16TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, 9-9-18
Pentecost 16B 2018
Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 | Mark 7:24-37
“Ephphatha, that is, ‘Be opened.’” Mark 7: 34
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading has not one, but two healing stories in it. The first is the story of the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus comes to Tyre, a land of mostly Gentiles, although there are some Jews there. He wants to be alone, but like a modern day rock star being followed by paparazzi, word gets around that he is visiting someone in the neighborhood and this woman hears about it. Her daughter is very ill; she has a demon we are told, and she begs Jesus to “cast the demon out.”
Then, in one of the rudest, most troubling stories in the Bible, Jesus says to this poor woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” For hundreds of years writers and theologians have tried to make Jesus’ response less harsh and nasty than it was.
I don’t know about you, but if I knew Jesus was in my neighborhood and I wasn’t a believer in him, but one of my boys was really ill and I had screwed up the courage to go to him and beg him for help and I was then likened to a dog, I would be completely taken aback, angry even. This is not the Jesus I had come to expect. I knew I might not get what I wanted, but I didn’t expect to be insulted either.
Some writers think that this was just some witty, divine repartee between the woman and Jesus, kind of like, “play along with me here, wink, wink,” or that Jesus was testing her. Some have tried to make the argument that the word for dog was actually closer to the word for puppy. I think all of these explanations are wrong.
This woman, this Gentile woman, takes what Jesus says and turns it around. She doesn’t deny it or fight it, but she expands it. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Our second healing concerns a deaf/ mute man. His friends bring him to Jesus who then takes him away and privately puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and then takes his own saliva and touches the man’s tongue and looking to heaven says, “Ephphatha,” be opened. This man could now hear and speak plainly. He was restored to health and could be a full participant in the life of his community.
At first, these may look like two very different stories, but in my mind, they are related.
Immediately before the story of the Syrophoenician Woman, Jesus is with his disciples and has told them that it isn’t what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out of a person, that is what is willed by the human heart, that defiles.
In whatever tone of voice Jesus said those words to the woman, whether it was out of exhaustion and frustration, out of joking or testing, I believe she reminded Jesus of this point.
She may be a Gentile and he may have come to save the House of Israel first and foremost, but she, too, was a child of God and God provides grace to those who are at the table begging for it. Even the crumbs of grace, was grace enough.
We believe that, too. We have said similar words. For those of you who remember the Prayer for Humble Access in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which is also in Rite I of the current prayer book, we say, “We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”
This woman expands Jesus’ sense of mission. She reminds him that his property was always to have mercy. She opens him up to the possibility that his mission is larger than he had originally imagined. Jesus was able to hear this greater truth that she spoke to him; he was able to hear it and act on it.
It could be said that she is telling Jesus, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” And because he was opened, he was able to speak those words to another, which then opened the deaf man up to the possibilities that surrounded him.
This woman’s persistence, her tenacity and unwavering belief that God included her and her daughter and all like them, persuades Jesus that there is more than one direction to his ministry.
If the Son of God can be opened to new possibilities in ministry, if he can be opened by another who is considered on the outside of belonging, if he can live more fully into his calling as the Christ by hearing words that remind him of who he is and what he is really about, surely, words like those that are spoken to us can do the same thing.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Syrophoenician woman opened up new possibilities for Jesus who then left and spoke words of new possibilities to the deaf man.
St. Luke’s, we need to hear and be open to new possibilities in our life together and in our ministries, and then we are to leave and share those possibilities with others so that they can grow into new possibilities for their life and their ministries.
Words are important. They have the power to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Words spoken over the bread and wine, have the power to transform those elements into the body and blood of Christ.
Words shared have the ability to make a frightened band of followers into courageous evangelists. Words make what looks like failure and death into resurrection and new life.
What amazes me about these two stories is that Jesus is changed by his interaction with the Syrophoenician Woman and because of that interaction the deaf man’s life is changed.
Think about that for a minute. Jesus is in relationship with this woman and as a result, is changed by her and the words she has spoken to him. We often think we are changed by our relationship with Jesus, and well we should be. Jesus didn’t go to the cross so that nothing changed for us, or so that we could remain the same.
But how often do we give any thought to the possibility that Jesus is changed by what we bring to him, changed by the words we speak to him?
If God made God’s-self vulnerable enough to come to earth and join himself with humanity, than God opened God’s-self up to the possibility of being changed by living life with us.
No one, as Mark goes to great pains to show us, is beyond the reach of God. No one is beyond having his ears opened, his tongue loosened so that God’s glory can be proclaimed. No one is beyond being broken open so that they can be used for the purpose for which they were created. Not even Jesus.
This reading begs us to ask the question, “Are we open?” Are we open to hearing words of new possibilities that await us? Are we willing to be changed by entering into new relationships and new ministry with others? Are we willing to be changed and in turn take the opportunity to change the lives of others?
My friends, we need to hear Jesus’ words of “Ephphatha! Be opened” and come to the realization that we are going to be used exactly for what God has intended for us all along.
The woman’s words to Jesus “remind us of the potential of words to shape an alternative reality and to call forth a larger, more faithful vision,” and Jesus’ words to the deaf man remind us that being open to new possibilities brings forth new life, not just for us, but for others as well.
Ephphatha, St. Luke’s! Be opened!