James 2: 1-17———Mark 7: 24-37—-15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 5, 2021
One of my favorite authors is Dr. Seuss! At our house, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a favorite every December. The old animated version seen on TV brings to life a story about how celebrating the True Meaning of Christmas is more important than all the presents and decorations and feasting. It is a story of redemption in which the hardhearted Grinch is drawn into the celebration instead of just hating it from the outside.
The Hollywood version with Jim Carrey fills in details that Dr. Seuss didn’t provide—details that show how the Grinch got to be so “Grinchy” in the first place. In the film, he starts out as a cute but strange little creature being raised in Whoville. Because he is different, he is discriminated against, and stinging from rejection he leaves Whoville and lives the life of a bitter hermit up on Mount Crumpet. This is still a story of redemption because the Grinch is cherished by little Cindy Lou Who, and she fights to have him accepted by all the Whos.
The scene I’d like to focus on is the one in which she nominates the Grinch for an honorary position in their Christmas Festival. The Mayor (who happens to be one who persecuted little Grinch when they were in school) the Mayor opposes the nomination, and tries to quote from the Who Book of Wisdom to support his discrimination against him. But little Cindy Lou Who knows the book better than he does, and accurately quotes passages that defend her nomination of the Grinch!
At first, the people in the crowd are with the Mayor because they don’t really like the Grinch, and they are astonished at Cindy Lou’s desire to include him. But she stands up to the crowd, she stands up to the Mayor, and the Spirit of Christmas (the TRUE spirit of Christmas) eventually rules the day. The spirit of discrimination loses. It’s a good story!
Our texts for today have a similar theme. In Mark, Jesus has led his disciples into a Gentile region north of Galilee, and he demonstrates that God does not discriminate—God does not show partiality. Then, in our Epistle reading, James speaks sternly to the 1st Century church (and to us, as well) about the importance of NOT MAKING DISTINCTIONS and CARING FOR OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS. Let’s take a look.
An Atmosphere of Arrogance
First Century Palestine was no different from the modern world when it comes to having “an atmosphere of arrogance.” Regional pride was rampant. The folks in Judea thought that those from Galilee were a bunch of rustic hicks. And folks beyond the Jewish territory—they were just “dogs.” In Great Britain today, the Irish tell jokes about the English and the Scots. The Scots tell jokes about Irish and English. And the English are disdainful about everyone else! If you were to spend time in Minnesota or Wisconsin, you would hear jokes about the other state! For example: “What’s the difference between Wisconsin and yogurt? Well, yogurt has culture!”
Of course, this is all good-natured fun. But the culture Jesus lived in had a sense of true superiority—especially of the Jews over all others (Gentiles). This sense of superiority led them to the most frightful arrogance, even hatred for non-Jews.
Jesus had to find a way to counter that arrogance, that prejudice. He led his disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon. They were no longer in Jewish territory, and sure to encounter some Gentiles while they were there. Sure enough, a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin came and bowed down and begged Jesus to heal her daughter.
Aha! A teachable moment! Jesus knew the cultural bias his followers had regarding Gentiles, and he seized this moment to illustrate that God does NOT show partiality. First, he echoed the thoughts of his disciples, and he said (possibly with a wink), “It is not fair to take the children’s food (the Children of Abraham) and throw it to the dogs.” [“Dog” is the word commonly used to describe those outside the faith. But Jesus didn’t use the more harsh word that referred to dogs on the street. The word he used would apply to a little lap dog, one cherished by the family.] When he said this, I can picture the disciples saying “YES!”
But the Gentile woman picked up on the game Jesus was playing, and replied, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus healed her daughter! Jesus had already tried to tell them that God loves everyone, and even told a parable about a Samaritan who took care of a wounded
man. But taking his disciples among Gentiles and sharing God’s love with people they would have disdained—that really helped the message to sink in! And, when the Syrophoenician woman responded to his playful banter with “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” I can hear Jesus laughing and saying, in effect, “Okay! You win! Your daughter is healed!” You can be sure that the disciples were astonished!
Next, he took them to the Decapolis—a Gentile region to the east. This was a league of ten cities founded by Alexander the Great and his successors around 323 BC. Here, he healed a deaf man who also had a speech impediment. (We are not told whether he was a Gentile or a Jew.) But I think the disciples were beginning to get the message.
Discrimination in the Early Church
Our passage from James shows us that the church continues to need to learn this message about God’s love for all people. He describes a situation in which two visitors come to worship—one very rich, the other very poor. James says that if we treat one with respect and the other with less-than-respect, then we have made distinctions among ourselves, and have become judges with evil thoughts.
Years ago, at an inter-denominational gathering of local pastors, one pastor made a confession. We could all relate, because we wanted so much for our churches to thrive. He told us that, the previous Sunday, two cars pulled into the church parking lot at the same time. One was a recent model
Cadillac, with a finely-dressed couple in the front seat. The other was an older car, crammed with a huge family that looked like they didn’t have two dimes to rub together. He had to decide which car to approach first, to welcome these new people to the church. He was ashamed to tell us that he went to the Cadillac first—that he was showing favoritism, just like the example in James!
What he knew he should have done was to fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” James tells us that we need to speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.
–Mercy triumphs over judgment (discrimination)–
He goes on to ask: If we see a brother or sister who is hungry and naked, what good does it do to tell them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”? Last week, we affirmed that it’s not faith versus works, but faith that is lived out by doing God’s work.
I’ll finish with a story from a woman named Tererai. She writes:
What is hope for a woman like me, born and bred in a very poor village in sub-Sahara Africa? Poverty means carrying the burdens of life without the means. It means not being able to control one’s life. It means being demeaned.
I grew up herding cattle and looking after my siblings. My father would say, “Let’s look after the boys. Let’s send them to school because they are the breadwinners of tomorrow and hence we must invest in the boys (for the girls will be married). And he was right. That was the thinking. There is no social security, so you have to invest. So who do you invest in? You invest in the boys. [ They will support parents in their old age.]
I married very young. As a wife, I carried the burdens of poverty and hunger. I also carried the wounds of physical and emotional abuse. Why? Because if you are a woman and you are not educated, what else?
Then one day it happened. I was sitting in a village, and we were sitting in a circle, and I would like to call that circle a “dream circle.” We were dreaming: we had our own inspirations; we had our own aspirations, but these were just empty dreams. Fourteen years ago, Jo Luck visited my village. She surprised us by joining our circle as we sat on the bare ground without even a mat, eating Bambara nuts. As we were sitting, she started asking us, “What are your hopes? What activities are you engaged in?” NO ONE had ever asked us these questions before!
Speaking through a translator, we shared our hopes with Jo Luck. We could not understand the words she kept saying, but the Heifer director for Zimbabwe explained: She is telling you, “Tinogona. It is achievable.”
I said, “I cannot talk about my children’s education when I don’t have any. If I educate myself, then as a woman I will be able to educate the children.” Because we are in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, deprivation is the only outlook for the uneducated—especially among women and children.
Hence, education is a universal human right and the key to poverty alleviation and sustainable human development. I came to the United States and I finished my undergraduate and my master’s degrees. I still have my Ph.D. to earn; the dream is still there.
Tererai is currently working for Heifer, International. She is a reminder that it’s the demon of discrimination that convinces us that poor women tending cattle and raising children in Africa ought to settle for their meager conditions! Jesus challenges our attitudes; Jesus sends us to all kinds of people and asks us to embrace them as equal brothers and sisters.