15th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 18 / Year B
James 2.1-17 / Mark 7.24-37
Once upon a time a man called Nasrettin was invited to a banquet and set out wearing his old patchwork coat.
Along the way he stopped to help capture a runaway goat.
When Nasrettin arrived at his friend’s house, the friend, the servants, and all the other guests ignored him.
He realized that this was because his coat was now dirty and smelly, as well as worn-out.
Nasrettin hurried home, bathed, put on a magnificent new coat, and returned to the banquet.
Now everyone was glad to welcome him.
Delicious food was set before him, which he proceeded to feed to his coat.
“Eat, coat! Eat!” he said.
The host and guests were horrified.
“Why, surely you wanted my coat to eat,” Nasrettin responded.
“When I first arrived in my old coat, there was no food for me. Yet when I came back in this new coat, there was every kind of food for me. This shows that it was the coat – and not me – that you invited to your banquet.”
James writes, “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”.
We all have a tendency to judge people by how they look or sound.
We might not realise we’re doing it but as soon as we meet a new person or see a stranger come through the door we make decisions about what kind of person they are: rich or poor, educated or ignorant, attractive or ugly, like us or not like us.
Just as one example, it’s said that interviewers for jobs make a decision about a candidate within 60 seconds.
This kind of snap judgement also leads to discrimination.
People are discriminated against based on how they look – their size or skin colour or because of a disfigurement.
People are also discriminated against because of their wealth and social status – a rich businessman receives very different treatment from a homeless refugee.
And people are discriminated against because they are teenagers or elderly or single parents, or because of any number of other reasons.
Yet if there’s one community where this shouldn’t happen it is the Church – but it does.
I remember once being at a church service elsewhere when a man came in who appeared to be homeless.
He came up for communion and was given it but later some members of the congregation complained that this man shouldn’t have been allowed.
In such a way even Christians become ‘judges with evil thoughts’.
The problem, though, is that God doesn’t play favourites, but loves even the worst of us, and especially doesn’t judge between people based on our human standards and prejudices.
So if our faith means anything then it must make a difference to how we treat people.
The kind of faith that believes in God as a kind of afterlife insurance policy without any demands on us to actually do anything is not real faith at all.
As James says, ‘… faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.
It’s not that we’re saved by what we do but our faith is meant to motivate us into trying to live according to God’s will.
This is sometimes seen as contradicting Paul’s words about being saved by grace and faith.
But actually Paul also recognises the need for faith to lead to action, telling us in Ephesians 2 that we’re created in Christ to do God’s work, and in Romans 6 that we are move from doing the will of sin to doing the will of God.
So, if we have faith we should be wanting to try to live according to God’s standards.
And that includes not judging people by outward appearances, or blindly following the crowd in paying extra attention to people who are rich, powerful or famous while ignoring the poor, the weak and the people on the fringes of society.
After all, ‘God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him’.
Yet this reading has been rather troublingly placed next to the story of the Syrophoenician woman in today’s readings.
On the face of it the gospel reading seems to contradict the idea that God doesn’t play favourites, as Jesus rejects the woman who comes to him for help on the grounds that she’s not Jewish, and throws in what was a common racial insult from Jews to non-Jews.
It’s not what we expect from Jesus, and to be honest I can’t find an explanation for how he spoke to her that completely satisfies me, although there are several theories.
But I think there is a reason for putting these two readings together.
Although Jesus at first tries to turn the woman away she perseveres because, despite his reaction, she believes that God loves her and her child, regardless of the fact that they’re not Jewish.
She knows that the barriers between people of different races, religions, social statuses or whatever else divides us are less important than God’s love for the whole world.
And through her determined faith she seems to show Jesus that his mission to the Jews is to be widened to the rest of the world, that it’s time for barriers to come down and for discrimination to end.
Jesus has always been clear that he’s come only to bring news of salvation to the House of Israel, but this could be Jesus learning that there’s more to it than that.
It’s an odd idea, perhaps, that Jesus needed to be taught something, but he did come to earth as a human being like us, and so maybe he also needed to learn like us.
And ultimately the message of the gospel did reach beyond the Jews, and break down the barriers between them and us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
So let us remember that God tears down barriers, rejects favouritism, overcomes prejudice and calls us to do the same, with a living faith that doesn’t just say the right things but also does the right things.