“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.”
Prayer – Still-speaking God, we come this morning as we continue our journeys of faith and life. We hear this story of an outsider who can see deeper than perhaps the faithful. We are surprised that on Jesus’ journey, he could discover that outsiders too can have a sense of faith. Help us to see your presence with both the ‘insiders and outsiders’, all the while being reminded that you are in us all – amen.
As I was reflecting on this passage this week a couple things occurred to me – I first had planned to talk about how God responds to us when we are desperate, something that is hard to see and understand when our lives seem out of control, out of sorts. Then I began to think about how in the world it was that Jesus, who came to teach us about God, could call one of God’s beloved children a dog. As I pondered this I began to think about how Jesus learned more about God while on his journey of discovery. And while talking with Valerie on the phone Friday night, I asked her to think about this notion that perhaps even Jesus, the human and divine one, could learn as a human being. She reminded me of something that Ruby Sales said last year during the Progressive Forum about reading and hearing scripture from the perspective of not what Jesus did, but from the perspective of what happened to Jesus in the passage – and so that is my starting place this morning.
In last week’s gospel text, Jesus took to task the Pharisees and scribes for their ideas of ‘purity’ and their judgment of those who didn’t conform to their standards of piety. Now, we have a passage where Jesus heads off to ‘impure’ territory, the gentile region of Tyre and we surprisingly hear similar words coming out of Jesus’ mouth.
It seems that Jesus is exhausted and is seeking some ‘down time,’ as he entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Yet, word of his presence quickly spread, even in this gentile region. It appears that the Son of Man can’t escape the demands for his healing power.
The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should have prevented her from getting anywhere close to Jesus. She is a ‘gentile of Syrophoenician origin; in other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside the land of Israel and outside the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man – another taboo transgressed.
On top of all of this, her daughter is reportedly possessed by a demon. Although we are not told exactly how the demon affected her daughter, we can probably guess from other stories about demon-possessed people that it made her act bizarre and in anti-social ways. This woman and her daughter were not the kind of family most people would invite over for dinner.
Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider. And what happened to Jesus in this story is that he gives her piece of “Pharisaical” status quo and tells her to her face that she is an outsider. When the woman falls at Jesus’ feet and desperately begs him to heal her, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The ‘children’ in this statement are the children of Israel, the ‘dogs’ are understood to be all other people. Jesus’ response is harsh, rude, insulting and as we here in the south would say, tacky.
How could God’s very own Son say such a thing? He appears to be quoting a bit of Jewish folk wisdom, but that doesn’t lessen the sting. This behavior of Jesus jars against our modern sensibilities but for a first century Jewish rabbi, Jesus’ words are totally coherent and in context. Jesus didn’t need to deal with this person because not only was she a woman but she was not even a Jewish woman. While we can’t know exactly what was going through Jesus’ mind, it is clear that when approached by this outsider, Jesus’ immediate response is to appeal to the limits of his mission, his call to serve his own people.
This story certainly upsets our typical Christian thinking about Jesus because we like to think of Jesus as being bigger than stereotypes. We have seen and heard the bigger story of Jesus’ life and faithful journey, a principled story of welcoming the stranger, caring for the outsiders, helping the vulnerable, breaking the rules of traditional Judaism. And as Christians, we are called to cross the road to help like the Good Samaritan, not turn away from those in need.
This is the Jesus we believe we know, Jesus who welcomes strangers and offers God’s unconditional love. Yet, in this story, Jesus appears to act like most of us and so may be in the process of discovering exactly who he is and what God is calling him to. Could it be that Jesus’ path is indeed a journey of discovery?
The persistence of this female outsider opens Jesus’ eyes and heart to her predicament and he responds by offering compassion and healing, albeit in an offhand manner as the woman urges him by suggesting that even the dogs should be welcome to the scraps on the floor. Jesus recognizes something in the woman and the direction of his compassion flows to someone who would have otherwise not been considered worthy of Jesus’ attention.
As a follower of Jesus, as his disciple, I find this story encouraging and challenging. Jesus the man of Nazareth was on a journey of learning, just as many of us are. I don’t have the sense that Jesus had direct knowledge of all things but through his unique bond with God and through the Spirit was guided on that journey of discovery.
Yet, I am challenged with Jesus’ response, with what happened to Jesus in this encounter. It seems to be that in this particular story Jesus came to see and understand that God’s love was for all people, that there are no outsiders, and so as with this woman he reaches and acts for them and for us.
This raises the question for my life and perhaps for yours as we learn new things how do we respond? How do we live honoring others for who God may have concern even when we believe they may not fit into our little group? On a secular level an example that is very real in our country right now is the whole immigration issue. It appears that far too many folks in our country today fear the other and protection of what is ‘ours’ drives the argument. We play the game of insiders and outsiders and we decide people’s fate. On a religious level, we do the same thing when it comes to who the church says is an insider and who is going to end up in hell. At a progressive church like this one it is often easy to point our fingers at the evangelicals and the fundamentalists as if we are the gatekeepers to heaven just as they do to us.
It seems that in our country and even in our Christian churches, we struggle with the presence of people who are different, whether in skin color, language, sexual orientation, abilities or disabilities among other differences. These are complex issues, yet when we consider Jesus learning about whom he was, and who was in and who was out, we might ask ourselves how we go about caring for those who are different among us.
And maybe we don’t have to worry about going as far afield as the immigrant to think about the issues of inclusion in the community, of hospitality and care for others. Who is it in our congregation and in our community around us do we need to listen to? Who is appealing to us just as the woman appealed to Jesus? Who is being persistent in asking for recognition and help? What does our journey of discovery look like in the world today?
We assume that Jesus had all the tools to be the Son of God when he began his ministry. Perhaps our gospel passage this morning is an attempt to open our eyes and ears on our journeys of discovery, that the faith we have is not a static thing and that is all there is to the faith journey. Even Jesus our teacher grew and at some level may have changed, evolved, as he drew closer to the knowledge of who he was. So too as our faith grows and is nurtured we respond to the Spirit working in us and we may be drawn deeper into the good works of God in our lives and world.
It seems fitting that the story of healing of the deaf mute follows our story this morning. A story in which a man has his ears opened and so also is given a new opportunity to hear and respond to God’s love. A man who couldn’t hear a thing is suddenly availed of the possibility of growing and changing on his journey of discovery. Perhaps Jesus is modeling for you and for me this morning that all of our journeys are journeys of discovery and growth, all the while deepening our faith. May God bless you and me in our journey of discovery – thanks be to God – amen.