Scripture for this Sunday: Proverbs 22.1–2, 8, 9, 22, 23; Psalm 125; James 2.1–10, 14–17; Mark 7.24–37
When I was studying to become a priest, I watched the rector of the church where I was based as he conducted several weddings. He did an interesting thing with the father of the bride, who processed to end up between the bride and groom until all of the consent had been established for the marriage of the couple – then the father was dismissed, hopefully with a kiss from his daughter. During the rehearsals there was a little banter with those present to explain that this had its origins in tribal ceremonies where the father represented the last impediment for the marriage.
It was a good teaching moment, because it linked Christian practice to historical ritual and reminded families that tribalism was probably not dead, just manifest in different ways. If we don’t name such things and confront them, then we simply live in denial and fail to deal with their consequences.
Tribalism often rises to the surface in the Bible: in the Hebrew Scriptures it is a constant presence; in the New Testament, it can lurk beneath the surface – but sometimes it rears its head.
Jesus, trying to find some peace and quiet, finds himself in Tyre when a Syrophoenician woman persists in begging for healing for her sick daughter. Jesus’ response ought to make us uncomfortable (or we miss the point). He tells her to go away in language that basically refers to the woman and her child as dogs. Attempts to gloss over this or rationalise it are misguided. Jesus was affected by the tribalism of his own people and culture in his response. But that isn’t the point. The point is that he healed the woman’s daughter – and the next thing that happens in the gospel is that he goes to Decapolis, in Gentile territory, and heals a deaf man. Evidently he decided to take some of the children’s bread to the dogs!
Jesus’ ministry was to be taken to the people of Israel first; that was God’s promise. But it was not intended to stop there. Christ’s work of teaching and healing was intended to fulfil the prophetic call to be a light to lighten the gentiles. Tribalism was confronted and overcome.
What about our tribalism? It is never far from the root of our partisanship, our prejudice, our failure to listen to one another. James uses the word ‘favouritism’ to challenge the prejudices (rooted in tribalism) of his community. When do we show favouritism that betrays something deeper? When do we fail to recognise and appreciate the favouritism that God shows towards us, born of the prejudice of loving humanity?
Naming and confronting our tribal instincts and their affect is a way to diminish and redirect their damaging consequences. So, let’s listen to, and learn from, one another. And watch where the father of the bride stands at weddings!