Thought for the week - 5 September
Gospel Mark 7: 24 – 37
Last Sunday saw Jesus challenging the hypocritical Pharisees for making rituals an end in themselves, rather than considering what they stood for, considering what was the motive of their own hearts. Today Jesus moves on. Mark shows us this move and the events that follow to be part of the same narrative but developing it further.
One commentator, Elizabeth Johnson puts it like this:
Now, as if to prove his point, Jesus heads off into “impure” territory, the gentile region of Tyre.
The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should prevent her from doing so. She is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). In other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside of the land of Israel and outside of the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man — another taboo transgressed.
Moreover, her daughter is possessed by a demon. Although we are not told exactly how the demon affected her daughter, we can probably guess from other stories about demon-possessed people that it made her act in bizarre and anti-social ways. This woman and her daughter were not the kind of family most people would be likely to invite over for dinner.
Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider. And what is more, Jesus has the nerve to say as much to her face. When the woman falls at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). The “children” in this statement are the children of Israel, the “little dogs” (kunaria) are understood to be all other peoples.
Jesus’ response is harsh. How could he say such a thing? He appears to be quoting a bit of Jewish folk wisdom, but that does not lessen its sting. Some interpreters propose that Jesus is testing the woman to tease out her affirmation of faith. Others propose that here we see we see the very human side of Jesus, exhausted and needing a break, or perhaps not yet understanding the scope of his own mission.
While we cannot know exactly what Jesus was thinking, it is clear that when approached by the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus’ immediate response is to appeal to the limits of his mission, his call to serve his own people. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus begins by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
When this tenacious mother comes back at him with her clever response, “Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Markn7:28), Jesus can only agree. “For saying that, you may go, Jesus says. The demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29). Jesus can only agree that God’s love and healing power know no ethnic, political, or social boundaries. “So, she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone” (Mark 7:30).
From Tyre, Jesus heads off to the region of the Decapolis, also gentile territory. Perhaps he is still seeking to escape notice and to rest a bit, or perhaps he has a new vision of his mission beyond the borders of his home territory. In any case, once again escaping notice proves impossible. “They brought to him a deaf man who also had an impediment in his speech, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).
Like the Syrophoenician woman, this man too is an outsider. He is cut off from the world by his inability to hear and communicate with others. This time Jesus does not hesitate to respond to a desperate request, though he does take the man aside, away from the crowd. In a very earthy scene, Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, and touches the man’s tongue, and then says “Ephphatha!” which in Aramaic means, “Be opened!” Immediately, the narrator tells us, “the man’s ears were opened, and his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7:35). Suddenly this man is able to hear and communicate with those around him. Not only is he physically healed, but he is also restored to his community.
In these encounters and healing acts Jesus shows that the love of God is for all, not just the few. In last weeks story, Jesus challenges the Pharisees – and us - to see that ritual and ‘belonging’ alone do not bring salvation. Jesus does not undermine the importance of ritual or of belonging but shows that they are not to be seen as ends in themselves.
So how do these events apply to us?
We belong to a church which values ritual – are we wrong then? Certainly not! Our rituals are our ways of responding to what Jesus has told us to do. Jesus said ‘Do this in remembrance of me” so we celebrate the Mass. Jesus said to go out into the world proclaim the Good News and Baptise – and so we do. Our rituals are essentially about that – doing as Jesus told us. Of course, in the doing of these things we, in our tradition, use music, action, sight and sound. We do everything with as much beauty and dignity as we can manage. But if we begin to think that in our way of doing things we are somehow more ‘right’ than a priest & community who celebrates Holy Communion simply, with none of our layers of offering, then we are guilty as the Pharisees were guilty.
Also, we must be careful not to make our way of doing things barriers to people who are not accustomed to them. We must never see ourselves as closer to The Kingdom because we know the right way to make the sign of the Cross! We are not to exclude those who do not belong in that sense, neither are we to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. But we are expected to accept people where they are whilst allowing and encouraging them to grow in their knowledge and practise.
We don’t always get that right. Like Jesus, we can sometimes seem hard, even a little tetchy when people come to us not understanding, when they seem not to be on our wavelength. We can be harsh sometimes when adults or children seem to be somehow spoiling our private enjoyment of the mass. As Jesus did, we need to hear and engage and encourage.
All of us need to learn that the Gospel is for all people.
Perhaps we ourselves need to hear the Word of Jesus – Ephphatha – be opened.