Sermon; 16 Pentecost/Proper 18B; Mark 7:24-37
Mark is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue, and almost everything in Mark points us to the cross. In Mark, if we follow Jesus we will end up at the cross. I say, “almost everything,” because there are those passages that don't necessarily point to the cross, but they will point to something else.
Today is one of those days. There is no controversy today. Nobody is trying to plot Jesus' death. He's not attacked for healing on the Sabbath. His disciples aren't getting into trouble. Today is simply a run-of-the-mill story with a couple of healings. But just because it's “run-of-the-mill” doesn't mean we don't need to pay attention, or that there's nothing worthwhile in there.
Today we get two stories for the price of one. The first has Jesus healing the daughter of a Gentile woman from a distance, and the second has Jesus laying hands on a deaf man, healing him as well.
Jesus has moved out into Gentile territory on his way to . . . we know not where because we aren't told. But here he is in the region of Tyre. A woman of Syrophoenician descent approaches him to heal her daughter of an evil spirit. Jesus initially refuses, comparing her and the child to dogs. But the woman persists and Jesus relents.
This story is problematic for many Christians because we can't imagine Jesus talking this way to anybody. But he has. At various times he's called people hypocrites and broods of vipers. He will call Peter, “Satan.” Jesus doesn't mince words. But this is different. Here he attacks someone with whom he is not in conflict. She's not trying to destroy him. She's not attacking him. She's not a Pharisee. She's simply a mother trying to help her daughter. And he throws it in her face.
There are plenty of explanations for this, some better than others. But I think this points to the human side of Jesus. I think his humanity is visible here in a racist moment when he thought, “She isn't one of us.” And I think his human side is evident here when he learns to reconsider his position.
Remember, mistakes are not necessarily sins. I don't think he sinned, but it's possible the human Jesus made a mistake and learned from it. Whereas Jesus learned from that mistake, others have not. And it is the deliberate continuation of that mistake, of referring to people as dogs and a refusal to see them as fully human and fully equal, which becomes sinful.
After dealing with the Gentile mother, Jesus heads back toward the Sea of Galilee where he ends up among Jewish people living in Gentile territory. While there he is brought a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Taking him aside Jesus heals him of his disability by spitting into his hand and touching the man's ears and tongue.
He then tells the man and those gathered around to tell no one, but, of course, they do.
So what do we have here? We have two generic healing stories. We have one that requires no contact, and one that involves touch. We have the possibility of a very human mistake on Jesus' part, and we have a very clear depiction of Jesus having dominion over both spiritual (casting out the demon) and physical (healing the deaf-mute) realms.
But we also have a story being told in context.
The problem, though, is that most of us don't read our Bibles at home. For most of us, our only scripture is what we get on Sunday morning. Granted, we hear a lot of scripture on Sunday mornings – two readings from the Hebrew scriptures and two from the Christian scriptures. But we don't always follow up or dig deeper at home. And by the time this Sunday rolls around, most of us have forgotten what we heard last Sunday.
As a reminder, last week we heard the story and confrontation over washing hands. Jesus and his disciples were being confronted with their disregard of Jewish traditions. But Jesus pointed out that it doesn't matter if you're clean and shiny on the outside, it's what's inside of you that spews forth defilement.
This was a purity issue. And while the Pharisees were concerned about outward purity, Jesus was concerned about inner purity. Having unwashed hands is of no consequence; but evil intentions that come from within are another matter entirely. And as it is, more than half of the “qualities” Jesus listed off have to do with harming another individual, or of treating another individual as less than . . . less than equal, less than human.
Which brings us to today.
First, Jesus is in Gentile territory and meets up with a Gentile woman begging to have her daughter healed. After some give and take, he does so. Second, Jesus is in what may be called a Jewish enclave in Gentile territory and people bring to him a deaf man whom they also beg to be healed, which he does. These two events – the healing of the woman's daughter and the healing of the deaf man – happen immediately after last week's incident about what really defiles a person.
Taken out of context, today's gospel passage is simply two more miraculous healing stories about Jesus. But taken within the context of the entire gospel, they become something else entirely. In context, they become stories about mission and inclusion.
In the first story, a Gentile woman comes to Jesus begging for her daughter to be healed. Initially Jesus refuses, stating (in a way) that he has come only to the rightful heirs, the legitimate children of God, the Jews. But this gets turned upside down with her response.
In the second story, a Jewish man living outside the boundaries of Israel is in need of healing.
And in both of these, what Jesus possibly learns, and what we should certainly learn, is that God's grace is not limited by our self-imposed boundaries. Foreigners, people not like us, are not dogs to be ignored. They are, like us, children of God, heirs to the kingdom, whom we need to feed and welcome.
We will not defile ourselves or God by reaching out to and including those who are not us. But we will most certainly defile ourselves and God by excluding those who are not us.
Jesus learned from his mistake of excluding the other. The question before us today is this: Will we?