s135g00 Somerton Park 10/9/2000 Sunday 23 b

"a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit ... a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin ... begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter." Mark 7:25-28

A week or so ago I preached at the MU Overseas and Outreach Day at St Georges Magill, and I spoke about the women in the gospels and in scripture. And I thought perhaps I would present those thoughts today, because it seems Jesus is putting this woman down. Scholars are used to reading of women in the gospel accounts and assume it is St Luke's writing. And yet the presence of women pervades each of the gospel.

And there's a bit of a history to this. In our Church, Holy Week before Easter is a time of particular solemnity and we have the practice of having a service each night, from Monday to Thursday. They haven't been particularly well attended, and a couple of years ago I decided to buy the cassettes of the NRSV versions of the New Testament and play the passion stories from Matthew, Mark and Luke during the first of these evenings, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - this actually follows the tradition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for Holy Week, without actually having a celebration of the Holy Communion however.

We still don't get many to these services, and probably I'm the only one who gets much out of them at all. But one of the things this has made me realise is the presence of the women at the foot of the Cross.

So Matthew records: "Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee." (Matthew 27:55-56).

St Mark records: "There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem." (Mark 15:40-41).

St Luke records: "But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things." (Luke 23:49).

and St John records: "Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene." (John 19:25).

So I saw for the first time, as I listened each night to a different account of the Passion, at this, the most significant moment in the history of humanity, the presence and attention of a group of women is highlighted.

And I wonder if anyone would care to hazard a guess as to what words immediately precede Judas Iscariot leaving Jesus and the disciples - to betray him? According to Matthew and Mark - it was the anointing of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper at Bethany - by a woman.

I remember seeing Jesus Christ Superstar a long time ago. It was that production which alerted me to an interpretation that Judas' betrayal stemmed from jealousy of Jesus because of the affection of Mary Magdalene.

Interestingly neither Matthew or Mark attribute the criticism of the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany specifically to Judas, but to a number of the disciples. Clearly for Matthew and Mark, this anointing is the precipitating incident which prompts Judas to take the action he did. "Cherchez la femme!" I am reminded that the first murder was occasioned by a perception that one persons offering to God was more acceptable than another.

In what I say now I hope that I am not being sexist -thy are certainly not meant to be critical of women. I don't think it is surprising that it was the women who stayed at the Cross. Sadly, women are so used to pain and suffering, through childbearing and abuse. There is something in the female psyche that demands to see a thing through. Catharsis only comes if death has taken it's full toll. Or perhaps it is that they hope, beyond men, that some miracle might yet occur before he died? Men are perhaps more content to give up, to turn away, to get on with life, to be "realistic".

I don't know that I really want to say anything more than the whole gospel notices the women. It is not just a predilection of St Luke, the beloved physician. I want to make the point that one cannot tell the gospel story excising the significant place women had in that story. God notices the contribution women make to our humanity, despite the pain of childbearing and abuse that they suffer.

I suppose none of you saw the film "Romance", and I should immediately say that's probably a good thing. I rarely go to the cinema but it was recommended to me that I see "Romance", and I prefer to see something before I criticise it. It was a very explicit and confronting film and I came away with decidedly mixed emotions. The last thing I would say of the film is that it was erotic. But curiously it was not until some of the MU executive some time back asked me to give a half hour presentation on sexuality that I started to make some sense of it. I based my presentation on Genesis 38, where God kills two of Judah's sons, the first, Er because he was wicked, and the second, Onan because he abused Er's foreign widow. At the end of the story, after Tamar tricks Judah into having intercourse and conceiving by her father in law, ""Judah acknowledged and said, "She is more in the right than I." (Genesis 38:26). It was the film Romance which showed graphically the psychological and physical abuse of women at the hands of ordinary "macho" men, set alongside the love and care of someone decidedly "kinky". I would recommend anyone who is thinking about making a judgement about the current debate on discrimination in access to the IVF program to read Genesis 38 before they do so, for it has much to say which is relevant.

So right back in there in Genesis 38 God noticed women, and foreign women at that, saw the abuse levelled at them and acted - acted against those who saw themselves as God's own people, God's own gender.

Today our gospel account focusses on a foreign woman and her daughter. The history of Australia shows that we, like most other societies, have resented any influx of foreigners. The Chinese in the gold-rush days, the Europeans after the war, these days it's the Asians. A large part of Anti-Semitism stems, I am sure, from the fact that Jews were dispersed, strangers in other people's lands. Gypsies were hated for the same reasons. If foreigners are not accepted, foreign women were even more despised, and / or the subject of abuse.

God notices and knows the suffering of women, all women, and the story of Judah and Tamar says, in no uncertain terms, that racial or religious status stands as no justification or excuse for ill treating women, or indeed anyone. One of the things men of an older generation were taught was "A gentleman never hits a woman", which is I guess just a variation of the saying I was more used to: "You never kick someone when they're down."

The women stood looking at Jesus dying, and I have no doubt they were there because Jesus had, during his lifetime, particularly noticed them. For my money, I reckon it's a fair bet Jesus hung there on the Cross because Judas couldn't accept that Jesus associated with women and accepted their offerings, it seemed rather more than his. In the end it is little different from the motivation of the religious authorities - that Jesus hung there because the religious authorities couldn't accept that Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners and accepted their offerings; it seemed rather more than theirs.

We are getting used to hearing reports of fighting between Moslems and Christians in the Malukas and Ambon, and I suspect we "assume" that it's the Moslems who are to blame. Before we get all incensed at this, it would do us well to remember the Inquisition. "Christians" have a long history of blood on our hands too.

Pray indeed for the persecuted Christians of the Malukas and Ambon - recognising that there might be some Muslims who feel persecuted too. It will be inevitable that it will be the women and children who will suffer the most. But more importantly pray also that we Christians proclaim a faith in a God who calls us "to care for orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27) - not just those who have lost their human parents and loved ones - but also those who have lost contact with their heavenly Father - for it may be through no fault of their own. This can as much refer to those of different faiths and those of no faith as well as those who were once called by that rather derogatory term "backslider" - all for whom James calls us to care.

Unlike John, Matthew and Mark do not point the finger solely at Judas for criticising the woman at Bethany, but to a number of the disciples, and from this we must take the message that being Christian does not mean that we are infallible, and that we face the same temptation to criticise and abuse others when it seems their offering is accepted as well as or even before ours - whatever the content of their faith.

In my saying these words, I don't want to excuse Jesus for what seems an ungracious comment on his part towards this woman - I suppose it proves he is human too :-) But perhaps his comment was not to put her down but to elicit from her a statement of faith. Perhaps she needed to hear her own affirmation that God's overflowing grace extended to her as much as to anyone else.

Perhaps we too might need to affirm that God's overflowing grace extends to us as well as everyone else, that God's grace is never at the expense of others.


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