Scripture Readings: Isa. 35:4-7; Ps. 146; James 2:1-13, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 Sermon by Linda Rex from Mark 7 and Isaiah 35
Hearing and Speaking the Word
Stories about animals that talk and understand humans are fun and fascinating for children and adults alike. Perhaps that’s because God created us for relationship. We see our dog’s tail wagging and wish he could tell us what he is so happy about. We wonder, why does our cat meow loudly every time she gets done eating? Is she saying thank you? Is she praising God?
Jesus honors the faith of a Gentile woman
Perhaps in the world to come we will have an answer to these questions. In the meantime, we can learn something from the story in today’s Gospel reading concerning a Gentile woman who apparently enjoyed her pets.
[Read Mark 7:24-30 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]
Jesus has removed himself from Galilee and come to the largely Gentile area that included the cities of Tyre and Sidon. He was hoping to remain in the background, unnoticed by the people. Well, that’s not how it worked out. He had become known as a great miracle worker and though he told those who witnessed the miracles to not let word get out, they refused to be silent. Jesus was not able to escape being noticed, even in this Gentile region. It was only a matter of time before Jesus was accosted by someone wanting something from him. In this case, it was a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile. She kept asking Jesus to heal her little daughter of an unclean spirit. He responded with a statement which at first could seem rather insensitive to someone in her situation: “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The word “dogs” does not necessarily point to the Gentiles but was often used in the sense of wild dogs or scavengers.
Nevertheless, she seemed to have a sweet spirit and a quick wit. She took Jesus’ figurative language and used it to express the heart of a kind and gracious parent: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” The nuances of the Greek here are lost in the English translation. In Greek, the diminutive is used so that it might have better been said, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs (or household pets) eat the children’s crumbs under the table while the family eats.” Her words express the idea of a warm family meal, with children and pets at the table gathered in love and harmony.
What she expressed, probably without even knowing it, was the heart of Abba—God the Father’s heart not just for his children, but for every creature under his care. Indeed, this is a description of life within the Trinity—a relationship of warm fellowship and companionship.
It seems that this woman trusted that there was enough love and grace and power available in Jesus to heal her daughter even after he first tended to the needs of his disciples and the Jewish people he was sent to serve. In her quick wit and persistent effort, Jesus saw a faith that he did not see in the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders he had been speaking with in the past few days. In her he saw an understanding of who he was as the Messiah—the one who heals, restores and frees from evil.
Jesus, seeing her faith, told her that her daughter was healed. So, she went home and discovered that indeed, this was the case. Her daughter had been healed at that very moment. Jesus had not only healed the little girl—he had also restored the family circle. The family could again sit together at a meal with their pets and enjoy sweet companionship and fellowship. The longing of this woman’s heart was fulfilled in Jesus’ gracious response to her persistent requests and her faith.
Jesus heals a deaf and mute man
Mark then tells us that Jesus moved on from Tyre and Sidon to the region of the Decapolis. There he encountered a man who was deaf and mute.
[Read Mark 7:31-37 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]
In many ways this man was an illustration of the Jewish people who Jesus had been sent to—they refused to hear Jesus, and they were incorrectly speaking the word of God. Earlier, Jesus had challenged the Pharisees and scribes with inaccurately teaching the Holy Scriptures:
Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men…. You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. (Mark 7:6-9, NASB)
Jesus knew the scribes and Pharisees were giving the people wrong ideas about who God is and about what it means to live in relationship with God. Their emphasis on Jewish tradition and on meticulous law-keeping were coming between the people and the God who loved them.
God’s law was meant to be an expression of the inner relations of God as Father, Son and Spirit. God’s people were meant to share in the peace, harmony and oneness of God’s love and life. A relationship with God is not about mere religion or a group of rules to follow. The law of God expresses a way of being—God’s way of Being—the way of covenant love. It shows us how we may be off the mark in our relationships with God and others.
The Jewish leaders also refused to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus was. Their insistence on keeping their positions of power and influence rather than acknowledging Jesus as being Israel’s Messiah was evidence of their deafness. Jesus said to them:
That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:20-23, NASB)
They were blind to this truth about themselves—about the condition of their hearts and their need to repent. On the one hand they would insist on meticulous law-keeping—no healing on the Sabbath, for example—and then on the other, immediately go out and begin to plot Jesus’ death.
Jesus was pointing out that they were not living in the truth of their being as made in the image of God—not living up to their calling to love God wholeheartedly and to love their neighbor as themselves.
Jesus was initially sent to his brothers and sisters, the Jews, and he reminded his disciples and others of that fact. Yet, the Jews refused to hear him. They even sought to destroy him. Ironically, it was the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised and rejected, who welcomed Jesus and sought him out. A gentile woman who all the Jewish leaders despised and looked down upon, was the one who acknowledged who Jesus was, and was humble enough to place herself at his mercy and ask him for help. She was willing to throw all she counted on to the wind and put her trust in Jesus, trusting him to show her grace and compassion, and to heal her little girl.
Going back to our story, Jesus took this deaf and mute man aside into a private place and began to show him what he was going to do. He put his fingers in his ears, spit and touched his tongue, then looked up to heaven in the common stance of a Jew in prayer and with a deep sigh, breathed out the word, “Ephphatha” meaning “Be opened!”
Poured into the deep sigh as he breathed this word was no doubt his heartfelt desire that all deaf ears be opened to hear and all tied-up tongues be freed to speak. He knew that he would soon pay a hefty price for this release, this healing. But Jesus walked the road to the cross freely and joyfully on our behalf. His heart, which fully reflects the heart of Abba his Father and ours, is that everyone be able to hear, understand and speak the truth about who God is and who we are as his beloved, adopted children.
Each of us is made in the image of God to reflect his likeness—we are created to love and to be loved, to live in the perichoretic dance of mutual service and outgoing concern in which God dwells as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But as God’s creatures, we are so unlike God in our humanity. We struggle to comprehend just who God is and who we are. Our bent is to turn our eyes from the truth and to close our ears—making ourselves blind and deaf to the truth, or twisting it in agreement with Satan’s lies.
This is why God came to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, in the incarnate Son of God. Christ entered our humanity so we could understand the truth about who God is. In Hebrews 1:1-3 (NASB), we read that “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” This Son, Jesus Christ, is God in human flesh—the exact representation of God’s being. When we look at Jesus, we see the Father. God wanted us to hear the truth about his love for us and so he spoke to us in a way we could understand—he gave us Jesus—God in human flesh.
Jesus did not turn away the outcasts. He did not refuse to help those who could not help themselves. He healed the Gentile woman’s daughter without even speaking a command—it was so because he made it so, because he was compassionate and understanding, because he is Lord of all.
In a more demonstrative way, Jesus healed the deaf and mute man. In doing so, Jesus used signs the man could understand so he could participate in his own healing. This healing gave clear evidence that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah with these words:
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with anxious hearts, “Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.” Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. The scorched land will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. (Isaiah 35:3-7a, NASB)
Jesus did what only God could do—casting out an unclean spirit from a little girl, healing a deaf person’s ears, and enabling a mute person to speak and shout for joy. The reason Jesus was able to do these miracles was because of who he was—God in human flesh. He was the long-awaited Messiah, but he came as a humble Servant, not a conquering king.
His purpose was to redeem and restore our broken fellowship with his Abba. He came into our humanity so we could begin to grasp and understand who his Father was, and what it meant to be embraced by God’s covenant love. The Word of God, Abba’s one unique Son, took on our human flesh, lived our life, and died our death, thereby sharing in every aspect of our broken and sinful humanity. He took our brokenness and sin right through death into resurrection. He gave us healing and new life, delivering us from sin, Satan, and death.
This is the gift, the grace God has given us in Jesus—the gift of eternal life—life in loving relationship with our Triune God both now and forever. Our life in Christ is a life that reflects the very being of God as Father, Son and Spirit. In Christ, we are included by faith in the warm, loving family fellowship at God’s table. The Spirit calls you and me to believe and embrace the truth of our being—that we are God’s beloved, adopted children, healed and made whole in Jesus, God’s Son. Will we receive and by faith embrace that gift?
Let us pray [introducing Communion]:
Heavenly Father, thank you for all your blessed and perfect gifts, for your love and grace expressed to us in Jesus. We thank you for the new life, healing, and wholeness that we can participate in right now through your Holy Spirit. We come joyfully to your table in gratitude and praise through Jesus our Lord. Amen.