September 16, 2018


James 2:1-9, 12-17
Leviticus 19:9-18
Mark 7:24-37


One hot topic in Australian politics today is the issue surrounding the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton. For those of you wise enough not to follow politics, let me give you a brief background story of the issue.

In October 2005, a woman from France was detained by the immigration officials in Adelaide airport. The woman came on a tourist visa, which meant that she wasn’t allowed to work in the country during her stay. But she told the officers that she came to work for one of the most powerful and wealthiest families in Australia. One of the members of the family is the boss of AFL who also happens to know Mr. Dutton as a friend...

To cut the long story short, the woman was denied entry into the country because she planned to work. But Mr. Dutton used his ministerial power to overrule the decision by the Border Force officials. Within 24 hours of her arrival, he granted the visa to the woman.

Now whatever your political view is, I think we can all agree that there is a question about fairness here. Let’s be clear: the Minister didn’t break any law. He followed the rules and insisted that it was in the nation’s best interest that he granted the visa.

But many questions remain. Did he use his power to help his equally powerful friend? Was there any favoritism in the decision? What about ordinary citizens whose friends or families are having visa problem? One case was an army veteran who has been trying for years to get his Afghan interpreter to come to Australia. Will he also get a special help from the Minister?

I’m not going to answer the questions or judge who is right or who is wrong. But, I think it’s clear that, at the heart of the whole controversy, is the question about partiality. Was the Minister being partial in his decision or was he not?

Christian teaching is quite clear that there shall never be partiality in the community that God has created. And we can find one strong argument against partiality in our reading today from the letter of James. 

In his letter, James asked his readers not to be partial towards the poor in their community. They should not treat people differently based on their status in the society. They should not treat the rich and powerful favorably, but treat the poor indifferently. 

Such behavior is against God’s law as it is written in the book of Leviticus of the Old Testament. The book of Leviticus says that one should love one’s neighbor like one loves oneself. Jesus called this law as the second most important law after the law to love God with all one’s being.[1] No one like to be treated differently from others only because of one’s status in society. As such, no one should treat other people poorly either.

But James went a step further in his letter. In Greek, he called the law to love one’s neighbor as the ‘royal’ law. For James, the world is God’s Kingdom and God, the King, has decreed a royal law. All other laws in the land are superseded by this law and all the King’s subjects in the land must obey this law. And God will judge people based on whether they follow the law or not. People will be judged not based on what they believe, but by how they treat the poor and the weak in their life.

This is completely against the world’s wisdom. The world often tells us to choose our friends selectively. It tells us that if we want to be successful, we have to surround ourselves with successful people. It tells us that if we want to advance in our career, we have to surround ourselves with driven and ambitious people. But such approach can limit our perspective in life. When we choose only certain people as friends, we can be detached from the real world.

We can see this happening during the Banking Royal Commission. We are continually being shocked by the bad practices in financial industry that the commission uncovers. One commentator said that the problem laid in the kind of environment that many in the industry chose to live. You see, many of today’s powerful bankers went to the same elite schools and universities. After they graduated, they kept their network of friends in their working life. They continued living in a bubble that often bears minimum resemblance to the world outside. As such, their behaviors often failed to meet the standard expected from other people outside of that bubble.

But that should not be the case in a Christian community. As God’s people, we should never choose the kind of people that we will allow to join our community. The Church should become a community that welcomes people wholeheartedly regardless of their status. 

As a matter of fact, we don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. Our family of faith belongs to God. God should be the one who makes the ultimate decision. And our God is a God that shows no partiality.

This proclamation of faith may be hard to defend when we hear a story like our reading from Mark’s Gospel. Here, Jesus sounded like someone who was quoting directly from a racist’s playbook. At the time, the Jewish people called the non-Jewish people, or the Gentiles, as dogs. 

But the Jews were not the only group of people who used an animal as a name for another group of people. The majority Hutus in Rwanda called the minority Tutsis cockroaches just before the genocide. I believe you can think of other names that people here also like to use to call people from different backgrounds.

This behavior of calling other people as animals plays into our worst human inclination. By calling others as animals, we refuse to consider them as fellow human beings. As such, we can treat them the way we like it. So, to hear Jesus using a demeaning word to describe the Greek woman and her daughter is disturbing. 

Now, we may think that Jesus’ choice of word has no impact on us, Christians, living in Australia. But Christians living in other countries do not have the same experience. Once, theological students in Meinganga, Cameroon, discussed about our reading today from Mark’s Gospel. They shared their uneasiness about what Jesus said to the Greek woman. People of other faith have used what Jesus said to tell the Christians in Cameroon that Jesus didn’t come for them. They argue that Jesus came only for the children of Israel, but not for the Africans.[2]

But such understanding comes from an incomplete reading of our story today. If we read to the end, we will see that Jesus granted the Greek woman’s request and healed her daughter. And as if this was not enough, he went on to heal a man who was deaf and mute in Decapolis. Now, people living in Decapolis were people who followed the Greek way of life. But such otherness did not stop Jesus from administering healing in their midst.

Friends, Jesus had shown to us that our God is an impartial God. Our God sees deeper than our appearance or background to see who we truly are. May we too learn to see other people the way God sees them.

Let me finish this reflection with a story about one of the greatest violinists in history, Paganini. During a performance, he felt that there was something wrong with his violin. So, he looked at his violin and found out that he was playing with someone else’s violin. He immediately told the audience that there had been a mistake and he had been playing with the wrong violin. He apologized and went backstage to get his violin only to find out that someone had stolen it. His famous and valuable violin had been replaced by the second-hand violin that he had been using that night.

But Paganini did not panic. He returned to the stage with the cheap violin. He then said to the audience, “Let me show you that music is in the soul not in the instrument.” He then proceeded to play one of his best performances ever.

Friends, we all are like these violins. Whether we are ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive’, what’s important is the soul of our ‘Great Violinist’. And in His hands, we all can produce beautiful music.

Toby Keva

[1] Mark 12:28-31

[2] Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Mark 7:24-37, on (September 9, 2018)