Welcome Sunday, September 9, 2018
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
When exactly did you become you? Was it as soon as the sperm and egg came together? Was it sometime during the nine long months of watery darkness? Was it when you learned to speak and express yourself? Or when you graduated? Or when you had your first real crisis and survived it? Or do you think of yourself as still becoming more fully you?
And if you think of yourself as still becoming you, then when did Jesus become Jesus? There is an often-unspoken assumption in the church that because Jesus was Jesus, he emerged from the womb fully and completely formed, sort of human but really much more divine. And so, to even ask: “When did Jesus become Jesus” has the ring of heresy to it for some.
I was raised with a thoroughly static view of Jesus. The Jesus of my childhood was the already the perfect Son of God before he was even born. We would say things like “Jesus is fully human and fully divine” but the reality was that we left no room for his humanity. We sort of ignored the idea that Jesus was the actual son of a woman named Mary, who grew up in a working class home, and played in the streets, and no doubt argued with his siblings, and scraped his knees and had stomach aches and confounded his parents. We so focused on his divinity that we ignored his humanity. And quite frankly, that also has the ring of heresy to it.
But today’s Gospel lesson seems to show us a very clear picture of Jesus’s complicated humanity. Jesus had traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, in modern day Lebanon. This was Gentile country. And it appears that Jesus was traveling alone this time, Mark makes no mention of any of the disciples. And Mark says that Jesus entered a house but did not want anyone to know he was there. So maybe he was on vacation – a very human thing to do!
But try as he might to have some downtime, Jesus did not escape notice. Like a celebrity hounded by the paparazzi, word spread that the great healer and teacher from Galilee was holed up in a local house. Suddenly, there was a pounding on the door of that house. And when the host opened it, a Syrophoenician woman pushed her way in and immediately fell down at Jesus’s feet. To say that she was Syrophoenician was to say that she was not one of the chosen people, that she was an outsider, that she was “other.” And this outsider begged Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Now when people came to Jesus for help, they were almost always met with compassion. Social barriers were no barriers for Jesus. But not this time. This time, a tired, perhaps close-to-burned-out Savior, looks at this bold and persuasive woman, who has just poured out her heart to him and said: “Lady, let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” At than point, most of us would have slinked away in humiliation. But this sassy sister was undeterred and replied: “Yes sir, but even the dogs get table scraps.”
So, what are we to make of these strange and harsh words of Jesus? Well, the church has been trying to answer question that for some time now, usually in an attempt to protect a static view of Jesus and his divinity.
The first explanation is like this: Jesus ignored this woman and then verbally rebuffed her because he was testing her faith. If she only could exhibit enough faith, the reasoning goes, then her little daughter would be set free. But that kind of logic sets us humans up for some very cruel tests of faith. It implies that when bad things happen to us, somehow it’s our fault. If only we had more faith, then children wouldn’t die and cancer would be cured and lovers would be faithful and we would never lose our jobs.
The second standard explanation is like this: when Jesus calls her a dog, he’s really calling her a puppy, sort of like a term of endearment. The Greek word here for dog is “kunarios” which actually means little dogs or puppies. This used to be my favorite explanation until the day I realized that no one wants to be called a young female dog, if you know what I mean.
And the third explanation is like this: Jesus rebuffed her because she needed to submit to Jesus. She needed to kneel at his feet, to beg his mercy, to humble herself. And it was this humbling that caused Jesus to grant her request. But I was raised on a steady diet of pious humiliation and frankly it did nothing for me except to confuse me about the nature of God’s love.
But there is another way to read this story. It’s a little edgy; it might make us a bit uncomfortable. But I find in it a huge helping of God’s amazing grace. And it is simply this: maybe Jesus was just having a bad day. Maybe, when those harsh words were spoken, what we see is a very human Jesus, not some immutable deity. Maybe Jesus was still in the process of change and growth; still, as one blogger has so beautifully phrased it, “on his way to becoming the Savior of the World.” Maybe, in that exchange with an unlikely messenger, Jesus learned something transformative. And he changed. As theologian Barbara Brown Taylor has written: In that moment of encounter with the other, “you can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.” And so Jesus, shaken awake by her words, is transformed and sees her not as a foreigner, not as a second-class female, not as a heretic, but as a human sister in need. And of course they only thing to do for a sister is to set her little daughter free of the evil that bound her.
Immediately afterwards, Jesus is off to the Decapolis in Galilee, where the people brought him a deaf man with a speech impediment, and asked Jesus to heal him. And this is an odd story too. Jesus takes this man aside, put his fingers in his ears, and took some of his own saliva and placed it on the man’s tongue. And then Jesus looked up into heaven, sighed, and said: “Be opened.” And the man was healed.
It’s easy to miss that sigh in the reading. But that sigh seems significant to me. Was it ironic? Did Jesus sigh with a wry smile? When he said about the deaf man’s ears: “Be opened!” did he suddenly look up to heaven and think: “Oh. OK Father, I get it. Be opened. I get it.”
And if it’s true that in some way our Lord Jesus Christ “got it” in a way he had not before; if it’s true that Jesus became more fully Jesus in that moment, then what does that mean for us as we encounter people who challenge our privilege and assumptions and traditions?
Today we begin another year of ministry and mission in the name of this Jesus. And so we begin, however tentatively, to draw our circle wider. And as we come face to face with those very different from ourselves, the question before us always is: Will we be content with stasis, which is really death? Or will we be open to transformation, which is life? First Congregational Church of Cheshire: I say, let’s imagine that God is not done with us yet; let’s imagine that there is genuine blessing in challenge and change; let’s imagine that the only kind of circle worth having is one that is always expanding, until it embraces the whole world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Thomas, Debie. www.journeywithjesus.net, “Be Opened” accessed September 3, 2018