Sermon; Proper 18B; Mark 7:24-37
I want to begin with last week where the gospel came from the first half of Chapter 7. In short, it had to do with what we refer to as purity controversies – an argument brought on by the Pharisees as to why Jesus' disciples didn't wash their hands before eating. If you remember the gospel from last week, or are familiar with the story, this really wasn't about washing hands as much as it was about maintaining purity. “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of their elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Jesus goes on to criticize the Pharisees for being overly focused on outward appearances. It isn't what's outside that defiles by going in; but it's the things inside of us that come out which defile: evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Those are what defile. We can be as well-dressed, as outwardly clean, as perfectly groomed and manicured as possible, but if we spew forth things that are anti-gospel or antichrist, we are defiled from within.
I mention last week's gospel because so often we go from Sunday to Sunday without seeing/hearing the connection between lessons. We tend to see each Sunday as a self-contained unit, when in reality each Sunday is an important piece of the whole.
The two stories from today – the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man – are just that: pieces of the whole that tie back to last week's gospel passage.
Last week Jesus faced off with Pharisees about traditions and ritual defilement. What was originally designed to uphold the law and show how the Torah was to be practiced evolved into traditions that favored a particular group while burdening others. This might be like saying we will offer a special room for children who need a different space to run off energy during the service, but over time having that morph into a place where we expect all children to go all the time. Then, when someone legitimately asks, “Why are children not allowed in church?” we respond, “Because we've always had a room for them until they can understand how to worship properly.”
It's the ultimate, “We've always/never done it that way.”
Jesus is telling the Pharisees, and us, what is really important: it's not the kids that defile worship, it's all that stuff that spews out from us that defiles worship.
Today's stories pick up on this. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter. Jesus' initial response is to say no, basically telling her he's only come to help the Jews. Jesus makes the same mistake the Pharisees made – that of adhering to an exclusive, rather than inclusive, view. He essentially tells her that he has only come to serve the right kinds of people, or to serve people who are like him. This would be like us saying that we will only help Episcopalians.
The woman recognizes his mistake and says, “But there must be even a little left over that I can use.” It's then that Jesus recognizes his mistake, immediately corrects himself, and heals the daughter from afar.
The second story of the deaf man is, as we say, similar but different. Its different in that Jesus offers no resistance to the request for healing. Jesus is in the region of the Decapolis, a primarily Gentile area that seemed to have a Jewish population within it. We can assume that both the man and those who brought him were Jewish since Mark doesn't specifically say he was a Gentile, like he did with the woman.
It's similar in that Jesus heals an outsider. While the woman and her daughter were outsiders based on their gender (female) and ethnicity (Gentile), the deaf man is an insider who is an outsider. He's an insider based on his gender (male) and ethnicity (Jewish) who is an outsider due to his condition (deaf). As we see in many places, people who have a physical disability are pushed to the margins of society, making them beggars and relying on the generosity of others. Once healed, they become “clean” and are allowed to fully participate in society.
Taken together – last week's purity controversy and today's two healings – we have an overarching theme of mission, specifically mission to those whom we label as dirty, impure, outsiders, second-class, OTHER.
Last week Jesus shot down the Pharisees purity argument by saying it isn't what's outside that defiles but what's in our hearts and thoughts which come out that defile. Pushing that to a larger arena, it isn't those people who are dirty or downtrodden who defile us if we come into contact with them, but it is our own thoughts and behaviors toward them which will defile us.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman reminds us that we have an obligation to care for, to feed, to clothe, to heal those outsiders who show up on our doorstep looking for help. The story of the deaf man reminds us that there are people in our midst who we don't classify as “normal” because they don't look like us, dress like us, act like us, but we are called to treat them with dignity and respect.
In closing, it's interesting to note that neither the Syrophoenician woman nor the deaf man show evidence of following Jesus. Unlike the demoniac who wanted to follow him but was instructed to remain behind and proclaim the good news, these two people just take their healings and go on their merry way. This should remind us that we do what we do – in our case, Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage – because we are both called to do those things and because we have the resources to do those things . . . NOT because we want more people to “get saved” and become members of our parish.
We do the things we do in order to meet the needs of those who need help. We do these things because Christ did these things. We do these things because in doing them we reveal the glory of Christ to the world around us; regardless of whether or not they become disciples.
In contemplating the acts of the Church, let us be less worried about purity and more willing to get our hands dirty while engaging with those in need.