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Thursday, 6 August 2015

Breaking boundaries with love

This was my reflection at yesterday's lunchtime Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Jesus seems to have been deliberately rude to the Canaanite Woman – a woman from another race and culture – that he encountered in today's Gospel reading (Matthew 15. 21 - 28). He began by making it clear that she was not one of the chosen people for whom he had come and continued by insulting her and her people in calling them 'dogs'.

Why was he so uncharacteristically rude? His disciples had wanted him to send the woman away; ostensibly because of the fuss she was making but, more probably, because she was not one of 'them'. Therefore, Jesus threw all their prejudices at the woman both as a way of confronting his disciples with the ugliness of their prejudice and as a provocation that revealed the faith within this woman.

In the face of seeming denial and insult, she persisted in her request and in her faith in Jesus' ability and willingness to heal. On the back of this tangible example of faith, Jesus was then able to challenge the prejudices of his disciples (as I think was his intent from the outset) by pointing out the depth of faith which he had uncovered in a woman of another race, culture and faith.

We can see these same issues recurring in our own day and time in the way in which the debate about immigration has changed enabling the whole apparatus of the state to now be bent towards reducing immigration. The effect can be vividly seen in the issues faced by and the endurance of those who come to the Sunday International Group at St Martins-in-the-Fields. These people gather once a week for food, a shower, to wash their clothes, meet others in the same cruel dilemma as themselves and to garner what legal advice is applicable to their situation.

We know from their experiences that the Bishop of Dover was absolutely correct when he accused senior political figures, including the prime minister, of forgetting their humanity and attacked elements of the media for propagating a “toxicity” designed to spread antipathy towards migrants. He said, “We’ve become an increasingly harsh world, and when we become harsh with each other and forget our humanity then we end up in these standoff positions. We need to rediscover what it is to be a human, and that every human being matters.”

Seeing this story of the Canaanite woman as a deliberate challenge to the prejudices of his disciples is consistent with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 25 - 37) where Jesus tells a group of God's chosen people a story in which one of their own receives help, not from his own people, but from a man of another race, culture and faith. In that story, Jesus went further than his already radical teaching of love for our enemies by telling a story in which a member of God's chosen people received God's love and help from a person that he considered to be outside the people of God and an enemy of his own people.

However we choose to draw the boundaries of who is and who is not one of God's people, Jesus breaks through those boundaries with his love for all people, his sacrificial giving for all, and his recognition of all that those who are excluded actually have to offer to those who exclude. The strapline of St Michael’s Camden Town - 'Making a family out of strangers’ - is a good summary of this aspect of Jesus’ teaching and ministry.

It is a helpful practice, which comes from Ignatian spirituality, to try to place ourselves fully within a story from the Gospels by becoming onlooker-participants and giving full rein to our imagination. If we were part of this story, would we be with the disciples, who wanted Jesus to send the Canaanite woman away because she was not one of 'them', or would we be with Jesus, who challenged the prejudices of his disciples by pointing out the depth of faith which he had uncovered in a woman of another race, culture and faith? Our answer to that question will determine the extent to which we seek to make a family out of strangers ourselves.


Mumford & Sons - Hopeless Wanderer.

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