Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
That woman had everything going against her when she pushed her way into Jesus’
presence. Mark describes her as a Gentile, meaning that she wasn’t Jewish, and that she was of Syrophoenician origin, meaning she was from a different ethnic group. And of course, she was female, which in that day and age meant that she was supposed to keep out of the way; she was not supposed to speak to anyone outside of her family or clan.
Especially not a male stranger. She had three strikes against her.
Despite all that, she finds Jesus and drops to his feet, begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter. She had heard about him. She knew what he could do. And we expect Jesus to show her the same kindness and loving compassion that he has shown all along in Mark’s gospel. Up until now, he has healed people and cast our demons all over the country. He has not turned anyone away. His healing has caught the eye of the Jewish leaders and challenged the Jewish laws of purity, and yet nothing has stopped him.
Until now. In this story, as one scholar puts it, Jesus is “caught with his compassion down.” When the woman falls to his feet, begging him for help, this is what he says: “Let the children be fed first,” meaning the children of Israel. “It is not fair to take the
children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning “what are you doing here, dog?” Dog.
That’s a racial slur, by the way. It’s disturbing to hear Jesus speak that way, isn’t it? We confess in our creed that Jesus is fully human and fully divine – here we see Jesus’ full human being-ness on display. The kind that makes distinctions between people.
But the woman does not accept Jesus’ distinction. She comes right back at him,
claiming her right to be part of the kingdom of heaven that he has been offering. “Even the
dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Just give me a crumb,” she insists. She
turns Jesus’ words to her advantage. And Jesus instantly understands her challenge. His mission is not just for the Jews. God’s love expands beyond all borders. God’s love includes all comers. God’s love breaks down the barriers that we human beings would build between “us” and “them.”
And the story continues. Jesus goes from Tyre to another Gentile area, the
Decapolis, where a group of people bring a man who is deaf and unable to speak to him for healing. Being deaf in the first century was not about merely being unable to hear or speak. For many people, deafness, blindness, lameness, or other physical impairments were thought to be the consequence of sin. People who suffered these disabilities had little or no status. They were barred from participating in the religious and social life of their community. So once again, Jesus encounters someone with three strikes against him: deaf, mute and Gentile.
This time there is no argument. Jesus sees beyond the man’s disability to value him not as a child of Israel, but as a child of God. He touches the man’s ears, spits, touches his tongue, and releases the man from the bondage of his affliction. Not only that but Jesus restores him to his community. Whenever Jesus heals someone, it’s not only about
relieving that person’s physical affliction. These healing stories always include the healing of a fractured community as well. Jesus’ healing restores the person’s relationships as well.
Relationships with family, with society, and with God.
I want to look a little more closely at the end of this Gospel passage: The more Jesus orders people not to say anything about what he has done, the more they proclaim it.
“They were astounded beyond measure, saying ‘He has done everything well, even making
the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” This phrase, “making the deaf to hear and the
mute to speak” – that should prick our ears up as well, because we heard it in the first reading this morning, from Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” Mark connects Jesus to Israel’s ancient hope for a Messiah, a redeemer, a savior. And it’s not the insiders, the Jewish people, who proclaim this good news. No, it is the Gentiles, the formerly deaf man’s friends and neighbors, who go around telling what Jesus has done. It is those who had been on the outside, those who had three strikes against them, who shout God’s good news of the coming kingdom. Those people who saw and experienced Jesus, those who were touched and healed by him, those were the ones who could not keep what happened to themselves.
We human beings suffer from a deep insecurity that pushes us to create boundaries and walls and rules that give status to some and take it away from others. We make distinctions and show partiality. We are taught early to notice what makes us different from others – maybe skin color, maybe accented speech – and we assign values to what we notice about other people. Can anyone here say that you have never done that? That you have never looked at a well-groomed man in a suit, or at a 20-something with tattoos up his arms, and not made some type of conclusion about who they might be or the life they might live? I can’t.
Making distinctions and showing partiality is necessary in some ways. Laws regulate how fast we can drive and how we do business. We need to curb our tendency to violence, to protect vulnerable people, and to make sure that people are safe.
Martin Luther was not a fan of the letter of James because he thought it promoted
what we Lutherans call “works righteousness” – the idea that it is what we do that makes
us right with God. Luther saw this as opposed to Paul’s insistence that God’s grace and forgiveness and salvation are gifts that have been showered on us freely. It’s not about what you achieve, but what you have received. This is most certainly true.
But James makes the point that believing has an active component to it. If you are going to talk the talk, do you also walk the walk? If your brother or sister shows up in clothes that you don’t consider proper attire for church, how are they treated? If your brother or sister comes asking for food, how do you respond?
What does this have to do with the gospel, with Jesus’ conversation with a Gentile woman and healing her daughter, with his healing of a deaf man in the Decapolis? I think that Jesus had one of those “A-ha” moments in this morning’s gospel. One of those
moments where it became clear how much wider and richer the community is when everyone is included. The Syrophoenician woman demanded to be included in God’s circle, and she succeeded. And they the very next action Jesus took was to heal another Gentile, demonstrating that God’s circle just gets wider and wider.
I’ve been thinking this week about the refugee crisis in Europe – the people who are trying to get across the Mediterranean in boats, or trying to get on trains in Hungary.
People who are desperately trying to get to a country where they can be given asylum. I’ve
been thinking about the proposals that some of our Presidential candidates have made to
build a wall along the US border with Mexico. Who belongs and who doesn’t? Who gets
past the line and who gets turned back? I often hear people talk about what a pleasant
community Chadron is and I wonder if some of that sentiment has to do with the fact that
this town doesn’t have a lot of diversity. We are not confronted with border security or
asylum seekers or large groups of immigrants who bring their customs and their food and
their music and their language. There are hard questions here, and I’m not certain of the answer.
Perhaps you have noticed that I tend to talk a lot about hospitality and community.
Sometimes we struggle with how to show our hospitality. How does the layout of our
building contribute or detract? What do we expect of the folks who come to visit us? What do visitors expect to find here? What do we say when someone new arrives? What do we say when they leave? Can we understand that hospitality is not just what we do for others, but what they do for us? Let me say that again: hospitality is not just what we do for others, but what they do for us. Can we be open to the gifts and perspectives of those who are different, who are on the outside?
This fall, we have made plans to open our doors and offer supper to hungry college students once a month. We have made plans to serve lunch at Closer to Home once a month. We don’t know who will come to eat. We don’t know what they look like, how they will be dressed, what their faith backgrounds are, if any. We don’t know if they
“deserve” a free meal or not. And none of that matters.
What does matter is this: we will feed our neighbors. Whoever comes to eat will not
go away hungry. We will do God’s work. We will proclaim the good news. We will break
down some barriers. And maybe once we do that here in Chadron, we will be willing to
advocate for our neighbors in other places. Maybe we will be willing to expand the circle of
welcome for all God’s children, especially those who are trying to get to safety. Just like
Jesus, maybe we will learn how wide God’s circle can be.