Sermons from St Faith's     

'Manners maketh man'

Rev Sue Lucas, Sunday, September 6th, 2015

‘Manners maketh man.’  So they say – in fact, so I’ve said, now and again, in my teaching career to some loud teen or other!  We perhaps like to have an image of ourselves as well mannered, appropriately behaved people.

But all is not as it seems.  Jesus, in today’s Gospel, is spectacularly, unbelievably rude; an illustration, in fact of what he himself said in last week’s Gospel – ‘it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles’ – he is himself, today – a potty mouth – he says to the Syro-Phoenician woman, effectively, you’re a dog, and so is your daughter. In the Greek, the words he uses to address her are shockingly rude – offensive, even; in contemporary terms, sexist, sexual and racist.  And it is shocking too, because Jesus seems to side with the very purity laws he so summarily dismissed.  His view – offensive and rude as it is -  is that of a Jewish man of the time. 

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.  And it is at this point, she wins – Jesus capitulates; there is a total turn around, and Jesus, who had initially 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. Moreover, the woman is described as being ‘Syro-Phonecian,’ from the region of Tyre and Sidon, in other words, a foreigner.  Perhaps she is what we would now call an asylum seeker or refugee, 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.  She is, that is – well outside the structures of what is proper, polite, respectable – good mannered.  She can’t afford to be; and Jesus, who is never bested by the powerful, by the rich, the respectable, the well mannered, the educated - those in control of both resources, and ideology –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.  That is, it is her voice that is heard – just as he gives the man with a speech impediment the capacity to hear – and to be heard.

And Jesus, allows himself to be made vulnerable, and in doing so, 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;

To join in with God’s work in Jesus is to allow 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;  we are called both to be vulnerable, and to take responsibility for our vulnerability when we allow ourselves truly to meet those we think of as ‘the other.’

And in doing so, the contradictions of the present become visible; the contradictions inherent in a world in which a small child is washed up dead on a beach; this calls for rage, and a willingness to recognise our common humanity – not good manners; and to take responsibility too for our fear of the other that blinds us – all of us, at times – to their humanity, makes us deaf to their cry; and unable to speak out on behalf of justice and humanity.  We are called, that is, to be open eyed realists, whilst being bearers of hope;   not turning away from the consequences and 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 the inhumanity and brutality in the world’s economic systems, our calling has never been more urgent.  May we be faithful to it.  Amen.


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