Scripture for Sunday: Proverbs 22; Psalm 125; James 2:1–10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (James 2:15-16)
Seeking a little peace and quiet, Jesus went away into Gentile country – not that it did much good. His reputation preceded him even there, and a Syrophoenician woman (a Gentile) sought him to heal her daughter.
On the face of it, this incident, in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, does not present Jesus well: in effect, he calls the woman a dog – not flattering in any language. Why? Because that was the attitude of Israel towards Gentiles. Yet Jesus did what few of us actually manage to do: he looked at the person, saw faith, and rose above the prejudice and bias of his people.
This woman placed herself at risk of rejection and ridicule for her child. What will we do for our children? Would we risk more than rejection and ridicule to get into a boat to try to escape violence and life in a refugee camp? Apparently quite a lot will. So many, that we have begun to experience a sort of overload of images of suffering – until we see the body of a little boy, washed ashore in Turkey.
Should the picture of Alan Kurdi have been broadcast? We need to know that these things happen. In an age of easy communication, it is very difficult for us to distance ourselves completely from responsibility for fellow human beings, especially children. Yet they suffer, and sometimes it is one picture – often of a child – that jars us out of indifference. Think of the Vietnamese girl, or the starving children of Biafra, for example.
Who are our children? Who are not our children?
In the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are told what to do if a murdered person is found outside a town. The people of the nearest town are told to take responsibility for the dead person, to make a sacrifice, and to declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O God, your people Israel … do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they can be absolved of blood guilt. The interesting thing about this is that there is blood on their hands until they can honestly profess, before God, who knows all, that they are innocent.
I challenge anyone who has seen the picture of Alan Kurdi to stand before God, to look into their own heart, and say with all honesty that they feel no responsibility for the death of the child.
In 1979, Michael Ingham, who eventually became a bishop in Canada, wrote an article in the style of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, parodying attitudes towards Vietnamese boat people. He drew on, and caricatured, the litany of excuses rolled out by many politicians and newspapers: it’s not a public responsibility; those people probably deserve it; it’s not in our interest to get involved; it’s not our problem – why don’t they just go back? – and so on. Depressingly, we don’t seem to have changed much in 36 years.
What did Jesus say? He certainly didn’t say anything to justify rejecting refugees. He reinforced the Hebrew Scriptures’ insistence on taking care of the needy, and welcoming the stranger. What Jesus did do was to take responsibility for healing someone whom he could have rejected. And said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
What will we do for our children? What sacrifices will we make? A woman’s voice calls out across the ages: “Even the dogs get crumbs.”