Matthew 15: 10-28 – 16th August 2020

What do you make of the Gospel reading set for 16th August 2020? … What does Jesus mean when he talks about the children and the dogs? Does it sound racist? Was Jesus being racist? That seems to be a blasphemous question to ask. Doesn’t it? ……..

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Why did Jesus say those words? Was it just rhetorical, aimed at getting the response it did? Was he just quoting a standard Jewish phrase? Was he, perhaps, working out his theology on the hoof? Learning as he went along? Applying what he had been taught by others and then discovering that it didn’t work or it was wrong. … Only realising as a result of this incident that his calling was wider than just to Israel? On the surface, in the first instance, he seems no different from his disciples. … Was it the woman herself that changed his mind? ……. What was going on? ………….

The Jewish establishment of Jesus’ day was concerned above all with purity – and we saw something of that in the first few verses of our Gospel reading. Our gospel goes on to raise real questions about racial purity. Just who does God see as his people. For many Jews it was clear – only the chosen people, only Jews. God wasn’t concerned for others, for the Gentiles.

Over the past few weeks in the Summer of 2020, we have once again seen images of refugees crossing the Channel in really unseaworthy boats, often small inflatables. I guess that we will also remember stories of people dying in container lorries in recent years. How should we respond to the stories we hear?

There is a very strong lobby which wants us to be fortress Britain. We are too full says that lobby. We cannot take any more. …

The world-wide statistics are indeed frightening.

According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2019, there were 79.5 million people displaced from their homes (about 1% of the world’s population) Many of them, 45.7 million displaced within their own countries but 29.6 million were refugees – people who have been forced out of their country of origin. Of these 5.6 million are Palestinian refugees and 3.6 million are Venezuelan refugees. Most (4 out of 5) stay as close as possible to their country of origin because they want, if at all possible, to return to their own land. ……There were 4.2 million asylum seekers throughout the world. [1]

The Governments statistics on asylum seekers show that, for the past 15 years or so numbers have actually been considerably lower than they were just after the millennium. [5]

What does this mean for the UK/Europe? The latest detailed figures available from the Red Cross [2] are for 2018.

Asylum Seekers: the UK received applications for asylum for 37,500 people (including dependents). This is far less than Germany (162,000), France (110,000), Greece (65,000) and Italy (49,000).

That works out as 5 applications per 10,000 UK population. In Europe the figure is 14 per 10,000 people.

Refugees whose claim for asylum has been accepted by the state in which they now dwell are given ‘leave to remain.’ But are still refugees. [2]

According to UNHCR statistics, at the end of 2018 there were 126,720 people still classed as refugees in the UK.  The number in Turkey is 3.7 million! [3]

The Syrian Crisis started in 2011. In the four years to 2015, the UK took 216 Syrian Refugees – 216 in 4 years! In 2020 the number has reached close to 20,000, the figure which was promised by the UK government.

At any one time around 5,000 people are waiting on the French side of the Channel to try to cross to the UK. Last year 1,900 crossed the channel, this year it has been 4,000, so far.

The most astounding figure that I have come across is the number of people granted asylum in Germany. This reached its peak in 2015 – wait for it – 440,000. Yes, over 400,000 in one year! Over the past 30 years, Germany has received at least 3.6 million asylum applications, or nearly one-third (32%) of all asylum applications in Europe over the period. [4]

In this context, what is our response to be, put up walls and exclude those most in need? Britain for the British! Fortress Britain. Keep everyone else out?

When we read the Old Testament we see that there was a constant tension in the life of Israel between those who believed that the Jewish race should be pure and ethnically ‘clean’, (whatever their reasons) and those who had a much broader vision. So Nehemiah and Ezra enact laws to prevent Jews marrying foreigners, yet the stories of Ruth and Jonah, probably written at around the same time, suggest that God is interested in the outsider and the foreigner. Ruth, who became the grandmother of King David (the person who became the symbol for the nation of Israel), was a hated foreigner, a Moabitess. And in Jonah, it is Nineveh, the hated Assyrian enemy city, that repents.

Jesus grew up in a community for whom those issues of racial purity were very important. Israel was for the Jews, no one else! That attitude would have been accepted as normal, an unwritten truth that the community accepted and which no one challenged. At some stage Jesus had to confront those attitudes in himself and his friends and family. Was this Gospel story the moment when it started to happen? …

Ultimately Jesus healed the woman’s daughter. But did he go through some sort of conflict within himself first? ………..

Does that help us when we grapple with our own feelings and ideas? Does it help to think of Jesus having similar struggles and overcoming them? Was this incident for Jesus just a little like the temptations in the wilderness – a real struggle? Or was it no more than the equivalent of swatting a fly? Easy? After all he was God, wasn’t he? Nothing too big or difficult for him! …

But Jesus was a real human being who had to learn and grow just like us. The toddler who had to take his first steps, the five year old who had to learn to read. ……

We have an ongoing struggle to engage with now in our country. It is a real struggle for the heart of our nation. Are we going to be xenophobic, focused only on ourselves, or are we going to be the open, relatively welcoming nation, that for much of our history we have been?

The issues are, of course, complicated.  Governments of all persuasions have struggled to work out what to do. There are no easy answers. ………

But I want to live in a country, in a world, where people matter; indeed that is a Gospel imperative. As Christians, we are called to respond to real need with a generous and open heart. We are called to set aside prejudice and to be open and welcoming.

Working that out can at times be complicated. We may need to make difficult choices at times. We will need to choose to be open, to place love and concern at the heart of our motives and actions. And as we do so we will begin to be a community that we can all be proud of, a community that welcomes the stranger.

References

  1. https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2019, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  2. https://www.redcross.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/how-we-support-refugees/find-out-about-refugees%20, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  3. https://www.unhcr.org/uk/asylum-in-the-uk.html, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  4. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2016/08/02/number-of-refugees-to-europe-surges-to-record-1-3-million-in-2015/#:~:text=Germany%20received%20an%20unprecedented%20442%2C000,of%20Europe%27s%202015%20asylum%20seekers, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  5. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-october-to-december-2016/asylum, accessed on 16th August 2020.

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