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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A few weeks ago, I was on a flight from Melbourne to Canberra, and not long after takeoff, I noticed one of the airline hostesses blocking off the aisle between rows 2 and 3 of the plane, by pulling a sash across from one side to the other. She was obviously doing this to stop people from the ‘economy class’ section of the plane entering the ‘business class’ section. The only reason people would have been entering that section of the plane would have been to use the toilet, but that was being reserved for the use of business class passengers–mind you, there was only one person flying business class that morning!

This experience served to remind me that we live in a world full of division and boundaries between people. Divisions or boundaries, which are often based on wealth. It immediately made me think of a scene from the movie Titanic, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. In that scene, the Titanic has hit the iceberg, and water is flooding into the lower deck of the ship. This is the deck holding those people who had purchased Third Class tickets.

As the water is flooding into this section of the ship, these people are making their way to the stairwells of the lower deck, in order to move to the upper decks to escape the water. But when they reach the top of the stairwells, they find them closed off by metal gates that have been padlocked shut. Ship personnel are on the other side of the gates, and they are refusing to open the gates to let these people through. The reason why, is because the ship personnel are evacuating the First Class passengers, after which they will evacuate Second Class passengers, before finally letting those with a Third Class ticket through.

In this scenario, the value of a person’s life is measured by the amount of their wealth. The more wealth they have, the greater their value. The less wealth they have, the lesser their value. One group of people are shown favouritism, or special treatment, over another group of people, simply because they are richer than that other group of people. This is a very different attitude to the one expressed in our reading today from the Book of Proverbs.

In that reading, we are told that a person’s reputation is more valuable than wealth. The passage is not saying that wealth is necessarily bad, but what it is doing, is saying that a good reputation, having a good name, is worth more than silver and gold. It goes on to say that regardless of a person’s status in life, all people are equally God’s creation. The rich and poor are both are part of the order of God’s creation. People often forget this truth and make value judgments; but all people should be treated with respect. 

In fact, this passage warns people not to oppress the poor, because God avenges them. Because the poor are defenceless, they can be robbed easily; which not only makes the crime contemptible, but tempting as well. The type of oppression inferred in this passage may not be illegal, but it is certainly immoral (perhaps similar to modern business ethics–where certain business practices may be legal, but just because something is legal that doesn’t automatically make it moral or ethical). 

In the second reading for today, from the Letter of James, the author makes the point that the poor are chosen by God to be in rich in faith, and to inherit the kingdom of heaven. In biblical theology, God is seen as a God who chooses, and the reason he chooses to give special favour to the poor, is because he cares for their situation. In the Old Testament, poverty and piety are closely linked. This link forms the backdrop for Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and Jesus’ teaching is certainly in the mind of James in today’s passage. 

The poor are more likely to recognise their need for God. Their poverty (and God’s choice) has made them rich “in faith.” It is not that they have a greater quantity of faith but that, from the perspective of God’s view of things, they are indeed wealthy.

Furthermore, the poor are heirs of the kingdom of God. In the Greco-Roman world, the concept of inheritance was very important. Generally speaking, in the ancient Mediterranean world, an heir was someone with the authority to utilise or administer some possession or possessions. The Bible tells us that God gave the land as an inheritance to Israel. In the Book of Psalms, God himself is spoken of as a person’s inheritance, and He gives an inheritance that will last forever. 

In a number of the Letters written by Paul, believers in Christ are referred to as “heirs”, and here in James, the poor, who are defined as such by how little they own, are destined to inherit God’s kingdom. This then is a promise to those who love God. The situation of poverty itself is not what is affirmed here. Rather, James is reflecting on a poor person, part of the community of faith, and making the claim that this person shares the high privileges and status of the kingdom, which is a kingdom that puts down the proud and lifts up the needy. The kingdom of God is countercultural to the way the world operates.

We see further evidence of this in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. In this reading we hear two stories. In one, Jesus heals the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman, and in the other, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and also has a speech impediment.

In both stories, the characters that Jesus heals are Gentiles. To this point in Mark’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus has been directed only to the people of Israel. A fact that is reiterated by Jesus when, in response to the Syrophoenician woman’s plea to heal her daughter, Jesus says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The ‘children’ to be fed first are the people of Israel. The ‘children’s food’, refers to the power and healing of Jesus. 

But the woman says to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” By addressing Jesus as ‘Sir’, the woman is conceding that Jesus is right to point out that he has come to save and heal the people of Israel. But when she talks about the dogs eating the children’s crumbs, the woman is saying that surely it is not going to hurt if Jesus was to use a small amount of his power to heal her daughter. And so he does. 

That is the first instance, in Mark’s Gospel, of Jesus ministering to a Gentile. And of course, it is followed immediately by the second story from today’s passage, where Jesus heals the deaf man with a speech impediment, who is also a Gentile.

These stories seek to reinforce the notion that in the sight of God, there are no divisions or boundaries between people. Any such divisions or boundaries that exist, are the making of  human beings. In the eyes of God, all people are created equal, and they remain equal, regardless of how they might be judged by other people.

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