Sermon Lesson: Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV)
Epistle: James 2:1-10, 14-17 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 125 (NRSV)
This month, I am once again giving you a sermon that I was unable to preach from the pulpit, specifically, the sermon preached over Labor Day Weekend, when I was away at a funeral in Maine.
What Happened Before
The week before we had Jesus and his disciples in conflict with the Pharisees over the matter of unclean hands and ritual washings. The important question that was asked was are the 613 rules in the Bible more important to follow down to the letter OR what is in your heart most important?
Jesus and his followers said—plainly—it was what was in our hearts.
The Pharisees and the Scribes did not agree with them.
Moving onto the Text
Jesus and his disciples move on, to the Hellenistic (or Greek) City of Tyre, where they come across a woman who has a child possessed by an unclean spirit. In fact, to get to Jerusalem, Jesus and his followers had to travel outside of Galilee, through non-Palestinian land, back into Palestine.
Now, this is noteworthy for two reasons.
The first, is that Jesus wanted to be alone again—more specifically, he entered the house he was in and didn’t want a single person to know where he was. Jesus is taking more and more extreme measures for his privacy. He wants complete privacy and solitude, but he cannot escape his reputation.
The second is that the spirit is unclean.
Now, all spirits are unclean. They do not follow the 613 commandments God makes in the Bible involving ritual purity. But I think this stands in stark juxtaposition to Jesus and his opinion on ritual purity from just the passage before. There he was declaring that washing his hands was unimportant and then—next thing he knows—he’s facing the most ritualistically unclean thing possible—a spirit, possessing a little girl.
But this spirit is also unclean by Jesus’s definition. The words and thoughts and intentions that come out of the spirit—its intent—are unclean, and for Jesus it was intent (or what came out of you) that determined one’s uncleanliness (for instance, would it matter if you followed all 613 ritual purity laws if there was murder in your heart, even if you did not act on it?)
Children and Dogs
The woman was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.
For our purposes we just have to know that she is not one of the Chosen People—or the Jews. She is beneath them religiously, culturally, and racially in every way.
When she bows before Jesus she is showing deference to him as a man, as a Jew, and as a prophet.
His response is to say that the “children be fed first.” More specifically, Jesus means that his talents and his calling is meant for the Children of Israel… and this woman does not qualify. Moreover, the “children’s food should not be fed to the dogs.”
This is the clear reenactment of a first century feast. The adults would come and eat. The children would come next or get the second best cut at a lesser table, and the dogs would be sniffing about their heels, trying to get a fallen piece of food.
The dogs would not be directly fed. They would get whatever would come afterward, and the woman reminds Jesus of this—“Sir, even the dogs under the table get the children’s crumbs.”
The table and the feast show the established place of everyone in the hierarchy (according to the Jews) in the Near Eastern World.
At the Head of the Table is God the Father, or the God of Israel.
Sitting with him would be his angels, his prophets, and the Son of Man (Jesus)—those of distinction in the celestial kingdom.
God’s children—God’s Chosen People—would sit at the children’s table.
The rest of humanity would be dogs and other scavengers at everyone’s feet. They had their change to be chosen by God, back in the book of Genesis when God offered various peoples the position but was turned away. It was Israel, however, who answered, and Israel who now as the place of authority at the Feast.
The hierarchy is not meant to be a blatant insult. Instead, “it is what it is”—it is the way of the world, the way of creation, the way of the rightness of things.
It is the Gentile woman’s savvy, who understands this view of the world, that allows her to gain Jesus’s aid in healing her daughter.
The Healing is simple—it is an act of faith. The woman’s act of faith ensures her daughter’s healing, and Jesus must only declare that her daughter is healed for it to be so. When the woman returns home, she finds her daughter completely healed and the demon gone.
The Healing of the Deaf Man
The second healing is one that is much more hands on.
When Jesus returns to the Sea of Galilee he is brought to a deaf man who also has a speech impediment (which is not so unusual, given that the man has most likely been deaf for most if not all of his life).
Here, Jesus physically touches this man.
He spits on his fingers and touches the man’s tongue to transfer the power of speech. He commands the man’s ears “Ephphatha” or “Be opened”—and they are. This is a miracle of transfer—of transferring hearing and speech through the physicality of touch.
It is not a matter of faith like the Gentile woman with the possessed daughter, but that does not make it no less powerful. It might, even, seem extraordinary and miraculous to those watching compared to a miracle done in private. They can see it being done, they can see the proof of it.
In these two miracles we learn that there are types of miracles that Jesus performs—those of faith, you believe and so it is done—and those of physical transfers of power, as with the deaf man. Neither is more real or more important than the other. Each is valid and each has its own framework where it works best.
How has Jesus Touched Your Life?
Sometimes we talk as if the time for miracles is over—and perhaps it is. Jesus certainly isn’t physically present on earth and sits at the right hand of God the Father, but does that necessarily mean that miracles are over in this world?
We may not have Jesus spitting on our tongues, but is that the only way for miracles to happen?
Do they have to be profound and life changing that we may miss them if they’re quiet and subtle?
Do you need proof or are you like the Gentile woman who only requires faith for the miracle to be done?
Food for thought.