Sermon for Sunday, September 6, 2015 || Proper 18B || Mark 7:24-37
You might be wondering if I accidentally read two weeks worth of Gospel lessons just now. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman ended satisfactorily, and at that point I could have said, “The Gospel of the Lord.” But the appointed lesson for today barrels forward into the next story, as well, and we read about Jesus healing a man who cannot hear and can hardly speak. We could focus on either half of this Gospel reading: there surely is enough in each to fill out a sermon. But today, I’m going to break a rule of preaching and bite off more verses than I normally do because I think the Gospel writer Mark places these two stories side-by-side for a reason. And this reason centers on the strangest word in the passage, a word that itself needs to be translated because Mark chose to preserve Jesus’ original language when he wrote it down. That word is “Ephphatha”: Be opened. Openness is the key to these two encounters. And openness is one of the keys to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
But before we get to openness proper, we need to address the historic challenge of the first encounter in our passage. For hundreds and hundreds of years, faithful readers of scripture have had more trouble with the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman than almost any other story in the Gospel. The main issue boils down to this: Jesus seems to change his mind after the woman’s response to his rather rude statement about dogs eating the children’s food. If Jesus is who he says he is, the argument goes, then how could he possibly be induced to change his mind? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to saying he’s wrong about something?
You can see why people of all stripes – scholars, clergy, laypersons – have trouble with this story. It has always made me a little spiritually itchy, as well, to be honest. And because of this trouble, people throughout history have used some (shall we say) flexible interpretive gymnastics to bend the encounter until it fits into their conception of who Jesus is. “Jesus was going heal the little girl all along,” says the most common acrobatic interpretation. “He was just testing her mother.” Another goes: “Jesus is simply moved by her plight. That’s why he gives in to her request.”
While these might be fine interpretations of the passage, they miss the simplest explanation entirely because they are not open to the possibility that Jesus might just be wrong in this case. But let’s for a moment step out of this history of interpretive gymnastics and imagine such a possibility. Let’s see if there is some good news in a story about Jesus being wrong and changing his mind.
The first thing to notice is the status of the other person in the encounter. Right away, Mark gives us three reasons why this woman would normally be dismissed in Jesus’ day and age (and perhaps ours, as well). She’s a woman. She’s a foreigner. And she has a child with some challenges. That’s three strikes, three excuses others would use to marginalize her. And this is the person who teaches Jesus something.
She comes to Jesus and implores him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He responds with what sounds like a stock retort of the day, complete with ethnic slur (and let me assure you, “dog” is the mildest translation of the word). But the woman takes the slur and turns it around, in effect saying: “Listen to me. Take me seriously. I might not have a seat at the table but I deserve to be fed.”
And then something astounding happens. I imagine Jesus standing there, dazed for a minute, then his features softening as he realizes how closed off he is being, how stuck in a cultural norm, how unlike his usual self who is always pushing boundaries and rubbing shoulders with outsiders. The woman’s response jars him out this unusual narrowness. “Good answer,” he says – not just because it gets her what she wants but because it also helps Jesus reassert his normal posture of openness.
The beauty of living a life of openness is illustrated in the next encounter. People bring to Jesus a man who cannot hear and can hardly talk. Jesus looks him over, touches him, and says, “Ephphatha”: Be opened. Immediately, the man is able to hear and speak. Jesus could have said any number of things to heal this man. Or he didn’t have to say anything at all. And yet the word he chooses is a word of openness. That’s what’s on Jesus’ mind when he heals the man – not just the mechanical action of opening his ears and releasing his tongue, but the greater reality that open ears convey, the deeper meaning of Ephphatha.
Be open. Do not let your preconceptions deafen you to new ideas. In our world today, we can pick and choose the voices who influence us, and human nature pushes us towards voices we already agree with. The arguments we expose ourselves to in such a partisan climate often pit the best of one side against the worst of the other, or else have no basis in reality in the first place. The loudest voices in the media are always the most extreme. And yet underneath that layer of bluster, there are other, quieter, smarter men and women who disagree with each other and take the time to appreciate and understand one another’s views. They may not change their minds like Jesus does in the story, but the openness exists, nonetheless.
Be open. Do not let innate tribalism keep you from getting to know people unlike yourself. We all fall into this trap. We like people who remind us of ourselves. This isn’t a bad thing at all. But it’s also not the only thing. Rubbing shoulders with people unlike us – in whatever way the differences present – has a way of broadening us, giving us greater awareness, growing in us more empathy, more solidarity. It’s no wonder that the person who reminds Jesus of his usual openness is so unlike him.
Be open. Pray for the trust that leads to openness. Open your hands to receive. Then open your hands again to give. Walk with your arms outstretched, open to embrace the call God places in your heart. Ask God to open your heart to welcome whoever walks across your threshold, to listen to experience that differ from your own, to learn what others have to teach.
I truly believe Jesus learned something that day from the Syrophoenician woman, or perhaps remembered something he had forgotten. She teaches him to embrace his openness and then returns home to a demon-free daughter. Jesus returns home, too, and meets a man who is physically closed off. Be opened are his words of healing to that man, who then cannot contain his raucous proclamation. And just as Jesus lived a life of openness to God and to those people whom most never bothered to see, Jesus gives us the same invitation today. Ephphatha. Be open.