Distinctions (Prov. 22:2-3,8-9,22-23; James 2:1-10,14-17; Mark 7:24-37)
There’s a little statement by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, chapter 15, verse 4 that reads: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.” Without getting into specifics, we might paraphrase Paul’s principle here by saying, “If we will give it thought, the scriptures still have relevance to us today.” In fact, this basic principle is what has led me to try and teach all sorts of folks to read the Bible better, both in churches and in seminaries. It has also led me to try and preach and teach in ways that attempt to do the same. Baptists have always demanded that their teachers and preachers take the Bible seriously. That’s the first thing the pulpit committee said you expected of me here. Sometimes, however, we don’t work very hard at Paul’s principle and think of the scriptures as for our learning today. We get as far as the life of Jesus or the early Church and say something like, “There, that’s what they said or did then, so we must say or do the same today.” Frankly, although that may sound pious and orthodox, it falls short. The world is a great deal different now than it was 15 years ago when we came here, let alone in the time of our parents or grandparents. If we think that the first century or the sixteenth (or whatever) century had the last word, we end up saying that all the important thoughts and words have already been thought and spoken, and there’s nothing left to do but keep on repeating ourselves. That’s why it’s crucial that, when we read the Bible, no matter how hard to work at understanding what it meant, we have to continue to struggle with what it means. And I don’t mean just in some vague “contemporary sense” without specifics,” I mean inside our particular community. It takes courage to attempt to do this kind of specific reading because it is so specific, and what works in one community might not work in another, and we may make mistakes in our interpretation. But difficult or not, it is a crucial task of the community of faith and its leadership to think about how we’re listening to what Jesus is saying to us today.
One of the big challenges to contemporary biblical interpretation is what happens when “what was written in former days” in the Bible is angular, unpleasant, or uncooperative with our spirits today, as I find the three passages given to us today. Today’s readings, to take Paul again, do not encourage me, nor give me great hope. Now, because Baptists are supposed to take the Bible seriously, it is uncomfortable, especially for a preacher, to admit publicly that we react negatively to what the Bible says. Aren’t we just supposed to fall in line with it obediently? Well, I don’t, and never have. At this point, I’m not looking for a job so I guess I feel free to say that.
To begin, today’s Old Testament Lesson is very pointed to tell me that God’s on the side of the poor, and implies that, many times, I’m not (otherwise I wouldn’t need to hear the warning). I don’t like to be told I’m not on the side of the poor. It grates on me. The Epistle Lesson from James 2 clearly points an accusing finger at me for the way I make distinctions among people. It doesn’t seem to exempt me (or you). Even Jesus seems to be having a bad day – O, he healed the woman’s daughter at the end of the first story, but not before he called her a dog. And he wouldn’t even heal the hearing and speech challenged man in public, but took him aside privately. Was he ashamed of healing a Gentile? Was he reluctant? We don’t like to think that, do we? But who am I to point fingers, when I clearly have types of people I’d rather not meet in public, and it varies who they are. Maybe that’s true of you, too.
So how do such texts (and there are many of them in the Bible) help our learning today? As a preacher, I have taken it as my primary duty to be announcing good news rather than finger-pointing, and I’m afraid I’m too old to change now. Can we, in short, hear any of these three texts as good news?
For me, it’s a constant temptation to exercise my freedom as a Baptist and simply ignore these passages, or not read them, or, even if I don’t do that, to try to smooth them out by using the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to explain them away. “If you only know about this or that in the background, you’d realize that these texts weren’t meant to be so angular, disruptive, and accusatory.
For example, it is true that the Book of Proverbs was probably written by and for Israel’s elite not the common folk. So, we can decide to understand these texts simply as a kind of politically progressive concern for those “unfortunates” by their “betters.” The text is really more about consciousness-raising than actually about doing anything for the poor. The poor are always with us. The poor would not have time to read or study proverbs generally, much less the Book of Proverbs. They didn’t know it existed! There was no such thing as “Sunday School” for the poor. So the text is really not for us at all because we’re not rich.
Or, as we read the passage in James, we could remember that the social context of the vast majority in the early church was poverty. The wealthy were, by and large, the enemy. So really, James is only giving a generic or hypothetical example, because there weren’t really any rich people at church. The text isn’t really so harsh or angular, then, is it?
Or even take Jesus’ seemingly harsh words to this Gentile woman (notice I used the weasel-word “seemingly”); if we understand that many early churches were largely Jewish in their makeup, there would not really be much discomfort when Jesus called the woman and her daughter (and all non-Jews) “dogs.” All Jews did. One commentator went so far as to suggest that, to a Jew like Jesus, calling someone a dog was actually a term of endearment, like “nice puppy, doggie dearest.” We’ve just misunderstood him in our culture. No need to be upset with Jesus. It’s all an appearance. Jesus is just fine after all. My father used to call such things tommyrot.
So, if we just talk long enough, with enough of a veneer of learning, we can see that the Bible really isn’t offensive at all. It’s nice and safe, and moderate. It’s kind of like lukewarm, unsalted Cream of Wheat. Now, I am one who works hard at the cultural differences between the world of the Bible and today, but, if all this work is simply in the interest of getting the Bible off the hook, it’s just a little dishonest, and is to be avoided if we can. Is it possible that, from time to time, we need to be prodded by an angular text that pokes us hard? Is it not, sometimes a good thing to find oneself in opposition to a text? Is it not possible that it’s positive to learn that I (or we) have trouble with particular biblical texts because they tell unpleasant truths about me (or us) that I (or we) need to think about ? I urge students to read the Bible with the bad guys.
Today’s texts all boil down to one central statement: God’s community is one in which “status” plays no role. Abraham and Sarah we immigrants from the sticks, with no status. God’s people in Egypt were slaves that were emancipated. What kind of status can there we among slaves and immigrants? Although God loves each of us as individuals, none are better, worse, higher, lower, than the other. That’s the wrong language. As God looks at the community of Jesus, including this local expression of it, distinctions of status really don’t exist. They are illusions of our arrogance. We’re all human beings with differing abilities and gifts for working on life.
But here’s also the real problem; we don’t do very well in looking on one another with God’s eyes. It looks like there are distinctions in the Bible. There’s rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, privileged and unprivileged. We’ve, of course, enriched the list: Christian and non-Christian, Protestant and Catholic, Conservative and Liberal, Men and Women, Republicans and Democrats, and others we’re too polite or afraid to bring up. We place these distinctions on our own good-bad, right-wrong scale, and our texts say that we’re all the product of making distinctions. Do our communities of faith not exist by making them? Can we get by that and look at things with God’s eyes?
Remember what the woman Jesus called a dog said: “OK, but even us dogs get the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. Even dogs deserve to be fed.” Who are the dogs in our environment that are longing for food? And what about that piercing word from James: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”? It’s obvious that the writer has already concluded that these folks really did make distinctions among themselves. And the question he bluntly raises is, can these exist in the community of Jesus? Is James really talking to me? It easy to see why we want to make these passages either go away or, at least, be tamer and more polite.
All three of these texts show the reality that, even among God’s people, the tendency to play favourites has existed and is difficult to transcend. Proverbs says it’s hard for the rich, James says it’s hard for the poor, and Mark says that it was even hard for Jesus. All three texts, however, insist that, even though it’s a hard problem to transcend or solve, the community of faith is impoverished and weakened by these distinctions, and they’re not OK. Proverbs assures us that God takes care of the poor, and expects the people of God to do so. James says that there must be no favouritism on economic lines, no matter what our status is in the world’s eyes. The Gospel of Mark says clearly that avoiding distinctions was event difficult for Jesus, but, even, through struggle, he took a step through the door.
And this brings us to where I find some good news from these angular lessons. I find it, first, in the second part of the James reading. He says it’s wonderful to believe (or trust) things, but our beliefs are useless if they don’t shape our actions. Belief without action is impotent. It will not have a next generation. He gives an example of such impotent belief by remarking that if we see somebody who needs food and clothes and simply say, “Blessings be on you!” Or, even, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” but does nothing practical to help, “What good is that?” But it’s good news if we can let our beliefs shape our actions.
I also find good news in the actions of Jesus in the Gospel story. Last week’s Gospel saw Jesus confronting the religious establishment that thought that the first duty of truly religious persons was to keep their own identity distinct and pure. Jesus said it was more important to care for people within the culture than to judge them. Today, Jesus goes outside the box and heals two outsiders the purity-promoters wouldn’t touch. Everything Jesus had learned in “church “ (so to speak) said both were untouchable and unclean. The good news is that, as difficult as it was, Jesus went to them and healed them. Mark told the story to let his congregation know that it was still difficult to accept others, it’s so hard Jesus found it tough, and started not to do it, but that he fought through the difficulty of his own faith-tradition to a better way, to see as God sees.
It will always be tempting and safe to make distinctions and keep some people out, and, perhaps, from time to time, we will need to be prodded into better action by angular texts that insist it is a basic value, conviction, and commitment of Jesus’ community that none of us is superior to others. We’re all in this together. This is a community, not where some are winners and losers, some are holy, some or not. This is a community where we’re all in this together. As the ground is level at the manger, at the Lord’s table, and at the foot of the cross, so it’s intended to be among us. We are not separate, one from another, but members, one of another. Let us embrace the reality.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.