Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Christ with the Canaanite Woman -- Henry Ossawa Tanner (1909)
The Gospel for this week includes a rather puzzling exchange between Jesus and a Gentile woman (Syrophoenecian in Mark's Gospel, Canaanite in Matthew's) . Having heard of his fame, she asks him to heal her daughter who has been stricken with fever. He replies – oddly – that bread for children shouldn’t be given to dogs. She responds by saying that even dogs get crumbs. This appears to be the right answer, because Jesus commends her, and her daughter is healed. But what is it all about? The answer is this: an indispensable context for understanding Jesus’ ministry is the faith handed down from Abraham. And the principal audience for his mission are the people who share that faith -- the Jews. They are the ‘children’ who are to be fed first. The Gentile woman understands this, and she accepts her ‘underdog’ status. Nevertheless, she sees that she, and her daughter, are no less in need of God’s blessing – and, importantly, she has the courage to ask for it. It is this combination of insight, humility, courage and longing that commends her to Jesus  "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter."

Poor Man -- Istvan Varga (1938)
It is something of the same attitude that James is advocating in the Epistle. This Sunday’s passage contains the much quoted line ‘faith without works is dead’. It is a thought that modern Christians who feel more comfortable with ethics than theology readily endorse. Yet it was this very same line that made Martin Luther loath the Epistle of James. That is because it so easily leads to 'works righteousness' when faith in God is replaced by faith in the human power to do good. Set alongside the Gospel passage, however, we can interpret it a little differently. A gap can easily open up between what we say and how we behave. This is why our actions and attitudes are usually the most convincing evidence of what we truly believe.

The reading from Proverbs for this Sunday says: ‘The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all’. If we believe that every human being stands in need of God’s redeeming grace – Gentile no less than Jew, the wearer of 'gold rings and fine clothes' no less than the 'poor person in dirty clothes', and that without such grace, everyone is pretty much a broken vessel, then the distinctions of ethnic origin, wealth, social status, and education will be things we hold in relatively little regard. Holding these beliefs, however, is not simply a matter of endorsing them whenever anyone  asks. What James in another passage identifies as‘true religion’ must embody our belief,  in actions as well as in words.

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