September 9, 2018

On Faith and Favouritism

Passage: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-10, 14-17, Mark 7:24-37
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In 1992 Paul Molitor was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays and helped the Jays win their second World Series in 1993; Molitor was named the Most Valuable Player in that 1993 World Series and went on to membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Today Molitor manages the Minnesota Twins Major League Baseball Team.

1. Paul Molitor is a Christian and when he came to Toronto he searched out a church to make his spiritual home and he landed in the church Valerie and I were attending at that time. As you could imagine, because of his celebrity status, he first connected with the pastor of the church to make arrangements to come. I recall the minister informing us that Paul Molitor would be worshipping among us as his schedule permitted and we were to let him worship among us. It was important to keep in mind that we came to church to worship our Lord and not to get autographs. The congregation did their best to both welcome him and his family and not to swarm the pew where he sat. We did our best not to crane our necks to see if he was in church; did our best to refrain from giving baseball advice and instead rejoice with him in our common Lord and Saviour.

The Apostle James anticipated just such a moment when he wrote (and I paraphrase slightly), “For if a person of celebrity status with amazing baseball skills comes into your assembly, and if a person who doesn’t know which way to hold a baseball bat comes in, and if you take notice of the celebrity and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who lacks celebrity you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

You can understand that this it is not easy to do—to check our favouritisms at the door, or better jettison them from our hearts. And the solution isn’t to treat the celebrity or rich person as an outcast, is it? In 1993 with the Blue Jays on top of the baseball world and his picture everywhere you couldn’t pretend you didn’t know who Paul Molitor was. So if I came into church one Sunday and Paul Molitor had his family had “inadvertently” occupied “my pew” would I go sit somewhere else—and what if someone else had, how would I respond? As I probe my own heart on this matter perhaps like me you know that reigning in acts of favouritism needs constant vigilance.

So tell me, when this Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus refers to helping her as “taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs” does Jesus have a favouritism problem? “Dogs” was a common metaphor that Jews used to refer to Gentiles. Does it not make you cringe just a little to hear Jesus use it in this way? It seems so out of character.

2. I invite you to turn your attention with me to this story of Jesus and this Syrophoenician woman, The healing of her daughter along with the next healing story of a deaf man with a speech impediment are the kinds of things happening in Jesus’ ministry such that people say “he has done everything well.” (Mark 7:37)

At the outset of probing this story reflect with me on how those who knew Jesus regarded Jesus’ attitude towards favouritism. The Apostle James is Jesus’ brother—they were raised together in the same household, schooled in faith by the same mother. James wrote, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Clearly James’ rhetorical question implies a negative answer. His conviction is that to engage in such acts of favouritism is to belie the claim that one believes in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” Put another way, James is convinced that to believe in Jesus will lead a believer to reject such acts of favouritism. In other words, James sees no such favouritism in our Lord.

Also consider the Apostle Mark and the audience he has in mind as he writes his gospel. Mark composes his gospel with a largely Gentile church in mind; he writes to encourage the church in Rome who have endured and are enduring the depravations of persecution launched by Roman Emperor Nero. Mark includes this story and does not believe that in any way it undermines his purpose of encouraging this largely Gentile church to continue to cling to Jesus Christ in faith. One would tend to think that if Mark thought Jesus to be showing some untoward favouritism against Gentiles that he would have avoided including this story.

The story begins with Jesus seeking some anonymity. He went away, we are told, to the region of Tyre. Away from the Jewish towns of Galilee to the adjoining Gentile region of Tyre. In this region of Tyre Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” In another similar incident in Mark’s gospel where Jesus entered a house endeavouring to go unnoticed the reason he does so was to teach his disciples. (Mark 9:30-31) But such anonymity is impossible for Jesus. At this point in his ministry he is recognized wherever he goes. People seek him out. And this is one of the points about Jesus Mark wants to make; he underlines how people—even Gentile people—are attracted to him.

Admittedly the interchange between Jesus and this woman sounds odd to us. Given our era and its sensitivities around politically correct speech we balk at their conversation. I note with you that it is likely that Jesus has drawn aside to teach his disciples and his response shows that he does not want to be drawn away from the time he knows the important task of teaching takes. Further the woman has heard this “dog” talk all before. She is fully aware of how her Gentile status is regarded by Jewish people. But she has heard of Jesus this travelling rabbi who heals people and casts out demons and she is desperate to get help for her daughter. Driven by her determination to get help for her daughter, my guess is that she has rehearsed some aspects of her answer long before she meets Jesus. “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In her response she is saying to Jesus, “I believe you can help me.”

The story highlights the woman’s faith in Jesus and Mark wants to say to the beleaguered Christians in Rome that your faith in Jesus is well placed. After she gave her determined answer Jesus said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” I believe that in this unusual conversation Jesus was probing her persistence and her confidence in him. And she won’t let go or be deflected. Does our Lord probe our persistence and confidence in him? I think so. There are times in our walk of faith having gone through some difficulty we find our faith solidified in some respects.

And, of course, Mark’s story also highlights the point that Jesus gave the woman everything she asked for. Jesus is in no way reluctant to help her because she was a Gentile. There is none of this sort of favouritism in Jesus, unless you want to say it is a favouritism for the hurting. Taken together, the story of the miracle of this woman’s daughter healed and the man whose hearing and speech was restored caused the grand pronouncement about Jesus “He has done everything well!” Here in the story of these two we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ healing and restorative work; a window into that bright new future and toward a time when not just one woman’s daughter and one man’s sad condition would be healed but when all things would be made new. I think that is what Mark wants us to see and understand about Jesus.

3. As the Apostle James makes clear faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ is incompatible with the sort of favouritism typified by regard for the wealthy because they are wealthy. The example of favouritism that James describes typifies that way in which the world classifies people. In our world the wealthy, the celebrity, the successful, these are the people held in high regard. To be sure, the gospel doesn’t teach us to disdain these people at the same time neither are we to embrace the world’s ideologies in the church. In so far as we are able, we are to live out of our Lord’s regard for people.

In Mark’s gospel just before he recounts the story of this Syrophoenician woman he shares our Lord’s saying about what it is that defiles a person. The context of this saying is Jesus responding to all the rules regarding ritual purification taught in the tradition of the Jewish elders. Jesus broke a number of these rules simply by talking with a Gentile woman. Jesus said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” and then after naming a litany of such evil intention like “avarice, deceit, slander,” Jesus concluded, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

The gospel declaration is that people, all people no matter how society ranks them, are sinners in need of a saviour. There is common to us all that inner corruption of heart that we cannot correct. This is hard to hear but our Lord discloses it to us as he comes among us as the cure for this disease. God so loves this world of people gone astray from him that he rescues us himself. The church’s announcing of the gospel is always beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. The rank in the kingdom of God is one; sinners saved by God’s grace.

I also want to point out that not all favouritism is bad. It is good to favour our Lord Jesus Christ when it comes to trusting a saviour and knowing how we ought to conduct life. It is good to favour your spouse, for example. And there is a kind of favouritism that God shows, a preference that he declares. It is a preference for the poor and hurting. We hear this hinted at in the proverb we read today; “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” (Proverbs 22:22-23) Relieving the suffering of another is a favouritism we ought to live.

One church endeavouring to follow our Lord’s lead posted this caption on their church sign: “We love hurting people.” (Show picture) That can be read a couple ways—is the word “hurting” an adjective or a verb. This simply illustrates to be careful with signs. We will take it that it was the church declaring their desire to love people in need.

One of the joys of serving Central United is your willingness to embrace people who come among us. It is something that always need vigilance—to connect with the newcomer among us—but the noise at our passing of the peace in worship speaks volumes. We also demonstrate this welcome by sharing our worship facility with a Mandarin speaking congregation.

One of our challenges is reaching and retaining young families. Your ministry team has been thinking about this challenge and we believe that it would be good to take this in our prayers in a concentrated way this fall. In our activities this fall to set aside time to pray. We want to pray for the Lord to show us and lead us. My conviction is that our Lord is ever pursuing people calling them to faith in him. We want to pray and be ready to welcome those whom our Lord would bring among us. And your ready welcome is an important piece of what our Lord uses to help people know him.

We will let the Apostle James have the last word in this sermon; “You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”