Scriptures: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Psalm 146
James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37
All the poor guy wanted was some “alone time”. Within the past few days, Jesus had just experienced a major rejection at his hometown synagogue, commissioned his disciples for their first mission and welcomed them back on their return, learned of the death of John the Baptist, fed a crowd of 5,000 people, walked on water, healed the crowds at Genessaret, and dealt with a run-in with some of the local religious leaders. Can you blame Jesus for wanting to take a chill pill.
Anywhere he went in his home territory, the crowds would recognize him, and so it was time for a road trip. Jesus, his disciples in tow, headed north into Tyre, located in modern day Lebanon, a distance of over 30 miles, nearly two days’ walk on foot. Mark tells us “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice”…..Jesus wanted to be alone, but ….curses, foiled again. A Syrophoenician woman – that is to say, a Gentile, a non-Jew - came into the house and threw herself at Jesus’ feet, threw herself on Jesus’ feet, begging for Jesus to heal her daughter, who was possessed by a demon. We’re not told how the woman had heard about Jesus – though we do know that Jesus had healed a man in Gentile territory once before, a demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs. Though it was a distance away, perhaps word of this healing had reached the Syrophoenician woman. And also, earlier in Mark’s gospel, we’re told that among the crowds witnessing Jesus’ healings by the Sea of Galilee were people from the region of Tyre, and perhaps their stories had spread. In any case, this woman – this foreign woman was not only on Jesus’ doorstep, but throwing herself at – and on top of - Jesus’ feet.
Maybe it was because Jesus was tired and annoyed at the interruption, but Jesus’ initial response to the woman doesn’t sound very…..Jesusy. “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus said, “for it’s not fair to take the children’s food and toss it to the dogs.” Did Jesus just call the woman a dog? Why, yes, Jesus did. Actually, the word “dog” was not uncommon language for Jews to use in referring to Gentiles, non-Jews….but it’s jarring to us just the same. And Jesus’ reasoning doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense….it’s as if there’s only so much healing power available, and if Jesus heals a Gentile – a dog – it means there will be less healing power available to Jews – that is to say, to the children. It’s an odd argument to make, especially since Jesus had not many days before fed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. With God, there’s enough bread to go around, but not enough healing power? Really?
As shocking as Jesus’ words are to us, the original hearers of this story would have been more shocked by the behavior of the woman….this woman who, in this culture, was three times an other – a woman, a non-Jew, and from a different country…separated from Jesus by boundaries of gender, religion, and nationality. Other, other, and other. Remember that, in that patriarchal culture, for a woman to approach a man she didn’t know, and then to touch him, to throw herself at his feet, just wasn’t done. And for a Gentile to approach a Jew, speak to a Jew, let alone touch him, again just wasn’t done. As much as Jesus words may put us off, for Mark’s original audience, the woman’s behavior would likely have freaked them out….in that culture, this foreign woman was just coming on to Jesus way too strong.
So the woman violated a number of social boundaries by approaching Jesus as she did, and Jesus responded in a way that makes us uncomfortable, but in a way that was very characteristic of his culture. The conversation could have ended there, but it didn’t, because the person who approached Jesus was not only a foreigner, not only a Gentile, not only a woman – but was also a mother. And the mothers here today don’t need me to tell you that if your child is sick, you’re going to do anything – walk through fire even, if it comes to that – to get help for your child. So the woman, who we already know is no shrinking violet, comes back at Jesus hard – “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table” – and it’s notable that, up to this point in Mark’s gospel, the only person who has addressed Jesus as Lord is this woman. Ok, Jesus, ya wanna call me a dog – fine, at least give me the consideration that a dog would get in being allowed to eat the crumbs. At least throw some little scrap of healing at my sick daughter. And Jesus basically says, “For saying that, you win; your daughter is healed.”
We’re told that Jesus then took a roundabout route through Gentile regions – going by way of Sidon, which was another 15 miles further away from his home territory and then heading toward the Decapolis, ten predominantly Gentile towns along the sea of Galilee. The people brought Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment, and Jesus healed him, touching his ears and tongue and saying in Aramaic “Ephphatha” meaning “Be opened.” And the crowd is amazed, saying, “He has done everything well, he even makes the deaf hear and the mute talk.”
“Be opened!” These were the words of Jesus to the deaf man, but in a sense, these were also the words of the Syrophoenician woman to Jesus – “Be opened! Don’t limit your healing powers only to those of your own people. Open them up to others as well.” As Christians, we affirm that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and as one who was fully human, he had to deal with the cultural baggage of the people among whom he lived….and it was out of that cultural baggage that Jesus initially responded to the woman in calling her a dog. I believe that the woman’s strong comeback startled Jesus into looking past the blinders of his culture, into being opened to a larger vision of who it was he was being called to heal. What had initially been for Jesus a very unwelcome interruption became a moment for God’s grace to come into play, for the woman and for Jesus.
How about us? Like Jesus before his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, we all have our comfort zones and our cultural baggage. We all have those groups of people with whom we are comfortable, other groups of people to whom we might not give the time of day, and still other groups of people that we might cross the street to avoid. But, like Jesus, we in the church are called to mission. In fact, we’re called to Jesus’ mission, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Might we, in our mission, sometimes be like the man whom Jesus’ healed, deaf to the cries of those outside our comfort zones, unable to speak the Gospel in a way understandable beyond our own in-group? Might Jesus be saying to us, “Be opened!”
Our reading from the letter of James gives us a very specific example of what it looks like when we’re not opened. James give us a vivid image, a sort of pictorial instruction manual of how not to do church: Two people walk into a church. One is dressed to the nines, with fine clothes and gold ring. The other is wearing ragged, wearing dirty clothing, may have a few flies buzzing around their head, and probably smells a little bit ripe if you get close enough, perhaps with the faintest hint of the scent of cheap whisky on their breath. And the ushers are falling all over themselves helping out the well-dressed guy while those same ushers are trying to hide the shabbily dressed man in the corner. Now, I have to say, I haven’t seen Warren Buffett or Bill Gates come to Emanuel Church any time recently – though our conference minister will be visiting next week, and I hope you’ll give him a very warm welcome indeed. But many of our members and regular visitors are struggling, some struggling just to get the basics of food and water for the day. And our church has come a long way – a long way – in welcoming all sorts and conditions of people, and not only on Sunday morning. Not that we’ve reached the promised land of perfect welcome, but we’re on the journey.
At the same time, to measure our progress, here’s an interesting exercise to try – to walk into our church, or into any church, and ask “Who’s missing?” Not just “who of our regular members isn’t here?”….there will always be some of our regulars away on any given Sunday, but we know they’ll likely be back next Sunday or the Sunday after. But, who’s missing? What groups of people aren’t here? Who isn’t our church reaching? Whose cries for help aren’t we hearing? Who isn’t able to hear the good news of Jesus in our church, in a way they can understand? Whose absence is creating a gap between where we are now and the beloved community of full welcome and inclusion to which Jesus is calling us?
It’s not easy for our ears to be opened, to hear and understand the still small voice of the Spirit in our lives. If we’re not attuned, it can be a bit like learning a foreign language. As a Spanish teacher once told our class during one of my many failed attempts to learn Spanish, we have to tune our ears to hear and understand. And truth to tell, if I overhear a conversation in Spanish or turn to a Spanish radio station such as La Mega, I can usually pick out a few words here and there – but I can’t understand enough of them quickly enough to keep up with the conversation or the broadcast. Mostly all I hear is a raging torrent of very fast syllables. My ears aren’t sufficiently tuned – though I can say that years ago when I visited Cuba several times, by the end of those trips, my ears were beginning to be tuned, and I began to understand the conversations going on around me in Spanish – not fully, but I was picking up a lot more. And then, of course, I went home, and left my minimal learnings behind on the island. And it is like that in hearing the voice of the Spirit – we need to focus, really focus, in a disciplined way over time – which is where regular daily prayer comes in. One of the goals of regular times of prayer is to tune our Spirits so that undergirding our whole lives is a constant current of prayer, so that beneath our words and actions is a constant, perhaps even unconscious, flow of prayer, a constant, perhaps unconscious, connection to the Spirit. I can’t hope to understand a broadcast in Spanish, or follow the voice of the Spirit, if I am distracted with other things, if I’m constantly checking my cell phone or updates on Facebook or Instagram. I need to put all those things aside so that I can focus on what is essential.
Jesus not only opened the deaf man’s ears, but also loosened his tongue so that he could speak plainly. And I think sometimes we suffer from a kind of garbled speech, in a spiritual sense. We may try to communicate our faith, but do so in ways that are so heavily packaged in our own cultural assumptions, that bear such a heavy cultural accent, that those outside our circle can’t understand what we’re saying – just as when I try to speak Spanish, my American accent is so heavy that I have to repeat myself slowly in order to be understood by those who speak Spanish as a first language. Once again, our prayer is that we will be opened – open ears to hear the Spirit, open mouths to speak Gods word of grace, open hands to serve.
A pushy, even overbearing foreign woman pushed Jesus to a new understanding of his mission, a new understanding that included this woman, and people like her. James pushed his readers to understand that faith is an action word, that praying can be done with folded hands or with open arms or with marching feet. May God likewise continue to lead our congregation out of our comfort zones, so that in unplanned encounters with unexpected people, we too may be surprised by grace. Amen.