Scripture for this Sunday: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1-11; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
There’s been a fuss this week about whether Moslem women should be allowed to wear ‘burkinis’ on French beaches. What is the problem: explosives disguised as fat rolls? It seems rather nonsensical. No one thought of restricting nuns wearing habits during the IRA crisis of the 1970s/1980s. A French court seems to have poured some cold water of common sense on the inflammatory rhetoric and action.
Setting aside whether vilifying one group adds to our security or not, there is a principle to be found within this: it is the temptation to feel superiority, accompanied by a divisive spirit of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ But this is a murky area. We proclaim superiority for our own specific area of faith at our peril. We are privileged to be included in the Christian community of faith. It carries certain responsibilities with it; and there is a design in God’s purpose for us that we spend a lifetime unveiling (and which, God, no doubt, has to keep rewriting to accommodate our failings and mistakes); but we cannot claim exclusivity. For example, Jesus alluded to his other sheep, which for his Jewish hearers could have meant Gentiles, or for us, people of other faiths.
Jesus observed the behaviour of his fellow diners at a meal and offered advice that applies then and now, to individuals and to communities. His contemporaries were offered some valuable guidance in humility. So are we.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ words to individuals often pertain to Israel as a whole, which needed to reflect upon its place in the world. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that being a light to lighten the nations meant showing by example what it meant to be God’s people: loving God, and loving our neighbours as ourselves – not in pride, but in humility.
And his words stretch out across the ages to the people of the new Israel, those who strive to carry his teaching forward into life, the people who form the body of Christ in the world today. The recommendation to take the lowest place at the table can be taken by us as individuals, but it’s also about how we position ourselves as a community of faith, as a church.
We are called to follow Jesus, servant leader, in humility. This confronts what may be the greatest sin: that of pride, which is really about the immodest ambition of putting ourselves in the place of God. Being “made in the image of God” is something that no one human being can claim alone (except for one – but the world crucified him); it is something that describes humanity as a whole. God has created this delightfully diverse landscape of beings who, at their best, draw together to make a composite re-creation of that image. But we are not very good at drawing together, and so the image tends to be rather frayed at the edges, and patchy in places, and blurry and distorted in others.
Where do we take this in trying to live faithfully as followers of the one who gave his life to try to demonstrate how to discern and pursue the kingdom of God? The best advice comes from the prophet Micah: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
What moslem women wear on French beaches seems not to be terribly important in that regard. Let’s not allow ourselves to be similarly distracted.