Preached by Bishop Humphrey Southern, Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, on Sunday 6th September 2015 for the Benefice Celebration Service.
Reading: Mark 7. 24-37
A clever clogs lawyer approached Jesus with the question “Who is my neighbour?” and Jesus answered (as so often) with a story, the story we know as the Good Samaritan, surely one of the best known and best loved of all Jesus’ parables. The lawyer presumably retired in confusion and everyone went home happy because everyone likes to see clever clogs cut down to size.
In today’s Gospel reading the teaching and learning roles are reversed – shockingly and embarrassingly to generations of Christians – but the essential question remains the same: Who is my neighbour? Who am I – are we – responsible for? To whom does our duty of care extend?
A foreign woman – an alien – with a sick child approaches Jesus and asks for help. He rejects her. She and her daughter are not (it seems) part of his responsibility. They are not his neighbour.
And this extraordinary response – perhaps not surprisingly for us, yet surely remarkably in the culture of the time – elicits protest, outraged, shrill and insistent protest. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
It’s embarrassing. It’s awkward. The inconsistency is hard to explain, the heartlessness hard to stomach. But the protest is magnificent. And authoritative. And unanswerable. We love this story despite the bad light in which it places Jesus: we love it for the protest and its unanswerability – for the triumph of the heroism of this alien, suffering, nameless woman.
Who is my neighbour? How far does our responsibility to care extend beyond the obvious circles of kin, nation, the like-minded and like-looking? And how important – how authoritative – is protest in seeking the truth of these and other moral questions?
These, surely, are the issues that leap out and slap us in the face as we read the story of the Syrophoenecian woman and her daughter at this precise moment in the affairs and history of our world and our continent. Even as we worship quietly and peacefully on this beautiful autumn morning our sensitivities and our borders are being assailed and battered by people in desperate need and untold suffering. The images are as shocking as they are familiar.
These are not our people, and some would argue (though many would disagree and disagree strongly) their problems are not of our making. Indeed, in some people’s thinking there is scepticism about the true motivation of many of the migrants, that it is less about the avoidance of violence and dispossession and more a matter of economic opportunism. We have all heard the arguments on news programmes and commentaries in all the media.
Just as we have all seen –in the last 48 hours or so – the power of protest. Across Europe a mass instinct has been insistently voiced. People have risen up and taken direct action to serve need and to force political action. Online petitions and opinion pieces from commentators, as much as actual offers by individuals and communities of food, shelter, succour – all this has contributed to our Government’s (and others’) volte face on the admission of refugees.
Above all, there has been the surge of reaction to that image of two-year old Aylan carried, drowned, from the sea, only to be returned with his dead mother to the war-torn land from which they were trying to escape, to be buried there by a grieving father and husband who has now foresworn all offers of safety for himself, determined to end his days where is son and wife lie buried.
Faced with that image, in particular, and that story, the world (and certainly much of British public opinion) has risen up in protest, just as the Syrophoenecian woman protested: this is wrong! And all – irrespective of race or nation, tribe or loyalty – have a share in naming the wrong and serving the suffering in their pain.
In other words, in these last days this Gospel event – given us to read on this Sunday by the arbitrariness of the Lectionary – has become a parable to educate and articulate our own human instincts and the power of protest that is awakened by them.
That – amid all the anguish and the rage and the sense of helplessness – is something to wonder at and give thanks for.
But the issue – who is my neighbour? Who are we responsible for? What are the limits to our duty of care? – is an issue that will not go away, any more than will the debate about migrancy and asylum and the integrity of our borders. These were shibboleth issues in the election campaign earlier in the year and they are potent totem in political debate now, and will continue to be in to the future, long after the present crisis is past.
And the danger is real that when the present crisis does recede so may the sense of protest and the outrage that fuels it at the moment. So may, indeed, our current sense of personal and shared responsibility for public morality in this area. Between elections and at times of diminished anxiety (and we may legitimately long for both of such times and circumstances) the issue about who we are responsible for may seem to fade dangerously from our consciousness, or even go away altogether.
Indeed, in quieter circumstances – if it had not been for Aylan and the crowds in Hungary, or in Germany’s railway stations, or in Calais or blocking the Channel tunnel or whatever – we may well have addressed the story of the Syrophoenecian woman and her daughter very differently indeed. (Or we may have ignored it altogether, as being too difficult and too embarrassing, preferring to think about something entirely different this fine morning.)
When in fact the question who are we responsible for , who belongs to us and to our responsibility, whom we are to honour and serve and long for the best for – that question is at the very heart of our faith and our calling as disciples of Jesus. It is at the very heart, indeed, of this and every act of worship.
“We are one body” we proclaim often at the Eucharist. We break one bread and share one cup each and every time we celebrate Holy Communion. We proclaim belief in one God incarnate in human flesh: all human flesh, however alien, however damaged, however disfigured by sin, despair or abuse.
We who break the bread and share the cup, who exchange the peace and worship the “one God and Father of all”, we – above all – need to face the question: “Who is my neighbour?” “Who are we responsible for?” and answer it not with smug and self-serving rhetoric but, like the heroine of today’s Gospel, with shrill and insistent protest, unafraid of whom we might offend. Amen.