Imam Hodja was invited to a banquet. Not wanting to be pretentious, he wore his everyday clothes. When he got there everyone ignored him, including the host. So he crept back home and put on his fanciest coat, and then returned to the banquet. Now he was greeted enthusiastically by everyone and invited to sit down and eat and drink. When the soup was served to him he dunked the sleeve of his coat in the bowl and said, “Eat, my coat, eat!” The startled host asked Hodja to explain his strange behaviour. “When I arrived here wearing my ordinary clothes,” explained Hodja, “no one offered me anything to eat or drink. But when I returned wearing this fine coat, I was immediately offered the best of everything, so I can only assume that it was the coat and not myself who was invited to your banquet.”
A week’s a long time in politics and often in our everyday lives too. This week we’ve heard desperately sad stories and seen harrowing images from Afghanistan, New Orleans, Auckland, to name but three. Thousands of ordinary people – people just like you and me – whose lives have been turned upside down by violence, war or natural disaster. Their ordinary relatively comfortable lives torn apart. Just hard working people trying to bring up their families, look after their elderly relatives and make an honest living.
In our Epistle this morning, James warns his readers against favouritism. Against sooking up to the rich and powerful whilst being dismissive of the poor and humble. We’re challenged to join God on the margins, displaying our commitment by our actions.
The impulse to show generous hospitality to those who need it the least and can repay it goes against the values of God’s kingdom. True faith leads to a difference in lifestyle and a change in our relationship with our sisters and brothers. Those who are needy and broken show us the good news of the kingdom.
James’s letter is a direct challenge to us in a world of climate injustice. It’s not enough to send ‘thoughts and prayers’ to those impacted by floods, droughts and other extreme weather events.
“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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.“James 2:15-17
In a world of climate injustice, where careless use of fossil fuels and overconsumption leads to insecurity, disaster, and suffering primarily for the world’s poor and marginalised, we can no longer simply send our ‘thoughts and prayers’ to those who are victims of the result. We must do something, take action. Action starts by recognising the part that each of us plays in what is happening and through repentance making changes in the way we live our lives accordingly.
Politicians and businesses will only take action if we ‘persuade’ them to do so through how we vote and through how we spend our money. When doing those things, we need to hear the cry of the poor, the hungry and the exploited.
For those of us who live relatively comfortable lives, we can no longer live as if we are ignorant of the links between the comforts we enjoy in the developed world – often built on exploitative and unsustainable economic practices – and the suffering of those in the less developed world.
The Syrophoenician woman and her daughter are both at the margins of society: firstly, they are women and secondly, they are gentiles, and as such, considered unclean. Thirdly the daughter has demons which makes her doubly unclean.
Regardless of these barriers, the woman risks rejection and comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. The deaf-mute man is also a gentile. Jesus spits on his fingers and touches the man’s tongue at a time when saliva was considered unclean. But as with other healing miracles, the contagion is reversed, and the man is healed. These two healing stories show how Jesus heard the voices of the marginalised.
Jesus allows himself and his ministry to be transformed by their pleas. It is however hard to understand why he uses such a derogatory word, but in referring to the woman as the ‘dog’ he’s reflecting the views of his society and social group and is challenged by her reply. In the healing of the deaf mute – a man whose voice cannot be heard, Jesus extends the realm of God to the least noticed, those pushed to the periphery by their condition. This extension of God’s kingdom to those on the margins serves as a challenging model for the church today.
As the Jesuit Catholic priest and theologian Jon Sobrino has suggested:
“from the world of the poor and the victims can come salvation for a gravely ill civilization”.Jon Sobrino
Do we too easily assume that salvation comes when we, the church, draw people from the periphery into our midst? Do we similarly assume that those on the margins just need to be a bit more like us in order to be saved? But maybe a lesson of today’s readings is that it might be the other way around!
For all the talk, we still participate day by day in the system that continues to push the poor, the earth and its creatures to the margins. We participate in systems that generate scarcities, dehumanize people, and destroy the environment.
Is Jesus inviting us to follow him to the margins? Perhaps he is challenging us to allow ourselves to be challenged and transformed, as he was by the Syrophoenician woman. Is he inviting us to participate in the work of healing, not from our comfortable position at the centre, but by going out to the margins?
Many churches and individuals are involved in relief efforts, when they hear about people affected by hurricanes, floods or drought made worse by climate change. In the face of media photos and news footage we give, we donate, and we pray. But perhaps we need to go further and support projects helping people to adapt to climate change. But we also need to challenge the structural injustices and root causes of climate change and environmental degradation.
We need to re-activate the prophetic voice of the church. And we must be willing to be converted ourselves, by the voices of the marginalised. It’s ourselves and not our status and what we have that’s invited to the banquet of God’s Kingdom. As Mahatma Gandhi said:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”Mahatma Gandhi