By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
James 2: 1-13
Mark 7: 24-37
“Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The past year the nation has been torn over tension between African Americans who feel they are often unfairly targeted by police officers, and police officers feeling they are being publicly and unfairly punished and scrutinized for a crime that they as a group are not collectively guilty of. The past couple of weeks have seen a number of police officer deaths that in many cases seem to be the result of deliberate targeting, and a lot of officers believe that these killings are the direct result of overheated language on the part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Houston County Sheriff Ron Hickman, grieved and angry over the senseless shooting of Deputy Darren Goforth, said “Cops lives matter, too.”
There are debates back and forth about the propriety of saying “Black lives matter” versus “Cops’ lives matter,” versus, “All lives matter.” I’m not getting into a language debate. This isn’t about language. This is about human lives. On both sides of the issue.
More to the point, this isn’t about taking sides. Choosing up sides is a disturbingly human construct. St. Stephen has a number of law enforcement officials as members, both cops and DAs. This church also has African American members who are a vital part of the life of the church, and African American allies with whom we work on various key community issues. I hear from both sides their very real experiences around these difficult and dangerous issues. If we’re going to be a congregation that embraces the values of diversity and inclusion that Paul teaches when he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus,” we need to be a place that embraces and empathizes with and supports and defends the needs of all our parishioners, no matter how difficult or contradictory it can sometimes be.
And it can be difficult indeed!
The book of James sets up an all-too-familiar scenario for anyone in a church. An usher at the door welcomes in a rich person in fine clothes and chases away some poor homeless guy. Let’s be honest—we’ve all done it, or thought about it, anyway. James excoriates such thinking: “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” he writes, angrily. He continues, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” All well and good; James invokes a consistent theme of ‘show no partiality,’ because God shows no partiality; and this too is consistent with Jesus, who teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This often misunderstood verse means that we are called to a very particular perfection that is also God’s perfection: the perfection of looking upon people without prejudice or partiality, and somehow, by the grace of God, loving even those who identify themselves as our enemies.
It is a very particular kind of perfection, but it is perfection, and in our scriptures today both James and Jesus Himself seem to fall short of it.
For in the same breath that James calls his congregation to love their neighbors and not to show partiality, he then blasts the rich in uncompromising tones that paint all the rich with the same prejudicial brush: “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” I can easily imagine modern readers would immediately accuse James of “class warfare”—and they’d be right.
I think the Apostle Paul himself would have called James to task over this. The two of them were contemporaries and had their differences. And it’s important to note that Paul’s and James’ congregational situations were quite different. Paul was evangelizing mostly Gentiles in the richest portions of the Roman Empire. His Gospel was spread mostly through what Bruce Chilton calls “Salon Christianity,” in which churches started through home study groups mostly in rich people’s homes.
James, in contrast, headed the church in Jerusalem. It’s message appealed mostly to the poor and the oppressed. Christians were a minority group heavily weighed down under both Jewish and Roman scrutiny, living in a country oppressed by the Roman Empire. Their feeling that as a congregation they were poor and oppressed was a very real problem. So no wonder James is so critical of the rich, who benefit from the oppressive way their society is arranged, to the disadvantage of his poor parishioners.
Paul and James had disagreements, or at least differing points of view, largely because the needs of their congregations were different. But that didn’t mean that the perceived needs and issues weren’t real. Paul viewed himself as having to fight against the racial and religious prejudices of his fellow Jews against Gentiles. James viewed himself as having to defend the faithful Jewish poor of God against the oppression of the rich and powerful.
Both of them represented points of view with very real issues brought against them by the other side, and both were right. And that’s why both are included in the Bible.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus himself appears to fall short of his own teaching that we should not judge. Jesus is in Gentile territory and a Gentile woman approaches him to ask him to heal her dying daughter. Jesus’ response is shocking: he calls her a dog, because she is a Gentile, and tells her that He has come to preach to His own people, the Jews, and not to Gentiles. I know this goes against everyone’s views of Jesus, but here it is right here in Scripture, so we have to contend with it.
The woman, however, is not to be put off by Jesus’ rude behavior. She has a cause, you see, and the cause is right: she wants to heal her daughter, and she believes Jesus has the power to do it. So she says, “Don’t even the dogs get to eat the food that falls under the children’s table?”
And Jesus is amazed. He is amazed at what he calls her faith. And because of it, he heals her daughter.
What is her faith? We have to know this. Whatever it is, it has some incredible power. Whatever it is, it is relevant to our situation today. This faith of hers overcomes her feeling of being oppressed and downtrodden and unfairly treated. It causes someone who has a prejudice against her to have a huge amount of respect for her. It’s actually the beginning of a pattern of behavior where Jesus ministry begins to be more directed to Gentiles; He increasingly congratulates Gentiles as having great faith, often greater faith than His own people. Somehow the faith of this gentile woman opens the door for Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles. Ultimately the faith of this Gentile woman caused the Christian faith to become dominated, for better and for worse, by Gentiles two thousand years later.
So what is her faith?
It is, first of all, a faith that acknowledges that God is on the side of the person who seems prejudiced against her. She never disagrees with Jesus that God is on the side of the Jews. She simply insists that God is on her side, too. It’s a rejection of “either/or” thinking by a person who has every right to feel oppressed and mistreated.
It’s also an assertion, despite resistance, that her rights are just as important in God’s eyes as anyone else’s. Hers is not a mamby-pamby faith. She doesn’t back down even in the face of Jesus Himself. But she makes her case respectfully and firmly. She doesn’t respond to enmity with enmity.
And finally, it’s faith in Jesus. She not only believes that he has the power to heal her daughter, she believes that despite His resistance, He will ultimately see the rightness of her cause, and act accordingly. She has a persistent faith that God is on her side, and despite whatever obstacles she faces, she refuses to give up or back down.
The Biblical witness is not of one consistent view, but of a multiplicity of views. This is not an accident. It’s because sometimes more than one point of view is right. In that sense, Scripture represents well the reality of living in a diverse society. Even Jesus Himself seems to trip up sometimes on false societal constructs; certainly both James and Paul do it. All that shows us is that the heavenly ideal of rising above the problems of prejudice and exclusionary thinking is a problem even for the best of us—but we have to rise above it nonetheless. God calls us to be better than our prejudices and our sense of being wronged. We need to listen to one another, respect one another, and insist that wrongs against us or others be taken seriously, and never rest til wrongs against all are righted.
Anything less believes that God chooses sides. Anything less believes that God does not hear our cries. Anything less is not true faith.