Proper 18, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
If I thought coming up with five different sermons all addressing the bread of life discourse was tough…I should have looked ahead to see what else was coming up in the lectionary. While this story of two healings by Jesus from the Gospel of Mark is often beloved by many for a multitude of reasons, and has definitely been picked apart in every direction by theologians, preachers, and academics, preaching on it in the real world is not necessarily my favorite activity. I say that because this is one of those passages that really challenge our Christology. We don’t get to know the inner workings of Jesus’ mind. We don’t get inner monologues from Jesus in the Gospels, only what is said and done. To many the first event in this portion today, referred to usually as the Syrophoenician Woman, is an indication that Jesus is not fully accepting of outsiders. That in his humanity, the implicit bias of a first century Jew towards non-Jews leads him to initially refuse to help the woman’s daughter. To me, this takes Jesus’ divinity out of the picture in a way that is not in keeping with a Christology that acknowledges Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. So, to say that the Syrophoenician woman teaches Jesus to stop being racist is, I think, a bridge too far in the study or preaching of this passage.
The Gospels were not meant to necessarily be broken up in small bites throughout the course of a calendar year, but rather continuous narrative that draws the listener in and lets you see the arcs and themes. This story comes right after Jesus has had the encounter with the Pharisees about the hand washing. He has shown them that tradition and God’s law aren’t always the same, and when the traditions do not honor the laws of God then they are not worth following. So here it almost seems as if Jesus is turning this around and acting the same way the Pharisees do. He is not acting in accordance with his own teachings, but rather by the laws and customs of Jews regarding others who are ethnically different from them. What I think is somewhat curious is that Jesus is in the region of Tyre, which is not populated primarily by the Jews, but rather by Hellenized Syrians, people who are ethnically gentiles in Syrian or Middle Eastern heritage, but culturally most resemble Greek society. Jesus is actually outside his home country when he has this interaction where he is saying that the children of God, in this case the Jewish people, must be the ones to first receive the good news. In some ways this makes the whole interaction even more incredulous. Jesus is on the home turf of this woman, telling her she is second class to the Jews. What is also curious about this is that in the grand scheme of things, Jesus isn’t saying that the Kingdom of God coming to be in this world is never for anyone but the Jews, but rather he has brought it to them first. Often this is characterized as a flat denial of sharing the kingdom of God, but it isn’t, as Jesus says the children eat first, not singularly. Now as I’ve said before, this culture is based in whether or not you can win intellectual arguments. This seems to be another one of those. I’m not sure if Jesus is actually speaking from a standpoint of believing this woman to be a dog, that she and her daughter are not as worthy to receive the power and miracles that he has, or whether he is testing, whether he is trying to get at the root of her faith. What is abundantly clear though is that how she responds is the catalyst for Jesus to act. Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus heals the daughter by driving out a demon, from an unknown distance instead of going to her house, because this woman has responded to his challenge and she has won.
Paired with this quick interaction, that is less descriptive than most healings in Mark is the healing of a deaf man. Let’s start first with a little geography. Jesus was in the region of Tyre, which is far Northwest from the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know why he was there, but he was in fact a long way from home in Syrophoenician territory. Now the gospel tells us that he’s returning from the region of Tyre by way of Sidon. Here’s the thing about that. It’s like going to Little Rock by way of Branson. By any map, it doesn’t seem like that’s the way to get from Tyre to Galilee, unless maybe it’s by way of several river boats and land crossings. What I’m getting at is that Jesus is going a bit out of his way to head deeper into Syrophoenician territory. Again, some scholars speculate that after the encounter with the woman in the first part, Jesus decides to continue moving deeper into the land. I’m not entirely sure he’s preaching though, as he is adamant that the man he heals needs to keep it a secret. Which works as well as any time Jesus tells people not to talk about his miracles. Jesus sighs, says the Aramaic word ‘Ephphatha’ which means, “Be Open”. It’s an interesting word choice for the Messiah, heralding the Kingdom of God, wandering deep into Gentile territory, at first telling them that they are not to be first, that he has not come primarily for them, though he then casts out a demon, then to use the words, “Be Open” which are both fitting for the act of healing a deaf man, but also very descriptive of what Jesus is doing. The Good News, the Messiah is indeed come for all. For the Jews, for Syrophoenicians, for us, for the whole of Creation, Christ has come to free us from the bonds of death, and to show us the way to live into the Kingdom of God.
That word, Ephphatha, ‘be open’, it reminds me of something those of you who have spent any time in a Methodist church might be familiar with. There is a campaign in the United Methodist tradition known as ‘Rethinking Church’ and one of its main slogans is, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors’. While they are certainly putting that to good use, it seems very apropos to this gospel story. ‘Be open’ says Jesus. We work to make this an open place. Our doors stand open on Sunday mornings, much to the chagrin of those who monitor the thermostat. Our minds and our hearts open to welcome friends and strangers. Those who have been here for many years, those who have come back after a break, or those who we are meeting for the first time, we are open to all who are seeking the Kingdom of God. Be open. There are entire segments of the population in this place, even here in Mountain Home, that don’t know we are here, that don’t know our doors are open on Sunday mornings to all. You would be surprised at the number of conversations I have had in the last couple of weeks with folks who didn’t know there was a place for them to worship, who didn’t know that we are here with our open hearts, our open minds, and our open doors.
When Jesus commissioned the Apostles, he commanded them to go out and make disciples of all people. It isn’t just enough for us to be walking in those open doors, it’s our job to be out in the world, in the farthest flung places we know, in the sort of places that make people ask us things like why in the world we went to Branson to get back to Little Rock, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel, the Messiah, salvation…it is for all, and it always has been. Let the people you meet out in the world know that God invites them in through these open doors, that they too are worthy of the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Ephphatha. Be Open.