I don’t know about you, but the Jesus presented in stained glass windows and the Jesus talked about in many pulpits is nothing like the Jesus presented by Mark in today’s reading. We find Jesus facing an embarrassing ethical situation in which his position was made doubly difficult by the dilemma of dealing with a woman who, according to tradition, had no right to talk to him let alone call on his help. The woman was a Gentile. She begged him to heal her daughter. His reply, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
So what’s this? Jesus who taught we should love our neighbour and here he is in effect calling this Gentile woman a dog? Aren’t we taught that Jesus is nothing but love. In this passage we find Mark suggesting that even Jesus was the product of his religious setting reflected the standard prejudices of the Jews of his time.
Reading that Jesus should have started with such attitudes does not particularly worry me. Of much more significance was that Jesus, after hearing the woman’s reply, changed his attitude and treated her kindly from that point. I not sure that trying to make Jesus conform to our Sunday School stained glass image is a good idea. It removes his humanity.
What might we take from this story. For me, there are two points that speak to our situation. First, if Jesus himself can find himself caught up in the prejudices of his community, then perhaps we need to be particularly vigilant that we also do not miss seeing our own prejudices simply because they are widely shared in our community. So many of the things we object to or decide are wrong or immoral are based on nothing more than prejudice. Second, if Jesus can put aside his prejudice in the light of new understanding, and learn from one outside his faith, perhaps we too might be prepared set aside our prejudices so that we can act in a way that reflects our beliefs as followers of Christ.
Our other writer today, the author of the Epistle of James, was also determined that we confront our challenge to be real people in real situations. Today’s reading from the Epistle of James addresses a basic issue which in a different setting Jesus had to face in the Gospel reading. Just as Jesus started with an apparent attitude of favouritism for the Jews and preferential treatment for those who were not Gentiles, or in the eyes of the Jewish people, dogs, James gets straight down to the nitty-gritty and addresses the underlying issue which is almost embarrassingly topical, that of favouritism.
The tendency to favour people who are like us and reject those who are different.
In some old churches you can still see set seating to recognise those who have rank. Merevale church is a good example. This was one of the reasons why John Wesley originally fell out with the established church.
If we are to take Jesus seriously there must always be an uneasy relationship between his teaching and the actions of the rich and the privileged. Jesus is recorded time after time speaking about his special relationship with the poor.
James wasn’t so much condemning the rich, as the unjust actions by which many of them maintained their wealth at the expense of the poor.
Adopting Christian ethics carries with it clear responsibilities. First, like Jesus, we should be prepared to change our views as knowledge changes. Second we should be prepared to change our action in the light of wise words, particularly if they go against our natural prejudices.
James with his famous dictum about faith without works being dead is a direct challenge to those like ourselves who make time to worship but who may not necessarily see a need to find practical ways to live our faith.