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Saturday, 8 September 2012

Faith: straight-jacket or liberator?

SUNDAY, September 9th 2012

Readings:    Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23
        Psalm 125
        James 2.1-10, 14-17
        Mark 7.24-37

Since the rise of feminist theology there has a tendency to see the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman as a victory of femaledom over a masculine saviour, with a sort of subtext that points out enthusiastically that the Incarnation needed an encounter with the feminine in order to be truly enlightened. It is in a liberation sense a very satisfying reading of the text, and one that is designed to rock maledom back on the haunches of its often myopic hermeneutic endeavour. To some extent such a reading is valid: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza was right to remind the oestrogen-challenged amongst us that ours was not the copyright of interpretation, and to remind us that the survival of women’s stories in the scriptures of a patriarchal community is powerful testimony to the place women had in the events depicted by the biblical writers.

But we need to be careful if we allow this corrective to spill over into a sense that God particularly needs anyone. It may surprise my ego, it may surprise yours – though you may be more humble than I am! – that God does not need my insight, or the dean’s or the bishop’s or the Pope’s or Mother Theresa’s or Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s or anyone’s to pluck the chords of the universe. The connection we have to God is a part of the one-sided equation of grace, and, while we might with Abraham or the Syrophoenician woman argue with God from time to time, might even appear to win occasional negotiations, we need to know our place in the great equations of eternity’s history. Humankind has not achieved great performance indicators in the running its affairs, let alone those of the universe.

Nevertheless, this is an encounter between a feisty woman – every bit as feisty as Abraham – and the one in whom we find the fullness of divinity revealed, in whom the author of Colossians says ‘all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’, no push-over. Jesus reveals all the limitations of being human: tired, even irascible, he has fled the ethnic and geographical boundaries of his people, in an attempt to find refuge. This is not the first time his healing compassion and love touches and transforms the life of a non-Jew – the demoniac from the Decapolis is unlikely to have been a Jew – but it is a remarkable occasion. He engages crossly with the woman – there was a form of interpretation popular 50 years ago that maintained that he was only pretending to be cross, but I hardly find that satisfying! – but the desperation of her plight, at least as much as the powerful logic of her argument, wins him over. It is a momentous shift in Jesus self-understanding – the shift that some interpreters try to protect Jesus from. The utterly human Jesus encounters a pointer to a new way by which to understand his mission.

In this, surely, Jesus is an embodiment of all that his subsequent ‘body’, the Church, must also do and be? Those interpreters who seek to protect Jesus from a shift in understanding are often attempting to protect divinity from change, even protecting the Church from mutability, from changeability. It is a wonderful argument whether the perfection of divinity can change, and one that belongs over some good red wine amongst good friends, but it is in the end meaningless. What is critical is that our understanding of divinity can and must change – to some extent the miracle is that Mark allowed himself to record an event that so clearly raised these questions. Can God change? Can Jesus change? Can we change? Are we able to measure our mission according to outside forces?’

The answer of the story is: yes. There are some non-negotiables here: Jesus does not change from being the self-revelation of the just and compassionate heart of God into a capricious clown, or change from (admittedly tired) compassion into being a perpetrator of wanton destructiveness. He neither withers the woman with a divine thunderbolt, nor suddenly changes the kernel of his mission. The measure of missiological integrity is not mutability, change for the sake of change, but rather consistency: change for the sake of pointing deeper into the heart of a God who is only slowly coming within the sphere of our myopic sight. A woman’s feisty desperation touches and transforms the divine heart of the Incarnate Son because that heart is beating in unison with the compassionate heart of the Creator.

At this point we might say then, quite simply, that God does not change, but our own limited understanding of God can and must constantly change.

There are though boundaries to change and its directions. I value deeply the three-legged stool of Anglicanism that sees scripture, tradition and reason exercising their control over our mission and interpretation. I prefer to see them, to be sure, as a flexible tripod, with the occasional lengthening of one leg over the others as the surface of experience changes, but a tripod nevertheless. The Spirit of God will constantly funnel God’s intentions through – if I may slaughter a metaphor – those legs, and those legs will not always neatly fit within the expectations of being Church. So, faced with new understandings of sexuality in the human person, for example, we must not simply rely on a knee-jerk bondage to one of the three legs (tradition, I suspect, rather than scripture, which has been dubiously interpreted by those frightened by redefinitions of marriage). Instead we must look for the harmonies of God’s Spirit-wind beyond our narrow boundaries of expectation. It is, surely, love, fidelity, mutuality, rather than the shape or reproductive functionality of human bodies that should guide our understanding of the will and purpose of God? Surely an edifying, enriching mutual love between two committed partners regardless of gender is far more attuned to the God who is love and justice than a brutal power imbalance enshrined in liturgy and adopted often unwillingly by the more vulnerable partner?

I can in so short a time only float these ideas, with the reminder that the winds of change often blow beyond the dusty corridors of expectation, that the work of the Spirit of God is often visible in the community before the Church. Besides, I know the Dean more than merely floats the ideas! Perhaps this moment in the life of Jesus was an embodiment of the principle that the followers of Jesus must be open to the voice of God from beyond the walled gardens of our expectations. If it’s good enough for Jesus, in other words, it’s good enough for me. Referring to another passage, but with reference to this one too, Walter Brueggemann writes:

It is in healing leprosy that Jesus contradicts the norms of society concerning clean and unclean. And in causing that rethinking of clean and unclean Jesus was in fact calling into question all the moral distinctions upon which society was based
  Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 101-102.

We have a choice: do we hear the appeal of those who want to feel and experience the loving, redeeming word of Christ, or do we constantly push them out beyond the boundaries, to the Tyres and Sidons of our world by hanging tenaciously to the legalism of our past, firing misdirected biblical texts and unexplored phobias at outsiders in order to keep them in their place and out of ours?

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