Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 09 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“And he said to him, Ephphatha, that is, be opened.” The second, and briefer, miracle story in today’s Gospel reading may actually contain the key to the meaning of all the readings, but I’m going to start with the much more familiar and much more preached-about story of the Syrophoenician woman.

Modern readers, with our particular orientation towards the psychological, the personal, the emotional, tend to dwell on what was going on inside Jesus’s head in this story. We are shocked by his insulting address to the woman who has come to ask for healing for her daughter—because it is very insulting, dramatically so, to call a sick child a dog, an unclean animal, and it seems a stunningly hurtful thing for Jesus to say. So we search for subjective and human explanations. The favourite modern reading of this passage is the reading which proposes that in this story we see Jesus himself being “converted,” being convinced by this woman’s quick wit to extend his mission to the Gentiles.

There could be some reasons to find that reading plausible—she is certainly one of the many women in the Gospel who can give as good as she gets, and one thing that seems consistent about Jesus throughout all four Gospels is that he likes people, and especially women, who are ready to argue back at him. On the other hand, I am not at all sure that we can impose a modern psychological reading on Mark’s account—it is not that kind of genre, it is not how an author of that time would have thought or written. And it also presents some obvious theological difficulties—I am reasonably comfortable with the idea that Jesus’s understanding grew and developed over the course of his human life, but I am less comfortable with the idea that the incarnate Word could be unnecessarily cruel to a desperate and vulnerable person.

But, however one understands the complex relationship between the human and the divine in the inner experience and daily behaviour of Jesus, there’s an issue in the text which, I believe, creates an insuperable problem with the common modern reading. Because Jesus has already healed at least one Gentile, the Gerasene demoniac, several chapters back. And if this were all about Jesus’ human subjectivity getting in the way, if it were a story about his personal coming to acceptance of the inclusion of the unclean, that would make no sense. The Gerasene demoniac, in fact, was much more blatantly unclean than a little Syrophoenician girl. This was a man who lived with pigs and corpses, and mutilated his own body with rocks, a man whose entire portrayal is intended to emphasize his uncleanness, his outsider status, and Jesus’ shattering of all the purity rules by even approaching him. It seems unlikely that the Jesus who could do this would be psychologically incapable, a short time later, of healing a sick child at her mother’s request. Moreover, as today’s story begins, Jesus seems already to have gone into a Gentile house, shortly after slanging with the Pharisees about the purity code—he’s in someone’s house in a Gentile area, anyway, and he doesn’t seem to be keeping himself separate from the people of Tyre or behaving according to any of the standard rules. So I’m not convinced that looking towards Jesus’ subjective emotional state makes much sense here.

But that house, the fact that he is in that house, this may be a key bit of information. When he healed the demoniac at Gerasa, the two of them were in a deserted place of the dead, the disciples watching at a distance, perhaps not even getting out of their boat. Here, we’re in a domestic environment, surrounded by people. By witnesses. And maybe it is these witnesses who are the point, maybe there is a sort of performance happening here. Perhaps Jesus recognized in this woman—whose determination and indeed recklessness are already apparent in her evidently breaking into a private house—someone who could say what had to be said, someone with the inner resources to fight back against exclusion, who could articulate, in her own words, in front of the disciples and the people in the house, what Jesus himself has already been trying to say and to show. That there are no limits. That the bread that is food and love and life is not a scarce resource to be hoarded. That the doors of the house of law and identity and exclusion must be forced open, and the most despised and rejected must be fed.

Because, perhaps, they needed to hear it from her, they needed to see and hear her standing up. One of the dogs, the worthless, the outsiders, claiming her own voice and her own worth and her own humanity, and demanding that her daughter too be considered worthy of receiving the bread. For this too is something which Jesus gives—if sometimes, as in this story, in a difficult and paradoxical way. Not only the healing, but the strength to stand up and demand the healing, the ability to speak, to claim a place, to interpret and explain the experience of suffering. The right of the excluded to name, in their own words, their being and their worth.

And so we have, not two unconnected stories, but a subtle parallel structure. Ephphatha, be opened, Jesus says to the man who cannot speak, and the man’s tongue is released, and he speaks. He has voice, and meaning, and a place in his society, a story he can now define for himself. The Syrophoenician woman, too, has been released, provoked even, into speech, has insisted that her life and the life of her child are important, and worth saving, and she has been heard. She entered the house as an intruder, and left as a child of God, and in her own house the healing has begun, the demon cast out, the daughter able to rise up and live out her life.

And the text, of course, has an audience too—the early Christian community around Mark in the first instance, but more relevantly, ourselves. We are the people in that house, who need to hear this woman speaking for herself, who need to see the rejected fighting their way in, standing up, demanding and receiving. Of course, some are also the outsiders, challenged into speech by Christ’s relentless attention, that too is a truth of community, that most of us are sometimes the people inside the house and sometimes the ones breaking in, and the story reads differently depending on where you stand at the moment—but the church as institution is the audience, finally, for whom Jesus and this woman stage their intervention.

The church community to which James is writing is, apparently, choosing to prioritize the voices of the rich, to make the poor secondary or invisible. They substitute their own comfortable assurances for practical attention to the needs of the poor as defined by the poor themselves. And this, says James, is a silencing of the kingdom itself. It is in the poor, the outcast, the strange, the unclean, that God speaks. It is the silenced voices which hold true faith.

It is not easy to release these stories, not easy either to tell or to hear. It took a very long and painful time before our church could even begin to hear the Indigenous people of Turtle Island telling us what we had done. We are still, as an institution, struggling to hear and respond to the stories of people who have been hurt by racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia. And it is too easy to forget the raw and desperate courage it has taken, and still takes, every day, to tell these stories, to break into the unwelcoming house of the church, of the world, and insist that your life does matter. It is hard, too, because part of what affliction takes away from human beings is, sometimes, the ability to construct a coherent story, and when the voiceless are given moment to speak, what sometimes emerges is a misdirected, or simply undirected, scream of rage, or even just the random noise of chaos. How we can be responsible to the voices which cannot even articulate their own suffering is not a problem for which I have a clear answer. But we remain responsible—to hold the space where speech is possible, to listen to those who have been oppressed and driven out, to learn and respond as we can.

Ephphatha, says the voice of God. Be opened. Raise voices, open doors, let the bread be given freely, the bread which none of us deserve and all are offered, for there is enough, there is always enough, it is only our own false distinctions which would tell us otherwise. Let the silenced voices speak, and speak for long enough that their truth can slowly emerge. We cannot heal everything—most day, we cannot heal much at all. But we can open the house, and that is at least a place to start.