15th Sunday after Pentecost
‘To Accept Others as God Accepts Us’
You all know who Oprah Winfrey is right? She is the host of the worldwide popular TV Show, the Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2013, Oprah was in Zurich, Switzerland to attend the wedding of his friend, American female singer, Tina Turner. She left her hotel alone (which would be next to impossible if she had stayed here in Australia) and went to an upmarket handbag shop.
She went to the shop and told the saleswoman that she would like to see the bag over her head, but the saleswoman said to Oprah, “No, it’s too expensive.” So Oprah politely asked the saleswoman again, and she replied, “No, no, you don’t want to see that one. That one would cost you too much. What about the other ones?” Oprah said to the saleswoman one more time, “But I really want to see that one.” Again, the saleswoman refused the request saying, “Look, I don’t want to hurt your feeling.” So Oprah gave up and said, “Ok. Thank you so much. You’re right, I can’t afford the bag,” and she walked away.
The bag was a $US38.000 bag by a well-known designer made out of crocodile skin. The saleswoman was right: most people in this world wouldn’t spend $US38.000 to buy a bag. But, she was talking to Oprah Winfrey, a media mogul and the first and only African American billionaire with a net worth estimated at around $US2.8 billions. Oprah could buy not only the bag, but the entire shop! And, even the other shops around it!
Someone told me that prejudice is not natural, but learnt. Think about a baby who makes friend with anyone, regardless of the colour of one’s skin or of one’s socio-economic background or of one’s religion or of one’s political leaning, etc. Wait another 15 years and the same baby will have developed into a young boy/girl who starts making choices about his/her friends based on their appearances.
Unfortunately, we live in a society and in the world where prejudices abound. We all grew up with and, to different degrees, are influenced by prejudices that our society, knowingly or unknowingly, often fosters.
But this is not a modern problem faced by modern people only. Prejudice existed in the past, including in the first century world in the Roman Empire. In the passage from the letter of James, which we read today, a certain kind of prejudice occurred, sadly, within the Church. This was the prejudice that people had about the poor. In church gatherings, the rich got special treatment: they got the best seats, while the poor were asked to sit on the floor, like slaves.
The early Christian gathering happened not in church buildings like today, but within the house of a rich family who were members of the Church. Unfortunately, the owner of the house, where Christians gathered, often treated his fellow Christians differently. He treated his fellow rich with respect and the poor with disdain.
While such attitude was normal in the society, James warned the early Christians that it was not accepted in the Church. They were all believers in Christ and, as such, they should not treat one another based on outwards appearance (v. 1). While they didn’t break any law or custom of the land by treating others differently, they broke a different kind of law: the law of the Kingdom of God, “Love you neighbour as you love yourself (v. 8).” For James, if someone broke this law, he broke all the other laws (v. 10-11). And he would be judged by no other person than God (v. 13).
Jesus’ words in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, however, seemed to contradict what James said. A non-Jewish woman came to Jesus, asking him to help cure her daughter. Jesus’ answer was nothing short of degrading: he likened the woman, and her daughter, to dogs. “The healing was like bread for God’s children, the Jews, and not for dogs like you two,” Jesus said. If I had been the woman, I would have slapped Jesus in the face and walked away.
But she didn’t do that. She played the game that Jesus was playing (she would do anything for her daughter I suppose). She didn’t deny her status as a dog in Jewish eyes, but then she exposed a chink in the argument. “Even the dogs gets the bread too,” she said. Jesus seemed to be impressed by her response and granted her request.
Mark didn’t tell what was the real reason behind Jesus' granting her wish. But, I believe that Jesus did not see Gentiles, non-Jews, as dogs; he was simply expressing what his society thought of Gentiles like her and her daughter. To make this point clear, in the next passage, Mark told the story of Jesus, in the land of the Gentiles, healing a deaf man who could hardly speak (Mark 7:31-37). There was no mentioning of the man as a dog. Jesus simply healed the man by saying, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Open up”.
Perhaps, the word, “Ephphatha” was directed not only to the deaf man, but also to the Jews who often regarded a man like him as a dog who deserved no healing. Perhaps, Jesus tried to say to his fellow Jews that they needed to open their hearts to find a space there for others who didn’t look like them. Yes, Jesus healed both the Gentile girl and deaf man. It means, for him, they were not dogs; they were God’s children, like the Jews, who deserved the healing from Jesus, the bread from heaven.
Friends, the world is often divided into East and West, North and South, rich and poor, white and coloured, male and female, young and old. In Christ, however, there is no East or West, North or South, rich or poor, white or coloured, male or female, young or old. In Christ, all have been made one. If Christ has made all as one, it is our duty to make his vision of God’s Kingdom a reality here in this community faith, in our society, and in the world.
Rev. Toby Keva
 Nick Thompson and Diana Magnay, Oprah Winfrey Racism Row over Switzerland Shop Incident, (Updated 1532 GMT [2232 HKT] August 11, 2013) on http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/09/world/oprah-winfrey-racism-switzerland/