Did you watch “Who do you think you are?” on the television on Thursday night? The singer Lulu was looking into the story of her grandparents: her grandfather was an Irish Catholic in Glasgow and her grandmother was the daughter of the Leader of the Protestant Orange Lodge Women’s Group. And this was a time when Protestants and Catholics in Glasgow didn’t have anything to do with each other. Both families tried to keep the two young lovers apart, and failed utterly, a sort of early-twentieth-century Romeo and Juliet. But it was a reminder of just how much hate there can be between different groups of people.
We have seen a lot of that recently in the news. Last weekend, white nationalist marched in Charlottesville Virginia shouting slogans against Jews. They included nazi groups and members of the Ku Klux Klan, organisations that pursue the politics of hatred, asserting the supremacy of whites over blacks. Church leaders walked against them as a witness to Christ’s message of love and inclusion. And what made it worse was that Donald Trump was clearly supporting the white nationalist and their evil ways.
Then on Thrusday night the attacks on Barcelona and Cambrils took place – the latest in a long line of attacks fuelled by hatred.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus took a break and he and the gang went up north into Lebanon. Maybe he had annoyed too many people and needed to get away for a bit. Maybe he thought he could have a bit of peace and quiet in a place where people didn’t know him. Maybe he wanted to spend some time teaching the disciples. We don’t know for sure. But despite his best intentions he was quickly recognised.
A local woman from the area came and stood within sight of them all and shouted, “Have mercy on me,” – it was the call of a beggar, someone in need. She knew who he was allright, because she called him “Lord, son of David”. And she wouldn’t stop shouting. She wanted something from Jesus, and she wanted it badly. “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” She was a carer at the end of her tether. She wanted her daughter to be well and she didn’t know where else to turn. And just when she couldn’t cope any more, the healer comes to town. Rumours about him had even crossed the border. And her family needed healing. The trouble was, of course, was that he was a Jew, a man, a healer, a teacher. And she was a poor woman from another race, another religion. The Jews regarded her kind as pagans. She wouldn’t normally expect kindness from a Jew. But this man was different.
He ignored her at first, but she went on shouting, “Have mercy on me!” Maybe if she made a fuss long enough, someone would listen to her.
The disciples closed in on him, muttering away. She could see that they were aggrieved. She came closer, standing just beyond the group of men. She could see him better now. He looked tired. He turned to her and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
She fell on her knees. “Please help me!” Her voice was plaintive, quiet now, pleading. His friends just stood there watching, horrified, disapproving. For them, she was just a piece of dirt. But he, He was different.
He said, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It felt like a test, a challenge.
As far as his kind were concerned, her people were dogs. It was an insult – the kind of insult that came easily between his folk and her folk. There was no love lost between them.
She took a deep breath. His friends were glaring at her, willing her to slink away. But no, she wasn’t going to do that. She had nothing to lose and everything to gain. She took his insult and turned it around.
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even dogs get to eat the crumbs from the master’s table!”
He appeared to relax a bit and even smiled. He looked round at his friends, looking for their reaction. Things weren’t going as they expected. Jesus wasn’t sending her away and she seemed to have bested him in a moral argument.
He looked back at her. “Woman,” he said. “You sure have some faith. Your daughter will be healed.” And she was, and it was amazing, and wonderful. The months and years of distress fell away, and their lives took a new turn.
She didn’t see what happened next when Jesus and the disciples got down to discussing what just took place there. She didn’t see him explaining how there was no ‘us’ and ‘them’, how God loved everyone, even foreigners, even women, even people from a different race and another religion. And if he, Jesus, could have fellowship with them and minister to them, so could the disciples, even if they never had before. It was a hard lesson, challenging some of their deepest perceptions.
And Jesus challenges us. When we treat people badly because we don’t believe they deserve respect, Jesus is there, looking straight at us, challenging us to think again. Jesus was there with the church leaders in Charlottesville weeping at the hatred in the hearts of the white supremacists. Jesus was there on the streets of Barcelona and London and Manchester and Nice and Paris, when attacks came out of nowhere. Jesus is there when one group of Christians hate another group of Christians and claim they are doing it for the Lord. When evil happens, Jesus is there, challenging the perpetrators to look at their own shadows.
Jesus gives us an example: don’t hate “them” ever, whoever “they” are. “They” are God’s children. God loves them. Jesus loves them, even the most unlikely people. You must love them too.