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We Walk this Road Together: Stranger Wisdom

Lent 3, Common Lectionary Year A

Matthew 15: 21-28,
The Quran: Surah 80 “He Frowned”

©2017 Rev Elisabeth R Jones, Afra Jalabi

Introductions to the Gospel and the Surah.

(RevE)
As I said in my introduction to worship, we will be stepping out beyond our normal boundaries this morning to share with you now two readings, the first will be the Gospel reading from Matthew 15, which set this whole conversation in motion. Afra will then read for us a surah from the Quran, chosen for its parallels to the Gospel text. In both texts the “leader” (Jesus and Mohammed) are schooled in the extent of God’s compassion by the presence of one from the margins.
Jesus Meets a Syro-Phoenician Woman: Matthew 15:21-28
Setting the scene:
Jesus is in the region of the Galilee, teaching and healing. He is attracting all sorts of attention; those in search of wisdom or healing are flocking to him. This is upsetting the delicate religious and political balance with Rome, so much so that the religious authorities send inquisitors to test him. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Jesus leaves the land of Israel, going to the region outside Judea, north to Tyre and Sidon. Is he leaving to get a moment’s respite from all the pressure? We don’t know. We do know that what happens in this encounter will change the course of Jesus ministry, as his vision of the reach of God’s mercy and compassion is expanded exponentially by the resilient, bold, persistence of a woman of a different religious tradition.

This is one vitally important, pivotal text for the shape of the Christian Gospel. From here on out, the way of Jesus becomes an incarnation of the merciful healing heart of God not just for Israel, but for all people.

The Quran: Surah 80, Abbasa/ He Frowned

Sung in Arabic, read in English – by Afra Jalabi

Context of the story: Muhammad was spreading the call for Islam in his community and it was mostly the poor, women, some youth as well the slaves who had been attracted to his call, given his emphasis on social justice and the equality of all human beings. Resentment and persecution had started building up and Muhammad was beginning to see that if some powerful members of his city became Muslim it might make things easier for him and his followers.
One day when Muhammad was engrossed in a conversation with some of the influential tribal leaders of his city, a blind poor man, came upon him, asking to be told about some passages of the Quran that he’d heard about. Muhammad, annoyed by this untimely interruption in the midst of an important conversation, frowned and turned away from the blind man. This passage was then revealed to Muhammad around the time of this incident. The voice, or the Divine Source of the Quran, rebuked him. And this impacted him deeply for it was a subtle moment that he may have even forgotten by the end of that day. The voice, addressing everyone who sits with the passage speaks to us, the way it spoke to Muhammad back then, over 14 hundred years ago.

“Sermon/Conversation” Stranger Wisdom

A conversation between two women about these texts.

Afra Jalabi (Muslim peace activist), Rev. Elisabeth Jones (Minister CPU)

RevE
Afra and I have sat at each other’s feet over the past weeks, learning from one another, discovering in each other a fascination for our own faith, and its sacred texts, and discovering in the conversation both the points of connection between our respective religious traditions, and their distinctiveness.

AFRA
Neither of us is interested in converting the other, but we are deeply committed to learning and growing in breadth of wisdom through the encounter.
We have chosen then, to share conversationally… somewhat!
We have three questions we’ll explore together.

1. Why these Two Texts? What excites us, or inspires us about them?
We’ll begin with the Gospel reading, because that was the spark for our conversation:

RevE:
I am intrigued by Jesus in this text.
His vision of the Dream of God. How was it formed? From childhood, from his practise of his own Jewish faith, through prayer, and through encounter. His path was a path towards enlightenment. So this encounter, his first in the Gospel of Matthew outside the boundaries of traditional Jewish territory, leads him to realize that God is bigger, God’s love is wider, God’s healing touch extends further than he had hitherto imagined.
Traditional interpretations have a lot of difficulty imagining Jesus frowning, or being less than charitable.
What excites me is that Jesus is (eventually) open to the wisdom that comes from the margins, from those outside his religious and cultural norms.
And that the persistence of the woman becomes his pathway to enlightenment.
That gives hope for us all, doesn’t it?

Afra: About the Surah
Although Muhammad had directed himself to the margins of his society, and welcomed everyone to his gathering and went out of his way to free slaves and help the poor, this particular incident fine-tuned him further even the subtleties of our daily interactions—where we place importance and dignity. And hence the surah’s use of the word “reminding” and “remembrance,” so that we are reminded that dignity is everywhere and that we have to always remember in moments when we fall back to our cultural and class and gender labels and conditioning to see the pure soul in one another regardless of the worldly here-and-now trappings.
Historically, this early period was marked by the rise to prominence and importance the names of slaves, foreign labourers and women; names and stories that we would not have known had they not been held in the light of love and dignity and respect for what they brought as individuals.

RevE:
So in the surah, God’s vision and compassion are specifically directed towards the sick, the poor, the widow and orphan. Both our scriptural traditions point to this characteristic in the Divine.

Afra:
b) Both Texts highlight the divine wisdom that comes from the margins. Say more about what that means for you?

RevE: In both stories, Jesus and the prophet are moved (I think by God) to the margins, because that’s the place for spiritual and cultural growth.

Being ‘at the edge’ is uncomfortable space, most of us choose not to go there. We encounter strangers, and strangeness, and our flight or fight responses are ready to spring into action.

I love it that for Mohammed and for Jesus, the margins suddenly come right up to them, invade their space…. and they both react at first negatively, then slowly, and ultimately, at the moment of redemption or enlightenment, with laughter and amazement, as they see more of God than they could have ever imagined!
As a human follower, I’m encouraged that they too (Jesus and the prophet) had to struggle to learn.

I can think of times in my life when my own prejudices, and fears, were first exposed, made me feel VERY uncomfortable, but then pushing through those fears to those moment of blessed delight to see God already happily at work, beyond the borders, over the horizon!!

AFRA:
There is beauty and humor in these two stories, when we see how close these two stories are to us. We see ourselves in both that who rejects or rejected. In our lives we’ve experienced both ends (perhaps in varying degrees). We also see God’s humor because wisdom and compassion is taught to Jesus and Muhammad who are our teachers. There is deep and intentional wisdom in these stories—NEVER rest comfortably on your compassion; you may be surprised. NEVER think you know, but that you don’t know and always moving.

Why do we fall so easily prey to labels, and appearances? Is being connected to God a new way of seeing the world?
In Circassian (our mother tongues when we were kids—To say, I love you, you say, “I see you well.” So often we stop seeing well, and the encounters with the hidden God remind us to see well, and hence to love again and to come back to remember love.

c) And what about us? What do we take from these texts into our own living, as Christians, or as Muslims, as human brothers and sisters?

RevE:
How can each of us go to the boundaries? How can each of us see God hidden in strange disguises? Are we prepared to risk the truth-telling conversations that portray us in our less than perfect light, where our own prejudices are revealed?
Can we see these moments in our lives, not as a condemnation, or failure, but a ‘choice’ moment, to grow in wisdom along our faith/life journey? Can we see Jewish, Buddhist, Secular and Muslim, Christian neighbours as God’s messengers of wisdom, in disguise?

Afra:
Can we go beyond a state of “patiently” enduring the “other,” accepting the other and tolerating the other to a state where we are brought into a state of remembrance—reminded that alone we can’t fully grasp the fullness of God’s creation. And the more we open up to the margins the larger are our horizons—when we allow the encounter beyond the frowning and turning away.

Do you know the Rumi story about the Mirror of Truth? God was to give a mirror of truth to humanity, but instead of giving it, God dropped it; it shattered. The quest for truth is one where we must work together to find and pick up the shards, and bring them together so that the mirror of truth is whole again.

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As in previous weeks we will be taking a moment for quiet reflection, and to lift up as our intention for the week, a question that is provoked by these two narratives:
“How will we see God in strange disguises this week?”

Afra Jalabi, a member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, is Vice-Chair of the Board of the Day After Association–a Syrian NGO that created a transitional plan with a group of Syrian academics and human rights activists for a post-regime Syria. She is currently doing her Ph.D at Concordia in the Department of Religion, writing her dissertation on Quranic hermeneutics and nonviolence in Islam. She participates in international conferences and is a frequent lecturer on Islam, nonviolence and gender. She was a signatory to the Damascus Declaration and was a founding member of the Syrian National Council.

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