September 9, 2018
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
This week has definitely had the “back to school” feeling about it. Even if you don’t have school-aged children, there’s a sense of getting back to fall and winter routines after the more relaxed pace of summer. Offices that may have slightly different summer hours are back on their regular schedule. Summer camps and day camps have wound up, new clothes and school supplies have been purchased, eyes and teeth have been checked, and sometimes important transitions have occurred, such as starting kindergarten or high school or post-secondary education. Sports teams and performing arts groups look forward to a new season, sometimes with new leadership.
In church life, too, activity ramps up. The choir has reconvened. Religious formation for children and adults will soon get underway. The meditation and reading groups are gearing up for a new season of spiritual growth and development. Really, I sometimes think the New Year should be on September 1 instead of January 1. Along with this general sense of beginning again, our gospel reading for today gives us an opportunity to consider once again our mission, who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do, and to discern further how we should go about it.
Last week’s gospel reading set out Jesus’ understanding of the laws governing purity. He scolded the Pharisees for their judgmental attitude toward those who did not conform to their ideas of purity or standards of piety. He redefined purity as an inner attitude and orientation, rather than the outward observance of rituals and rules. Now, almost as if to prove his point, he goes away to the region of Tyre. It is gentile territory, an “impure” region if there ever was one.
In this reading, we have two healing stories placed side by side. As always, it’s instructive to compare and contrast them. How are they similar and how are they different, and what might those similarities and differences have to say to us?
- Both people healed are gentiles. Tyre, along with Sidon, was a principle city of the region of Phoenicia. The Decapolis was a region of ten cities on the east side of the Jordan River, outside the kingdom of Judea.
- Jesus does not want publicity. In the first episode, he enters a house but doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. Following the second healing, he orders the people not to tell anyone about what has happened.
- In both cases, his search for anonymity fails. The woman has heard about Jesus and approaches him. Following the healing of the deaf man, the people “zealously” proclaim the healing despite Jesus’ orders. Even among the gentiles, Jesus cannot escape the demand for his healing powers.
- Both people are desperate for Jesus’ help.
- The deaf man is brought to Jesus; the woman approaches him of her own accord, seeking healing for her daughter.
- Jesus heals the deaf man in private; he debates with the woman in front of the other guests in the house.
- Jesus uses touch, spittle, and speech to heal the deaf man; he doesn’t even lay eyes on the woman’s daughter but simply tells the mother, “You may go, the demon has left your daughter.”
- Jesus seems to heal the deaf man quite willingly; he initially rejects the woman’s request and has to be persuaded to heal her daughter.
The woman who approaches Jesus, we are told, is of Syrophoenician origin. She is a descendent of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman unaccompanied by a male relative. Jesus was a man of his time and place. Jews did not have dealings with gentiles, and men and women were pretty strictly segregated outside the family circle. The woman is crossing more than one boundary here. And her daughter has a demon – a common explanation in the ancient world for a variety of physical and mental illnesses. Based on what we read elsewhere in the gospels about people possessed by demons, the daughter may have strange and anti-social behaviours – probably the reason she has been left at home. All in all, this woman and her daughter are not the sort of people one would invite over for dinner. Any way you look at it, they are outsiders. And yet, the mother approaches Jesus with all the reverence of faith. The story says she bowed down at his feet. In other words, she prostrated herself before him. The story says she addressed him as “Sir,” but the same word also means “Lord”.
And Jesus has the nerve to tell the mother to her face that she doesn’t belong. In Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says bluntly, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” With or without these words, Jesus makes his priority clear – healing and salvation are meant for the people of Israel. To our ears, his words are offensive and harsh. The children are the people of Israel; everyone else is classed with the dogs. The woman accepts Jesus’ analogy; she knows the barriers are there just as much as he does. But Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first”, suggesting there might be some wiggle room. The woman seizes this opportunity and responds with boldness and even wit. Her persistence wins Jesus over and her petition is granted.
While we cannot know for sure what Jesus was thinking, it seems as though his own understanding of his mission was challenged and expanded. In fact, there is within the prophetic tradition of Judaism a vision of a larger mission, which looked forward to the inclusion of the nations in salvation. For example, the fourth chapter of Micah says, “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” In granting her petition, this tenacious mother with her clever response compels Jesus to agree that God’s healing love goes beyond all boundaries of nation, race, and religion.
From Tyre, Jesus heads to the region of the Decapolis. Again, he cannot escape notice, and a deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to him. Like the Syrophoenician woman, he is an outsider, cut off from his community by his inability to communicate. In a very earthy, physical scene, Jesus takes him aside, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, and touches his tongue. The man is suddenly able to hear and speak clearly. He is not only healed physically; he is restored to his community.
I think these healing stories tell us a few things:
- Faith can be found in unexpected people and places. The gentile woman approaches Jesus with reverence and recognition of his power to heal. The gentile crowd brings the deaf man to Jesus, again in recognition of his work as a healer. Christians are sometimes guilty of thinking and acting as though only those who join the study group, volunteer at the bake sale, or make a financial pledge have real faith. Those are all good things to do; don’t get me wrong. But they are not the core of what constitutes faith. Whether it’s born of desperation, persistence, courage, reverence, or simple recognition of God’s presence, faith is nothing more or less than searching for and responding to God’s grace, God’s goodness.
- God’s love, God’s grace, God’s salvation, God’s compassion reach beyond all boundaries of race, culture, gender, ancestry, social status, or even religion. And this is good news for us. Let’s not forget that we are gentiles too. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that we have been grafted into God’s chosen people Israel. In the letter to the Ephesians, we find these words: “You who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. In his flesh he has made both groups into one…”. This message is more important than ever in a world that is experiencing a resurgence of nativism, racism, zenophobia, and protectionism. The fact that these beliefs and values are proclaimed and promoted by some who call themselves Christians does not make them any more compatible with the Gospel. They are the very opposite of Good News. Like Jesus himself, we are constantly called to enlarge and expand our understanding of mission. Jesus extended healing and compassion to encompass the stranger, the outsider, even the enemy. We can do no less.
- Finally, it is only by God’s grace, mercy, and love that we too approach this table. Here we find, not crumbs carelessly dropped or thrown our way, but God’s own self, God’s life given to us in the body and blood of Christ. Thanks be to God.
God of boundless compassion and love, we thank you for the example of the woman whose persistence won healing for her beloved daughter. Give us the same reverence to seek you, courage to persevere, and humility to recognize true faith wherever we see it. Amen.