Homily for Proper 18/Trinity 14/Week 23/ Year B
Isaiah 35.4-7a; James 2.1-10, 14-17; Mark 7.24-end
St James’s encouragement to us this morning to favour the poor with our attention and to ignore the rich is somewhat counter-intuitive. In the society of his own community, in which there were no safety nets, it was both natural and necessary to cultivate the wealthy and powerful as potential patrons and defenders in a dangerous world. But the poor, he reminds us, have an even greater power as those whom God has “chosen to be heirs of the kingdom”: in staying close to them, we stay close to the guarantors and beneficiaries of the future we desire.
This instruction to feed the hungry and clothe the naked — in short, to ‘speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty’ constitutes a significant challenge to me as I make my own free choices in the living of my life. Whether I consider myself rich or poor compared with those around me, St James’s words, echoing a gospel in which God’s preferential option for the poor is made plain, require me to look again with greater scrutiny at the decisions I have made and habitually make, notably in the use of my time, energy and money. What are my priorities? Where do I face? Where am I going? What on earth do I think I’m doing?
We have the poor with us always, of course, as Jesus reminds us. But at this time, the condition of many thousands of refugees is urgently and starkly made known to us; and as winter draws on we will be reminded once again of the existing homeless who face the cold and loneliness of life on pavements and in shop doorways. And when I see such people on my screen or in my street, wherever they are from and whatever has brought them to this place, I am forced to recognise that each of them belongs just as surely as I belong: these are not dogs, but children. They are not unwelcome scavengers, but brothers and sisters of the same Father as my own, with the right to sit at the same table. It seems that even Jesus has to learn this. In his dealings with the Syrian woman in what is now the Lebanon, he is brought by her to overcome the prejudices and presuppositions of his own time and prevailing culture to recognise her as someone who needs no particular papers to validate her: Her place at the table needs no particular justification.
Such recognition requires real transformation, an opening and re-creation of heart and mind. It is this to which the use of spittle in the story of the healing of the deaf mute refers: just as God creates the first man from the dust and moisture of the Earth (Genesis 2.7), so too Jesus recreates those deprived of sight, hearing and speech, using dust and spittle here and in John 9.6. My calling to be recreated, and to learn afresh to see, hear, speak and act is one whose urgent and immediate Ephphatha I must hear this morning.
And you perhaps will want to do the same. In families, friendship groups, places of work and, yes, in churches and other places where people of faith gather together we will need to ask what fundamental changes we need to make to our lifestyle; we will need to be clear about those vital patterns of prayer, worship and our life together that form us as disciples of Christ and ministers of his gospel. We will need to begin to retrain our vision so that when we see strangers walking towards us, we do not respond with apathy or aggression, but with the recognition that here is a brother or a sister who needs me today. Indeed, it is only such recognition of our mutuality and shared humanity (what the South Africans call Ubuntu) that raises us from the level of the animals.
Such recalibration of our priorities and principles will not only be a blessing to the stranger in our midst, but will set us firmly with them on the highway of Isaiah’s vision, on which all travel joyfully towards home and freedom. This is the vision proclaimed by Jesus Messiah in his giving and receiving of fresh insight into today’s gospel; it is a vision that I pray for the grace to be made known in my own life, today, and in the days to come.