Tag Archives: Proper 15a

Even failure can be useful.

What use is failure? It seems that God can recycle most things. We know that we learn through our mistakes (if we deal with them properly). We know that our own need of forgiveness may help us learn to forgive others. And in Romans 11, we get a glimpse of God’s purposes as Israel seemed to have rejected its promised Messiah. (Our Sunday reading is Romans 11:1-2a & 29-32, but you may want to read more).

Paul has been struggling with this question in chapters 9, 10, and 11 of the letter. It causes him considerable and continuing pain, more so as his mission to non-Jews is seen by some as betrayal. Yet here he makes sense of his experience, of offering the gospel to Jews first in any place, but then to any who would listen if the Jewish community would not. He explains (in the body of the chapter, of which we read two short extracts from beginning and end) that the blindness of Israel has made an opportunity for the Gentiles.

However, it may be that some non-Jewish believers in Rome have seen that as a cause for boasting – not a good thing. Paul uses his example of the olive tree. If the cultivated olive tree is failing to produce, it may be pruned and a graft of wild olive introduced to re-invigorate it. (Apparently a known technique).

Of course, the “roots” of the tree are Jewish – the promises of God recorded in the Old Testament. If the “wild” olive (Gentiles) benefit, well and good, but they should be aware what they are benefitting from – and of the ease with which they could be removed!

Paul tells us that the success of the Gentile mission is part of God’s purpose, and will in God’s time provoke faith among Jewish people. We can wonder at this, and perhaps remember those who take faith in Jesus to share with Jewish people, greatly hindered by a history of injustice and prejudice. Perhaps we also need to give thanks for God’s mercy, which has included us!

Is there more? It may be fanciful, but perhaps we should look at the failing churches of the western world, and wonder if the livlier faith found in some parts of the developing world has something to teach us. Are we in danger of complacency? Are we more proud of our history than what we are doing now with our resources, education and freedoms? Do we need a pandemic to remind us that life is more than social media and materialism?

Paul grieved for his own people, and served God where he was sent. Perhaps in the west, Christians should have a greater grief for their own culture, while being ready to share – and receive – from others?

Racist?

Was Jesus a racist?  It might not be question you would ask, but imagine a journalist today picking up Matthew 15:21-28 as a news item!  Jesus has come out of Jewish territory – perhaps deliberately for a bit of peace – and seems to ignore a woman asking for help. Worse, she is described as “Canaanite” – the name of the corrupt pagan tribe the Israelites had displaced during the conquest of the Promised Land.

This is not casual prejudice.  Jesus had sent out his 12 disciples (Matthew 10:5,6) “not .. to any Gentile territory or any Samaritan towns . . to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” The first call was to the people God had chosen for a special purpose – not all peoples were equal!  There was a reason, of course.  It was not some “superiority” in this nation, but the fact that their history should have prepared them for Jesus and his mission.

It is clear Jesus was not hostile to foreigners –  in Matthew 8:5-13, we had read of the healing of the (Gentile) Centurion’s servant, and Jesus’ comment on his faith.  Here again, we have, after hesitation, and conversation, healing of a “foreigner”, and at a distance.  I suggest the problem is not in Jesus’ behaviour, but in our question. If we fail to think, we assume Jesus must match up to our standards. In fact, the reality is the other way, and we must understand and adapt to his.  It is from his teaching and example we get the value given to other humans, including those of different race, language and culture.  All are valued by God, and the Christian gospel, preached first to those prepared by their history, is open to all.

At the same time, different cultures, like individuals, are not the same. Israel was chosen by God for a special job, and the gospel had to be preached first to them. The centurion, and this Canaanite woman, anticipate a later stage when all may come by faith to Christian faith – and there remains a distinction between those who do, and those who do not. Christian, and non-believer.

The fight against racism is a Christian one, reflecting the understanding that every human is made in the image of God, and is of value to him. None are to be dismissed or devalued.  But that does not mean that all cultures are of equal value – nor that ours is all good. There are parts of our culture that are thoroughly rotten. How do we judge them? Against common opinion? No. Against the standards of Jesus. If we lose the ability to tell the truth, that is bad. If we fail to care for the weak and helpless, that is bad – by gospel standards. In the same way, other cultures may need correction, not because we say so, or in comparison with “British” ways, but against the standard of Jesus.

Jesus wants to announce God’s Kingdom to his chosen people first – and that is right. If a centurion and a Canaanite woman are given faith to anticipate the situation after Easter, Matthew will record that to show his church how all are accepted by faith – but not to suggest that all people and all cultures, let alone all creeds, are equal.

I hope that you do stand against Racism, and make the effort to bridge the gap of language and culture to strangers. I also hope that you realise that cultures, and individual actions, are not all of equal value, and to be weighed not by the popular opinion of the moment, but by the teachings and actions of Jesus. Weigh actions by Jesus’ standard.