Monday, 17 September 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 23 September 2018,
Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 37) … ‘Spectral Child’ on Thomas Street, Limerick, by Dermot McConaghy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 23 September 2018, is the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVII) and the liturgical provisions are for Proper 20.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland are:

Continuous Readings: Proverbs 31: 10-31; Psalm 1; James 3: 13 to 4: 3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37.

Paired Readings: or Wisdom 1: 16 to 2: 1, 12-22, or Jeremiah 11: 18-20; Psalm 54; James 3: 13 to 4: 3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37.

There is a link to the readings HERE

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 37) … Children of the Kindertransport seen in Frank Meisler’s bronze sculpture at Liverpool Street Station in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Introducing the readings:

Sophie’s Choice is a 1982 American movie based on a 1979 bestselling novel by William Styron. In this disturbing movie, Meryl Streep plays the title role of Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant who shares a boarding house in Brooklyn with Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline) and a young writer, Stingo (Peter MacNicol).

One evening, Stingo learns from Sophie that she was married, but her husband and her father were killed in a Nazi work camp, and that she was sent as a prisoner to Auschwitz with her children.

When Sophie arrived at Auschwitz, a camp doctor forced her to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would be sent to the labour camp. To avoid having both children killed, she chose to have her son Jan sent to the children’s camp, and her daughter Eva sent to her death. It was a heart-wrenching decision that left her in mourning and filled with a guilt that she can never overcome.

The name Sophie means wisdom, but the choice Sophie is faced with is not between good and evil, nor even between the lesser of two evils, but between evil and evil.

This morning’s readings introduce a number of similar themes, including comparisons between the Wisdom of God and a wise wife and mother, the choices we face between good and evil, and the innocence of children in the face of competition for power and status.

The loss of innocence and the destruction of wisdom … the railway tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Proverbs 31: 10-31:

We have come to the end of our short series of readings from the Book of Proverbs, which began earlier this month (9 September 2018). This selection ends on Sunday where the book ends with this poem, a detailed description of the roles and qualities of ‘a capable wife,’ a poem that serves as a summary of the Book of Proverbs.

Before this reading begins, we are told that the words in this closing section are ‘the words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him’ (Proverbs 31: 1), and he is named again in verse 4.

Who was Lemuel?

Some say he was a member of a tribe descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael, some say he was Hezekiah, some even say he was Solomon.

Who is the good wife?

A good wife is mentioned earlier in this book: ‘He who finds a good wife finds a good thing, and obtains favour from the Lord’ (Proverbs 18: 22). Several of the qualities of this good wife are also those of Sophia, Wisdom. So, is the good wife Wisdom herself? There is a word play in verse 27, where the phrase in the NRSV ‘she looks well to’ reads in Hebrew as sophiyyah, providing a word play on the Greek Σοφῐ́ᾱ Sophia.

In four places in the Book of Proverbs, including this reading, the good wife, or Wisdom, is said to be ‘more precious than jewels’ (verse 10). The wife’s values to her husband are reminiscent of those of wisdom to her followers.

Verses 13-27 in this reading speak of the woman’s extraordinary and ceaseless activity, and her good relationship with her family. She and her husband are wealthy, while he is a leading figure in the community. She has a good business approach to managing their household, and is a hard worker, makes fine clothes for her family, and is generous to the poor and the needy.

On the following Sunday [Trinity XVIII, 30 September 2018], the Old Testament reading introduces us to a very different type of ‘capable wife’ with a very different sort of wisdom in the person of Esther (Esther 7: 1-6. 9-10, 9: 20-22).

‘They are like trees planted by streams of water’ (Psalm 1: 3) … willows by the banks of the River Suir in Golden, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Psalm 1:

This psalm is an introduction to the Psalms. It contrasts the fate of the godly and the ungodly.

The psalm begins by comparing the ways of the wicked and the ways of the godly. The godly do not live as the ungodly do. Instead, day and night, they meditate o the law of God. They are like trees that yield good fruit, and they are promised that they will prosper in all that they do.

On the other hand, the wicked are like chaff, blown about by the wind, who are lost when it comes to values of the Kingdom of God.

‘Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind’ (James 3: 16) … the gates of Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

James 3: 13 to 4: 3, 7-8a:

We have also come to the end of our short series of readings from the Book of Proverbs, which began earlier this month (2 September 2018). This selection ends on Sunday with Saint James seeking to correct the arrogance and intemperate speech he finds in the community, and warning about the evil dangers of violence and war.

He reminds his readers of the qualities of wisdom, and his understanding of wisdom is like that of the Wisdom writers in the Old Testament and of Saint Paul. In doing this, he contrasts earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom.

If we show gentleness, then we are showing heavenly wisdom. But if show envy and selfish ambition, and if we are boastful, then we are not being true to Christian values and are showing earthly values.

Godly wisdom is pure, peace-loving, merciful and bears good fruits, and seeks to make peace.

He continues by contrasting those who make peace with those who stir up strife and conflict, and contrasting the proud with the humble.

‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands and they will kill him’ (Mark 9: 31) … the crucifixion window in the parish church in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 9: 30-37:

This Sunday’s Gospel reading comes immediately after a story that is passed over in the Sunday lectionary readings, the story of a young boy who is healed of epilepsy or an unclean spirit (Mark 9: 14-29). The disciples are left puzzled, wondering why Jesus could cure him, but they could not.

Now, as they travel from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem, they re-enter Jewish territory as they pass through Galilee. He tells them that he is the ‘Son of Man,’ that he is going to be betrayed and killed, and that he will rise again.

They do not understand what he is saying – how could they, they cannot yet expect the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Both these future events, no matter how much closer they are getting to them as they move closer to Jerusalem, are beyond their understanding and they are afraid to ask Jesus, either because they do not want to show their ignorance or because they are afraid that they too may become innocent victims and suffer the consequences of what he is talking about.

By the time they arrive in Capernaum, the disciples have been arguing over who among them is the greatest. But Jesus chides them, telling them being a disciple is not about rank or power, position or prestige, but is about service.

To illustrate his point, Jesus takes a little child and places him or her among them. The Greek word used here, παιδίον (paidíon), is diminutive, and means a little child, either male or female, and could also be used for a young servant or even a child slave.

When someone welcomed a child slave or servant sent on an errand or with a message, they welcomed or received the master. Jesus reminds the disciples that whoever receives the servant receives the master, whoever receives a child receives Christ, whoever receives Christ receives God the Father, who sent him.

‘Then he took a little child and put it among them’ (Mark 9: 36) … a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Nenagh, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A reflection on the Gospel reading:

How can we relate the first part of the Gospel reading (verses 30-32), when Jesus talks about his own impending betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection, with the part of the Gospel reading (verses 33-37), when Jesus takes an innocent, small child and makes him or her an example of how we should behave with Kingdom values?

Sometimes, I fear, we make it too difficult to talk about the Crucifixion, and so we make it too difficult to talk about the Resurrection, unless we are talking about them in the context of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter.

But sometimes too, I fear, we make it too easy to talk about children because we romanticise childhood in our comfortable settings, yet too difficult to talk about children because too often we have to turn away, mentally and emotionally, when we see the suffering of children in the world today.

I think all of us have been disturbed for some years now about the terrors that are rained down on children in the world today.

I say ‘children’ and not ‘innocent children,’ because there is no such being as a guilty child – there are only innocent children.

And the suffering and plight of children is all the more distressing when it is caused by the calculations of adults who dismiss this suffering as merely the collateral damage brought about by war.

For Christians, this distress must always be acute, must always demand our compassion, must always call for our response.

It cannot matter to us what label is placed on these children – whether the suffering Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip are Christians or Muslim; whether the children fleeing Syria as refugees are Christian or Muslim; whether the children targeted by Saudi fighter bombers are Shia or Sunni, going to a school or a wedding; whether the children separated forcibly from their parents on the border between Texas and Mexico speak Spanish or English; whether the homeless children who sleep in a cramped hotel room with their mothers tonight are travellers or settled children.

When the disciples argue in this Gospel reading about who is the greatest among them (verse 34), they are shamed into silence when they realise Jesus overhears what they say.

In response, he calls a child, puts the child among them, and tells them: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’ (verse 35). Then he takes a little child and puts it among them, then takes the child in his arms and says to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’ (verse 37).

We are not told whether this child is a boy or girl, free or slave, Jew or Samaritan, Greek or Roman, a street urchin or the child of one the Disciples.

Indeed, in all likelihood, the Disciples never noticed, for at that time a child was of no economic value and a burden on families until the child could earn his or her own way, or until the child had the potential of being the equivalent of a pension scheme for parents.

But in Saint Matthew’s version of this story (Matthew 18: 1-14), Christ tells us: ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven … it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost’ (verses 10-14).

The Kingdom of Heaven is like little things. Throughout the Gospels, Christ reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like:

● Sowing a seed;

● Giving a nest to the birds of the air;

● Mixing yeast;

● Turning small amounts of flour into generous portions of bread;

● Finding hidden treasure;

● Rushing out in joy;

● Selling all that I have because something I have found is worth more – much, much more, again and again;

● Searching for pearls;

● Finding just one pearl;

● Casting a net into the sea;

● Catching an abundance of fish;

● Drawing that abundance of fish ashore, realising there is too much there for my personal needs, and sharing it.

In this Gospel reading, we are told that Kingdom is like a little child.

Quite often, we romanticise this little child, thinking of a well-dressed, well-fed, well-loved child from our own family or own parish.

But for one moment imagine a playing child not knowing he is about to die on a beach in Gaza, a child falsely feeling secure on a school bus in Yemen, a frightened child in a Syrian mother’s arms cramped into a tiny boat in the Mediterranean, a wailing, distressed child on the Mexican border who has no idea where her parents are, a child in an hotel room tonight whose mother does not know where they are going to sleep tomorrow night.

These are last in the world’s priorities, yet Christ says ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last … Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 35, 37).

‘… and three days after being killed he will rise again’ (Mark 9: 31) … the resurrection window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 9: 30-37:

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 37) … a window in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
Teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our guide,
you feed us with bread from heaven
as you fed your people Israel.
May we who have been inwardly nourished
be ready to follow you
all the days of our pilgrimage on earth,
until we come to your kingdom in heaven.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘For the beauty of the earth’ (Hymn 350) … by the river bank in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for next Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Proverbs 31: 10-31:

350, For the beauty of the earth
543, Lord of the home, your only Son
636, May the grace of Christ our Saviour
544, O perfect love, all human thought transcending

Psalm 1:

649, Happy are they, they that love God
56, Lord, as I wake I turn to you
383, Lord, be thy word my rule

Wisdom 1: 16 to 2: 1, 12-22:

10, All my hope on God is founded
700, Holy God, we praise thy name

Jeremiah 11: 18-20:

118, Behold, the mountain of the Lord
273, Led like a lamb to the slaughter
140, The Lord will come and not be slow

Psalm 54:

218, And can it be that I should gain
638, O for a heart to praise my God
620, O Lord, hear my prayer

James 3: 13 to 4: 3, 7-8a:

10, All my hope on God is founded
297, Come, thou Holy Spirit, come
563, Commit your ways to God
311, Fruitful trees, the Spirit’s sowing
533, God of grace and God of glory
551, How can we sing with joy to God
553, Jesu, lover of my soul
99, Jesus, the name high over all
635, Lord, be my guardian and my guide
619, Lord, teach us how to pray aright
593, O Jesus, I have promised
507, Put peace into each other’s hands
8, The Lord is King! Lift up your voice

Mark 9: 30-37:

11, Can we by searching find out God
219, From heav’n you came, helpless babe
651, Jesus, friend of little children
228, Meekness and majesty
231, My song is love unknown
439, Once, only once, and once for all
627, What a friend we have in Jesus
145, You servants of the Lord

‘Jesus, friend of little children’ (Hymn 651) … a stained glass window in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘They are like trees planted by streams of water’ (Psalm 1: 3) … willows by the banks of the River Cam in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Monday, 10 September 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 16 September 2018,
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

‘Look at ships … it takes strong winds to drive them’ (James 3: 4) … a late summer sunset at Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 16 September 2018, is the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI). The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, as adapted in the Church of Ireland, are:

Continuous Readings: Proverbs 1: 20-33; Psalm 19 or the Canticle The Song of Wisdom (Wisdom 7: 26 to 8: 1); James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27-38.

Paired Readings: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 116: 1-8; James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27-38.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Introducing the readings:

There is an interesting theme about Wisdom running through the Continuous Readings provided for next Sunday. The qualities of wisdom as an image of God are described in the first reading. The Psalm describes how wisdom can be searched out and found. An alternative to the Psalm is found in the Canticle, ‘The Song of Wisdom,’ which describes the characteristics of wisdom.

The New Testament reading, however, warns us against unwise use of our tongue in talk and conversation, and the Gospel reading is an introduction to how the disciples, personified in Saint Peter, find it difficult to be wise about who Christ is.

‘Wisdom cried out in the street … at the entrance of the city gates she spoke’ (Proverbs 1: 20-21) … a gate in the city walls in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Proverbs 1: 20-33:

Wisdom, who is personified as a woman, makes her first appearance in this book in this reading and delivers warnings of her own.

She speaks in public places where she can be heard – as did the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah – reaching ordinary people in the street and the busy people who work at the city gates. She calls to the simple, to the scoffers and to fools, all of whom reject wisdom.

If only they would change their ways, she would make God’s ways known to them. But, even though she has stretched out her hand, they have not changed their ways and they laugh at her.

But, she warns them, she will have the last laugh. Their downfall will be sudden and unpredictable, like a storm or a whirlwind, when they will realise it too late. Then, because they hated knowledge and chose not to hold God in awe, because they did not accept the advice of Wisdom, nor listened to her criticism of their ways, they will reap what they have sown. But those who listen to Wisdom’s call will live ‘without dread of disaster.’

‘The sun … comes forth like a like a bridegroom out of the chamber’ (Psalm 19: 5) … a winter sunrise at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 19:

This Psalm is familiar to many churchgoers because its closing words were often used in the past by preachers as the opening prayer as they began their sermons: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’ (Psalm 19: 14).

In the Psalm, the heavens and the firmament are depicted as telling us of God’s glory and work. The firmament was understood as almost like a pudding bowl over the earth, and beyond this was a hierarchy of heavens.

God’s glory is told day and night to all without needing to use words. The sun rises early in the morning, making God’s presence known with its heat.

Verses 7-9 present the wonders of the law as an expression of God’s will for humanity. It revives the soul, gives wisdom to the innocent, rejoices the heart and gives light to the eye.

‘Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light’ (Wisdom 7: 26) … the reflections of evening lights at the harbour in Skerries, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Canticle Song of Wisdom (Wisdom 7: 26 to 8: 1):

The lectionary provides the Canticle The Song of Wisdom as an alternative to the psalm on Sunday. This is one of the 20 canticles provided for use at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer (see pp 132-133), but unlike other Biblical canticles in this section – such as Venite and Jubilate, we are offered only one form of this canticle.

The Book of Wisdom is important for our ideas of Christ. As in the first reading (Proverbs 1: 20-33), Wisdom is once again personified as a woman. She has 21 characteristics of wisdom – although some are repeated to reach this number. In Hebrew literature, the number 7 signifies perfection, while the number 3 is the divine number. So, the number 21 represents divine or absolute perfection.

Wisdom flows from eternal light, is a flawless reflection of God’s activity, and an image of his goodness. Wisdom can do all things, is constant unchanging, gives life to each generation, and enters the souls of the godly. Wisdom is morally perfect and ‘orders all things well.’

‘Look at ships … though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them’ (James 3: 4) … a sail ship at the quays in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

James 3: 1-12:

The author of this Epistle is a teacher who realises the expectations for teachers is greater than those for others, and warns that none of us can live a perfect, Christian, moral life.

The tongue is small, but like a horse’s bit or a ship’s rudder, it can steer and move the rest of the body, with grave consequences. The tongue can be set on fire by hell, is difficult to be tame, and is capable of spreading evil. It can be used for good or evil, to honour God or to curse other people, who are ‘made in the likeness of God.’ It should only be used for good.

In nature, a spring only produces good water or bad water, fig trees do not yield olives, nor do vines yield figs, and salt water cannot yield fresh water.

What do we produce that are signs of a living Christian faith?

Saint Peter … an Earley window in the porch of the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Mark 8: 27-38:

In this Gospel reading, Christ travels north from the Sea of Galilee to the villages around Caesarea Philippi, a town known for its shrines to the god Pan. It was first settled in the Hellenistic period, and was also known as Caesarea Paneas and Neronias.

On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Saint Peter tells Christ that he believes he is the Messiah (Mark 8: 29-30). Peter has that rock-like faith on which the Church is going to be built (see Matthew 16: 18-19).

But Christ then tells his disciples that it is not all going to be a bed of roses, indeed it is going to be more like a crown of thorns. He tells them that on the journey he is going to suffer, be derided, and face his own execution.

Saint Peter is upset. This is not what he expects. This is not what anyone of the day expects of the Messiah. He takes Jesus aside, and he rebukes him.

But he has got it wrong. Christ in turn rebukes Peter and reminds those present that if they want to be his followers they must take up their cross and follow him.

Later, during the trial of Jesus, Peter denies he is a follower of Christ, not just once, or even twice, but denies Christ three times before the cock crows.

This is the same Simon Peter who has a faith that is going to be so rock solid that the church could stand on it. This is the same Peter who drew his sword in the garden in a futile attempt to stop the arrest of Christ (John 18: 10-11; but see Matthew 26: 51-54, Mark 14: 47 and Luke 22: 49-51, where Peter is not named).

But, when push comes to shove, Peter denies Christ, and denies him three times in the course of just one night (Matthew 26: 69-75; Mark 14: 66-72; Luke 22: 54-62; John 18: 15-17, 25-27).

Yet this Peter is to find his potential, or rather Christ sees his potential, in an Easter story, a story of hope (John 21: 15-17).

The Risen Christ meets the disciples on the shore early in the morning. After breakfast, Christ asks Peter: ‘Do you love me?’ Peter answers, ‘Yes Lord; you know that I love you.’ Christ tells him: ‘Feed my lambs’ (verse 15).

A second time, Christ asks him, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter answers, ‘Yes Lord; you know that I love you.’ Christ tells him: ‘Tend my sheep’ (verse 16).

A third time, Christ asks him, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter feels hurt, and he sounds exasperated and exhausted as he answers a third time, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ This time Christ tells him: ‘Feed my sheep’ (verse 17).

Christ’s three questions to Peter serve as a way of reversing the three denials the previous week. Now he is given a triple charge: to feed the lambs of the Good Shepherd; to tend his sheep; and to feed his sheep.

Despite this, Saint Peter still does not manage to get it quite right all the time. He argues with Saint Paul at Antioch, and Paul rebukes Peter for seemingly trying to insist that Gentiles must become Jews if they are to convert to Christianity (Galatians 2: 11-13).

Even when he gets it wrong in Antioch, Saint Peter goes on to get it right at the first Council of the Church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15: 7-20). He goes on to refer to Saint Paul as ‘our beloved brother’ and his letters as ‘scripture,’ even when they may be difficult to understand (see II Peter 3: 16-17).

A later Church tradition says Saint Peter and Saint Paul taught together in Rome, founded Christianity in the city, and suffered martyrdom at the same time, so that an icon of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, standing side-by-side, is a popular icon of Church unity and ecumenism in the Orthodox Church.

Saint Peter depicted in a window in the north nave in in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Reflecting on the Gospel reading:

Like the people who are listening to Christ in Sunday’s Gospel reading, we are called to take up our cross and follow Christ (Mark 8: 34). Along the way, we may fall and stumble, we may wonder where we are going and why. But the Easter message is always a reminder that the journey in faith leads to is one of hope and love.

If Saint Peter knew what was ahead of him, he might have been even stronger in rebuking Christ in this Gospel reading. But the triumph comes not in getting what we want, not in engineering things so that God gives us what we desire and wish for, so that we get a Jesus who does the things we want him to do. The triumph comes at Easter, in the Resurrection.

We cannot separate who Christ is from what Christ does. In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Christ asks his disciples, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8: 29). The suffering of the Suffering Servant is an image that is drawn on when Christ talks in our Gospel reading this morning from Saint Mark’s Gospel.

There he talks about his coming passion and crucifixion, when he says that ‘the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed …’ (Mark 8: 31).

If we say we believe Christ suffered and died for our sins, then we must also say that he takes on the ways we are sinned against.

When people are taunted and spat on in the streets, when their ethnicity and their language become a matter for rejection and humiliation, then how do we respond to it when we think that it is Christ himself who is being spat upon, that Christ himself takes on the insults and the injuries?

But suffering and rejection must never have the last word. As Christ reminds us in this Gospel reading, all sufferings must end in hope: the Son of Man ‘after three days [will rise] again’ (Mark 8: 31). All suffering must eventually be put to an end, because that is the promise of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

To be true followers of Christ means taking up our cross and following him (Mark 8: 34). There is no shame in being Christ-like (Mark 8: 38). And so, we too must be willing to see any insult or taunt, any expression of prejudice or rejection, any racism or any discrimination based on ethnicity or language, gender or sexuality, colour or looks, is prejudice against Christ, is prejudice against the Body of Christ, is prejudice against all of us, is prejudice against me.

Some years ago, in my book Embracing Difference, I pointed out that immigrants and asylum seekers in Ireland suffer disproportionately when it comes to industrial accidents and poor wages. Statistics show they are more likely than Irish-born residents to be the victims of violent crime, including murder, to end up in prison, to be the victims of racism, to be killed in road traffic accidents, and to be the victims of workplace accidents, including fatal accidents.

Those same statistics show that a disproportionate number of the children admitted to our hospitals are the children of asylum seekers. If they suffer like this, then how ought we to respond as Christians?

Saint Peter and Saint Paul … a window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Mark 8: 27-38 (NRSV)

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28 And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29 He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Saint Peter depicted in one of the paired east windows in Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

O Lord,
Hear the prayers of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of mercy,
through our sharing in this holy sacrament
you make us one body in Christ.
Fashion us in his likeness here on earth,
that we may share his glorious company in heaven,
where he lives and reigns now and for ever.

‘Look at ships … though they are so large … yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the pilot directs’ (James 3: 4) … a ferry leaving the harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for next Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Proverbs 1: 20-33:

643, Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
11, Can we by searching find out God
324, God, whose almighty word

Psalm 19:

606, As the deer pants for the water
153, Come, thou Redeemer of the earth
351, From all that dwell below the skies
631, God be in my head
696, God, we praise you! God, we bless you!
616, In my life, Lord, be glorified
97, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
384, Lord, thy word abideth
432, Love is his word, love is his way
638, O for a heart to praise my God
34, O worship the King all-glorious above
35, The spacious firmament on high

The Song of Wisdom:

643, Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
33, O Lord of every shining constellation

Isaiah 50: 4-9a:

230, My Lord, what love is this
235, O sacred head, sore wounded
239, See, Christ was wounded for our sake

Psalm 116: 1-8:

494, Beauty for brokenness
374, When all thy mercies, O my God

James 3: 1-12:

31, Lord of the boundless curves of space
589, Lord, speak to me that I may speak
33, O Lord of every shining constellation
446, Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands

Mark 8: 27-38:

666, Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side
460, For all your saints in glory, for all your saints at rest (verse 1, 2j, 3)
533, God of grace and God of glory
588, Light of the minds that know him
59, New every morning is the love
108, Praise to the Holiest in the height
599, ‘Take up thy cross,’ the Saviour said
112, There is a Redeemer
605, Will you come and follow me

‘Wisdom cried out in the street … at the entrance of the city gates she spoke’ (Proverbs 1: 20-21) … a gate in the city walls in Collioure in the south of France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Monday, 3 September 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 9 September 2018,
Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

But she answered, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’ (Mark 7: 28) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next, 9 September 2018, is the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XV). The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, as adapted in the Church of Ireland, are:

Continuous Readings: Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2: 1-10, (11-13,) 14-17; Mark 7: 24-37.

Paired Readings: Isaiah 35: 4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2: 1-10, 11–13, 14-17; Mark 7: 24-37.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Introducing the readings:

The continuous readings in the lectionary for next Sunday move us on to the Book of Proverbs and we return to the readings in Year B in Saint Mark’s Gospel.

The emphasis in these readings is on justice, especially for the poor and the marginalised, and connecting the feeding and clothing of the poor and looking after their health and housing with faith and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

‘Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity’ (Proverbs 22: 8) … Limerick courthouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23:

Following last week’s brief exploration of the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, next Sunday’s Old Testament reading is the first of three readings from the Book of Proverbs, a book we continue reading on Sundays and weekdays until Sunday 23 September.

A proverb is a pithy statement that expresses a ‘common sense’ truth in a striking, memorable way. This book is a collection such pithy sayings by a scholar to a student on leading a moral life that gives proper respect to God.

God shows no special favour to the rich, but is impartial between the rich and the poor. We are advised to value justice, to be generous and to attend to the needs of the poor – themes that are important in both the new Testament reading and the Gospel stories.

The ‘afflicted at the gate’ are the people at the margins who are waiting outside society for justice – which provides an important introduction to and context for the Gospel reading.

‘The just shall not put their hands to evil’ (Psalm 125: 3) … the courthouse in Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 125:

This psalm is one of the ‘Songs of Ascent,’ sung by pilgrims travelling up to Jerusalem.

It is not power and wealth that makes someone strong and firm like a mountain, but trust in God or faith. Those who have power and privilege may be wicked, but we are called to be good and ‘true of heart.’

‘Have you … become judges with evil thoughts?’ (James 2: 4) … the Four Courts by the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

James 2: 1-10, (11-13,) 14-17:

Last Sunday [2 September 2018, Trinity XIV], we heard the author of this letter urge his readers to ‘be doers of the word, and not merely hearers’ (James 1: 22) of the Gospel, giving as an example care for widows and orphans.

In this reading, Saint James continues his discussion of the responsibilities we have as Christians to the disadvantaged. He challenges his readers to consider whether our favouritism and partiality is consistent with our belief in Christ, who in his glory makes nonsense of distinctions based on status.

If strangers come into church – the word translated here as ‘assembly’ is συναγωγή or synagogue – do we offer them better seats, more honour and respect, because they are well dressed, while we leave others standing?

Do we judge by appearances?

Do we discriminate?

He challenges us to recall that Christ’s preference is for the poor, who will have faith and inherit the kingdom.

We are reminded that the summary of the law is ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (verse 8; see Leviticus 19: 18, Matthew 22: 39, Mark 12: 31, Luke 10: 27).
It makes no sense to say we have faith if we do not show love by seeing that the hungry have food and through promoting peace. As we were challenged last Sunday, we are called to ‘be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.’

But she answered, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’ (Mark 7: 28) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 7: 24-37:

Last Sunday (Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23), we heard how Christ challenges official but non-Biblical traditions about ritual purity and shows how they are irrelevant.

This Sunday, Christ steps out of the area of the ritually pure and into the land of the ritually poor, visiting the Greek-speaking, gentile regions of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis, shares the table with, has physical contact with, and brings healing and wholeness to people who are on the margins and outside the boundaries, not only because of their ethnic and religious backgrounds, but because of their gender, their age and their disabilities.

There are two stories in this Gospel reading: one is set in Tyre, and recalls Christ’s meeting with the Greek-speaking Syro-Phoenician woman and the healing of her daughter (Mark 7: 24-30); the second is set in Sidon or in the Decapolis, and recalls the healing of a man who is deaf and hardly able to speak (Mark7: 31-37).

Part 1, Mark 7: 24-30:

In the first part of this reading, Christ travels to Tyre, a coastal area north of Galilee, and a largely Gentile area. He is seeking some time on his own, away from the demands of the crowds and other people, and he stays in a house that must have been the home of a Jewish family.

The story is also told in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15: 21-28), which also tell us that Christ is accompanied by the disciples (Matthew 15: 23), and the woman is described as a Canaanite woman.

In Saint Mark’s Gospel, in the NRSV translation, she is ‘a Gentile, a Syrophoenician origin’ (verse 26). But the original Greek text describes her as ‘a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth’ (ἦν Ἑλληνίς, Συροφοινίκισσα τῷ γένει).

The Clementine Homilies name this woman as Justa and her daughter as Bernice. But, like so many women in the Gospels, they are unnamed.

She is not of Jewish origin, but she is an example of a woman who is a righteous Gentile; Old Testament comparisons include Ruth the Moabite and Achior the Ammonite (Judith), or we might be reminded of the Gentiles healed by Elijah and Elisha (see I Kings 17: 8-16; II Kings 5: 1-14). She seeks healing for her daughter who is possessed by an ‘unclean spirit’ (verse 25) or a ‘demon’ (verse 26); she is at home, lying sick on bed – the phrasing, context and wording makes me wonder whether this girl is suffering from anorexia.

When Christ replies (verse 27), the children he refers to are not her children, but Jewish believers. Jewish writers sometimes referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs.’ Dogs were regarded as unclean (see Revelation 22: 15), but Christ’s intention may have been humorous when he uses this phrase to ask rhetorically whether the woman believes his ministry is principally to Jews, although in this scene both Jews and Gentiles are at or near the table.

If Christ’s retort is meant to be witty, then the woman is also witty in her reply, appearing to ask whether her daughter is a ‘little bitch’ (verse 28): κυνάριον (kinárion) in verse 28 is translated as ‘dog’ in the NRSV, but it is diminutive and could be more accurately rendered as ‘little dog’ … even ‘little bitch’!

This woman might all too easily have interpreted this response as rude if not racist. Instead, she engages with the same humour, showing she has a confident faith. She claims a place for non-Jews in God’s plan, Christ accepts her claim, and her daughter is cured completely.

Part 2, Mark 7: 31-37:

After a circuitous journey through Gentile territory, Christ now heads towards Galilee. Sidon is north of Tyre, half-way between Tyre and Beirut; the Decapolis was a Greek-speaking region that took its name (Δεκάπολις) from 10 cities east of Galilee, Damascus once being counted as the most northerly of these 10 cities.

The description of this journey is difficult to map or track. But Sidon may be a misreading for Saidan, another name for Bethsaida, east of the River Jordan. In either case, the location of this story, once again, is an area where the majority of the people are gentiles.

A man with hearing and speech impediments is brought to Jesus. The story is also told in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15: 29-31).

Some rabbinic sources consider a deaf person heresh, similar to being a minor or mentally ill, and therefore not responsible for observing the law. For a strict and observant religious Jew at the time, he was not an appropriate person to have physical contact with – he ought to have been on the margins, on the edges of the people who came in contact with Jesus.

This man is kept on the margins, perhaps outside the town. But this man is brought for healing to Jesus, by his friends or his family.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ healings usually by word alone, as we see in the previous episode in this reading. But in this story, Jesus is asked to lay his hand on him, a form of healing known only in the Qumran literature from the Dead Sea and in the Church.

In healing this man, Christ uses two symbols, one for deafness and one for speech. He puts his fingers in the man’s ear and touches his tongue with spittle. Moved with compassion, Jesus sighs, prays, and the man is healed.

The cure is immediate and again complete, and although Jesus asks those present to tell no one, the good news spreads quickly. ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak’ (verse 37) is a partial citation of a section in Isaiah on Israel’s glorious future:

‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert.’ (Isaiah 35: 5-16)

The kingdom of God is already breaking in.

Detail from the ‘Sarcophagus of the Crying Women,’ from Sidon, now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum

A Reflection on the Gospel reading: ‘Pity distracts my aching heart, pity for a mother’s heart’

I am embarrassed at times when I am caught off-guard, caught with my compassion down. So often, I fail to respond to the needs of others, not just in giving, but in being their advocate, in speaking up for them, in being compassionate, in sharing their pain, in seeing who they truly are inside rather than how they appear to be on the outside.

But would any of us like to be seen behaving the way Christ behaves in the first part of our Gospel reading this morning, when he meets the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon?

On a first reading, the Gospel account of this meeting seems to show us Christ at first rejecting the pleas of a distressed woman, deeply worried about her daughter. One writer suggests that in this story Christ is caught with his compassion down. Even his disciples want to turn her away. They see her as a pest, a nuisance, a pushy woman breaking in to their closed space, their private area.

After a trying and busy time that included the beheading of John the Baptist, the feeding of the 5,000, the calming of the storm, and a major debate with leading Pharisees, Christ and his disciples have arrived in the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon, perhaps looking for a quiet break for a few days.

This is foreign territory, inhabited mainly by Canaanites or Phoenicians. In the Bible, Sidon was the city of Jezebel (I Kings 16: 31), and the area was associated with the Prophet Elijah, who raises the widow’s child from death (I Kings 17: 9-24), and who, in Father Kieran O’Mahony’s words, ‘was markedly, even offensively, open to foreigners.’

These were coastal, cultured cities, Hellenised and Greek-speaking since the days of Alexander the Great, and known for the arts and commerce. Sidon was the first city of the Phoenicians and the mother city of Tyre, known as its ‘Virgin Daughter’ (see Isaiah 23: 12). Mothers and daughters – one of the great archaeological finds from Sidon is the ‘Sarcophagus of the Crying Women,’ now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

So, Christ could expect to find himself among a large number of Greek-speaking ‘gentiles’ in this area. Would the Disciples expect him to behave like Elijah and to break all the rules in being open to them, to take miraculous care of a lone mother and her child?

Or would they expect him to treat all Phoenician women like Jezebel and leave them to the dogs?

In Saint Matthew’s account, the woman who confronts Christ is a Canaanite woman; in Saint Mark’s telling (Mark 7: 24-31), she is a Greek or Syro-Phoenician woman (verse 26). Both mean the same thing, for Canaan in Hebrew and Phoenicia in Greek both mean the Land of Purple.

She was a gentile, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman.

What right had she to invade their privacy?

Could she not just accept life as it is?

In the classical world, Phoenician women were pushy women. About 400 years earlier, the Greek playwright Euripides wrote his tragic play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoenissae), rewriting a story told by Aeschylus in Seven Against Thebes, dealing with tragic events after the fall of Oedipus.

The title of the play, The Phoenician Women, refers to the chorus, composed of Phoenician women on their way to serve in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi but trapped in Thebes by the war. But the Phoenician Women in the chorus – and remember a Greek chorus was normally played by wizened old men – are mere bystanders, watching an unfolding tragedy that disrupts their plans.

The two key women in the play are Iocasta and her daughter Antigone, who have survived against all odds. These two women, mother and daughter, challenge the accepted concepts in the Classical world of fate and free-will. In the face of death, they refuse to accept what others would impose as their destiny; they refuse to be pushed aside, marginalised and dismissed while the men around them compete for power.

So, in the time of Christ, cultured, Greek-speaking people, including those in Tyre and Sidon, expected a Greek-speaking Phoenician woman and her daughter to be pushy when faced with what appeared to be a cruel fate – even if this involved confronting successful or ambitious men: they were prepared to stand up to kings and their retinues, to challenge them, and to risk rejection, exile and even death.

For their part, the disciples, probably, were not open to this cultural dimension, and would have dismissed the woman as a gentile, a stranger, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. Her religion, language, nationality and gender place her beyond their compassion.

The NRSV says she bows down at Jesus’ feet. But the original Greek is more direct when it tells us she prostrates herself in homage and worship before him, perhaps touching her forehead to the ground: ἐλθοῦσα προσέπεσεν πρὸς τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ, she fell down, or prostrated herself, at his feet (verse 25).

In Saint Matthew’s account, the disciples are like the chorus staged by Euripides: they become wizened old men, obsessed only with their religious future and failing to have compassion for the outsiders who enter their lives, talking in asides at the side of the tragedy, but not actually engaging with it. In Saint Mark’s account, they are not even on the scene.

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 164r - The Canaanite Woman (The Musée Condé, Chantilly)

Faced with her daughter’s needs, the woman ignores the disciples: she is direct and aggressive in demanding healing and justice. And in demanding justice and healing for her daughter, she is, of course, demanding the same for herself too.

Her dialogue with Christ must have sounded crude and aggressive to those who overhear the drama, who witness the tragedy. This pushy woman forces herself onto the stage, addresses Christ in Messianic terms, and makes no demands for herself but demands healing for her daughter.

At first, Christ appears to treat her with contempt. At first, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, he does not even respond to her; instead, he turns away and tells his friends, the chorus, that he is only here for the lost sheep of Israel (verse 24). But she is persistent and – with a touch of melodrama – she throws herself at the feet of Christ.

Christ then describes his fellow Jews as ‘little children,’ and shockingly compares the Gentiles with dogs, little dogs (verse 26). Today, it sounds like he is calling this woman a bitch, and her daughter a little bitch. But there is something even more shocking here: at that time, dogs were regarded as unclean animals. They were kept outside the city gates, and in Saint Luke’s Gospel we see how low the beggar Lazarus has sunk that outside the gates of Dives the dogs lick his sores (Luke 16: 19-31, see especially verse 21).

Despite the title of Don Bluth’s animated movie, All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), it was held at the time of Christ that dogs must be kept outside the city gates, and that they were the only animals excluded with certainty from heaven (see Revelation 22: 15). And the disciples would have thought instantly of that other pushy Phoenician woman, Jezebel, who met her death by being thrown to the dogs in the streets.

All this makes Christ’s words and images deeply offensive, culturally and theologically, unless he is engaging in humorous banter with this woman.

For one moment, try to imagine the body language that accompanies this conversation. Imagine you are trying to stage this Gospel story as drama. You would have Christ talking face-to-face with this pleading, pushy woman. But the disciples are standing behind him, like wizened old men in a Greek chorus, or like the women in the chorus in the Phoenician Women … more distressed by the disruption to their religious careers than they are by the plight of a mother and her daughter and the tragedy that unfolds around them.

The disciples, as a chorus, can see the woman’s facial reactions to Christ … but they cannot see the face of Christ.

By now, he has engaged with this woman face-to-face. So, she now knows it is worth pushing her demands for mercy and help. So, who is Christ expecting a response from? The woman has already shown both her compassion and her faith. The question now is – can the disciples also show proof of their compassion and faith?

The woman not only has compassion and faith, but she also shows humour when, in her response to Christ she engages in banter with him. She tells him that even puppy dogs, when they are away from adult view, play under the table.

Could Christ, when he is away from the view of Jewish crowds, not engage with those he does not sit to table with, but who nevertheless are in his presence, those he had dismissed as dogs?

Christ appreciates this encounter: her insistence on meeting him face-to-face, her refusal to be oppressed on the grounds of ethnicity, history, religion, language or gender, her forthright way of speaking and her subliminal but humorous comparisons are all part of the drama. They all combine to show that she is a woman of faith. The NRSV translation has her address Jesus as ‘Sir,’ which sounds like civility, if not servility, today. But in the original Greek she addresses him in the vocative as Κύριε (Kyrie).

The word Κύριος (kyrios) or ‘Lord’ was a title of honour, respect and reverence, used by servants to greet their master. The word Kyrios appears about 740 times in the New Testament, usually referring to Jesus. The use of kyrios in the New Testament is the subject of debate.

Many scholars, drawing on the Septuagint usage, says the designation is intended to assign to Jesus the Old Testament attributes of God. At the time the Septuagint was translated, Jews when reading aloud Jews pronounced Adonai, the Hebrew word for ‘Lord,’ when they came across the name of God, ‘YHWH,’ and so this was translated into Greek in each instance as kyrios. Early Christians were familiar with the Septuagint.

Saint John’s Gospel seldom uses kyrios to refer to Jesus during his ministry, but uses it after the Resurrection, although the vocative kyrie appears frequently.

Saint Mark never applies the term kyrios as a direct reference to Jesus, unlike Saint Paul, who uses it 163 times. When Saint Mark uses the word kyrios (see Mark 1: 3, 11: 9, 12: 11, &c), he does so in reference to YHWH/God. He also uses the word in places where it is unclear whether it applies to God or Jesus (see Mark 5: 19, 11: 3). In any case, the title kyrios for Jesus is central to the development of New Testament Christology.

The faith the woman shows here now produces results. In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Christ responds to her demands, and she returns home to find her child has been healed (Mark 7: 30). Saint Matthew has Christ go further – he commends her for her faith … and her daughter is healed instantly (verses 29-30).

Nothing is said about the response of the disciples, who are not in Saint Mark’s account, but in Saint Matthew’s account have been trying to push her away, despite her crying, her tears, her distress, her plight over her daughter. Nothing is said about the response of the disciples … perhaps because we are the disciples. How do you and I respond to encounters like this?

As a social response, for example, we might consider that the confrontation is an illustration of how we might respond to the needs of strangers and foreigners. Do we find them pushy and demanding?

How do we respond to the foreign woman who wants the same treatment in hospital for her child as Irish-born children get?

How do we respond when foreigners who are more open and joyful in conversation appear to encroach on our privacy on the bus, on the street, in the shops?

Are we like the Disciples, and want to send them away?

Or are we like Christ, and engage in conversation with them?

Do we think we have some privileges that should not be shared with the outsider and the stranger?

Do we remain silent when they plead for their children but are deported against their will?

How do we respond to people who are pushy and continue to demand care for their children in the face of society’s decision to say no?

The parents who want teaching support for children with learning disabilities? The parents who want to know why children’s hospitals are so badly funded they have to raise funds with charity events while their children wait for treatment?

Or could we say, as the ‘Phoenician Women’ in the Chorus say, after hearing the distress of Iocasta and Antigone: ‘Pity distracts my aching heart, pity for a mother’s heart’?

But this Gospel story also raises questions at a personal, spiritual level too, when it comes to matters of faith.

How many people do you know who give up when they turn to God in prayer and find those who are supposed to represent Christ appear to turn them away?

How many times have I dismissed the needs and prayers of others because they appear to be outside the community of faith as I understand it?

And, at a personal level, how many times have I gone to God in prayer, and given up at what appears to be the first refusal?

This woman is rebuffed, but she is insistent. She refuses to accept what other people regarded as her fate and destiny. She receives the mercy and help she asks for, and because of her faith her daughter is healed, healed instantly.

We do not have to accept misery in our family life, even if others see it as our fate or our destiny. And in simple prayers we may find more in the answer than we ever ask for.

In the small miniature below Jean Colombe’s painting of the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Disciples, gathered like a Greek chorus, can see her but cannot see the body language and facial reaction of Christ

Mark 7: 24-37:

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28 But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29 Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

Green is the liturgical colour for Ordinary Time (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

God,
who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
we have received these tokens of your promise.
May we who have been nourished with holy things
live as faithful heirs of your promised kingdom.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy (James 2: 13) … the museum in the old courthouse in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for next Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23:

494, Beauty for brokenness
523, Help us to help each other, Lord
432, Love is his word, love is his way

Psalm 125:

3, God is love: let heaven adore him
34, O worship the King all–glorious above
595, Safe in the shadow of the Lord

Isaiah 35: 4-7a:

231, My song is love unknown (verses 1, 2, 4, 7)
166, Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
104, O for a thousand tongues to sing
113, There is singing in the desert

Psalm 146:

4, God, who made the earth
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
92, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
357, I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath
97, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
99, Jesus, the name high over all
535, Judge eternal, throned in splendour
363, O Lord of heaven and earth and sea
708, O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height
712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord
8, The Lord is King! Lift up your voice
376, Ye holy angels bright

James 2: 1-10 (11-13), 14-17:

494, Beauty for brokenness
402, Before I take the body of my Lord
317, Father all–loving, you rule us in majesty
39, For the fruits of his creation
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
649, Happy are they, they that love God
495, Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
44, Praise and thanksgiving
527, Son of God, eternal Saviour
497, The Church of Christ in every age

Mark 7: 24-37:

65, At evening when the sun had set
511, Father of mercy, God of consolation
512, From you all skill and science flow
614, Great Shepherd of your people, hear
211, Immortal love for ever full
513, O Christ, the healer, we have come
104, O for a thousand tongues to sing
514, We cannot measure how you heal

Christ in conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman ... a modern icon

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org