Emerging Prophetic Voices

(pic courtesy Diakonia)

Prophetic voices break open boundaries, create inclusivity; help the voiceless to find their voice and then place that voice within the very community that would have excluded them. This is according to Revd Lauren Matthew of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and youth representative to the World Methodist Council.

Revd Matthew was addressing thousands of early morning worshippers, among them heads of churches and civic leaders, at the annual ecumenical Good Friday service at the Durban Exhibition Centre, under the theme Emerging Prophetic Voices.

In her exegesis of the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7: 23-29), Revd Matthew said it is a story of awkward moments in which the people in the story are in places they should not be, the words that pass in the conversation are out of place, and inappropriate in fact, even the actions of the characters are out of place.

“In Jesus’ time, it was the community, the village, the tribe or clan that decided what was appropriate, what was ‘in place’. One of the roles of a Rabbi was to uphold the boundaries and the rules that would help the community understand what was pure and impure, clean and unclean’” she said.

On three grounds namely, gender, ethnicity and geo-political, Jesus and the woman were out of place.

“Women in the Mediterranean world of the Ancient Near East did not simply engage in conversation with men. Women, honourable women, were not allowed to appear in public without a male escort (husband, father, brother or son). Yet here was a woman on her own in conversation with Jesus, a man.

“The woman was a gentile, born in the region of Phoenicia in Syria. It was not permissible for Jewish people to be in conversation with gentiles. To do so would mean that the Jewish participant in the conversation was defiled. Jesus should not have been there. Jesus was therefore dirty and out of place.

“For the Jewish locals of Galilee, Tyre was land from which they had been dispossessed. There was a bitter history of rivalry over the resources of the land and rich landowners on Tyre depended on the surrounding farming community, for their wealth. It was exploitative and oppressive.” Revd Matthew said.

She said Mark often places Jesus in moments and incidents in which he is out of place, where he heals and engages with people who are on the margins of the society because of illness or the position they hold, like the tax collectors and prostitutes.

“As a person who claims to be speaking on behalf of Yahweh, Jesus does not behave like any of the teachers of his day. They upheld the boundaries that would keep the cultural identity of the people pure. Jesus, on the other hand, would push the definitions of these boundaries and challenge the validity of these rules,” she said.

After Jesus spoke of the woman as a dog, Revd Matthew said, her retort was brilliant. She repeated the term kynoria, puppy or domesticated dog.

“Instead she takes the term kynoria and places it in a different place. The domesticated dog, the puppy belongs under the table of its human master, not scavenging in the wilds. She moves the image from the outside to within working of the household. She moves the kynoria from being unclean and inappropriate to being clean and to belonging within the community.”

“She becomes the one seeking out the boundary place and presenting a vision of a community that is inclusive so that the voiceless might find a voice and restoration within a community. She does this for her child, the one who is voiceless in the story. As such, the child’s healing is not because Jesus proclaimed the healing or created the space for it, but because a gentile, Phoenician, woman of a different ethnic group, from Tyre, created the opportunity and the space for healing and transformation,” she said.

Revd Matthew concluded: “In this story, two cultures were given the space to be healed from the dominant voice of prejudice prevalent within them. The woman is a prophet, naming the issues that break human dignity and placing the voiceless in the centre of the conversation. The gentile woman could, for a brief time, do what Jesus does - challenge the boundaries of an exclusive community, present an image of God that is bigger than what the dominant culture understands of power. She opened a space for the ‘other’ and the voiceless to find their place.”

The service had an emphasis on the youth and many young people participated. As the cross was brought into the hall by church leaders, young people accompanied it with traditional African drumming. At the end of the service, members of the Diakonia Youth Forum carried the cross as they led the silent procession out of the hall. Thirty youth from a number of denominations carried smaller crosses with the words ‘Speak truth in love’ inscribed on them.

Worshippers took turns to carry the cross through the streets of Durban to the City Hall. A huge banner followed the cross with the words ‘Speak truth in love’ visible from afar.

The flowering of the cross, as an act of commitment by all present to listen deeply for and support new emerging prophetic voices, took place at the City Hall.

(Press Release by the Diakonia Council of Churches and used by permission.Visit them at www.diakonia.org.za.)