Mark 7: 24-37 (Proper 18B)
Good morning, and grace and peace on this weekend of the Labor Day holiday. The Sunday lectionary as I mentioned last week now has us back in Mark’s gospel for the rest of the church year, all the way through the Fall to Advent I. Last week at the beginning of the chapter, the encounter of Jesus and his disciples with the Pharisees and Scribes who have come down from Jerusalem to put a damper on this Jesus Movement thing before it gets out of hand. Then we come to this week’s reading, as Jesus after that encounter leaves his home base of operations in the Galilee and heads into foreign territory.
We don’t usually think of Jesus as an international traveler, but he is doing some border crossing here, first moving into Lebanon, where people of the ancient Philistine and Phoenician heritage were the dominant group, alongside those of Syrian and Persian ethnicity, and then after that visit returning not directly to the Galilee but swinging through the region of the Ten Cities, the Decapolis, a region populated by a diverse Mediterranean and Asian community, Greeks and Turks, Italians, Libyans, Egyptians, Arabs—the cosmopolitan center of Hellenistic Roman culture and trade in the region. Neither of these places on his journey places where a traditional Jewish rabbi--and a rustic one at that, from backwater Galilee--would likely feel very comfortable or find much of a receptive audience. Not a tremendously long journey in terms of miles, at least as we would measure them today--but in the compressed and complex region of the Eastern Mediterranean, with so many different peoples and languages and cultures, it is significant.
I don’t know in terms of motive if Jesus went out on this trip because the visit from the Jerusalem authorities had things in conflict and turmoil back in the Galilee, those little villages like Cana and Capernaum and Nazareth. Mark doesn’t fill us in with that kind of information. Maybe the idea was to slip off quietly and lie low for a while until things settled down back home. In any event Mark does tell us that Jesus didn’t want a lot of publicity along the way. Traveling under the radar, out of the spotlight.
But it turns out even so that his reputation has preceded him, and they hardly get their bags unpacked it seems and there is a knock on the door of the guest house, and this Lebanese woman of Syrophoenician background is there with an urgent plea for the healing of her daughter, who is afflicted with evil spirits. How she may have heard about Jesus, or what she has heard, we don’t really know—but the word has somehow gotten around, and she is clearly there with desperation and hope--and in her exchange with Jesus we hear grace and strength, humility and faith. We just get this one little glimpse of her, but it is such a compelling one that when articles are written about the important women of the Bible she is almost always near the top of the list.
Some readers of this passage talk about this a place where Jesus “has his eyes opened,” though actually I don’t see that in a very convincing way. We have after all just heard and read in the story just last Sunday, and just a few verses above this morning’s reading, how Jesus had pushed back against the Pharisees in their focus on the external ceremonies and customs of Jewish piety in reference to ritual purity—highlighting instead the moral judgment, attitude, and behavior that comes authentically from within the character of the individual. The Jesus who said those things simply isn’t going to turn around 180 degrees and contradict himself. In any event I hear a different tone, perhaps one that is being used to draw out the point for the benefit of his disciples, as they stand near. His wanting to make sure precisely that the lesson he was teaching in the confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees last week has sunk in. The woman makes the request for her daughter, and Jesus, with an eye to his disciples, who are perhaps made uncomfortable by the presence of a Gentile woman in their midst, says, “you know I’m a Jewish rabbi, right? You know that Jewish rabbis don’t get involved with people like you, right?” But then Jesus doesn’t step away. No ordinary rabbi, but bringing something new. The woman responds with her heartfelt plea, and he responds not with the word of rejection that she and perhaps the disciples standing nearby are expecting, but with a sudden extravagant gesture of blessing, dismissing the demon that has crippled her daughter and bringing healing and the promise of new life.
The message to the disciples: we’re not playing by the old rules any more. Jesus turning away from the deep ethnic exclusivity of early Judaism and returning to the broad vision and insight of the great Biblical tradition. The promise to Abraham that through his Covenant with God all the world would be blessed. No ordinary rabbi, but bringing something new.
So also then on the return from Lebanon to the Galilee by way of the Ten Cities, the healing of the deaf and dumb man. I love this story partly because it is one of the few places in the gospels where we hear an actual word spoken by Jesus. Not a Greek translation, but a sort of transliteration of the street Aramaic that was the common tongue in the Galilee. Ephphatha. “Open up.” And although Jesus continues to seem to want to be low profile on this journey, the miracle is announced widely, “zealously,” across the region. A foreshadowing of the greater story of the proclamation of the gospel from shore to shore, beginning in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and then flowing in a broad river across every border, to every nation and every tongue. In the words of the hymn, “I just can’t keep from singing.” There is no keeping silent about this good news, which crosses all the boundaries. Nations will stream to his light, kings to the brightness of his dawning.
Something of a funny story back in the 1990’s, which maybe could be helpful as we think about what these stories in Mark 7 have to say to us. Those of us who lived in the church in those days will remember that decade was projected and announced by General Convention and our Presiding Bishop and all the rest with great enthusiasm as the “Decade of Evangelism,” with all kinds of energy and resources from our denominational center devoted to great themes of gospel proclamation and church growth. All which of course was conceived faithfully and well-intended, though with the irony that through that decade there was an acceleration of decline. More churches closed and more members lost in the Episcopal Church anyway than in any other decade of the 20th century. Sadly a precursor of things to come in the first two decades so far of our 21st century.
However, the story, just to go on: in a small affluent suburban town in Northern New Jersey, the young rector of an Episcopal Church catches the bug of enthusiasm about the Decade of Evangelism. He orders all kinds of curriculum from the Church Center in New York designed to get the members of his congregation to be active in their families and their neighborhoods to talk about faith and to share Christ with others and to invite new friends to church. And all kinds of publicity materials. Formats for newspaper and radio ads, flyers to be distributed through the neighborhood. And then materials to train members of the congregation to know how to welcome and incorporate and support new people when they arrived as these programs would develop. The young rector was very excited about it all—and was confused when the members of his vestry began to send negative signals. People didn’t show up to the evangelism training meetings. The vestry was balking about raising new budget lines for the curriculum and publicity. And then finally one of the members of the congregation called and asked to come in and speak with him. She was a woman of importance in the parish and the community, one of the great old families of the area. She sat down in a chair in the rector’s office, looked him in the eye, and got straight to the point: “Young man,” she said, “in this community, everyone who ought to be an Episcopalian already is an Episcopalian.”
In any event: what Jesus presented to the Scribes and Pharisees in our reading last Sunday he sets now before his inner circle of disciples in this morning’s reading with even greater force: a challenge to allow ourselves to be lifted by the Gospel beyond our comfort zones. The challenge to look past the surface here, past the hallmarks of religious identity or ethnicity or gender or language or political position or economic or educational or social standing that make us comfortable. The message that the good news of John 3: 16 was going to be the operative word from here on out. This was his parting word and command on Ascension Thursday. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. The circle growing wider and wider. That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever would believe in him, would have eternal life.