God is on whose side?
James 2: 1-17 Mark 7: 24-37
I wonder how we’d respond if John Key turned up in church one day. Would we make a special effort to welcome him? Would we ask him if he wanted to speak? What would be the appropriate response for a Christian community?
One of the things that used to puzzle me as a teenager at High School was the way our Rector used to include the wealthy and successful businessmen among the great Old Boys of the school. At the time I didn’t understand why being rich made you a great Old Boy. It didn’t occur to me that it might be good for the school coffers.
Have you ever had a chance to talk to someone famous? How did it feel making conversation with someone you didn’t know at all, apart from seeing them on TV… in my experience it’s really quite difficult. I remember going backstage and meeting my favourite singer at a concert at Auckland. I was really quite tongue-tied. The weight of celebrity-ship was almost palpable. Whatever I said seemed kind of lame.
The Rich, Famous and Beautiful catch our attention, we are drawn like moths to a flame. Much as we hate to admit it, celebrity status has its own kind of momentum, regardless of a person’s abilities.
How would we respond if John Key sat down in our pews one Sunday morning?
I detect a wicked sense of humour in the person who put the readings together in the lectionary for today. The letter of James tells us that favouritism in human relations is incompatible with Christian faith, and then in our gospel reading Jesus goes and refuses to heal a very sick child just because she and her mother are not Jewish. At least that’s his initial response (which seems quite out of character). Here is just the kind of person Jesus would normally have healed, a woman who comes to Jesus (and therefore doesn’t have a man to advocate for her) in desperation. What’s even more difficult is that his response seems to our ears to border on racism. He can ignore her it seems, simply because God has a kind of favoritism for the Jews.
This sets us up for a kind of conundrum … Does God or does God not show partiality? Does God choose the Jews, or does God not choose the Jews?…
Even our reading in James pushes this conundrum upon us. James says, ‘Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?” (Answer, according to the bible: Yes), But if God chooses the Jews and if God chooses the poor, is that not partiality or favoritism? Is that not unfair on the rest of us who are non-Jew and non-poor?
Here’s the answer I think we need to understand. God is not partial, as we are partial. As fallen human beings we are vulnerable human beings. Our favoritism tells us more about ourselves than about those we favour. We are never entirely sure about our own adequacy, we carry the wounds of our parents and grandparents, the ladder of success is irresistible. There is a profound magnetism towards the successful and away from the unsuccessful. It doesn’t even occur to James that people might be in danger of showing favoritism to the poor. Favoritism for James means an orientation towards the rich and the successful. “Let us now praise famous men”.
God is not partial, as we are partial… but God is partial in another way… God does choose the Jews and God does choose the poor,… according to biblical faith.
And the objection that I think many modern people have to this is that they think there is another way for God to save the world. If God is really ‘not willing that any should perish’ (ultimately be lost) then surely there is a way which doesn’t involve starting at a particular place – eg with the Jews and the poor. What I think they imagine is something like this. They imagine that God works through ideas. And God could easily put a kind of ‘equal opportunity contract’ in everybody’s head – regardless of culture and language – everyone is able to mentally sign this contract which then becomes a kind of ticket to heaven. Believe in God and get out of jail free. Before such an opportunity, all are equal, they imagine.
The objection… depends on a certain kind of vision, imagining that this world is a kind of jail for souls. On this vision God doesn’t touch the ground, so to speak, God doesn’t touch history at all – God hovers above all of this touching all souls equally – giving them equal opportunity of escape.
For Christianity God loves the whole world… but there is no other way to save the world than by starting at a particular place and time. You can’t get to everywhere without starting somewhere. Eternity, for us, begins now. And it’s not about escape. Souls are formed in history and in human community. This is not a jail for souls. This is God’s good creation, in drastic need of transformation and God does not stand above it, but enters into history. There is no easy way into God’s future (no ticket). We don’t need ‘an equal opportunities contract’, we need to be transformed, and that begins in time and space and in community. Whether we like it or not, we are added into the children of Abraham, johny-come-latelys, adopted into a world that is unfamiliar to us.
And funnily enough the poor Syro-Phoenecian woman seems to understand this, she is happy to receive second-hand salvation… in her boldness she reminds Jesus, in case he’d forgotten, of the direction of his own life and ministry. Sure Jesus was an Israelite. Sure, Israel needed to turn back to its own calling again… but Israel is only truly Israel when it is Israel for the world. Jesus knows this and heals her daughter.
Where does all of this leave us, included in Israel for the world? The church is only truly the church if it is the church for the world…
If we turn back to James, and his concern for the church’s favoritism, its tendency to play ball with the rich and famous, to fly their flags, to curry their favor for resources. James warns his congregation of this dangerous game… In fact he suggests that such favoritism (ordinary human favoritism we might call it) flies in the face of the very real alternative favoritism of God. In favoritizing the rich, we are in fact endangering God’s kind of favoritism, God’s mission to the world, in the life of Jesus, where God has chosen to let go of power (that’s what the temptations are all about, that’s what the cross is all about), to identify with the powerless, to make a home and a community among those the bible calls the poor. To create a community which differs radically from all the communities in the world where people, whatever their status struggle to be more rich, famous or beautiful than their neighbours. God’s choice in choosing Jesus is a choice for a community without rivalry.
In calling Israel, from being a bunch of slaves in Egypt God was not giving them a ticket to heaven, he was calling them to be Israel… that is to be different. We too are called to be Israel (not to replace Israel). We too are called to be different. It is not a thing you do after you’ve got your ticket to heaven, as an optional extra, it is what it means to be part of God’s work in the world, it is the beginning of salvation.
How we respond, were John Key to turn up at our service, would be an interesting indicator of how different we actually were.
Bruce Hamill 6.8.09