In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Proper 5A

A re-telling of Matthew 9:9-13 and 18-26: by Imogen Nay

Jesus was walking in Bishopsgate*, City of London, he saw an investment banker and said ‘come and follow me’. The investment banker got up and followed him. Jesus went and sat with bankers dining in a City restaurant, eating rich and expensive food and wine, with other mega-rich business people. Others said ‘why does he eat with bankers and sinners?’ He replied, ‘those who are well do not need a physician, but those who are sick’. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Then a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral came and knelt before him saying ‘My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hands on her and she will be made well’. Jesus got up and followed him and walked through the City to St. Paul’s. On his way a woman who was suffering from HIV saw him and thought to herself ‘if I could only reach him and touch him I will be made well’. Jesus turned, and seeing her he said ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well’. And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the Canon’s home and entered and saw all the people gathered, despairing, he said ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping’. They all laughed at him, but when they had been put outside, he went into her room and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout the City.

*Heart of the financial district, London, UK.

What kinds of responses does such a re-setting draw from you? Does it make you feel that it’s wrong to label the rich and investment bankers, sinners? Does it make you wonder about the nature of miracles and what it might mean to proclaim that Jesus physically heals someone suffering from HIV? Does it emphasise the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ actions: bringing a daughter back to life? I don’t know what your reactions to this re-telling are, positive or negative. But the actual text of Matthew brings out for me challenging and rich questions. Who should the Gospel be preached to? What does healing mean in the Gospels? Is the gender of the two people healed in this passage significant?

The passage indicates some dualisms: faith and law, mercy and sacrifice, sinners and the righteous, disease and healing, death and life. It presents Jesus as physically challenging the boundaries of his culture. He is in the midst of the world, touching, speaking, eating and walking. He calls a tax collect, he eats with sinners, he touches a woman who is ill, and he heals the daughter of a leader of the synagogue. Jesus doesn’t just side with the poor and needy, but calls all sinners, asks for mercy, cures the sick and brings the dead to life. In the context of the other passages set for today (Genesis 12:1-9 and Romans 4:13-25) the theme of faith is at the forefront: Abraham’s faith that led him to believe in the God who promised him a new land and to be the Father of a great nation; a faith that Paul establishes to be the inheritance of all people, in Christ. In the Gospel passage Jesus says to the woman suffering from a haemorrhage: ‘Take heart daughter; your faith has made you well’.

The Genesis and Romans passages set for today tell the traditional patriarchal story of fathers as the founders of nations and from whom we inherit the faith. Jesus altogether expands the vista however, bringing into the picture a broader array of people. In the inclusion of a ‘daughter’ as one who has faith, it can be argued that it is therefore accredited to her also as righteousness, as Paul argues it was for Abraham. Paul’s inclusive vision of Jewish faith that in Christ invites Gentiles to its altar is one that this Gospel tells us establishes women as equal inheritors of that faith too. It is not only the gender divide that is trampled by Jesus however; he also tramples on the divide between the rich and poor, the ill and the well, the dead and the alive. In him the suggestion is that all who have faith, no matter who or what they are, no matter how society views and typecasts them, they too are inheritors of the faith and the faith brings healing and eternal life.

Liberation and feminist theologies respond to real and urgent need for certain people in society who are suffering, oppressed, forgotten and abused. These theologies also need however to be constantly renewed and re-challenged by the Gospel, to keep thinking, ‘yes, but who are we still excluding?’ Jesus didn’t come just for the poor, just for the Jews, just for men, just for anyone. He came proclaiming forgiveness of sins for all people. This, for me, is the theological foundation for ‘inclusiveness’ - a word that is used often today in Britain in relation to describing generally liberal Churches and theologies. Inclusiveness in this context however often becomes exclusiveness: ‘you are included here, if you believe this and this not that and that’. It is extraordinarily challenging to hold together the needs of the marginalised and to prioritise them and to proclaim the Gospel to all. It is hard too to proclaim a Gospel of forgiveness to all, for that means pointing out what my sins are and helping others to see theirs. And the difficulty with this is that ethics is complicated and there is huge debate in the Church regarding what is really sinful. There is no consensus about sex, marriage, what are right relationships what are wrong ones, and the relevant status of women and men. In the Church of England and in the worldwide Anglican communion what causes argument and debate is gay priests and women bishops.

There isn’t an easy message to take from the New Testament to solve these dilemmas. The sexual ethic and gender relations of Jesus’ time are fundamentally different from our own in the West. Those who are against women priests wouldn’t necessarily refute my reading, ‘of course women are inheritors of the faith, but that doesn’t mean they should be priests’, they may argue. The trauma of modernity has meant trauma to established ideas about how men and women relate to one another, particularly in terms of sexual relations, but also in terms of gender roles in society.

What can this Gospel passage tell us that can help with these issues? I think that the specific values we can take are that: Christ brings mercy, a new ethic that challenges the old, a reformed religion that challenges the old, a new understanding of Tradition and a new relationship with God based on old but re-interpreted and forgotten understandings. Christ challenges the boundaries and established norms of a culture and he always brings healing and new life. He is not afraid to mix with anyone. He re-defines righteousness and sin and ultimately redefines God. If we are to meet the ethical and theological challenges of our day we need to try together to do some of these things to be faithful to the Gospel we proclaim.

Imogen Nay

I am currently training to be a priest in the Church of England. Prior to entering ordination training I worked in the voluntary sector. My last job was developing and running services for disadvantaged women for Providence Row Charity, London. I ran drop-in groups, advice and support sessions and developed outreach services for women involved in prostitution and women sleeping rough. I was also involved in campaigning for a change in the way women involved in prostitution are treated in the legal system. I studied English Literature at Univeristy, followed by an MA in Renaissance Studies.
I am now completing a degree in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge University. I have a particular interest in feminist liberation theologies.

1 comment:

RevDrKate said...

Christ challenges the boundaries and established norms of a culture and he always brings healing and new life...we need to try together to do some of these things to be faithful to the Gospel we proclaim. Amen and amen. Wonderful retelling and unpacking of this powerful gospel. Thank you.