Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
The texts for this Sunday are Christianity 101 or perhaps basic instructions for being a decent human being.
Don’t exploit the poor and vulnerable. Don’t treat people differently based on how much money or status or power or influence they have. If someone is hungry, feed them. Don’t call a person who is desperate for help for her child a dog (yes, that’s a good piece of advice on the decency for dummies list).
And yet, looking around our world and no less into our own hearts, we know that just because something is basic it doesn’t mean it is easy. Christianity 101, human decency 1.0, requires lifelong learning that includes apprenticeships, communal accountability, practice, repentance and lots of trial and error.
Given that reality let’s go over some basics based on this Sunday’s readings:
- God created everyone. Every. Single. Person. We have that in common no matter our other myriad differences.
- Integrity is more valuable than material wealth in the eyes of God. Therefore, always choose a good name over great riches. (Um, that might be a timely word, friends.)
- The Lord pleads the case of the poor. Ergo, so should we.
- Generosity is a blessing all around, for the giver and the receiver.
- Don’t exploit the poor. (There are too many examples to list how the poor are exploited: title loans, cash bail, prison labor, subprime loans, higher prices on groceries in food deserts. The list is very, very long. Do a little digging into the policies and systems in your community, pick a few and hold them up in contrast to Christianity 101 this week.)
- A person’s value does not equate to their monetary net worth. A person is valuable because, well, see number one on this list. God does not care how much or how little is in your bank account. See number two on this list.
- Love your neighbor as yourself. Really. Not in theory, but in daily, tangible practice. See number 5 for more information.
- Faith is visible to all. How we live reflects our deepest beliefs, revealing what and who we truly value. (Please don’t go to lunch after worship, clearly having been to church, and treat the server badly and leave a meagerly tip. Please, just don’t.)
- When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, at the very least treat him with dignity, respect and kindness, even if you cannot do for him what he hopes you can do.
- When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, do what you can do to alleviate her pain and suffering, no matter who she is, where she comes from or how that pain and suffering came to be.
A top-10 list feels like a good place to start. Let’s call this “Discipleship for dummies: A top 10 list of basic instructions.” Ok, this title violates the “don’t-call-people-names” rule. So, let’s try again: “Christianity 101: A 10-point catechism.” Or how about a more academic spin: “Practicing parenesis in a post-Christian context.” (Oh, I like that one!)
This Gospel reading always makes me uneasy because Jesus comes across as dismissive and mean-spirited. I don’t like to think of Jesus this way. There is enough dismissive and mean-spiritedness around. I need Jesus to be anything other than dismissive and mean-spirited. And yet, I can’t just give my Lord a pass on this troubling exchange, and I refuse to believe he was just providing some sort of role-play lesson to his disciples at the expense of this woman. The fact is, it is more helpful to me to read this passage, and the healing right after it, as demonstrating Jesus’ growth in compassion. I want Jesus to be changed because of his encounter with the person heretofore he did not think he had any obligation to care about, tend to or help. I find hope in seeing transformation on the part of the One who came to save the world. Even Jesus had to learn to live into the expansive, boundary-busting, salvific work of God. And if Jesus expands his heart and subsequent actions, and God is always doing a new thing, and the Spirit blows where it wills, then I can better believe that dismissiveness, mean-spirited, exploitive, cruel, dehumanizing acts are not inevitable, eternal or irreversible, pervasive and relentless as they are.
I am reading “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein. (Stop right now and get a copy. Read it. Now.) Rothstein’s book recounts instance after painful instance of systematic, intentional, evil housing discrimination against African-Americans. Reading this book helped me understand Katie Cannon’s statement, quoting her grandmother, at a lecture at Princeton in 2017, “Even when they lie, they lie.” The layers and insidiousness of exploitation and abuse boggle my mind. (I know they don’t surprise my friends and neighbors who have experienced this over and over again. My white privilege is showing.) Government on all levels, neighborhood associations, builders, insurance companies and, yes, churches actively participated in making sure African-Americans did not have access to housing and that segregation persisted long after courts ruled it illegal.
Rothstein, writing about restrictive covenants crafted to keep African-Americans out of white neighborhoods, says, “Churches, synagogues, and the clergy frequently led such efforts.” One white owners’ group in St. Louis was sponsored by a Presbyterian Church. “Trustees of the church provided funds from the church treasury to finance the … lawsuit to have the African American family evicted. … Such church involvement and leadership were commonplace to property owners’ associations that were organized to maintain neighborhood segregation.”
Basic Christianity, basic human decency, is not so basic — not when Proverbs or James or Mark was written, not now, not ever. Christianity 101 requires intentional lifelong learning and the willingness to be held accountable by one another, yes, and surely by God. Even Jesus needed a refresher course, taught by a Syrophoenician woman. I wonder who is trying to school us right now. Are we willing to learn? Are we willing to expand our compassion and change our actions?
- Where do you see people being treated differently based on their perceived wealth, status or power? Do you see this in the church? When have you shown partiality?
- James asks: Can faith save us? Don’t Reformed Christians answer “yes” to this question? What do we do with James’ claim that faith without works is dead?
- What is the relationship between the two healings in the reading from Mark? What is the point of the secrecy in Jesus’ healing of the deaf man?
- What about the Syrophoenician woman’s response prompts Jesus to heal her daughter? In the Matthew version of this story Jesus says the woman’s faith has made her well. What is the significance of that being omitted in Mark’s version? Read Matthew 15:21-28 and note the differences between the two accounts.
- How are the poor exploited in your community? How is your congregation called to respond?
- If you had to create a “top 10” list of marks of a Christian, what would that list include?
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