There are times when we are left stunned by what comes over as another’s rudeness. From words that come out wrong, they have a bluntness and harshness just not intended but nonetheless said, to deliberate prejudice and disdain. And there are times when we may well shock ourselves. What comes out of us comes from within us and reveals our attitudes. I was struck by a very simple comment on the radio recently about Gay Pride marches. It was during a programme marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization in 1967 of intimacy between consenting same sex adults in private. The speaker said, disarmingly, that the opposite of pride is shame. And in the context it dawned on me, in a way it hadn’t before that for a whole group of people who have lived with a sense of shame what Pride marches are about is setting themselves free from shame and hiding, to be who they are. It is their countering of other’s imposed prejudice and disdain.
So seeing something from another’s point of view, how they see that they are seen, by unconscious prejudice or unexamined learned assumptions, can be revelatory for us. This is not ‘Political Correctness’ gone mad, as the Daily Mail might scream at us, but being empathic and understanding just how things feel in another’s shoes.
We get a bit of this in our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 15:10-28). The first part, about food and drains (Matthew 15:10-20) can be a bit confusing. We know that actually what goes in does affect us – diet can affect our attitudes and behaviour. What is more we learn what we see and that shapes us, and this can need challenging. The rules we live by, even dietary laws, shape us. What Jesus has in his sights is that dietry laws which set us apart actually miss something fundamental which he is about to explode in front of them. In him all of us are equal, whatever race or people we belong to. Being a chosen people is expanded in Jesus to incorporate all people, all of humanity.
The ‘see it from another person’s point of view’ moment is that the Canaanite woman’s daughter is dismissed by Jesus as being a dog (v26). When she asks for help Jesus tells her that it is not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs! It is an astounding moment and our jaws should drop when we hear it. There is no spin that gets him out of this hole. It is rude, it is dismissive and that this passage is included at all in the New Testament is remarkable, because it does not show Jesus in the usual perfect light that we have come to expect. Jesus’ words seem to reflect some unpleasant superior and excluding assumptions, and it is not pretty. That the New Testament writers included it meant they had to work out what to make of it because by the time they were writing the Christian church was far from exluding and had extended beyond all boundaries.
And that is what they do with it; it becomes a moment when the tradition which Jesus comes out of, which he enters in being a real person among us at a particularly moment and time, is challenged and bettered by the Canaanite woman. “Even the dogs get the scraps” she replies. And with that the woman’s daughter is healed. This is not because she’s only worth the scraps, but when grace is let loose it extends beyond all boundaries and is truly inclusive and all embracing. So what starts looking like rudeness becomes a moment when grace gets the upper hand and wins the day. Any notions of being closed off to outsiders and having exclusive boundaries are broken down.
This is one of those ‘stand over here for a while and see what it looks like from this angle’ moments. This is a ‘oh that’s what Pride is about’ moment – it’s the opposite of shame. I don’t know why I never quite saw it in those terms before, perhaps because no one spelt it out quite like that before and sometimes I need to hear things in terms that connect with my brain, with something I can relate to, before I can truly get them.
This week has brought more examples of unexamined prejudice and jaw dropping rudeness. The Klu Klux Klan in the USA has repugnant views. Their white supremacist language and attitudes are like a throw back to an age I thought was long gone, but clearly is not. And we know that when we see racism and prejudice at work in so many places. They are attitudes which make it possible to treat people who are different with less respect and without the dignity that they are due by virtue of being fellow human beings. And it is ugly and violent, abusive and exploitative. So Donald Trump’s failure to grasp this was not just a failure of judgement, but he has revealed yet again that he holds some pretty unsavoury views too. There is nothing new there, nothing that wasn’t revealed in their election campaign. Today’s gospel reading is a moment when racial supremacist notions are clearly rejected and the grace of God is shown to extend to all people, without exception and without reduction.
In God’s grace and with the right level of challenge flowing from that grace a moment of rudeness and demeaning prejudice becomes a moment of transformation. Old attitudes that would exclude and shun are replaced by the truly inclusive love of God, which extends to all. That is as radical and challenging today as it was then.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th August 2017