Reflection 16th August

Changing hearts – Matthew 15: 10-28 Reflection by Revd Maggie Hindley

I reckon the first part of today’s gospel to be one of Jesus’ hard teachings. Watch what’s in your heart, he warns. I’m with Peter. Surely good people are indeed good people! Why go around digging into their motivations? What hope is there for any of us if you do that? Jesus is right, of course (he always is). And for the last hundred years or so we’ve had the benefit of Dr Freud’s work showing us how our conscious minds are just the tip of an iceberg of desires and aversions deep within us that motivate us willy-nilly. Part of this is a collection of prejudices we have inherited from our ancestors that have been nurtured by the society we live in. This matters very much indeed because it involves seeing others as of less value than ourselves and, because we are unconscious of our prejudices, we act on them, and discriminate and exclude and oppress others without even knowing what we do. Our hearts are not innocent. They are hugely and unconsciously selfish. That, to me, is what original sin means. What’s to be done?

Well, the second part of today’s reading seems unconnected, but I think it gives us an answer to that question. Did I say Jesus was always right? Perhaps not. Here he models for us how to accept and welcome a necessary change of heart in ourselves. Jesus was heir to a particular religion and ethnicity which, like many if not all groups, encouraged him to look down on outsiders. In this case, it was anyone who was not a mainstream Jew. His mission, as he understood it, was to his own people. In this story he is challenged by one of those outsiders; a woman, living outside Israel, a Gentile. At first, he doesn’t answer her. I imagine he is thinking about her challenge. He doesn’t immediately shrug it off because he just knows he is a good person in God’s eyes and therefore she can’t be right. When he does answer – I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – it’s as though he’s interrogating his own thoughts. And when she repeats her claim, he acknowledges the truth and just drops his stereotype. He does what she asks him to do. He celebrates her worth. I think he grows as a person. And he sows the seed for the acceptance of Gentiles by the early church ten, twenty, thirty years later.

That’s a pattern we might adopt, I believe. For those among us who have inherited what is called white privilege, it’s a call to listen. When we are challenged by others, we can hear what they have to say, without collapsing into what they call white fragility, the assumption that just because we are not overtly racist we are incapable of racism. There’s a lot of stuff in our hearts under the tip of the iceberg. Listening was uncomfortable for Jesus, and it will be for us. It’s a call to acknowledge truth that may be new to us. And to change, and to see the other with new eyes, and to help others who may share our bias to open up.

Unconscious bias affects all of us, and all of us need to wrestle with it. I can put my hand up to class bias as well as racism, to some internalised sexism, to some homophobia……..Sometimes the challenge to it comes from inside – someone triggers a prejudice in me by the way they speak, or drive, or look and just sometimes, before the thought whisks back into unconsciousness, I can catch it by the tail and have a quick look. We can learn to recognise and interrogate our own thought processes, like Jesus did.

So, I ask you to interrogate your hearts, too, to see where bias may lie. For all of us who are white Europeans or Americans, and especially if we are middle class, there is much work to be done on the way we value black lives and show it in the decisions we make in our lives, our church, our society. But, as Jesus says, none of our hearts are entirely innocent. Tribalism affects us all. How easy it is to look down on someone who is of a faith other than our own, who has some sort of disability, or lives with difficult mental health, or is a lot younger than us, or a lot older or speaks with what we think is a strange accent…………

We didn’t have time for the Old Testament reading today. It is the end of he story of Joseph, where he is reconciled to the brothers who have tried to get rid of him and who he is now able to save from famine. It’s an incredibly emotional scene, with brother falling on the neck of brother, not to hurt, but to weep with relief and joy. And that’s where our working with ourselves and each other on our prejudices goes; the end point is not judgment, shame and embarrassment, but the Aha moment of grace and compassion, reconciliation and renewal, and deep happiness.

Anyone who thinks the Old Testament is a book of hatred and vengeance
should read Genesis through to the end and see how it teaches brothers to value each other.
How very good and pleasant it is
(as we read in our opening psalm)
when kindred live together in unity!

I think that we in the URC (God bless and prosper our wonderful nonconforming tradition!) are pretty good at recognising and opposing injustice in our society and world. That’s a strength and a blessing. I think also that we are not always so good at doing the inner, personal work of opening up to transformation at God’s hands. But Jesus did it. It’s core Christianity. It’s a source of grace.

What I want for myself is the humility and the courage to look beneath my daily interactions, to hear others in their full humanity, to struggle with myself, to be changed. A hard process, but one in which I may discover God’s purpose in the stuff I go through and know myself part of it. A hard process, but one I wish for all of you as well.