“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…”
The message from last Sunday, September 9, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading. The other readings on Sunday were Isaiah 35:3-7a, Psalm 146, and James 2:1-17.
Mark 7:24-37: Jesus 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
The texts for this morning are filled with a remarkable sweetness. The proclamation we heard from Isaiah to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” begins a few verses earlier with the words:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
….the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
….and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
….the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
….the majesty of our God.
I suppose you can listen to the prophet this morning and hear only a backdrop for today’s Gospel. We read that Jesus opened the ears of a man who could not hear, so we look around and clip out a portion of the Old Testament that speaks about ears being opened. But the Old Testament isn’t just a setup for the Gospel. The story contained in the first three quarters of our Bibles doesn’t just set the stage for Jesus. It is, itself, the living word of God. It is full of the same divine voice we encounter in Jesus. It proclaims a God who fashions a good and beautiful world only to see it broken by humanity’s choices. It proclaims a God who remains faithful to the world, seeking to rescue and redeem it despite humanity’s persistent rebellion. It proclaims a God who again and again delivers from bondage and shows us the path of mercy and faithfulness. It proclaims a God who suffers the sorrows of the world and comes to it again and again with mercy and love. And, in words like those of the prophet this morning, it sings a profound song of salvation full of the sweetness of God’s redemptive work.
There is a challenge to us in the Gospel reading for today – because we are still talking about clean and unclean and the wretched way we treat one another – but that challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness. And there is challenge for us in the second reading when James rebukes the community for giving special privilege and respect to the wealthy while treating the poor like the world always treats the poor. Such is not the “royal law”, James says, and asks that piercing question: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
Yet even this challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness for it sees a community transformed from the way of the world we see around us to become a community that embodies the love of God. It sees a community that lives not in the world as it is, with all its bitter words and deeds, but with its feet planted in the world where the desert blooms and frail knees dance in joy, where every heart is healed, where all creation is radiant with grace and life.
Our texts are immersed in a sea of sweetness. Our psalm sings of a God – the living, active, power and presence and love at the heart of all existence – who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry,” who “sets the prisoners free,” and “opens the eyes of the blind,” who “lifts up those who are bowed down,” who “watches over the strangers,” who “upholds the orphan and the widow.”
This is no small thing we say. We are living in a world where there is great violence, intimidation and deceit, but our claim – the Biblical claim – is that the divine power at the center of all things, the heartbeat that courses through all existence, is life and healing, redemption and release. It is care for the vulnerable and deliverance of the oppressed. It is justice and compassion and fidelity and love. It is not greed and pride and selfishness that carries the world towards its destiny, but generosity, humility and the care of others.
It’s very easy to say that God loves us. The words have become almost trite in their familiarity. But think what these words mean! Ultimate reality is focused beyond itself. The heartbeat of the universe beats for others. The foundations of the universe are compassion and kindness. The power and presence at the beginning and end of time is not detached and mechanical, but passionate for others.
We say this so freely that God is love, but ponder what a profound declaration this is: the source of all life is turned outward; it looks beyond itself. This is a radical thought. The gods of the ancient world were great and fickle powers preoccupied with their own passions and desires. Zeus had children by his daughter, Persephone. The beautiful Leto catches the eye of Zeus and he gets her pregnant. His wife (and sister) Hera, enraged, tries to kill the twins to be born of that union. Zeus turns himself into a swan to seduce and impregnate the beautiful Leda on her wedding night to the King of Sparta (the child of that union is Helen of Troy).
Zeus appoints the mortal, Paris, to judge which of the goddesses is the most beautiful and Aphrodite bribes Paris with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world. So Paris picks Aphrodite, enraging Athena and Hera. Of course, the most beautiful woman in the world is Helen of Troy. Paris kidnaps her as his prize and starts the Trojan War.
The stories are mythic and complex, but throughout the gods are petty and selfish. The God of the scriptures is neither petty nor vain but bends towards the world in love. The God of the scriptures suffers for the world. The God of the scriptures is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
The gods of the modern world are also great and fickle powers. Wealth and power can lift us up and, in a moment, turn on us and cast us down. They do not suffer. They do not show compassion. They do not love.
The God of the scriptures loves.
And the God of the scriptures does not stop loving his troubled world.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” We are swimming in a sea of sweetness – if we will dare to see it, if we will dare to open ourselves to it, if we will have the courage to live it.
5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
….whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
….who keeps faith forever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
….who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
….8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
….the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers;
….he upholds the orphan and the widow,
….but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10The Lord will reign forever.
We are swimming in a sea of sweetness. And if we are swimming in a sea of sweetness, what does it mean for the way we live in a broken world? Do we yield to the world’s brokenness or walk in the way of sweetness? Do we embrace bitterness and revenge or compassion and grace? Do we hide in the bushes of denial and deceit or answer the call to come forth into the divine presence? Do we turn and blame or stand and acknowledge? Do we hoard like the rich man building new barns or live with open hands? Is the woman of Tyre unclean or a fellow traveler in the sea of sweetness?
The ideas about clean and unclean that we spoke about last week continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – or the unclean Judeans among those who follow Jesus. Now it is about those outside the community of Israel: a woman of Tyre and a man in the region of the Decapolis. The woman is clearly identified as a Greek. An evil spirit holds her daughter, which the text names specifically as an “unclean” spirit.
Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. It’s important we see this in the text. Jesus doesn’t just end up there; he chooses to go to the region of Tyre. From there Jesus goes to the region of Sidon, then to the region of the Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon are ancient Phoenician cities. With the ten towns of the Decapolis they enjoy special privilege as free cities of the empire. Their allegiance to Greek culture and Roman rule is ancient and strong. They were ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers – and there was a long history with Israel. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace and King Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets of the Lord and make Baal the national god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth when he refused to sell the king his vineyard. The prophet Ezekiel would name Tyre’s pride when he declares God’s coming judgment: “you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas’, yet you are but a mortal, and no god.”
These are not the people who deserve God’s favors.
Nor are those in the region of the Decapolis. Mark’s community lives in the throes of the Roman armies marching against Jerusalem’s rebellion, when the cities of the Decapolis showed their allegiance to Rome by murdering their Judean residents or driving them from their midst.
But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose.
There are people bound there, bound by demons and disease. There is grace to be shown, healing to be done. It is to be expected that Jesus would not be left alone there, that people would come for help. There are wounded everywhere.
And so this woman, this foreigner, this outsider, this enemy, comes begging for deliverance for her daughter. And Jesus says what is likely to be in the heart of every one of his followers: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” God’s gifts belong to God’s people. They are for us, not for those people. Those people are unclean.
The Pharisaic interpretation of Israel’s law saw every outsider as unclean. It makes perfect sense, of course, because they do not have the rules that define a holy people. They do not keep the law. They do not possess the rites of purification. They eat unclean foods. They wear unclean fabrics. They walk unclean streets. Their houses are unclean. God owes these people nothing. We owe these people nothing.
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
And we should keep in mind that dogs are not kept as cute pets with nice collars and beds and inscribed bowls for their food. Dogs are mangy animals that roam the streets eating all manner of filth.
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
But the woman says simply, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She insists that the gifts of God should come to all.
Are the followers of Jesus getting it? Do they understand that those we call dogs without thought or shame are also those for whom God cares? Do they understand there is faith to be found there, bold and daring faith? Do they understand that the gifts of God are for all people? Do they understand it is for the world that Christ has come? Do they understand that there are no limits to the mercy of God? Do they understand that all people are their sisters and brothers?
Probably not. But Jesus keeps trying. So now he is passing through Sidon and on to the Decapolis. And once again there is a person in need, a person in these cities whose evils are so fresh in the minds of Mark’s hearers. These cities whose allegiance to Rome is so fixed and sure. These cities filled with those who are unclean. One of these cities was built over a burial ground and distributed to retired Roman soldiers; everything in it is unclean. The possessed man who lived among the tombs was from one of these cities. That’s why there was a herd of pigs nearby into which his demons fled. These are not holy people. This is not holy land. But when Jesus comes, the people bring to Jesus a man in need. They bring to Jesus a man who can neither hear nor speak and Jesus is willing to touch and heal him.
Do the followers of Jesus yet understand? Do they see that we are the ones who cannot hear and whose speech is troubled?
Do they not understand that it is the work of God to open every ear and free every tongue – that our tongues can be used rightly in prayer and praise and care of neighbor rather than for hate and gossip and words that sting?
The crowd cries out in wonder that Jesus does all things well. He does all that is good. He does good to all. Even out here in the Decapolis. Even in Tyre and Sidon. Even in our own hearts.
The crowd cries out in wonder, for they see that we are surrounded in a sea of sweetness.
+ + +
© David K Bonde, 2018. All rights reserved.
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H%C3%B6lzel-ChristusUndDieKanan%C3%A4erin.jpg By Adolf Hölzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons