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Being Vulnerable
Revd Sue Lucas, 17th August, 2014

I was a philosophy undergraduate at London University in the 1980s – at Bedford College, in fact – now Regent’s College, in Regent’s time.  It was an exciting time for London philosophy – though as a callow youth at the time, I didn’t realise it!  A.J. – Freddy – Ayer had not long left University College, which he had built into a fine department, Richard Wollheim replaced him, Bernard Willliams had been at Bedford – some of the great names in analytic philosophy from the middle of last century. 

The discussions went on long into the night and way out to sea; often carrying on in the pub or the college bar – and seminars had a habit of going on as long as someone had something to say.  Doctors in the congregation had better cover their ears at this point – one could smoke in lecture theatres in those days – and, being philosophers, there were quite a few roll-up Gauloises around – and I swear that, as the heat of debate increased, the blue fog got denser!

On one particular occasion – late one afternoon – it was winter, cold and getting dark, Prof Brian O’Shaughnessy was presenting some work on Schopenhauer.  He’d dedicated his life to the study of Schopenhauer, in particular, his views on the will, and had recently published a two volume magnum opus about it; he was a bear of a man, a tall, imposing, but somehow laid back Australian.  And, as the argument raged, and the blue fog got thicker, suddenly, a young whipper snapper of an undergraduate – who at that time had a blue Mohican I think - delivered a killer blow – a point devastating to the entire line of argument.  (that undergraduate is now himself Professor of Philosophy at UCL by the way).  Prof O’Shaughnessy leaned against one of the mullioned windows, opened it to let a bit of the fug out, and an icy blast in, and said, in Antipodean strains – ‘O, I don’t know – but I thought I would give it a try.’

Today’s Gospel is unique; it is unique, because  Jesus gets into an argument with a woman – and loses.  It’s unique because it is not as though Jesus is incapable of winning an argument; in his encounters with the supposedly educated, the scribes and the Pharisees, it is usually him that ties them in knots and turns their own rhetoric against them – it is usually him that delivers the killer blow.  In the first part of today’s Gospel, we see him do just that: and, not insignificantly, it is the purity laws the debate is about; Jesus lambasts them with tying ordinary people up in knots about what is pure and impure, whilst being unfaithful to the covenant themselves.

So Jesus’ initial response to the woman in the second half of the Gospel – is deeply shocking – because it seems to side with the very purity laws he had so summarily dismissed.  His view is that of a Jewish man of the time – and in the Greek, the words he uses to address her are shockingly rude – offensive, even.  Jesus in fact allows himself to be an illustration of the ‘sewer mouth’ he has just so comprehensively demolished in the Scribes and Pharisees.  But the woman is made of strong stuff: she doesn’t deny the insult – which so easily turns an argument into a fruitless game of ‘he said she said’ – but accepts it, holds her head up, and deflects it: she uses Jesus’ own words against him – even the dogs get to eat the scraps.  At this point, she wins – Jesus capitulates; there is a total turn around, and Jesus, who had dismissed her treats her as an equal.  There are echoes of Elijah’s encounter with Ahab in 1 Kings 17, and his subsequently being offered hospitality by a widow – like Elijah, Jesus heals the woman’s child, restores her to her community; but this child is a daughter, not a son.

There are real difficulties in this passage, and they should not be dismissed too easily, or allegorised away, or made safe by over-spiritualising them;

First, we are reminded of the reality of the incarnation: to be human is to be limited – to be limited by our bodies, by the time and place of our birth, by our gender, race and class; and in responding as he does to this woman, Jesus shows that this is true of him too.

But if we see the passage as a whole, it is possible to see the two debates in it as linked and contrasted.  Jesus wipes the floor with those who represent the interests of those who have power and influence, whether that be the brutality of Rome or the oppressive, rule-bound hypocrisy of the religious ruling classes that colluded with it.

In Mark’s version of the same story, the woman is described as being ‘Syro-Phoenician,’ here, in Matthew, as a Canaanite, from the region of Tyre and Sidon in other words, a foreigner.  Perhaps she is what we would now call an asylum seeker, fleeing persecution; or an economic migrant, seeking to support her daughter and herself through where work is available.  And she is a woman without male protection – which in that culture makes her very vulnerable.

So Jesus who is never bested by the powerful, by those in control of both resources, and ideology – but he is bested by someone who is doubly marginal – a woman and a foreigner; he heals her daughter, gives her back her family, restores her to her community.

Jesus, that is, in allows himself to be made vulnerable, lives out Isaiah’s inclusive vision – of maintaining justice, doing what is right.  God’s remaking of his people in Jesus means that to be truly human is to live in a world in which race and class and gender and sexuality and wealth are abolished.  And this, as Paul tells us in Romans, is God’s gift – and it is also our calling: to be questioning, and suspicious, and argumentative – with those who control power, and wealth and ideology –

But it is also about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to be changed by hearing the voices of those who are weak and powerless and marginal, and to acknowledge our own collusion in systems that divide and dehumanise;

And it is to name the contradictions of the present, whilst living the hope that God’s reality is different: of feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and outcast and protecting the poor from the violence of the rich.

As we witness violence on our streets and in the world’s economic systems, our calling has never been more urgent.  May we be faithful to it.  Amen.

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