Sermon for 16th Sunday after Pentecost 2018
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Psalms 125 James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37
A priest was visiting a parishioner in the hospital. All was going well with his recovery and he was looking forward to going home. The priest had skipped lunch and eyed some peanuts on the tray near the bed. He popped a couple in his mouth before thinking. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry, do you mind if I have some peanuts?” The man replied, “Help yourself, I’ve eaten all the candy off of them.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus travels to the region of Tyre, in upper Galilee. He wants to rest and remove himself from the crowds that have been gathering everywhere he goes. But when word leaks out that he is here, a woman whose daughter is a victim of an unclean spirit immediately begins to look for him to ask him for help. We see a token of her faith in her seeking Jesus. We also see her resourceful determination and tenacity when she finds him.
The Syrophoenician woman had everything going against her when she pushed her way through the crowd to reach Jesus. She was a woman and a Gentile from the wrong side of the tracks and a pagan. She had no right to talk with Jesus. It’s hard for us in modern society to relate to these circumstances. Imagine a homeless person interrupting the dinner of the President of the United States to ask for a favor.
Despite the idea that women were property and should be invisible, this woman approaches Jesus. She is driven by something more powerful than protocol, she is desperately afraid for her daughter’s life. She bows before Jesus and asks for his help. She has heard of his healing and she begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter’s body. And we expect our sweet Jesus
to answer with care and concern. But here, Jesus is caught with his compassion down. He dismisses her appeal in saying to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is telling this desperate mother that his mission is for the Jews and the Jews alone. The word “first” implies that the Gentiles have some ray of hope, but for the time being this woman must wait patiently for her turn. Jesus is clearly saying, that the Jews are first. Jesus has come as the Messiah of Israel. In the parable, the children represent Israel and the “dogs” represent the Gentiles. She accepts Jesus’ premise that the children are to be fed before the dogs get anything.
Many who suffered those words would have crept away, feeling small and insignificant, but not the Syrophoenician woman. She boldly responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus’ earlier prejudice was very human and his insight now seems more divine. His mission isn’t restricted to the Jews. God’s love expands beyond all barriers. Instead of scolding her for her brashness, Jesus tells her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
The scene upsets our sense of justice. We can’t understand why Jesus doesn’t respond more sensitively to this Gentile’s cry for help. She can’t help that she was born a Gentile, lives in the region of Tyre, and is culturally Greek. We don’t seem to mind when Jesus is rude to the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom we believe deserve it, but it is not like him to be rude to a forlorn mother.
In a matter of minutes, this woman’s life changed and Jesus’ ministry to include Gentiles changed. For years, this passage bothered me. I wanted the storybook Jesus to be present, to be compassionate, but instead we hear a more human response. He is perhaps tired of being pulled in every direction. It seems folks are always asking him for something. We see a very human Jesus. We also experience the sharp learning curve that creates awareness and empathy for the Gentile people. We see Jesus’ heart grow to embrace all people. Now, I see it as a very comforting passage, because it offers hope to all of us.
The story that follows the tale of the Syrophoenician woman is also a story about healing. A deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. The people beg Jesus to lay hands on him and heal him. In the first century, being deaf was not just about not hearing or speaking clearly. For many people during Jesus’ time, physical impairment was seen as a result of sin. People who suffered from blindness, deafness, or withered limbs had little or no status. They were often barred from social and religious gatherings. In those days, people were afraid of physical differences and didn’t understand the biology of birth defects that we know today. When Jesus healed people, he not only corrected their physical problems. He also restored them to community.
Jesus sees beyond this man’s infirmity. He sees his value as a child of God. Jesus takes the man away from the crowd and puts his fingers in his ears, then spits and touches the man’s tongue. Raising his eyes to heaven, Jesus says, “Be opened.” Immediately, the deaf man can hear and speak clearly. Jesus has not only released him from the bondage of his affliction, but has reunited him with his family and the world. Whenever Jesus heals, whether it is a demon-possessed girl, a man with leprosy, a bleeding woman, or a deaf man, he heals not only the body but also their separation from their community.
In healing this deaf man, Jesus does some strange things. He could have just spoken words of healing, but chose to do more. The vivid account creates an atmosphere of mystery and drama. He begins by putting his fingers in the man’s ears, symbolic of opening them up to hear. Next, he spits and touches the man’s tongue, symbolic of loosening his tongue. Then he looks up to heaven, the source of his power, and sighs deeply, a gesture of prayer. It has been said that the sigh indicates the strong emotion of Jesus as he wages war against the power of Satan. He has to seek divine help in urgent prayer.
I don’t know about the spitting and touching of my tongue, even for Jesus. He has healed others without having to do all of that. For the man to remain there and take it surely shows his desire to be healed. He is showing some of the same tenacity we experienced with the Syrophoenician woman. But immediately the man’s ears are opened and his tongue is freed. He is able to speak plainly. But Jesus tells him and all around him, not to say anything. To ask the man who has just been given his voice to keep quiet seems a little strange.
Jesus can command storms to cease, demons to leave and health to be restored, but his orders for people to keep silent fall on deaf ears. The failures to obey his command for silence reveal that what Jesus does is so sensational that it is hopeless to try to hush it up. But the command to keep silent also underscores for the reader what needs special attention.
While those in the crowd may rattle on excitedly about what Jesus has done, the magnitude of what it means escapes their understanding. They don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle to see the completed picture. They won’t have that and won’t get the command to “go and tell” until after the resurrection.
We know that the chorus of Jesus’ admirers proclaim the truth, even when they don’t fully understand it. When we interpret Jesus’ miracles from their biblical context, we see that Jesus does what only God can do. We know from the Books of Moses and the Prophets that God promises to restore creation and they hint that the promised renewal begins with Jesus. The surprise for most is that the restoration happens in Gentile territory and that Gentiles will be included in God’s renewal plan.
We can’t help but go back to the spitting and touching. A surprise for us, but for the ancient world, healing was very “hands-on.” In reading over this passage throughout the week, I began to see the spitting and touching as the love shown by a mother who wants to get that cowlick down or wants to wipe that dirt of the child’s face. It is tender. It is personal. It is an expression of love. So, I think I would be okay with Jesus doing that to me. Perhaps, he already has. When he put his heaped up hands into my broken heart to restore my life after my divorce. When he was present in the arms of love surrounding me when my parents died and when my sister died. Perhaps we all can find some of that love and hope and goodness and mercy and healing in our own lives and we can reply that our hearts have been opened too. Amen.