A Sermon from Sherborne

Acknowledging our prejudices

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 20 August 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

Back in 1986, commercial television ran a black and white advertisement for The Guardian newspaper. It showed a skinhead charging down a street towards a much older man with a briefcase. The skinhead grabbed the other man and pushed him to one side. The inference was obvious: an attack by a young mugger.

Then the ad played the same scene from a longer angle. The young man had seen a pallet of bricks tumbling from a crane towards the old man. The skinhead sprinted forward and pushed the other man to one side, saving him from a terrible fate. The message was clear: The Guardian sees the truth of events which other newspapers miss. It was a brilliant ad, which was to be reworked in later years. I still read The Times.

The viewer’s instinctive reaction to the first clip says everything about how we jump to conclusions based, not on a careful investigation into the facts of the matter, but our prejudices. Nothing could have demonstrated that better than President Trump’s initial knee-jerk response to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. He could not bring himself to blame only the extreme right-wingers, the white supremacists. Later he read a more considered response, clearly written for him. A day after that, he was back to being guided by his gut instincts rather than his brain.

We find something like that in today’s Gospel reading [Matthew 15. 10-28]. Jesus has ventured outside Jewish territory into Phoenician land: the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon in modern-day Lebanon. A woman of those parts “comes out to meet him”: it is clearly a quite deliberate encounter. She has a pressing need – her daughter has a spiritual and psychological illness which she attributes to devil-possession – and she has heard of this wandering Jewish preacher, and hopes that he can help her. St Mark identifies the woman carefully as “a Greek, Syro-Phoenician by race”, whereas Matthew prefers the simpler appellation “Canaanite”. Note the immediate relevance to today: Matthew is writing for a Jewish readership so, instinctively, he uses the more derogatory Old Testament term, linking the woman with the older inhabitants of that land who were dispossessed by the Hebrew invaders. According to the book of Judges, they ought to have been exterminated [2:1-5], and there was to be no fraternization with them.

So here is Matthew describing in derogatory terms a member of a non-Jewish race. And as if that isn’t bad enough, we then have Jesus apparently responding to this foreigner arrogantly, even brutally. At first he ignores her altogether: he speaks only when she forces the issue. Rudeness then becomes cruelty. Here is the larger part of their brief conversation:

She came and knelt before him, saying, “Sir, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” [Matt. 15. 25-27]

The meaning, surely, is clear. Only Jews are entitled to be treated as the favoured children of God; the Gentiles – and that means you and me – are “dogs”. It is to our ears the worst kind of chauvinism. Given the woman’s desperate concern for her daughter, its cruelty takes one’s breath away. And I for one am not much helped by the knots into which the scholarly commentators tie themselves in their attempts to explain away the sheer embarrassment of the moment. This is red-blooded racism.

The question is, why should we expect anything else? If Jesus was fully and wholly a human being, a man, then we should expect him to have been brought up with all the perspectives and prejudices of a 1st century devout Jewish male, as antipathetic to alien peoples in or near Israel’s territory as many Israelis are today. This problem of inherited attitudes was frequently to occupy the thinking of St Paul, in so many ways a typical Jewish rabbi of his time, but one who came to realise that although Christians live “in the flesh” (en sarki) they must not be conformed by the flesh.

Let us be clear about this. The starting point from which Jesus, Paul, Donald Trump, you, I or anyone else judge moral, social or political issues is inevitably, and quite properly, that in which we are placed by nature and shaped by all the forces and pressures of heredity, culture, education and environment. These are the things – far more than the exercise of our intellects – which make us little liberals or little conservatives. Heredity, culture, education and environment: these are what give us our perspectives – on God, other people, and everything. Why do I have a different idea of God from my brother or sister on the other side of the world? The German monk Klaus Klostermaier puts it like this:

Theology at 120° in the shade seems, after all, different from theology at 70°F. Theology accompanied by tough chapattis and smoky tea seems different from theology with roast chicken and a glass of good wine. Now, who is really different, Theos [God] or the theologian? The theologian at 70°F in a good position presumes God to be happy and contented, well-fed and rested, without needs of any kind. The theologian at 120°F tries to imagine a God who is hungry and thirsty; who suffers and is sad, who sheds perspiration and knows despair.

So we should not be surprised that Jesus was a Jew of the first century, with all the built-in attitudes, prejudices and frustrations which being a Jew of the first century included: towards women, towards Samaritans and Gentiles, towards the occupying power and its quisling agents. As Bishop John Robinson puts it, “The wonder of him was not that he did not start with these sentiments but that he overcame them – and that not without an internal struggle.” And so Jesus says to the woman, “You have great faith. Let it be done as you wish.” And her daughter is healed at that moment.

This encounter between two people of different race, religion and gender could not be more relevant to the racial and religious confusion in which the world currently finds itself. Nature’s little liberals seem to be in a state of denial about it all, hoping that a large dose of political correctness will make all the nasty differences of race and religion, colour and creed, go away. Nature’s little conservatives, on the other hand, all too often want to exploit cultural differences for their own ends. The lesson of this morning’s Gospel is surely not to deny our natural conditioning – we simply cannot help having our own perspectives and prejudices – but to refuse to let them become spiritually conforming; what St Paul calls falling into “the mind of the flesh”. That, he says, is “enmity to God”. [Rom 8:7].

We all look out on our world from the place and time where the accidents of birth have placed us. But unless we are careful, our being-in-the-world, with all the world’s priorities and values, will mould our entire mind and outlook. Perhaps we all need a Damascus Road encounter with the Spirit of Christ. Then it will be our being-in-Christ which will shape and mould our outlook, not our being-in-the-world. Just don’t expect the people you encounter on your Damascus Road to look, sound or think like you.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 20/08/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne