Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps 125; Jam 2:1-10, 11-17; Mk 7:24-37
One of my favorite TV shows from the BBC is a medical drama called “Bramwell,” that concerns the first woman doctor in London in the late 1800s. Eleanor Bramwell is the Lady doctor in question, and she routinely endures the ridicule of her male colleagues. Unable to find work in a hospital, her father—also a doctor—offers to take her under his wing, allowing her to treat his rich female clientele. Eleanor is a headstrong and proud woman, and she refuses, but she also despairs. Finally, a friend of the family, Lady Peters, agrees to be her benefactor so that she can open a clinic in the heart of the London slums, which they nickname, “The Thrift.”
Trouble ensues, as you might expect, as the young Dr. Bramwell has trouble getting anyone to cooperate with her—or the poor public to trust her. She even comes into conflict with her benefactor, Lady Peters, who insists on acting as a doorkeeper to make sure that the clinic only accepts the “right sort” of patients. This, of course, enrages Dr. Bramwell, since the “wrong sort” of people include anyone that Lady Peters disapproves of. She turns away criminals, prostitutes, the dark of skin, and the vaguely suspicious. In each case, of course, Dr. Bramwell overrides her decision and treats the patient anyway—sometimes with disastrous results when Lady Peters turns out to have been right about someone.
But she is just as often wrong—and one of the show’s main themes is “exactly who are the right sort of people?” Are they the people who look like us? The people who act like us? The people who pray like us?
These are precisely the kinds of questions our readings are asking of us today as well. For the people James is writing to, they obviously think that the “right sort” of people are the rich, and they despise and ignore the poor. For the Psalmist and, often, Lady Peters, the “right sort” of people are the moral—the wicked need not apply. In our Gospel reading, we encounter one of the most disturbing episodes in the ministry of Jesus, where he seems to think that the “right sort” of people are either the people of “my race” or the people of “my religion,” depending on how you are looking at Judaism.
But it is precisely this sort of privilege that is being addressed in our readings. James confronts his readers with their classism. He tells them that they can’t be people of faith and show partiality. He tells them that they can’t push the poor person to the back and give the place of honor to a rich person—at least, not if they want to call themselves Christians.
And the Syreo-Phoenitian woman would have made Dr. Bramwell proud with her pluck, because she stands up for herself. Not only that, but she stands up to Jesus, and she calls him on his racial—or religious—prejudice. Not only that, but she’s right, and he realizes it, he acknowledges it. He doesn’t exactly apologize—remember that Jesus, being human, has his bad days, too—but he does, at least, do the right thing in the end.
A primary principle of Catholic social teaching is the “preferential option for the poor.” The phrase is useful, but unhelpfully obfuscatory. It got its start in a letter from the Jesuit Superior General to the Jesuits in Latin America in 1968. That wasn’t so long ago, and it’s kind of amazing how quickly the phrase rose to prominence in Catholic teaching. What it means is that given a choice between the poor and the rich, which is God going to favor? God is going to favor the poor, every time.
This is a deeply scriptural teaching. Just look at our reading from Proverbs. Solomon says, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor…for God will plead their cause, and will plunder the soul of those who plunder them.” That’s harsh. It’s also really, really clear.
But as our Gospel reading makes clear, it isn’t only the poor whom God favors above others—it’s those who are marginalized in other ways, as well. Just look at the ways the Syro-Phoenician woman was disadvantaged. First, she’s a woman in the Middle East—with no rights or power of her own. Second, she’s of a despised race. Third, she’s a heathen. Fourth, and possibly worst, her daughter is possessed by demons. And on the scale of social disadvantages, that may be rare, but it’s right up there.
The Psalmist presents us with a very simplistic theology. He asks God to bless those who are good, and to banish those who are wicked. But we know the world doesn’t work like that. The wicked often flourish, and the righteous often suffer. The book of Job was written precisely to counter this sort of theology. And, in fact, the other readings don’t seem much concerned with the moral state of the outcast. The Syro-Phoenician woman isn’t female, brown, heretical, or den-mother to a demon because she’s wicked—but the text doesn’t say that she’s a good person, either. She’s a clever debater and she’s got pluck—we’ll give her points for that, but we know nothing about her moral state.
There is no “preferential option” for the good, as much as we would like it to be so. In fact, God seems maddingly unconcerned with people’s “moral state.” As James points out, look if you’ve broken one commandment, you’ve broken them all, so get off your high horse before you get a nosebleed or fall and break something.
But if our readings are correct, we might make a case that God has a preferential option for the foreigner, the despised, or the outcast. Or try these on for size: how about the preferential option for the sick? Or the preferential option for the drunk or the addicted? Or the preferential option for the gay or lesbian? Or here’s one to blow your mind: how about the preferential option for the wicked, since the Psalmist seems to look down on them so much?
The testimony of scripture is clear: if there is anyone that you consider “less than” yourself, WATCH OUT. Because before the throne of judgment, God is going to decide in THEIR favor, not in yours.
It’s a grave warning. And I don’t think that I am immune. And I doubt that you are either. I think the question for us to discern is—who is it that we look down on? Speaking for myself, I have a very hard time with the arrogant. And quite frankly, I’m not so hot on the stupid, either. And do I secretly judge the homeless? I do, God help me. In fact, nearly every day I find myself judging my relative worth to almost everyone I meet. And paying attention to that has revealed that the truly arrogant and stupid one is, well, ME.
So who do you look down on? To whom are you superior? And the knee-jerk intellectual response “no one, dammit, we’re Americans” isn’t going to cut it, because it isn’t honest.
Look, I want to be a good person, but as James points out to us, being “good” isn’t enough. It may not even be that important to God. What IS important to God, though, and what God most requires of me is to be a KIND person. It’s it’s a LOT harder to be a kind person than it is to be a good person. And I’m not going to explain that. I think you know, in your heart of hearts, what I mean by that, even if you don’t agree.
As a young dog, Judy insisted on dominating any other dog who crossed her path. As nice a dog as she was, she always had to assert her dominance. When she encountered any other dog, she got along well with them, but she also positioned her head over the other dog’s shoulder—a classic canine dominant pose. Yet the other day, when our puppy Sally approached her, Judy relaxed enough to show Sally her belly, seemingly completely unconcerned.
Let us pray…
The rich and the poor
and the good and the wicked
and the gay and the straight
and the citizen and the foreigner
and the sick and the well
and the addicted and the sober
all have this in common.
The Holy One is the maker of them all.
Blessed be the Holy One.
And blessed be all those whom we presume to be beneath us.
For the Holy One will please their cause,
And vindicate them
And will plunder the soul of those who plunder them.
God, help us. Amen.