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Recently I’ve been wading through the final book in Hilary Mantel’s series about Thomas Cromwell. If you’ve seen it, or read it, you’ll know why ‘wading’ might seem an appropriate word. It’s a big book.
But its size seems right for the magnitude of the topic. Thomas Cromwell was a man who rose from nothing to become second only to the King.
In Mantel’s imaginative portrayal that story of rags to riches is never far from the King’s mind.
Mantel imagines that the King would have found a friendly way to keep Thomas in his place; to remind him from where he’d come. So there’s a nickname linked to Cromwell’s surname.
The King calls him ‘crumb’.
I hope that isn’t a spoiler if you’ve not read it.
Every day we can choose words to build up or put down. We can honour others or diminish them; we can choose words of respect or words that emphasise our difference, our disparity.
We can all get it wrong – I know I do.
I’m not talking about a serious challenge to those with power, bringing down the mighty, but about the way the lowly are kept low. The casual words we use to patrol the difference between us and ‘them’.
In our Gospel today Jesus knew his mission. He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. It’s a wonderfully vivid and startling exchange in the way Matthew writes it. A scene we can all imagine.
We’ve all been in this position.
As a vicar in a parish I would be tempted at times to ask a caller where they lived. ‘Oh no, that’s not in my parish – it’s so-and-so’s parish down the road. Here’s their number….Why don’t you call on them, they’ll be able to help’.
When life is busy it’s always good to find that someone’s needs should be another person’s problem. I’d love to help but I work at the Minster – try St Olave’s!
Jesus was used to people who were persistent. He turned aside to help blind Bartimaeus and discerned the need of the bleeding woman who touched his cloak. Jesus always had time to stop for those in need.
Or did he?
Today’s reading suggests that even a Messiah can get to end of his tether.
A truly human Jesus of Nazareth could be tired, tetchy and beyond himself. The disciples are on his side. ‘Oh, for goodness sake Jesus; just tell her to go away’. Tell her to get lost.
He doesn’t do that – but he states his case about who he’s here to help, and it isn’t this woman. She persists, kneeling before him. His answer is stronger. It isn’t right to take the food meant for the children and give it to dogs. Whatever the woman felt in hearing these words, her love for her daughter makes her go one step further. Even the dogs, if that’s who we are, get to share in the crumbs.
I think, if you was a pre-packaged Messiah – perfect and with all the answers – then this is a difficult reading.
If, on the other hands, you believe in a Jesus who grows and learns and changes, then it offers profound hope. Jesus is with us, even when we aren’t as perfect as we would like to be. When we reduce others to crumbs, or dogs or whatever name we choose to lessen others.
The key, the most important part of this reading, is that Jesus listens. Even tired, at the end of his tether, or exhausted, he is able to hear. And to be changed. To find in the least likely person a moment of God revealed. A moment of breath-taking faith. A moment when the outsider is seen as the apostle, evangelist and the holder of great faith.
In recent days we have all seen the great scramble to return from France to the UK. Ferries packed with cars and lorries ploughing the narrow divide of the Channel. Perhaps you may also have thought about the small boats those greater vessels will pass. The people who try every day to enter our country and share in some of the things meant for us.
I’m not going to get into the politics and ethics of this reality now. What I do know, is that the way in which we speak about people seeking refuge and asylum is something we can all change. We can all think about the language we use and the culture it creates. Words that diminish those who already have so little; words that don’t belong in the Kingdom of God.
At times we’ll get it wrong – we all do – but we need to hear the words of those who challenge our casual belittling. The people who are more than a crumb and deserve greater dignity than to be called a dog.
In today’s reading we find a Jesus who is like us in our weaker moments. Yet also a Jesus who never loses the capacity to hear and the courage to change. A saviour who finds in encounter and conversation a faith beyond the limits of his expectation.
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