notre dame montreal

Prejudice & Favour

Mark 7 24-37, James 2 1-10

Sermon 10th September 2006.

by Mr Richard Wycherley

Do you ever come across a sentence, phrase or passage in the New Testament that takes your breath away? I do. Usually, it’s the sheer beauty of the words. For example, The Great Commission in Matthew ends “And, surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age”. And there’s the 13 verses of the Love Chapter in 1 Corinthians that begins “ If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”.

Just occasionally, the words grate. They seem to contradict our sensibilities as to Christian life as we know it. For example, Paul writes in Corinthians “Women should remain silent in the churches”. Ho hum. Is Paul the patron saint of women? Eh, No! And today in Mark’s gospel, we heard grating words. After the Greek woman, distraught with worry, begged Jesus to heal her mentally ill daughter, he replied: “ First, let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs”. Now, by children he meant the Jews, the bread refers to himself and dogs, in addition to the obvious, was also a term of contempt for Gentiles who, like the animal, were regarded as unclean. At first glance, it seems a harsh put down and at odds with all we know about Jesus. To me, its harshness is emphasised by what Jesus had done in Gennesaret immediately before travelling to Tyre. He had started off by fiercely criticising the Pharisees over the ritual cleansing of hands before eating, accusing them of hypocrisy by allowing man-made rituals to take precedence over God’s wishes. He continued the criticism by pointing out that they had effectively disobeyed God’s command to honour parents by taking the concept of Corban-gifts to God- to excess, so that parents were now rarely honoured by gifts from their offspring. And he followed this up by telling the crowd and his disciples that eating so called unclean food did not make the eater unclean. Yes, he attacked the thinking behind kosher food. In these episodes, Jesus demonstrated his willingness to take on the status quo and knock down Shibboleths. Yet to the Greek woman, he appears to be sticking to the orthodox thinking on the relationship between the “clean” Jew and “unclean” Gentile. So what explanation is there, because there is no doubt that Jesus never turned away deserving people?

Firstly, Jesus was not excluding Gentiles but was saying that there was a divine timetable to be followed. His mission to the Jews, before the Gentiles, was the divine will of God, it was not a man made timetable. While Jesus would question and, if necessary, condemn man-made rules and rituals, his obedience to God was absolute. Secondly, Jesus was testing her. Was her faith genuine? Did she recognise Him as the Messiah or was she a chancer? Her response was magnificent; everything he wanted, needed, to hear, he heard. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”. She showed that she recognised and believed in Him as the Lord, the Messiah. She understood his mission and the priorities within it. So, her daughter was healed.

So why am I raising this incident? Well today is Racial Justice Sunday and in churches across the country, prayers will be said for racial justice in this country and across the world. It’s important that we are able to show a sceptical, non-believing and cruel world that our Saviour had no prejudice, that our beliefs and the worldwide church welcome all people regardless of race or colour.

In the reading from James, we heard about favouritism, which, in most contexts, is simply another word for prejudice. James warns us against favouritism of the rich over the poor but the lesson for us is that any prejudice against a fellow human being is wrong. In Mark 12 Jesus proclaims the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Every man, woman and child is made in the image of God and if we harbour prejudice against our neighbour for any reason, we are going against God’s express commandment. If we give outward expression to the prejudices in our heart, can we honestly call ourselves Christian? I leave that for you to decide.

Our faith calls us, both as individuals and as a church, to actively oppose prejudice. James 2. verse 17 says “Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action is dead”. This means that to sit back and do nothing is not an option. Where we see prejudice, it is our Christian duty to oppose it. We, individually, can apply pressure on our church and political leaders in any number of ways. And we can form groups in our churches to mobilise responses to local, national and international racial issues, and to consider whether our particular church really is reaching out to and welcoming races other than white Anglo-Saxon and if it is not, how it can become so. We can support voluntary agencies dealing with prejudice and its after effects. And we pray, individually and in corporate worship. Oh yes, we pray for we know that God will work out his purpose.

The Church body is active in anti- prejudice campaigns but more can always be done. I have to say, I believe the Church of England made a huge positive statement about its own position on racial prejudice when it elected Dr John Sentamu as the Archbishop of York- the church’s number 2- in 2005. If and when a black Pope is elected, the impact will be even greater. However we should also remember that in the past, the world Church has been culpable. Only last year a serving Baptist minister in the USA was sentenced to death for murdering coloured protestors while in his capacity of a leader of the Klu Klux Clan. And the history of apartheid in South Africa had its roots in misguided religious belief.
The other day, I read a story about a missionary sent to India in 1944. The time came for his holiday back home and his church sent the boat fare. When he got to the port to buy the ticket, he discovered that a boat full of German refugees had docked and the passengers allowed to land temporarily. They were experiencing horrendous prejudice because of their race and were staying in shacks and warehouses throughout the port No-one would offer them food or any form of sustenance. It was Christmas time and on Christmas Day, he walked into a large warehouse where scores of the refugees were staying.
“Merry Christmas” he said. The people looked at him as if he was mad and replied “ We’re Jews”.
“ I know that. What would you like for Christmas?”
In utter amazement, they replied “ We would love some pastries just like we had in Germany.”

So the missionary went out and spent all his ticket money to buy pastries for as many refugees as he could find. Then, of course, he had to telegraph for more money. His superiors telegraphed back asking what happened to the original money.
He replied that he had spent it on Christmas pastries for German Jews.
Back came their reaction “Why did you do that? They don’t even believe in Jesus”.
“No,” He replied “but I do”.
He got his money.
Let us resolve that when we leave here today, we will examine our consciences and the ways we can do more for God in crushing the pernicious evil of racial prejudice.