James writes to the Christian community. And he’s not happy! Compelled by his love for his brothers and sisters in faith, he confronts them, chastises them for their zealous cultivation of the favor of the rich and powerful.
“Gold rings and fine clothes” in the Roman Empire of the first century indicated noble rank, perhaps that of an aristocrat or a senator. Thus, in James’ reprimand, there is an insinuation of political deal-making; a legislator, as a powerful potential benefactor, offering protective services to the community in return for the community’s support. (With the coming mid-term elections, given the now customary pilgrimages of politicians to houses of worship in pursuit of votes, it seems that through time and change some things remain the same.)
But, then or now, who can begrudge the ostensibly enlightened self-interest of a politician and a community, whether secular or religious, seeking to establish a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship?
James can! Because favor-seeking always excludes, ignores the poor who have nothing to offer in the oft-crude commerce of quid pro quo. Even worse, the unity of the community is destroyed by dissension as socio-politico-economic class distinctions become the standard of estimating a person’s worth and, thus, determining how one is treated.
James pleads, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters!”, reminding them that God uses the lowly to work out of the divine will in the world.
So, it is that we know…
The heart of the Old Testament witness is that a people enslaved in a foreign land, Israel in Egypt, is called to be a light to all nations,(1) drawing all peoples to God!
The heart of the New Testament witness is that a child – born to an unwed mother in a feeding trough for animals who grows up to be a common carpenter, inaugurates an itinerant ministry supported by handouts, seeks the friendship of pariahs and prostitutes, proclaims a message of liberation that flies in the face of established authority, fails in his mission, nailed to a crude cross – is the one who is God’s Messiah!
Aye, amen, God uses the lowly to work out of the divine will in the world!
Catering to the powerful may be…is the world’s way, but, for James, to dishonor the poor violates God’s will; the essence of which is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love. Unconditional, impartial kindness. Love. Not in word alone, for words alone are dead, but that acts for the sake, for the good of another, any other, all others. Love. So universal, it is “the royal law.”
It is this lesson in love that we behold in Mark’s gospel in two ways. The first, Jesus is taught how to love. The second, Jesus demonstrates the love he has been taught.
A Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, a non-Jew begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus declares, metaphorically and tersely, that his mission is only to Israel, whom he characterizes as God’s children who enjoy God’s kingdom-food, God’s life and presence; all others, including Syrophoencians, being dogs, consigned to dwell under the table of nourishment.
The woman, in love, acting for the sake, for the good of her child, boldly steps across the clearly marked cultural line of bigotry. In love, she risks rejection. In love, she retreats not in the face of the harshest rebuke. In love, she replies with a heart-rending, soul-stirring word of God’s love that speaks truth to the Son of God, who, then, heals her daughter.
Then, when a deaf man is brought to Jesus, he, with love’s sensitivity, “took him aside in private” away from the curious, perhaps uncaring eyes of the crowd, “put his fingers into his ears…touched his tongue…looking up to heaven,” with love, in pantomime, demonstrating what was to take place, thus, “speaking” in an intelligible language that the man could understand.
This, in both cases of the Syrophoenician woman with Jesus and Jesus with the deaf man, is love in action.
This is love in flesh.
This love, unconditional, impartial kindness for the sake, for the good of all others, by the Spirit, is enfleshed in us.
Therefore, let us go to be and to do likewise!
(1) See Isaiah 42.5-9, 49.6, 60.1-3
Syrophoenician woman asks Christ to cure her daughter (c. 1650), Pietro del Po (1616-1692)
Jesus heals a deaf man, Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598-1657)