Playing Favorites

Grandmother Sanders had a thing about noses. When we would get together as a family, every now and then we would hear about Grandmother Sanders’ five requirements for a good mate: he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t smoke, he couldn’t have red hair; he had to have a sense of humor, and he had to have a beautiful nose. Not only were these five rules that she applied to her own choice of a husband, but these were guidelines to which she submitted every possible mate that came to her brood. The prohibition on drinking and smoking and the need for a sense of humor were all-important aspects of character. The red hair and the nose, those she added because she didn’t want any of her descendents to worry about such unpleasant features. So much for planning, right?

And somehow, it was the nose that always took precedence. She would check out boyfriends and girlfriends. If we talked about someone we were dating, she was always sure to ask: “Does she have a good nose?” And the snout requirement was all the more baffling because one look around the room at a family gathering and those who had passed the test – namely, my grandfather and my two uncles – they had huge noses; W.C. Fields noses; the kind that entered the room ten minutes before they did. And yet, she insisted, you’ve got to have a beautiful nose to pass the muster.

We’ve all got our rules, don’t we, for who’s in and who’s out? We might make exceptions, but we all like to play favorites. We know that we do. It could be a nose, or it could be a person’s nationality, things that, when we take a good look at them, matter not at all. But whatever it is, each one of us has that temptation to categorize people along any number of lines – political affiliation, physical appearance, family background, social standing – and then judge them as a result.

When we look at our two lessons today, we see a surface-level lesson about the futility of stereotypes and prejudices. Jesus is confronted by the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile. At the end of their conversation, he heals her daughter. The lesson seems simple: don’t discriminate. Or James, cajoling the audience to whom he speaks for how they treat rich and poor people differently; again, the point seems clear: don’t be partial; be fair.

However, there is always more than initially meets the eye in Scripture. The gospel story follows up on Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees over the washing of hands and pots and pans. Jesus takes a familiar retreat into Tyre, Gentile territory to the north of the Galilee. And as usually happens when Jesus tries to get away, his fame precedes him; it’s not long before this woman is coming to the house where he is staying, asking for healing.

What follows is one of the most interesting exchanges of the gospels. As Jesus confronts this woman, he does so with nothing short of contempt. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, my healing is for the sake of the Jews, not Gentile scum like yourself. The words bite. The woman, faced with this insult, has this tinge of playfulness and humor. She takes Jesus’ words and uses them to her own advantage. “I’m a dog? That’s fine. But don’t the dogs get the table scraps?” Jesus commends her. The woman bests the Messiah in debate. Her daughter is healed. Apparently, even the crumbs of divine sustenance are enough.

What happened in this story? Was this Jesus at his most human, falling prey to the prejudices of the day, needing a strong-willed woman to stand up to him and change his mind? Or was this our Lord at his most divine, testing the woman’s faith and mettle, knowing how she would respond, and teaching his disciples as a result? The truth is probably more complex than that. Christ’s humanity and divinity are always at work together in ways that we cannot predict or control. We may never know they mind of Christ in this exchange. But through it, we see Christ teaching us something about the ways of the world and the ways of God.

According to tradition of the day, Jesus is right to despise the woman. She is a Greek, and so she does not speak the Aramaic that is Jesus’ mother tongue. She is a Syrophoenician, from Lebanon, and therefore a non-Jewish Gentile. She is a Canaanite, as Matthew’s version of the story tells us, and so she does not worship the God of the Israelites. Linguistically, nationally, and religiously, she is beneath Jesus; he rightly calls her a Greek Gentile pagan dog.

What we learn, though, is that the way the world works and what God desires are not always the same. The woman is not sent away. The levels of separation from Jesus and his status are not maintained. The woman’s daughter is healed. It is a story that breaks stereotypes and prejudices; it casts expectations aside. But when we put it in the context of the bigger picture, we see that there is more at stake than Jesus being nice to someone who is different. Something profound and earth-shattering is taking place. Jesus is already breaking with the prevailing religious wisdom of the day, performing healings on the Sabbath and having his disciples eat with unclean hands. His next journey is to the Decapolis, a largely Gentile region, where he does further healing and teaching. And after his resurrection and ascension, Christ appears to Paul, sending him as an apostle to the Gentiles. The more we learn about the good news of the gospel, it becomes clear that there is no playing favorites in the fields of the Lord. Christ’s message of hope and healing is for all.

Similarly, the lesson we read from James takes the simple message of “don’t discriminate to a much deeper level.” Some of James’ zeal comes through as he speaks about the treatment of the rich man and the poor man. As we learned last week, the church in Jerusalem where James served was poor. And in an early Christian community throughout the region that was marked by its poverty, James’ church was the poorest of the poor. They know what it means to be downtrodden and cast aside. Even so, they have been welcoming people to their congregation and separating them out using the same unjust rules of the world which step on them the rest of the week: the rich man gets the best seat in the house; the poor man is trampled underfoot.

Partiality, James says quite bluntly, is sin. We cannot play favorites. We cannot buy into this divisive economy of the world and consider ourselves among the righteous. Instead, we must be about the business of God’s desires. We must demonstrate in our lives the mercy and justice of God’s economy.

For James, this lesson about doing showing fairness isn’t merely about doing the right thing. It isn’t simply another requirement to tack onto the others so that we know what we need to do to get past the pearly gates. For James, the whole lesson turns on this one phrase: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Not incomplete, or unhelpful, or a bit weak; it’s dead. It does not breathe; it has no Spirit. It will not move.

Faith and works are intimately connected. In other words, if we say we believe something, we must act accordingly. If we believe that God is merciful, then we must show mercy. If we believe in the possibility of reconciliation, we must seek that reconciliation whenever possible.

And, at the same time, what we do shows what we believe. They way we act says something very revealing about our faith. If we peel back the layers of this moral lesson about favoritism and partiality, we begin to see something about the nature of God’s very self, that divine desire for this created world. When we play favorites, we are denying something about God that is essential to God’s character. You have heard my say it before, and you will likely hear me say it again: in Genesis, God creates all of humanity in God’s image. No one is excluded from this creation: not speakers of Greek or other low languages, not Syrophoenicians or those from lesser nations, not Canaanites or those who worship differently or not at all. And in John, Christ reminds us that God so loved the world for the sake of our eternal life. No one is beyond this love: not the humorless, the redheaded, or the ugly-nosed.

We are called to this act of impartiality, this task of fairness that casts aside favoritism and prejudice, because it is the essence of God’s character to love all. There is accountability at work in God’s love as well, for God’s mercy and God’s judgment are intertwined. But that is a sermon for another today.

Brothers and Sisters, I want to issue an invitation to each one of us here today. For all of last week, we have been reminded that tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001. We are in a world that is distressingly divided. Stark lines are being drawn all over the world between who’s in and who’s out. There is alarming separation between people and nations, between generations and classes. Most of all, there is a disconnect between faith and action; between what we say we believe and how we live out that belief in a difficult world. And in a world such as this, we are called to be the church, the place where we live out that faith in our creating, redeeming, sustaining God.

As we close this time of reflection today, I invite us to pray together, to open up those places in our own lives, in the lives of our families, our church, our community, our nation, our world, where we need to be transformed into the shape of God’s desires.

Lord Jesus, forgive us our sins. In our gratitude for all that you have given us, we open to you those dark places which so desperately need your healing light, where we hold prejudices, play favorites, and seek to divide. We begin with ourselves... Our families... Our church... Our community... Our nation... Our world... Amen.

sermonsMarthame Sanders