9 Sept 2018 Is 35: 4-7a; James 2: 1-17; Mk 7 26-37
(I’ve tried to add things which I included in during the sermon, however, various parts were spontaneous. This is therefore an approximation of the sermon at the 10.00 a.m. service)
For most of us, there are times in our lives when events, relationships, or how we think, gets thrown into some sort of confusion. It may be things which happen to us, which are out of our control, it may be things which we contribute to in some way, or life simply changes around us. If you were at the joint benefice service a couple of weeks ago, you will have heard in the sermon a reference to the idea that the Psalms are a mixture of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. As a counsellor and therapist, I’d like to extend that to life in general. At times of orientation everything seems to be relatively smooth, disorientation brings confusion, the unexpected, a disjunction, and reorientation may mean finding a new way of being, something which begins out of disorientation.
This morning I’d like to explore the gospel reading, seeing it as a transition in the life of Jesus, as portrayed in Mark’s gospel. Maybe he is shown here to be in a time of disorientation and moving towards reorientation.
In the chapters leading up to today’s reading, Jesus is predominantly seen as working within the Jewish community within Israel. However, the mission to Israel seems to be going awry. At the beginning of chapter seven Jesus is in considerable conflict with the Pharisees over the practices of his disciples. In particular of how they relate to what is clean and unclean, what defiles us. Jesus says: ‘it is what comes out of a person that defiles.’ (7:20) ‘… evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ (7:21)
At that point it seems to me that Jesus and the leaders of Israel’s religious world are out of sync. His mission to Israel seems to have foundered. The people are enthusiastic, but the ruling leadership of the Sadducees, and the scribes and the Pharisees seem to be challenged by him and are responding with critical questioning.
So, the gospel of Mark, as we have heard in the reading, Jesus has some odd behaviour. Jesus is leaving Israel, leaving Galilee, and heading north west to Tyre. In fact, in the passage we had read Jesus stays well away from Galilee at all times, even taking a very long detour that takes him further north, before curling his way back down the east side of the sea of Galilee, and to the area called the Decapolis, another non-Jewish, gentile, Greek speaking region. It’s a huge detour for someone walking covering many, many miles.
When we look at the passage it seems Jesus is getting away from it all. ‘He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.’
Now, already in chapter 3 of Mark, we’ve been told that people ‘came to him in great numbers’ and there’s a long list of areas where these people are from, including Tyre (3:8). This port city is quite a way from Galilee, Jesus’ usual area of action. Yet he’s already known here. His fame is such that it’s quite difficult for him to get away anywhere. Our gospel reading says: ‘he could not escape notice… a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him.’
At a time when communication was mainly by word of mouth, that news has got around quickly. If Jesus wanted some time to reflect, to pray, to think about any disorientation, then he wasn’t going to get it here.
I’m not going to dwell on the passage with the Syrophoenician woman, as I preached on that last year from a parallel version of the story in the gospel of Matthew. However, what I want to notice here is that her words seem to challenge Jesus. On the face of it, Jesus seems to be claiming that first he should be feeding the children of God, the people of Israel, but she suggests that even the Gentiles, that’s everyone who’s not Jewish, they too deserve the scraps off the table. And Jesus responds affirmatively. Does he change his mind, or refine his thinking? She has insisted that her people should also be able to receive the benefits of the kingdom, and Jesus agrees. Of all the people who question him in the gospels here is someone he listens to, and to whom he seems to respond by accepting their argument.
One other layer which may be present in their exchange is that Galilee was effectively the supplier of food for Tyre. The wealthy port city drew much of the crops and foodstuffs from Galilee, leaving the locals at a much more subsistence level. As a result, there was considerable resentment towards Tyre in Galilee. Could the food and crumbs reference in what Jesus and the woman say have a connection to this? It’s possible, and Jesus may be touching on this sensitive issue too.
Jesus then heads on this huge detour northwards and eastwards, completely avoiding Galilee, before heading down the east side of the sea of Galilee into the Decapolis. It’s a long way to walk when there’s a much more direct route.
In the Decapolis, a man is brought to him who is deaf and has an impediment of speech. Jesus takes the man away in private, and there he is very tactile in his actions, he puts his fingers into the man’s ears – who may or may not have an idea of what’s going on – and then Jesus spits and touches the man’s tongue. It’s pretty graphic.
He does one more thing, he looks to heaven and says: ‘Ephphatha’, which the gospel writer tells us means ‘be opened’. Jesus is speaking in Aramaic. The hearers of the gospel of Mark are listening to it in Greek. Magicians and healers often used magic words, exotic sounding foreign words, which wouldn’t mean anything to those who heard it. The writer of the gospel is letting his hearers know that Jesus is using an everyday word.
‘Immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.’
There’s a suggestion that the words “opened” and “released” have a feel of eschatology, of the end times, and also that the words opened and released connect to the language of exorcism. So, one commentator speaks of a ‘divine liberating onslaught’ (Eugene Boring).
And it is happening in the Decapolis, the ten cities of the Gentiles.
It also says the man ‘spoke plainly’. In a society where speaking and hearing are the primary means of communication, culture, employment, relationships, that means he is restored and can now participate in community life. He is no longer cut off.
Jesus tries to keep it quiet, but the crowd just keeps speaking up. He can’t keep them quiet.
The writer of the gospel notes the crowd as saying: ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
There are two possible references being played with here from the Jewish bible. In Genesis 1: 31 the comment is made that God had finished the creation and it was ‘very good’. And in Isaiah 35, which was read for our first reading, it says: ‘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.’ (35:5)
The writer is perhaps connecting the work of Jesus with both a creative God, and with the prophetic oracles of Isaiah, which talk of new things to come after the terrible times of exile. It’s like a new creation. A new beginning. Maybe a reorientation?
What does this all suggest? Well, Jesus has crossed boundaries. He’s gone from a mission primarily to the people of Israel, and has now extended it to the Gentiles.
Jesus is redefining what is clean and unclean. He stated it in the verses just before our passage, and he now demonstrates it in action, with the Syrophoenician woman, and the deaf man in the Decapolis. He has challenged boundaries with the Pharisees, and now he has crossed those boundaries and shown that his mission is much, much wider than anyone in Israel would have expected.
What might that mean for us?
Firstly, that in times of disorientation it is good to wait, to be patient, sometimes it might be to go somewhere different, or with different people, because reorientation will follow that difficult time.
But also, our society tends to define people in language which is parallel to being clean and unclean, whether in terms of class, or gender, or race, sexuality, disability, refugees, belief, and so many other areas. I think Jesus would want to challenge those boundaries. Our benefice and our church demonstrate this in so many ways. Yet, are there boundaries which we hold, perhaps without even realising?
Maybe we need to be helped to hear, and to speak plainly as the man in the Decapolis was helped.
The Syrophoenician woman used the derogatory language of her time to challenge and undermine the concepts it was built on. Are we called to speak out and challenge as she did? Or are we more comfortable going with the status quo? Conforming or going against conformity?
What boundaries do we need to cross? It may require a journey of disorientation and reorientation for us. It may require travelling in unusual and unexpected ways, as Jesus did.
(This week the Archbishop of Canterbury was in the headlines with the Prosperity and Justice report which came out on Wednesday. As a member of the Commission on Economic Justice, he spoke out forcibly for a fairer society, for justice around wealth, he said: “For decades, the UK economy has not worked as it should, with millions of people and many parts of the country receiving less than their fair share.” What could we do?
The recent article I wrote in Connections about Eco-church, and the environment, is another aspect where boundaries need to be crossed.)
As an inclusive church we stand for a crossing of boundaries.
But is there more? With David Stephenson now installed as the Vicar of the benefice, we have an opportunity to look at ourselves, to reflect on what in us is deaf or unable to speak. What in us is trapped and oppressed? How do we conform to the structures of our society? Are there new steps we can take?
Maybe when we look back, we will see this last year as a time of disorientation, and maybe what is to come will be a reorientation?