your hopes. Conspire with them for liberation.
Gosh it is tempting to hide away. This Jesus movement, it is work. Proclaiming the loving, life-giving, liberating way of Jesus, it can be hard work. Sometimes it would be easier to hide away in your office, on your couch, to not let folks ask you hard questions. Sometimes it would be easier to simply put in the hours 9 to 5, keep your head down, not engage in questions of justice and language in your school, in your workplace, in your family. The way of Jesus is not always the easy way. The way of Jesus gets messy, as today’s Scriptures make clear. But Jesus’ way, it is the greater way. The way of Jesus leads to deeper love, to deeper community, to deeper joy, to justice, to liberation. Keep the faith. Keep listening to those who are less powerful. Be willing to be corrected. Keep persisting. God will hear you.