James 2:1-17

Mark 7:24-37

Don’t look now, but Jesus’ healing techniques in this reading from Mark sound a little magical, don’t they? What about the faith? Mark doesn’t even mention the word here, despite what our pew Bibles’ headings read or what Matthew did with the story. That absence may be a little disturbing for us as post-Reformation Christians, but Mark’s gospel doesn’t turn on faith. ‘Faith’ is Matthew’s word; Mark’s word is the power of God, acting through Christ. It’s not that faith doesn’t matter at all – the lack of faith in Nazareth can keep Jesus from being able to heal – but faith is a thing that has to be acted on.

Jesus demonstrates the people’s faith here by seeming unresponsive to what they need. In a troubling scene, he at first denies the woman’s request that he heal her daughter: “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He puts the burden on her, like a Supreme Court justice pushing the implication of one line of an argument. The question doesn’t directly reflect Jesus’ position. Instead, it’s intended to draw something out of the woman.

Like in the Supreme Court, the defendant (the woman) is not the one on trial, the law is. Jesus’ question doesn’t dismiss the woman in her need, it indicts the cultural principle that excluded “dogs” like her from a place at God’s table. The woman follows through. She doesn’t dispute her outsider status, but she subverts it: “even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.” She claims the truth and dignity that she finds even within this act of verbal violence. You might not give your dog the fanciest portion of food, but you make sure to feed her. There’s nothing you can call someone that puts them outside the scope of God’s love and provision.

By making the woman stand up for herself, rather than just being the sweet and gracious friend we wish he were all the time, Jesus allows her greater dignity than he would have given her by just healing her daughter. Here he gives her not just healing, but a claim on the truth.

We may be troubled when God works this way. We heard about grace and it sounded free, but grace has turned out to be very hard to make real. We’re still stuck in this world where the rich abuse the poor simply because they’re poor. We know about payday loans with effective APRs in the thousands of percents. We may know that coffee and banana growers earn mere pennies because we have all the dollars. Not so long ago in this part of the world, companies were free to abuse miners because they knew there would always be someone else who needed the job enough to take it anyway.

Maybe that last part makes the most sense to us on Labor Day weekend (although the other two are precisely the same issue). So why didn’t God just make management sympathetic to the workers’ needs and safety concerns from the beginning? That’s a deeper question than I can answer, and what I’m reflecting on here doesn’t justify the unfair practices, violence, and death that hung over the early labor movement. It’s not just, but here’s what it did: it forced labor to claim its own dignity, not to receive fairness as a benevolence bestowed by some noble despot. The struggle empowered workers to be equals at the table with the companies, which is something that had never really existed before.

There’s plenty of trouble with the model that developed. Like companies, like any human institution, unions do good things and less-good things. They use their power for the good of the people they represent as well as for their own advancement. This has alwys happened. It happened in the church from very early times. James writes against exactly this tendency in the church, cozying up to the rich and powerful because they’re rich and powerful.

Just a note: I say this within a historically rich and powerful church. As it happens, the labor-organizing violence that gave rise to Labor Day in the U.S. was connected to a strike at McCormick Harvesting Machine Co, which was founded by the major benefactor of McCormick Theological Seminary.

Part of our challenge in the US church is that most of us know that we’re richer than most of the world. Our poor are the world’s middle-class, at the least. Still, we struggle with money and all that goes with it. There’s never enough money, and someone else always has more. Churches dream of finding that big benefactor who can pay for their new building, their elevator, or their organ repairs. Even a rich and powerful church is at the mercy of the world’s ways of dealing with wealth and power.

Even the rich and powerful are at the mercy of the world. None of us, and few if anyone at all in the world, have any real leverage over the forces that profit from defining our tastes, tease us with that one more thing we don’t have, and place our assets under the constant threat of insecurity. James may be right when he says that the poor in the world are blessed with faith and love for God because they have nothing else to trust in. In reality, none of us have anything else to trust in than God. All we have is God, because the world of money is a sham. Money is good for what it’s good for, but it’s nothing at all in reality.

The Church is called to live in a world where money means power, and that means status. It’s according to this false measure that we judge one person better or more compelling than another. By its own terms, we’re all bound by that system: rich or poor, religious insider or outsider. But the good news is, God judges that system void – bankrupt – and gives us the work of demonstrating that judgment by living anew within this system. God gives us the work of offering ourselves in service to the least among us. God invites us to be the ones who acknowledge people’s right claims to their inherent dignity and value. God privileges us to remember that we and they have God’s love in common.

My prayer for the Church (this particular one and the Church in general) is that God never blesses us with material riches, because then we might lose sight of what our brothers and sisters in poverty experience. I pray that God would make us alwys remember that we belong to those who most need what we have to give. That we would have the courage, as this outcast Gentile woman did, to go to the rich and powerful, always and only to insist upon justice and mercy.