A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 6, 2015
(Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37)
Jesus seeks anonymity. Tyre, he supposes, is far enough. A roof. Solitude. Jesus wants little more than space.
Yet, even here Jesus’ presence is ‘immediately’ reported. His teaching and fame already cross borders. Before him not an empty home but a bowed head and a plea.
Our writer describes the person who disturbs Jesus with these words: ‘Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophonecian origin.’ Any encounter will have to – at least – bridge gender and race.
They say true character emerges under pressure. This woman brims with character. Sadly, she also knows true pressure. A tormented mother with a desparately sick daughter. Before her the most unexpected and unimaginable opportunity. With Jesus here she may have one shot. Mess it up and she has none.
So as this unnamed woman tells Jesus her story, she begs. Her daughter’s freedom outweighs any thought of dignity. She throws herself at the mercy of one of whom she has only heard stories. They need to be true.
And in response, Jesus is rude and abrupt. He sounds exhausted, irritable, snappy: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Unsurprisingly, commentators have debated the term we translate ‘dogs’. In its original language the term hints at a ‘small’ dog or a pet. It hardly lessens the insult: Jesus naming a weeping Gentile and her suffering daughter ‘pets’?
To her eternal credit, however, this mother responds to Jesus’ words as though they are a parable. She absorbs the insult and respectfully replies to his riddle: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It emphasises the littleness of her request: Jesus, just a crumb?
In her single sentence she both trusts and challenges. This poor afflicted foreign woman is one of the few to ever match Jesus in the parable game!
I wonder if even Jesus underestimated her. This quick-witted answer surprises Jesus (an interesting theological thought!). It is so unexpected, courageous, and sharp that it arrests Jesus’ attention.
Jesus will eventually get his peace – but not until he gives the promise of a healed child. For this faith-filled woman it is enough.
We also heard this morning of a second healing.
In a time when people crave attention the gospel writer’s words seem strange. They may even have a jarring effect: Jesus ‘took him aside, away from the crowd’. Whatever is about to happen, our author wants us to know it is not for show.
Clearly, Jesus is still seeking – somewhat unsuccessfully – anonymity.
But Jesus does not seem to be very good at hiding. He can say ‘No’ to the big-city religious leaders with an admirable authority but not when presented with an anonymous rural man wishing to hear. In the face of suffering, Jesus, seems to act against his own interest.
Their simple request of Jesus: to ‘lay his hand’ on their friend. No diversion. Minimal time.
But Jesus offers more. He stops. Moves from the path. Gets saliva all over those sought-out hands.
It is partly done, I think, to uphold dignity. Jesus moves from intrigued eyes. Whatever his motive, however, we are confronted by the fact that Jesus chooses to put fingers and spit in ears and on tongue. It repulses and disgusts. Looks superstitious and magic.
What on earth is going through this deaf man’s mind?
And then, looking to heaven, Jesus ‘sighed’. Yes, you read it right, Jesus sighed. An audible, unintelligible, burst of air was heard to pass from his lungs and out through his loosely open mouth.
What motivates this spontaneous deeply human expression? Does it stem from exhaustion, frustration, relief, anger, joy, excitement? Is it a sigh of resignation anticipating more unwanted attention?
Wherever its origin it caught enough attention for the storytellers to pass it on. Even our author sees something significant – so much so that the word remains in this tight, almost over-edited document. Scholars think Matthew and Luke saw need to flesh-out Mark’s bare bones account!
Perhaps all we can say is that Jesus deliberately and consciously acts to release a tongue that will – against his wishes – ‘zealously proclaim’ his power and presence.
You see, they just could not keep silence. Perhaps they considered his request unnecessarily modest or worse, immoral. They could not imagine keeping such a discovery secret. His actions are just too significant. His presence too much of an opportunity. I read a hint of understanding when our author summarises: ‘They were astounded beyond measure…’
Such a sense of wonder just may be the most appropriate response to the grace of God.
I am left wondering if the Syrophoenician woman and this deaf and mute man might fall into the category of ‘poor’ in our other two readings. They seem so vulnerable to being robbed or crushed. Do the lectionary compilers want us to see and consider them in terms of the ‘poor’ or ‘afflicted’? Are they a reminder that Jesus saw, dignified, empowered, learned from, and loved the unnamed and forgotten?
If so, it is a needed reminder. I don’t believe the church scenario James outlines is fictional. The poor man standing in the church corner while the rich rests in comfort is just too believable. If this early Christian community can forget or marginalise the call to ‘love your neighbour’, surely residing in us is the same possibility.
So here, today, is an important reminder: Jesus generously loved those on the edge. As his followers so must we.