Proper 18

September 10, 2000
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Reading 2: 
Psalm 125
Reading 3: 
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Reading 4: 
Mark 7:24-37
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 146
Alt Reading 1: 
Isaiah 35:4-7a
By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Comments on the September Lectionary
In these comments we are allowed a great deal of latitude. I have decided to experiment with looking at the two New Testament passages (from Mark and James) in juxtaposition. Sometimes it is almost as if James had in mind passages similar to those in Mark, and is trying to apply them in some realistic and practical fashion. That is not easy, since Jesus’ teachings are here, as usual, extreme and one-sided. But since they grasp us as they grasped James, we need to share with James this difficult attempt.

Few passages remind us more forcefully than this Marcan one that Jesus was not just fully human but also fully Jewish. To be a Jew meant many fine things, but it also entailed a certain exclusivism. Jesus understood his mission to be to the Jews. Today, we would call his response to the Syro-phoenician woman racist, contrasting her people as dogs to Israelites as children. What is striking is that the woman is not put off. Her concern for her daughter overrode any anger she may have felt at Jesus’ brush-off.

However critical we may be of Jesus’ initial response, we can celebrate the speed with which he learned his lesson. Her humble faith evoked his healing power for the child. He is not depicted again as expressing contempt for Gentiles.

I have described the difference in ethnic terms. It would be at least equally correct to call it religious. Jesus was a Jewish teacher, teaching Jews the fuller meaning of their faith. He did not understand himself to have a mission of proselytizing Gentiles. That some of his followers would later go to the Gentiles and bring into being a church that united Jews and Gentiles would no doubt have surprised him.

Writing from the point of view of that church, it was important to show that, despite the limited nature of his own mission, Jesus himself became open to Gentiles. The gospels do not go very far in that direction, and probably that was out of loyalty to the facts. Jesus’ ministry was overwhelmingly to Jews. Although there are records of his healing Gentiles, there is no record of his teaching them.

This left a long step for Paul to justify, but it was a start. Jesus already found that some Gentiles had faith, and he responded accordingly. He did not require that they first become Jews before giving them help.

Most of us are Christians today because Paul did take the next step. He followed Jesus in not requiring of Gentiles that they become Jews. But he did invite them to become part of a new community, the one that came to be called Christian. That community was made up of persons who chose to be part of it, rather than of those who were simply born into it.

The problem we face today is whether we should continue past efforts to bring persons who are outside our Christian communities into them. Or should we, like Jesus, condemn proselytizing, and simply witness and minister to Christians. We could follow his example by limiting our teaching and preaching to other Christians while offering services of other kinds to all who need them.

But would that mean refusing to share with others what we experience as even more valuable than physical healing? Paul thought so. He offered Christ to all who would listen.

For us the problem is most acute with regard to committed members of other religious traditions. With respect to serving them in general, we can agree that as the occasion arises, we should do so. But with regard to preaching the gospel to them, the answer is not so easy.

Most of our churches decided, some time ago, that efforts to convert Jews are not appropriate. That would have seemed strange in the early church, where the controversial mission was that to the Gentiles, not that to the Jews. But the situation has changed greatly. Christianity has become a Gentile tradition. Judaism has continued to develop as a more direct continuation of the community from which Christianity departed. We have a terrible history of using our political power to oppress and persecute Jews. Today we can recognize that the coming of Jesus did not abrogate God’s covenant with them. They may still have something to learn from two great Jews, Jesus and Paul, whom they have, in general, rejected. But for the foreseeable future, it is more needful that we learn from them than that we try to teach them.

The relation to Islam is quite different. Mohammed knew of Jesus and greatly honored him. He rejected those Christian teachings that turned Jesus into a God and obscured God’s unity. He presented a purer view of the unity of God and spelled out God’s commands in a more coherent way. We Christians do not agree with the balance of grace and law that resulted, but we can and must recognize the depth of commitment to God that he evoked among those who followed him. We have every reason to continue conversations in which we learn how easily our teaching can be understood in ways rightly offensive to Muslims and also explain our understanding of God’s grace. There is little to be gained by trying to persuade Muslims to join Christian churches.

With respect to adherents of traditions that have not been historically related to ours, the situation is different. We have a message that they have not heard. Some of them are glad to hear it and are enriched thereby. Some even join our churches. But we can only speak with integrity if we first listen. These traditions offer us great wisdom that we lack. To learn from them brings about our own transformation. If we are open to learning from them, then we may be free to share our wisdom with them as well.

In any case, the majority of the world’s people are estranged from the depths and wisdom of all the great traditions. To them, too, we need to listen. But with them, in general, we need not be hesitant to speak. Precisely because Christianity from the beginning was not defined by connection to any one ethnic group, we may still share it across all ethnic lines. In doing so, we must try to separate what is truly Christian from the particular ethnic form in which we have received it.

James writes about a different kind of discrimination, a very practical one. In the church he knew, people acted very much as many Christians act today. If a poorly dressed and poorly groomed man comes to our church, we may allow him to enter and be seated, but we are likely to be uncomfortable and hope that he leaves quietly and does not return. If a wealthy man who has not previously attended our church appears, we will be eager to welcome him and invite him to become a part of us. He brings us prestige and the means to carry out our mission.

For this discrimination James condemns the Christians of his day, and us, quite unequivocally. When we show partiality in this way we are violating the requirement to love others as we love ourselves. Before God the poor man is fully equal to the rich. Our tendency to discriminate shows that we have not understood the gospel.

Most of us recognize that we should welcome all who come. The problem for us is more often that the nature of our worship is inherently unwelcoming to many. The poor want a different experience from the one our churches provide. The same is true of blacks and other ethnic groups as well as evangelicals and charismatics. Ideally we should all be able to worship together, but in the real world there are serious limits that we must acknowledge and largely accept.

Actually, James goes further than simply opposing discrimination in favor of the rich. He suggests that there are reasons to discriminate in favor the poor. He offers two. First, the rich oppress us. Second, God has chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom. He supports the preferential option for the poor.

The Bible has played an important role in Western history in keeping alive the issue of the poor. This does not mean that Christians have so fully lived their faith as to abolish poverty or the penalties that go with it. Far from it. But the rhetoric of the Bible about the poor has kept alive an uneasy conscience about the exploitation of the poor. Most people today recognize that the growing gap between rich and poor is a backwards move that the church should oppose. Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and old-line Protestants disagree on many points, but they are united in calling for greater concern and care for the poor.

What unites the two passages is the call for inclusiveness. Whether or not we should seek to convert others, we should certainly welcome all to the church. As Christians we cannot exclude people on the grounds of their poverty, their ethnicity, or their sexual orientation. During the civil rights struggle, nothing was more offensive to the Christian conscience than to see white segregationists excluding blacks from entering their churches to worship with them.

Today the real test is the ability of the churches to be genuinely inclusive of gays and Lesbians. Many old-line congregations welcome those with homosexual orientations into their congregations, but only on condition that they not act on their feelings. Is this full inclusion? If we judge that acting on their feelings is immoral, then James would support those who take this position. If we judge that forbidding them to act on their feelings while we encourage heterosexual to act on theirs is showing partiality, then James supports those who would ask of homosexuals the same discipline and faithfulness they ask of heterosexuals. We hope and pray that the movement within the old-line denominations to this fuller form of inclusion will proceed more rapidly. James reminds us that we should act on our convictions.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.