Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 7:24-37
15 Pentecost (Proper 18), Year B
I’ve been reading lately about catastrophic missed opportunities. You know, those golden opportunities that sometimes life hands us, if only we recognize them as such. If only we correctly choose, ahead of time, the way the future will unfold.
I’m thinking here of Decca Records, who famously turned down a recording contract with a young rock group—The Beatles—because they thought guitar groups a thing of the past. Had Decca been open to a guitar group, The Beatles surely would have been the one to sign.
More recently, the tech world has a LOT of these stories. There’s Ronald Wayne, the third founder of Apple, who sold his share for $800 because he was the only one of the founders with assets, assets that could be seized if the company didn’t make it. Had Ronald Wayne been open to the possibility of success, he would be worth $35 billion today.
I could go on, but you get the point. The point is that we humans often choose poorly, like Decca or Mr. Wayne, perhaps because of our biases. Our biases, our preconceived notions, close us to the opportunity that is available, close us off from a better direction that we could go.
We saw a great example of this in last Sunday’s gospel lesson. As Rev. Fanny illuminated so well, the Pharisees’ biases got in their way of recognizing the Messiah. They were so wrapped up in God’s rules about how to live a holy life they forgot that those rules were God’s rules, subject to God’s change. They forgot that the purpose of the rules was not the rules, but to help us love the Lord with all our hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
That was last week’s lesson. This week we have Jesus healing a deaf man while instructing him, “Ephphatha,” which is, “Be opened.”
The curious thing about THIS healing is that Jesus didn’t usually tell people or their body parts to “Be opened.” So why did he tell this man, this time, to “Ephphatha?”
We might guess that Jesus was speaking to the man’s ears. After all, Mark tells us that the man’s ears were immediately opened, and that the man could then hear as well as speak. But Jesus didn’t go around instructing people’s body parts to be opened.
I have another theory. I wonder if Jesus wasn’t talking to himself when he said, “Be opened.” Why do I wonder this? Let’s look at Jesus’ actions: First, he took the deaf man aside, in private, away from the very crowds that he couldn’t seem to avoid, even here, deep in Gentile territory. Then he put his fingers in the man’s ears, then spat and touched the man’s tongue.
This is a LOT of fiddling around by Jesus, from a healer so great he could heal at a distance. Only after all this fiddling, though, does Jesus get around to doing what he should have started with, what Jesus frequently did before healing: He “looked up to heaven,” as Mark tells us. In other words, Jesus asked God for help.
THEN, as our text says, “he sighed.” I assure you, Jesus didn’t normally sigh while healing people, at least that isn’t reported elsewhere in the gospels. Only THEN does Jesus say, “Ephphatha, be opened,” inviting God’s healing power to flow through him to the man—who suddenly could hear and speak.
I submit that Jesus was as much opened in this healing as the deaf man’s ears were. My theory of what was going on here supposes that Jesus had a bias against healing this man. And that the people who were healed here included Jesus himself.
Actually, we get a clue to what Jesus’ bias was in the first part of today’s gospel lesson. There Jesus set out for the “region of Tyre.” Our lesson says that Jesus wanted to get away. So he went to the region of Tyre, a land whose predominant population was Gentiles—Gentiles who were the enemies of the Jews. Sort of like the Prime Minister of Israel going to Syria for a vacation. Except that Jesus’ fame was such that people even there knew who Jesus was and sought him out there.
Jesus was not pleased with this development. He was cranky, even. How do we know? When a Gentile woman sought him out and begged him to heal her daughter, Jesus insulted her. He said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Well, that’s Mark’s version; Matthew’s version is even worse. HE leaves out the word “first,” saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
In either version Jesus insulted the woman. In Jesus’ day, “dogs” was the slang term used by Jews to denigrate “Gentiles.” And there’s no way to make Jesus’ words less harsh, to explain them away, or to make them less demeaning. Jesus very plainly told the woman that his mission was “first” to the children—the people of God—the Israelites. In other words, Jesus’ mission wasn’t at that time, for her or her people.
The woman’s humble but effective response— “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”—changed Jesus’ mind, despite his bias. He told the woman that, for what she said, he had healed her daughter. So Jesus’ bias began here to crumble.
But what if another Gentile approached Jesus, one whose deafness impaired his ability to say something as humble, as faith-filled, as the Syro-Phoenician woman? What then would Jesus do? As I said earlier, Jesus went through the healing motions at first, then finally looked up to heaven, sighed, and THEN was opened—as were the man’s ears and his ability to speak plainly.
We do not like to think of Jesus in this way, do we? We like to concentrate on his divinity, minimizing the fact that he was also fully human. In fact, those who want to “protect” Jesus’ divinity say that Jesus’ response was only to test the woman’s faith. And that the woman passed Jesus’ test by her response. This is a perfectly acceptable theory.
But maybe we should note that, in Mark’s gospel, these two healings are the first time that Jesus healed Gentiles. Perhaps this was Mark’s way of pointing out the logical outcome of Jesus having denied the importance of Jewish religious ritual—the logical outcome being making the Messiah available for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
We all have to “be opened,” to get past our biases, to get to the opportunities that God points out to us. If Jesus had to “be opened,” then how much more do WE need to “be opened” to the possibilities that we have automatically shut ourselves off to?
I have no guesses as to what those possibilities might be, either for us as individuals or us collectively as a parish. Only YOU can identify what you might need to be opened to, and only WE can do the same for our life together. What we can take away today is HOW to go about being opened: Stop fiddling around and stare up to heaven, then sigh and go do what God has been pushing you to do all along.