By Ellen Sims
Text: Mark 7: 24-37
An ancient biblical story reverberates in today’s headlines. Long ago a woman in the Roman-controlled territory of Syria begged Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Two thousand years later Syrians fleeing the tumult of their country are begging the world to help their suffering children. The children of Syria were dying then, are dying now. Mothers plead insistently for them. But even the best of us can turn a deaf ear to these foreign women.
Imperfect folks like us might be somewhat relieved to observe that even Jesus had lessons to learn along the way. He seems heartless in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. She bows at his feet and begs him to “cast the demon out of her daughter”–in other words, to heal the child. But Jesus refuses. He is devoting his efforts to his people, not the Gentiles, he explains. He not only refuses her plea. He calls her a dog—a terrible insult in that culture, and not exactly a compliment in ours. His rationale for refusing to help? He can do only so much. This passage begins as Jesus is trying to escape the crowds who keep demanding more and more of his time and energy. So he retreats into Gentile territory to rest. He’s depleted. No wonder he sets some limits.
Some today argue Americans should not aid foreigners when so many of our own citizens are in need. We shouldn’t take food out of the mouths of our children and give it to dogs, they might as well say. Yet just this week several European countries have taken in thousands of Syrian “dogs.” Maybe heart wrenching pictures of Syrian children—who are not dogs after all—have swayed and are swaying those who might have otherwise feel responsibility just for their own kind.
What swayed Jesus to reconsider his refusal to help the child of a Syrian woman? Since the child is not with her, the sight of a hurting child did not win Jesus over. It must have been her mother’s clever words capturing her plight. The Syrophoenician woman had time to get in just one soundbite to make her case. When Jesus dismissed her request by saying the children must eat before the dogs, meaning the Jews had priority over Gentiles, she immediately shot back with: “Yes. But even the dogs under the table may eat the children’s crumbs.” A compelling story is packed into those few words. A vivid picture comes with it. At the very least she means: “Call my sick child a dog if you will, but give her at least a crumb’s worth of your attention. Whatever you have leftover will be enough.”
Matthew’s version of this story has Jesus applauding the woman’s response as evidence of her faith. And he healed the child. Mark’s Jesus, however, doesn’t remark on her faith. On the surface at least it seems Mark’s Jesus commends her wit: “For saying that, you may go . . . .” and she goes home to a healed daughter. She bested Jesus at his own verbal game. In all the Gospel stories in which Jesus matches wits with the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, this foreign woman is the only person who beats Jesus. And changes Jesus’s mind.
Which makes perfect sense to me. It makes perfect sense that a foreigner opened up a new perspective for Jesus. Because in my experience, the people who are different from me are the ones who have been most successful in helping me see the world differently. Stories from LGBT folks; insights from folks of different races, religions, nationalities, and, yes, political parties; conversations with friends who live differently because they are poorer or richer than I, younger or older . . . these are the very conditions that broaden my understanding and often change my mind. And heart. And actions.
You and I have abundant opportunities to engage in challenging conversations within our diverse congregation and in our larger community. Diversity enriches us, diverse relationships enlighten and strengthen us. Facilitated dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims happen regularly through Mobile’s Trialogue. Conversations on race are being sponsored in our city. Ending racism is a declared focus of the UCC’s new President and General Minister, Rev. John Dorhauer. Working on community projects together—like the NoMoCo Food Park in Prichard or Family Promise for homeless families stretch our hearts and minds and reveal that God’s mission for us is greater than we had assumed. We affect each other. Even that Force of Love and that Source of Life we call God is enlarged somehow whenever we include others. Even those “dogs under the table” are seen as part of the Big Idea called God, the overarching Collective of Compassion.
Jesus wins by losing his verbal contest with a bold, insistent woman. Anticipating the paradoxical cross, this story prefigures the way in which losing—losing a debate or one’s life—can also mean profound gain for all of humanity. The Syrophoenician woman teaches Jesus that God’s love is more inclusive than perhaps he’d thought.
But I’ve learned something from Jesus for the first time this week in a story I’ve studied for years but which continues to unfold for me. I’ve noticed what Jesus did not do. Jesus healed the child, but in Mark’s version he did not explicitly commend the mother or admit he was wrong. He did not say, “Hey, sorry I called your kid a dog.” He did not push the pause button on his ministry, consult his handlers about reframing his policies, or anguish over a public embarrassment.
Normally we want to see leaders admitting errors. But in this case it’s important to see that Jesus moves forward. Many of us also need to live into a new way of thinking and being while a new way gradually unfolds. As important as it is to acknowledge our sins and redirect our ways, it seems Jesus gradually incorporated this experience, which is placed for emphasis, in the very center of Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels. Notice the culminating impact at the close of Matthew. The resurrected Jesus is finally able to articulate a new mission statement for his followers in that Gospel’s last verses: “Go,” he tells them, “and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). That’s a game changer, people! We are opening ourselves to the whole world. We are bringing God’s love and healing to ALL. Jesus had a lightbulb moment, thanks to the Syrophoenician woman. But he took time to understand it and live into it. His repentance—which means a course change—didn’t require spectacle and histrionic contrition and beating himself up. Jesus simply opened himself to the grace of the new.
As someone who witnessed dramatic testimonies of repentance in my childhood church—testimonies that some folks retold year after year when they “backslid”—I think how much healthier it is to live out this change of direction, letting it ripen and trusting in God’s grace for forgiveness and openness for meaningful change.
This story of Jesus’s subtle but lasting conversion is followed by his return to Jewish territory where he encounters the next person in need of healing. In contrast to the Syrophoenician woman who spoke up assertively, cleverly, persuasively—in a culture where women were usually silenced—a deaf man unable to speak for himself is brought to Jesus. “Ephphatha!” Jesus commands. “Be opened!” he said in Aramaic. With that, the man’s ears and tongue were opened. While the woman’s ability to assert herself and express her daughter’s need made it possible for the daughter to be healed, this man could neither hear nor speak, so he first had to become open in order to listen and speak.
How essential to our healing are these human acts of listening and speaking out. Injustice continues until a story is heard and a protest is registered. “Ephphatha”—“be opened”—is the fundamental command of Jesus the healer. Speak out. Speak out plainly. Open up. It’s by speaking your truth that others may open up to you. It’s by speaking out plainly, creatively that the healing of this world can happen. It’s often by speaking out plainly about your pain, your regrets, your fears—that healing can begin. It’s by speaking plainly and listening deeply to others, especially those unlike ourselves, that our society can become more compassionate and God’s saving work begins. A child’s mother and a man’s friends teach us to intercede for those on the margins. Jesus and the deaf man model for us the importance of living into that expanded world that opens to us when we’ve opened our ears, our minds, our hearts. Ephphatha! Be opened.
Openness is an essential spiritual disposition and perhaps an essential characteristic of God. It may not be a stretch to say that this Gospel story is not only about how we as individual humans or as human cultures grow healthier; it’s also a story about God’s capacity for growing and adapting. Certainly Jesus’ own growth and conversion in this pericope illustrate the potential conversion for all humankind. If God can change God’s mind—as happens often in the Old Testament—then you and I should be humble enough to change our minds when needed. The idea of an unchanging God has merit. I love to sing the assuring words of an old hymn: “Thou changest not; thy compassions they fail not; great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me.” But good theology is always paradoxical. And in other ways God does change and cannot be immutable.
Many of our Christian brothers and sisters think it’s a sign of weakness to adjust their ideas. But if Jesus himself did, we need to change our minds at times, too. The religious right has become maladaptive to our changing times when they’ve made a virtue of inflexibility. We witness the way some are making a modern martyr of an obstinate county clerk in Kentucky. But life requires that we continue to grow. We change not for change itself. But we continue to test our understandings. And again, new people, different cultures, varied settings give us the best chance to do that.
As a religious outsider, the Syrophoenician woman opens us to new perspective. As a person who could neither speak nor hear, the man Jesus healed with the command “Ephphatha!” opens up our eyes. Because the Aramaic word is retained in the original Greek texts and in its later English (and other) translations, it’s believed this, and a few other instances of Aramaic in the Gospel accounts, were the original and very memorable words of Jesus. “Ephphatha!” may have been a repeated saying that his followers remembered well. He may have used it in healing. He may have repeated it liturgically as a well-worn blessing. Let us hear it now, Open Table, and may we respond to Jesus’s command: “Be opened!”