September 9, 2018
16th Sunday after Pentecost
“Comfort Is Not Always Comfortable”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Two men are talking about animals. One says to the other, ‘I know of a dog worth $10,000.’ ‘Really?’ replies the other. ‘Who would have thought a dog could save so much.’
A dog walks into a job center. ‘Wow, a talking dog,’ says the clerk. ‘With your talent I’m sure we can find you a gig in the circus.’ ‘The circus?’ says the dog. ‘What does a circus want with a plumber?’
Three boys see a fire engine with a dog go by and discuss what his job is. ‘Crowd control?’ says one boy. ‘He’s the mascot.’ says the second boy. The third boy nods sagely: ‘He finds fire hydrants.’
Walking past a veterinary clinic, a woman noticed a small boy and his dog waiting outside. ‘Are you here to see Dr Meyer?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ the boy said. ‘I’m having my dog put in neutral.’
This morning’s scripture passage naturally includes the mention of dogs, and a few other words, as well.
The passage begins in Tyre, way north of Jesus’ hometown of Galilee, and ends up in the Decapolis, much closer to Jesus’ home. The uniting factor between these two places is that they are far outside the realm of Judaism, deep in the land of Gentiles. The writer of Mark calls it Syrian Phoenicia. We know it today as Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.
Mark 7:24-37 (NIV)
Jesus Honors a Syro-Phoenician Woman’s Faith
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man
31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Thank you, Judy. I think another unifying factor between these two passages is that they are a little outside the scope of normal - even for Jesus.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve struggled with this passage - and sort of still do. First the woman asks for healing and then Jesus starts talking about dogs and dinner. It took a long while to figure out that this was actually the perfect example of an hyperbole - an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally.
Long before I understood that Jesus was insulting the woman, that she was, untouchable to him as an ancient enemy of the Jewish people, a woman without even the dignity of a name or the accompaniment of the required male, I didn’t really realize the mother’s desperation - in seeking out healing - from a stranger - for a daughter with a mental illness and a life of darkness. Just about every negative characteristic of the ancient world list is checked off in this scenario.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I am on a prayer list of a friend, who has befriended a mother of a 4 or 5 year old daughter who has been sexually abused by her father. The mother of this little girl is desperate to obtain safety for her daughter. This mother has begged people - strangers - to fast and pray for her little girl’s safety, while the mother has been tossed out of her home, has not been able to hold a job because of the need to care for this daughter who is developmentally behind other children her age, and is ploughing ahead in the preparation for an appeal to the ruling of the father’s shared custody. I don’t know, most of us don’t know, that depth of desperation, but it was a person like this mother that came before Jesus, throwing herself at his feet for mercy - on behalf of her child.
And then, Jesus, so uncharacteristially, derides her, chides her and treats her unlike so many others in refusing to heal her daughter. “First the children, then the dogs like you.” Mr. Compassion doesn’t seem that compassionate. Maybe it was code for Jesus’ mission strategy: First the Israelites and then the Gentiles. Maybe not.
Amazingly, the woman persists. An uneducated woman argues with a rabbi; she dares to challenge him, saying, “Well, that may be true, but even the dogs are allowed to eat some of the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” She doesn’t demand to be treated like an Israelite - wanting manna to fall miraculously from the sky, but points to the abundance that overflows from Jesus’s table. And she gets it - both she and her daughter.
Like the Syrophoenician woman, the Decapolis man is also an outsider. He is cut off from the world by his inability to hear and communicate with others. His is not necessarily the dire state of the woman, but life can’t be any picnic for him, either.
Despite all the differences and all the previous ministry he did among people, Jesus just up and heals this guy. But really, Jesus. Did it really need to be in such a gross manner? Granted, it was a deeply human and intimate manner, but ear willies and spit in his mouth? Even if the spit had healing qualities, it was still way out there on the edge.
Just in case it should ever come up on crossword puzzle or Jeopardy, the meaning of the word that Jesus spoke meaning, “Be Opened,” is the motto of Gallaudet University, the national school for the deaf.
Maybe Jesus chose such an earthy manner of healing because when you take a step back to look at both of these passages, aren’t they both at least a little bit about Jesus’ humanity? Just like today, not that it’s an excuse, Jesus’ lack of tact was perhaps influenced by his fatigue and depletion, irritation and disgruntlement. Going so far from home, where he it was less likely to be recognized would be a descent plan to get some needed rest and recovery.
Maybe at first, all of us would like a Savior that was unfailingly nice and an exemplar of love and availability. But then our Christ wouldn’t fully understand our human needs of struggle to follow God’s will, the battle to do the right things and be the person God aspires each of us to be.
Perhaps these passages this morning are more about instances of a divine change of mind. We are so often reminded that our God is a steadfast God - with a will or plan. Maybe sometimes our prayers lack the energy or vitality that they really can make a difference in the greater picture of time and life. The great theologian, Karl Barth, once asked the question, “Why do we pray to God if we don’t believe that God is responsive to human entreaty?” Not that this is about getting that expensive house or luxury fishing boat. But it does have everything to do with faith and constancy. Which is a very good place to pray.
Good and Gracious God, thank you for answering prayers. We try to remember that you always answer prayers, even when the answers are “no” and “not yet.” So thank you that you never leave us as unrecognized petitioners. Thank you, too, for both sides of your son - the human and the divine. We sometimes fail to realize the unique nature of our Savior, so forgive us when we fall onto one side or another of his makeup. Thank you, God, for there always being enough, more than enough - love, grace, mercy and all the other necessary aspects of life. Help us to be generous with that which you have blessed us, that we may all relish in the joy of helping this world be what you have envisioned it to be. For all the many and vast blessings you bestow on us, all your people say, Amen.