The gospel lesson for this coming Sunday is Mark 7:24-37. It will be the first of our four ventures over the next four Sundays into the heart of Mark's gospel. The gospel turns from Act One to Act Two at the end of chapter eight. Mark's gospel is written in street Greek, and seems rough around the edges. But it is a carefully constructed book, with two halves. The first half portrays Jesus as a powerful healer and teacher. It is not clear to those who meet him where his power comes from. When, at the end of chapter eight, his disciples realize that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus commands silence about his identity (known as "The Messianic Secret Motif" in Mark). In the second half of Mark's gospel Jesus reveals that as the Messiah his destiny is suffering, death and resurrection. Peter and the disciples struggle to understand, accept and follow such a Messiah. The next four Sundays take us through this crucial turn in Mark's gospel.
Here are some things that strike me in the text as I host it in expectation of a living Word for Sunday. I am grateful for your comments, insights, questions, suggestions and prayers.
* This is the first time in Mark's gospel that Jesus ventures out of Israel. There has really been nothing said about a mission to the Gentiles. Jesus is, so far, a very Jewish Messiah. In Mark it is often said that geography is theological. that is, often the geographical location is saying something about God's activity. So when Mark says that Jesus sets out for Tyre, in Lebanon, the reader takes note. What will Jesus do in this profane territory? He is outside the borders of his homeland, outside the culture that he knows.
* Jesus is apparently alone. No disciples are mentioned. It makes you wonder where the narrator gets the information. Does Jesus report such a story on himself?
* Jesus apparently is not thinking of this as a missionary venture or an evangelical tent meeting. He enters a house and does not want to be seen or known. But he cannot escape notice. Even here. Even where his unknown and where he is trying to remain unknown.
* A Syrophoenician woman - a Gentile - hears about him (from who) and bows down at his feet. She begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. It is an extraordinary gesture - a woman approaching a man, a Gentile approaching a Jewish rabbi.
* One wonders what form the demon may take? We do not diagnose demon possession as the problem. But perhaps we would recognize anorexia or depression or addiction? Whatever it is, an unclean spirit has taken up residence in this otherwise lovely child and the mother is at her wits end. In her desperation she approaches an alternative healer, hoping that somehow he has the power to heal where no one else has succeeded. We know something of what it is to struggle with demons that are not easily exorcised.
* Jesus' answer shocks and surprises. After all, we imagine him to be always loving, always open to the excluded, the marginalized, the excluded. Instead he tells her, "Let the children (Jews) be fed first, for it isn't fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Translation: Let me offer healing to Jews first, it isn't fair to offer healing to Gentiles (dogs). He could at least have been polite and said, "I'm sorry. I'm tired. I am away on silent retreat. I just don't have the energy." But, no. He turns her away as not one with the correct citizenship, not a child of God. This Jesus is troubling.
* But the woman does not give up. She knows how to argue with a rabbi. She doesn't scream or cry. She doesn't curse him on her way out the door. She has moxie and courage and wit. She answers; "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." It seems to be a turning point for Jesus in the narrative. Her answer seems to change his mind. "For saying that", he says, you may go - the demon has left your daughter." He does not offer the healing because of her great faith. He offers it because she has given a sharp answer in a rabbinic debate about Jews and Gentiles.
* Mark has not announced a mission to the Gentiles. Jesus has not pronounced that he is a light to the world. Yet, in what seems a small story tucked away in the gospel, a major turn has occurred. The future of the church as a missionary movement among non-Jews has been birthed. And it seems to have occurred without Jesus intending it to happen. It seems to have begun because his retreat was rudely interrupted. Jesus' ministry among the Gentiles appears, according to this story, to be an accidental solidarity with the outsider, the unclean, "the dogs". If this is how God works in Jesus' ministry should we be surprised if it also happens this way in our ministries? Unplanned. Unrecognized. Apparently accidental. The seed of the future church is planted not in a bold new plan or conference or book. The future of God's church is birthed when few are paying attention to a rude interruption beyond the borders of what is acceptable.
* Then Jesus returns from Tyre going by Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis. It is an odd route, one in which, again, the georaphy seems to be as much a theological statement as a description of Jesus' footsteps. Getting to Galilee from Tyre by way of Sidon is a very round about trip. The fact that he ends up in the Decapolis - the region of ten greek cities east of the Galilee - after spending time in Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon roots these stories firmly in Gentile space. Jesus continues to travel beyond his normal bonudaries. He is out among the other, not among the familiar.
* In the Decapolis "they" bring a deaf man who has a speech impediment. It is never clear who "they" are. When deaf and blind are brought to Jesus readers well-versed in the Bible are meant to remember the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy." Reading ahead into chapter eight the reader discovers a book-end to this healing as Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida (a Jew), using the same saliva technique that he uses to cure the deaf Gentile in the Decapolis. Since being able to hear him and see him and speak about him is proving very difficult for his deaf, blind, mute disciples these two healing miracles have often been read as signs of the real healing that Jesus is bringing about: namely that needed by Peter, James, John and the rest of the twelve.
* The healing occurs in private. No one is to see. Jesus is concerned that the miracles do not become the story, that he is not turned into a side-show, that the healings do not define him. They are a sign of something bigger, something more, a way into his identity but not the core of who he is. The description of the healing is thorough. Since it is in private one wonders who has witnessed it. There is still no discussion of the disciples. They are nowhere to be found with Jesus in the Decapolis. Jesus mentions nothing of the man's faith as a prerequisite to the healing. As with the daughter who had a demon so with this deaf man the desire for healnig comes from others who beg on their behalf. It requires friends, family who long for the healing of their beloved neighbour or daughter.
* The healing is fully documented. Fingers into ear. Jesus spits. Then he touches his tongue. He looks to heaven, sighs and speaks, though he is in a Greek speaking neighbourhood, in his mother tongue the word: "Ephphatha". It means "Be opened". Immediately, reports Mark, the deaf man's ears and tongue are opened and he speaks plainly. Jesus brings healing by opening blocked ears and silenced tongues. This sounds like the kind of healing longed for by many in the church - including me. We long to be able to hear Jesus, to know when God is speaking, and to have speech to share what we have heard. Instead our speech impediment garbles our attempts to proclaim a gospel that we, being deaf, more often than not make up or borrow from others.
* Once again Jesus tries to keep things hushed up. There is to be no reporting of the healing. This is rather difficult when a crowd of people have brought the man to Jesus, have seen him before and after the healing, and have been begging for just such a result. Imagine my congregation bringing me to Jesus begging for my multiple myeloma to be cured. Imagine him somehow granting this request. And then imagine him ordering us "to tell no one", to act as if nothing has happened. The crowd is not very good at obeying his command, "the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it". As Mark reports: "they were astounded beyond measure, saying. "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak"." These are, apparently Gentiles, and they are - whether they know it or nor - quoting Isaiah 35:6-7. They are witnessed of the one long promised by God. The one who is going to have great trouble opening the eyes and ears and tongues of his own disciples, never-mind his own people.
* These short stories are rich. I normally write about two-thousand words in the print version of a sermon (in reality more words are offered on Sunday in the ad-libs that find their way into the sermon). The notes above already total sixteen-hundred words. Having lined out the skeleton of the narrative I wonder how best to proclaim the gospel that it embodies. Will I tell the stories in series as they appear in Mark's narrative, one after the other? Or will I let them live together, bundling them up into one story about Jesus beyond the borders? The latter strategy may provide more time to spend with the stories told, giving us room to mull over the word for us, here, now. This is the kind of thing I'll muse about over the next forty-eight hours. Yes, I know, having a muse is a Greek, not a biblical concept. But. then, we are with Jesus in Greek speaking territory this week. Whatever it is to be named - a muse or the Holy Spirit or divine inspiration - I wait for it at this time of the week to open my ears and to give me gospel to speak.