The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Pentecost XV – 9 September 2012
Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God shall come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”
From the Letter of St. James:
The brother of our Lord admonished his readers saying, My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Having healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman as well as a deaf and dumb man, the people were astonished beyond measure, saying, He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
I have often said that the job of the preacher would be so much easier and yield such greater results if, when one confessed his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, all his afflictions would be healed, his bank account would swell and his life filled with happiness. All of us want health, wealth and happiness with the first priority being health.
We know that any kind of automatic state of health, wealth and happiness that accompanies a conversion to Christ just does not happen. In fact, our Lord asks us to take up our crosses. His plan for our lives may be very different from ours. Yet we seek that health, wealth and happiness even though we know better.
How many times have you heard it said – or said it yourself, If you have your health, you have everything. The truth of this is obvious. An active, healthy life – pain free and fully energetic – cannot be underestimated. Health is a priceless treasure, for sure.
And yet, when we’re healthy we usually take it for granted and want – often passionately want, wealth believing that happiness will follow. Human nature fails to remember to offer gratitude for our blessings. We just want so much more forgetting what we already have. We appreciate health most when we are ill. And again, when we take our health for granted, we set wealth as the priority.
Well most of us know that wealth does not necessarily bring happiness. Even the most casual look at some the world’s wealthiest people proves that. Think of Howard Hughes – one of the wealthiest men in the world in his time – yet a miserable recluse in his senior years. Born to wealth, he increased his personal fortunes through his Hollywood production company as well as in aviation. He owned Trans World Airlines and eventually American Airlines.
But even as a young and wealthy man, Hughes never experienced the quality of life that anyone might call happiness. Some said of him that he was always a tormented man with that torment increasing with age.
We could attribute his misery to mental illness. Yet the point is well made – wealth does not necessarily bring either health or happiness. Unhappiness and mental illness, just like physical illness, is an equal opportunity affliction.
St. James, the brother of our Lord and the Bishop of Jerusalem in the earliest days of the church, took onto himself a state of perpetual poverty. Obviously not born to wealth, he nonetheless had as good a life as any of those who worked as craftsmen.
Not among the poorest, he nonetheless disavowed any form of worldly wealth and established the Jerusalem church with the same requirement. We need to remember that, in the chosen sate of perpetual poverty, the Jerusalem congregation relied on the gifts of the wealthy in order to survive. The nobleness of their poverty could not have happened if the wealthier churches in the ancient world did rise to the equally noble task of supporting that church.
In our generation, Mother Teresa, having chosen a life of poverty to minister to the health needs of the world’s poorest people, could have accomplished nothing whatsoever if the wealthy did not support her righteous ministry of good works. She lived her life for others. She obeyed our Lord’s commandment that as you minister to the least of these my brethren, you minister also unto me. But Mother Teresa’s righteousness depended upon the generous gifts of wealthy people. The healing she accomplished – or better expressed, that God accomplished through her, would not have been possible otherwise.
The Letter of St. James makes many important points and emphasizes his belief that just the word of faith are not enough. Speaking the words will have a hallow ring if good deeds do not result.
Our Lord’s brother makes a good point when he instructs us that we should show no partiality in our faithful good works. He is especially concerned that we not favor the rich over the poor. An almost natural part of human nature is to ingratiate oneself to the wealthy in order to gain some advantage, perhaps to share in their power and prestige. Yet St. James reminds us that poor people are every bit as worthy of friendship, affection, respect, honor, care and concern, as are the wealthy.
He also points out that God has chosen the poor to become wealthy in faith and heirs to the kingdom. He reminds us that the rich often oppress the poor and were among those least likely to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So in love with themselves, they did not love the Lord. The wealthier Pharisees opposed the Lord while the shepherds, peasants, servants, craftsmen and the ordinary people were among his brother’s most faithful followers.
But the issue with which he concerns himself in this letter – a sermon really reflecting the essence of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – is not so much rich or poor but rather a faithfulness that shows no partiality to anyone.
His brother showed no partiality regarding one’s financial status when it came to healing. We see this dramatically manifested when He healed the daughter of the Greek, Syrophonecian woman. Her wealth or poverty is not mentioned in the account. She may have been poor – she may have been wealthy. We do not know. And our Lord did not ask.
What was important was that she was rich in faith. A pagan, she went to Jesus seeking His healing power for her afflicted daughter. She went to the right place – the right person. Initially, Jesus rebuked her saying that He had been sent to the children of Israel. Without a doubt, Jesus was partial – by His Father’s intention – to the Jews. The world’s salvation would come first to God’s chosen people and then, from them, to the rest of the world. Such was God’s plan for His Son’s life in this world.
Jesus’ words were sharp and cutting. He said, Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Wow! So much for Jesus meek and mild, kind and gentle – a surprising statement from our Lord for sure – and problematic for theologians throughout the centuries.
She retorted, Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Do these words sound even vaguely familiar? They should. We speak them whenever we partake in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy Table. This prayer is called The Prayer of Humble Access.
The issue here is not Hebrew or Greek heritage – or any other for that matter- not even one’s religion – but rather humility. Humility gives access. Simple as that. God had chosen the least important nation in the ancient world through which to reveal Himself. The church has always taught that even the chosen state of the chosen people stood over and against all those who, because they were rich and powerful believed themselves to be entitled to every blessing, that those who did not share in that state of blessing were somehow cursed by God and unworthy of His attention. Hence, many of the most prominent of the chosen saw themselves as superior and entitled.
Many of God’s chosen people became rich and powerful. They became arrogant taking on the aforementioned arrogant attitude of entitlement. The Syrophonecian woman’s humility – not her ethnic heritage – opened the door to her daughter’s healing – a surprising healing in so many ways.
Arrogant entitlement is always a sin – a sin for anyone regardless of his or her financial status. The arrogantly entitled poor are just as bad as the arrogantly entitled rich. We must not discriminate in favor the poor claiming entitlement at the expense of the generous – and often humble – rich. Remember, without the rich, the Jerusalem church would have failed long before it actually did. Without the rich, Mother Teresa would have failed. And without the generous gifts of the wealthy of this congregation, we would have closed years ago.
Looking at all of our Lord’s healing miracles, none of them mentions the financial status of those healed. When He made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak, He healed them without concern for their material condition. We can assume that some of those healed were rich and others poor. He never inquired of their financial status – never
did a means check. He simply healed. Again, wealth or poverty that’s not the issue. A humble faith is. St. James said, Show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord, Jesus Christ….
It is currently popular to condemn the rich and glorify the poor as if the poor automatically enjoyed a greater righteousness. In the political world, we see some of the world’s wealthiest people doing just that in an effort to gain for themselves even greater wealth and power. The test for goodness and righteousness is what they do with their immense wealth.
It’s hard to listen to multi-millionaire politicians tell us that we, who have so much less than they, should allow them to take our money through taxation to give it to the so-called righteous poor. It is especially so when the same politicians made their money through confiscation rather than through their own creative, hard work.
They often invoke references to the cultural legend of Robin Hood – a man who supposedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The actually story tells us that Robin Hood stole from the evil sheriff of Nottingham because the sheriff confiscated Robin’s estate through taxation. He stole Robin’s wealth through a legal transaction making himself wealthy and Robin – and all of Robin’s former employees – poor. Robin had been in the Holy Land fighting the crusades – at least in part a righteous cause. The sheriff raised the taxes on Robin’s father’s estate. He could not pay. So the sheriff took the property. Robin simply took back what had been stolen from him to support those who had once worked his estate.
If we take even a quick look at these power brokers and wealth confiscators, we will see a sheriff of Nottingham syndrome fully operative. As they take our money, ostensibly for the poor, they keep most of it for themselves and their friends. So much for any claim on their part to righteousness. The hypocrisy astounds. The wealthy – who have become so because they confiscated other’s people’s money – need to heed our Lord’s demand when He encountered the rich young ruler. He said, Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. And most importantly, He said, Come – follow me. My guess is that they will do neither.
We must admire and honor the wealthy who generously give of their wealth in honest and authentic charity. The make good things happen. They do the Lord’s work. They are the faithful stewards of the wealth with which they have been blessed. They, and we to the extent that we share our relative wealth – and share voluntarily as an exercise of our own free will – not through confiscation – for there’s no moral efficacy in being forced to share – thus obey our Lord’s command to minister to the least of these. But such good work cannot be forced. It must be chosen.
The injustice perpetrated by the arrogant wealthy – as well as that by the equally arrogant poor – will one day come to judgment. The prophet, Isaiah, said so almost three thousand years ago. This kind of social injustice – those words covering an evil attitude of arrogant entitlement of the wealthy rulers of his day – and of our day – and their friends – will be judged – and with divine vengeance.
For all of us – in any generation – who experience this kind of injustice – we need to heed Isaiah’s words. Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God shall come with vengeance…. The Lord our God will deal with this – and harshly. Eternal salvation depends upon it. Arrogant entitlement on the part of anyone – rich or poor – shall meet with condemnation on the last day.
In the meantime, our job is to keep our Lord’s commandments – If you love me you will keep my commandments – and follow Him in all things as we fearlessly advance our Lord’s cause. St. Paul’s tell us to be bold in our faith. And that boldness is required just as much now as it was two thousand years ago – or three thousand years ago in Isaiah’s time. Then all kinds of healings – surprising healings – will happen.
One last thought. We shall all be healed with a surprising healing when God opens our graves on the last day and raises us up – in our bodies – perfectly healed of any affliction and presented as He originally intended. And what a great surprise that will be!
With this in mind, let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with the ability to discern the evil that surrounds us. Deliver us from the deceptions of – and the temptations to – arrogant attitudes of entitlement. Create in us an attitude of gratitude and, we pray, heal us that by faith we may do well – and do good – to the honor and glory of your Holy Name –
the Name of your Son, our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord.