This time last week J & I were in Prague – a wonderful city that I can't recommend too highly – but a city very much shaped by its history.
The ghetto where the Jewish community was confined over many years no longer stands but the Jewish cemetery remains.
It's an extraordinary place, where 12,000 grave stones jostle one another for position and the burials themselves are some 12 deep, so that it's estimated that over 100,000 are buried there...in a community as closely confined in death as in life.
You see, in Prague as in so many other places, the Jewish community represented the alien in the midst...the outsider, to be treated with suspicion, anxiety, even hatred.
We're not good, on the whole, at dealing with outsiders.
We are, all of us, more comfortable with familiar situations, familiar people...and that can make the Christian life a challenge.
We know the theory – God's love embraces all...but we tend to organise our lives, even our churches, into zones of like-mindedness.
And we're not alone.
1st century Jews, Jesus among them, had had many centuries to establish themselves as a race apart...God's chosen people...the ultimate insiders, secure in an identity reinforced by law, faith and practice. But in our gospel today Jesus encounters someone from the other side of the tracks – and is challenged and changed by the encounter.
He has crossed into Gentile territory, where Jewish law and custom have no remit – and comes up against a woman driven by that most compelling force, parental love.
She pushes her way in, intent on claiming the healing she believes her daughter deserves.
Like so many others, she throws herself on the mercy of Jesus. Kneeling at his feet she entreats his help.
And what happens?
For reasons that may be obvious, I’ve never tried to tell this story in a primary school assembly, but if I did, I know what the children’s answer to that question would be.
“Jesus makes the child better”
That’s what we’d all expect.
Jesus goes about doing good, healing, rescuing,- surely that’s the essence of his earthly ministry. Of course Jesus is going to comfort the mother and heal her child, without further ado.
Except that he doesn’t.
Not at first.
First, we find ourselves thrown off balance, our expectations flouted by words of such staggering rudeness that they are almost unbearable. Jesus, JESUS of all people, tells that frantic mother that she and her child are no better than dogs….and I don’t think we’re under any illusion that he meant cute and cuddly pet spaniels.
He is saying without compunction that as Gentiles, the woman and her daughter are not fully human, and they’re therefore beyond the scope of his love, his healing.
“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”
It’s extraordinarily hard to hear this. We want to retain our soft focus image of Jesus, the source of endless compassion…but this abrasive stranger shakes us.
However, this woman is made of sterner stuff, and refuses to go away quietly.
Instead, she responds in kind, picking up Jesus’s words and turning them back on him without missing a beat.
We may be dogs, but surely you’re not so mean that you begrudge us even the left-overs.
She refuses to take No for an answer…
And in doing so, she stops Jesus in his tracks.
Against his own expectations, he is forced into really seeing her, - another human being, a child of God…and what he sees makes him change his mind in a radical way.
Jesus changes his mind?
As God’s Son, Jesus must be perfect…the unmoved mover, no shadow of turning, right?
Perhaps not! Surely, since Jesus is fully human, he must have lived and learned. Even Mrs Alexander was prepared to accept that Jesus went through all the normal stages of physical development – “day by day like us he grew”
So too, surely, he learned and grew in relationship…and maybe sometimes he changed his mind. It seems to me that today's gospel presents Jesus rethinking the scope of his whole mission, as he responds to that Gentile woman whose love for her child isas fierce and determined as any Jewish mother's.
His eyes, his ears, his heart are opened...and another miracle of scandalous grace occurs.
And oh, how badly we need that scandalous grace in the Church today.
We find it so hard to admit we might be wrong.
With God on our side,we cling to the notion that we don't really need to listen to the voice of strangers, because we already know the truth.
Really it’s hard not to sympathise with the Jews, who believe themselves to be the insiders, on a fast track to Salvation. We don't have to look far in our churches, or in ourselves, to find traces of that same approach.
Time, then, for us to be challenged.
This morning's gospel concludes with a second encounter, as Jesus heals the deaf man, transforming his life and his world with that great “Eph phathah” “BE OPENED”.
That, surely, is the call to us this morning.
We need to pray that God will open OUR ears, eyes, minds, hearts..
We need to allow ourselves to be challenged and changed, as we encounter a God who listens and changes his mind, whose unlimited love seems almost to surprise himself.
We need to be open to the realisation that with God there are no boundaries...that there is grace enough to include us all
We need our eyes opened so we may SEE our brothers and sisters as God does, as beloved children, neither better nor worse, more or less beloved than we ourselves.
... our ears opened to hear their voices – and our tongues loosed so that we can be their advocates, speaking for those silenced by circumstance.
We need, too, to pray for our Church – that it may become truly inclusive, a place where God's unconditional love and amazing grace can be encountered by all without hindrance– regardless of race, gender, orientation...
Because, you know, there really ARE no limits, so there's no need to see any as outsiders. We all belong and there is enough and to spare for all….
Nobody need be content with crumbs from under the table.
See how, again and again, God’s reckless mercy sweeps us off our feet, how his love compels us to come in, so we find that we are all alike included in a boundless welcome, enfolded in the love that embraces all.