The Gospel according to Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV)
24 From there he 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,
25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
27 He 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."
28 But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
29 Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter."
30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.
32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.
33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.
34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened."
35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.
37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
Healing and Transformation
Location. Location. Location. That’s what realtors say. Location is important when buying a house - but location matters in our Gospel too - because it gives us the context of the story. So when Mark writes that Jesus headed to the region of Tyre, that’s the coast of the Mediterranean Sea - it’s like going “up north”. And Mark tells us, that Jesus “did not want anyone to know he was there.”
In light of my recent travels, I wondered, “Is Jesus trying to take a “Sabbatical?” Who could blame him? He has just fed 5000 people with a little boys lunch, walked on water, taught crowds of people and challenged the authority of the Pharisees – as well as a host of other miracles. I would say that Jesus deserves a break, a time with his disciples to refresh and renew.
But somehow news travels in a small town. Mark writes that a woman came and bowed at his feet. In the culture of Jesus’ day, women did not approach men, especially not a Jewish rabbi. This woman was a Gentile and a foreigner – a Syrophoenician Gentile woman. In the Jewish culture of the day that was three strikes against her. She would not be expected to even get near him - let along talk to him. Yet… here she is.
Before I go any further, I have to say that this passage has ALWAYS made me uncomfortable. You can probably guess why. When this woman – we don’t know her name – bows at Jesus’ feet and begs for help, Jesus responds, “"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Did Jesus just call her a dog? That just doesn’t fit with my image of Jesus.
There are times in which I wish I could do what Thomas Jefferson did. He simply took a scissors and cut out all the passages of the Bible that he didn’t like. It’s tempting. These words offend our - my ears. How could these be the words of the Jesus that I know? But then…I don’t remember who told me this – but one pastor said that if a scripture was offensive or challenging just hold onto it and squeeze it, squeeze it like you are squeezing an orange until the juice runs out -- squeeze the scripture until the Gospel comes out.
So, first let’s look at who’s writing this Gospel – because perspective matters. If you were to take a picture of a cat, the picture you got would depend on your perspective – just look at the cat pictures on the internet. Did you take the picture of a cat all stretched out – or curled up in a ball. Or did you take the picture from above looking down at it? Or close up to reveal the whiskers. Each picture would reveal something different about the cat and if a four people who had never seen a cat before were given just one of these pictures – their image of what a cat is would be vastly different. In this same way, each of the Gospel writers reveals a different perspective of Jesus. The Gospel of John portrays Jesus as godly, all-knowing, and spiritual. Jesus is human too -- but just barely. In Mark, Jesus is very human – touchable – someone you can imagine walking along the shore and stubbing his toe. Mark is also the shortest Gospel and so the details he shares seem to be very intentional.
So why does Mark quote Jesus saying something we would consider a cultural or racial slur? Cultural ethnic bias was clearly present in Jesus' day. It was around before Jesus. Religious and ethnic cleansing is nothing new. There are clear commands in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, to the Israelites to kill all of the pagan residents as they enter the promised land as a way to protect the Israelites from falling away from God’s way. As the prophets remind us, God chose the people of Israel to be God’s people. Further, God promised to send Israel a Savior, a messiah. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus comes as just that – the Jewish Messiah, the one the was promised. Jesus’ mission is clear: he was sent to the children of Israel. He's only in Tyre for a little R&R.
If this story was in the Gospel of John- and it’s not - it would be clear that Jesus knew all along what the Gentile Phoenician woman would say - and what he was going to do. But this story is in the Gospel of Mark - and Mark’s Jesus seems genuinely surprised by the humble yet bold words of this foreign Gentile woman. And Jesus - like God in the Hebrew Scriptures - can’t resist being Gracious. Every time God changes God’s mind in the Hebrew scriptures, it’s to show mercy rather than judgment and to extend care rather than destruction. Like Father, like Son. Jesus does the same thing. Jesus changes his mission
This is a turning point in Jesus ministry. He heals the daughter with a word. At the next stop he heals a deaf and mute gentile man in the Greek area of Decapolis. It’s not that there weren’t Jewish deaf and mute people in need of healing. But Jesus, nudged by the bold and audacious words of a foreign gentile woman, the ultimate outsider, expands his mission to include all people. He includes women, and “foreigners” - people of other cultures, people who didn’t look like him, and people who had always been considered “outside” the family of God. And he didn’t wait a nanosecond. He acted immediately.
This past week, I received an email from the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA , Elizabeth Eaton, the woman who introduced herself to our high school mission trip youth as “the Lutheran Pope.” Don’t worry - she wasn’t complaining about our kids. Instead, she challenged me - and every other ELCA pastor, bishop and rostered leader to focus this Sunday on the issue of race. “In a letter to the African Methodist Episcopalian church, the AME, she promised them -- and shechallenged us --to join in “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism.”
I didn’t want to do it. After all, my mission is to the people here at Faith-Lilac Way. You all are really nice people – good Christian people who want to serve the Lord. You know what’s been going on in the news in the culture around us – and maybe you just want to take a break from the culture outside –take an hour sabbatical from the cultural challenges on the outside – and just hear Good News.
But just as Jesus’ sabbatical was cut short by the bold and audacious words of a woman who wanted healing and wholeness for her daughter – and who did not want to wait but wanted God’s righteousness NOW, so too, there are people – Christians even, but not just Christians – who are dying to have God’s Justice, God’s Righteousness NOW.
You know the stories – they’ve been on the news.
In fact, these stories have been on the news so much that perhaps your sensitivity has even been dulled – or overwhelmed, or perhaps you think – this is terrible – but what could I do.”
That’s how I felt. But then I heard a National Press club speech on the radio by Bishop John Richard Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal church. Speaking of the hate crime at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, the Bishop said,”the nation was able to get a close- up view of a real church and a description of a real pastor. They were murdered while studying the Word of God. Pastored by a man who loved Jesus, loved his family, loved his flock, loved his community. He was on the floor (of the state legislature) because he was a State Representative. An important vote was coming up. His seatmate said, “You stay for this vote.” And he said, “No. I’m going to a prayer meeting.” I’ve been elected here but I’ve been selected there. And I’ve made it clear that my first priority is the Church.” And so he went to his church, to Bible study, welcomed a new person into the group --- and was shot to death in the middle of the Biblestudy. “ Nine people shot to death in Biblestudy for what? The color of their skin.
There was a time for questions after the speech and one person asked, “
How do you take down the racism in people’s hearts and minds? Bishop Bryant responded, “And that’s where we need our white brothers and sisters of good will.”
That’s us. Bishop Bryant is asking for your help and mine. And our own Bishop Eaton has promised that we will. Hate crimes happen – but there have been too many incidents of racial violence in this country to dismiss this as one act of one crazy person. And people are taking notice. It’s time. It’s time for us to be those “white brothers and sisters of good will.”
So how do we help? Bishop Eaton called us to Confession and Repentance. Confession and Repentance- that’s prayer. We need to prayerfully confess and repent of those times in which we have stood by and participated – willingly or unknowingly – as our black brothers and sisters have suffered under the ungodly system of racism.
Prayer is our first step – and it is an essential first step because we need God to take down the racism that lurks in our hearts and minds. But, as the letter of James reminds us, as essential as prayer is, it can’t be the last step.
Bishop Eaton also calls us not only to join in “Confession, Repentance” but also a “Commitment to End Racism.” It’s a tall order -- but we believe that nothing is impossible for God. So we pray and our prayer must lead us to action… to change…so that we can grow in love and care for our neighbor. And at this moment, our black neighbors are asking us for help. Still responding to the question of how to take down the racism in people’s hearts and minds, Bishop Bryant said, “A lot is said in our absence that can be corrected.” He’s calling on you to speak up when a neighbor makes a racist joke. Work against the injustice in your workplace or school. Share the love of Christ that knows no bounds of color for this is what Jesus Christ calls us to do: love and care for the neighbor.
On the day that the Syrophroenician woman boldly asked Jesus to heal her daughter, the focus of Jesus’ ministry was broken wide open to include the outsider, the poor, the foreigner, the disenfranchised, the weak, the deaf and the mute. Jesus mission was no longer to the “insiders” - and neither is ours.
Let’s start with prayer: Lord God, Open our hearts. Embolden us to confess and repent of the sin of racism and heal us and put love in its place. Transform us to be agents of change so that our world can be a place of love - not hate, justice - not inequality, a place where people care for the other and not just “their own,” a place in which all children are called “children of God” . In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church, Robbinsdale
September 6, 2015