s053g11 Sunday 20 14/8/2011
"Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." Matthew 15.23
There seems to be a theme running through our readings for the recent weeks, the extent of the incarnation - just who is and who is not included, who is accepted and welcomed and who is not. We hear that the disciples still think that they have some influence over just who may and who may not approach Jesus. Clearly this woman is more than just persistent, she is demanding. She doesn't abide by the acceptable conventions of the day. Women didn't approach men in such a manner.
St Paul (if he was indeed the author of these words) reflected what was considered the appropriate demeanor for women: 'I desire, then, that .. the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.' (1 Timothy 2:8 - 15). St Paul even had an appropriate scriptural justification for such an attitude. This woman was having nothing of that.
And I begin to recall all the incidents where people had to break through barriers set up by others to get to Jesus. It was not just the disciples sending the parents with their children away. The crowds got in the way of Nicodemus' view as Jesus passed. The crowd again told the blind man to keep quiet. The synagogue leader wanted to tell the people to come to Jesus on days other than the Sabbath to be healed. Peter wanted to build the tabernacles on the mountain rather than return to the hurley-burley of real life, so that they could keep Jesus to themselves.
This incident tells us that Jesus was a person of his own time and culture. He was incarnated fully as a human being of his time. He had learned well the mores of his day reflected by the words in 1 Timothy above. He knew the acceptable conventions and the unacceptable conventions. He was not incarnated into our time and culture, for then he wouldn't have been fully incarnate into the culture of his day. This implies that we are meant to move on. As our culture has changed so we change. We are not meant to accept the customs of past times as biblically prescriptive. So the inherent subordination of women found in the bible is not appropriate now.
Some people need to go out of their way to be noticed. I once was walking down the main street of a town (across the 'ditch') I hadn't been to before. I had some time up my sleeve and thought I'd cruise the main street and look at what shops were there. Along the way a woman crossed in front of me. It was a bit hard to miss her for she was showing plenty of cleavage and the length of her skirt could be measured in centimetres - not that I noticed of course :)! Now I hasten to say that she was likely a very nice lady, and ladies are entitled to wear whatever they like, but her dress was 'suggestive'. I am not sure I was filled with lust, but you get the picture. Without Jesus' comment we perhaps would be unaware that perhaps this woman was similarly attired.
And despite being thus attired she approaches Jesus and his entourage and demands attention. And so often people on the fringes do feel that they have to demand attention, otherwise people will pass them by. I am reminded of the story in Luke, of Lazarus at the gate of the rich man and his five brothers. Lazarus was essentially invisible to everyone who passed by, including the occupants of the house. There was no point in sending Lazarus back to warn the brothers, for he would be as invisible as before. The five brothers would probably not have noticed his absence. Perhaps this woman dressed to make sure she was noticed. Recently we have witnessed the 'slutwalk' movement where women have demanded the right to be able to dress as they like and still feel safe. I suppose that people who have been marginalised for so long naturally desire to cease to be invisible. It is certainly hard for me, as a male, to understand this desire.
And it strikes me that Jesus has a conflict here. His mission is to get people to see beyond those who respond in return. If you love those who love you - what reward do you have? If you give only to your family and friends, do you do more than the gentile and the tax collector? This woman comes seeking healing for her daughter - and a healing of her daughter doesn't help her to see that the gift is meant for more than just herself and those she loves. Yet she claims a love, even if it is a secondary love. She turns Jesus' words back on himself. He must love beyond the boundaries of race, gender and respectability.
I recall hearing an eulogy given by the brother of a man who attended an Anglican Church school and he said that the culture of the school was really institutionalised bullying sanctified by the excuse: 'well that is how it always has been'!
And so we can take it from this encounter that sometimes we don't have to abide by the conventions of our day. We too may well have to challenge unjust structures, and sometimes those unjust structures are perpetuated by what seems to be 'respectability'.
And the other message I want to say is that people demand to be allowed to be different. People want their individuality to be recognised and valued. The Anglican Church, of which I have been a part for the greater part of my life, has insisted that only appropriately qualified persons are to speak in church. Others have to listen - they are to be seen and not heard - like good children. And we have institutionalised this desirable attitude, singing: 'Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he'. (Once in royal David's city A&MR 423)' and: 'little Lord Jesus no crying he makes' (Away in a manger TIS 318). Actually this is abusive and no doubt inspires the demand to be noticed, to be accepted as people are.
Of course the question of who is included and who is excluded from the kingdom is an ever present question. It is a constant theme in the gospel stories and it flows over in the early church. Why then should we be surprised when we find the question still demands our answer today? People continue to demand our acceptance and welcome. They demand to be allowed to make their own unique contribution, not just imitate hand-me-down forms of devotion.
People demand to be noticed, included and accepted, but the problem is that the Church is known for the boundaries she has erected, and they are most frequently boundaries of respectability. For all we might try to be welcoming, often parishes are really only interested in people as they contribute to the perpetuating of the ministries of the past and present generations, and this is not noticing, including and accepting people as they are. For all we might claim to be welcoming and evangelistic we are essentially saying with those disciples: 'send them away - they don't fit our criterion for disciples.