We sing this: “Open my eyes, open my ears, open my mouth and open my heart”. Christ commands: “Ephphatha. Be opened.” I think this is the essential message in our readings today.
We sure need to open our minds to understand how Jesus is acting when he is dealing with the Syrophoenician woman! Jesus has walked for three days, all the way to the region of Tyre, a Gentile area. A woman whose daughter is possessed of an unclean spirit begs him for help. To those early followers of Jesus hearing this story, this woman is the ultimate outsider. She is from far away, she is a woman, she is not Jewish, she is of Syrophoenician origin. She could be wearing a sign that shouts: OUTSIDER.
Up to this point, Jesus has primarily been focused on preaching to Jewish people. In Matthew 15:22 he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jewish people. He changes his mind though, and eventually commands his disciples to preach to all the other nations.
But today, this Gentile outsider kneels at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter. He replies: “Let the children be fed first”: By children, he is referring to the children of Israel. Then our loving Lord gets nasty when he continues: “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He calls this woman a dog. What kind of man calls a woman a dog?!
When she answers his nasty dog remark, she calls him ‘sir’, or “lord” – she is the only person in the whole gospel of Mark who calls him Lord. She pleads; “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Well, she’s got Jesus there and he likes this quick answer. He changes his mind and decides to heal her daughter. Now think about this: Jesus argues with brilliant rabbis and scribes and Pharisees and Herodians and he has never lost an argument but today, he loses an argument to a gentile woman.
There are many ways that this gospel is preached, usually desperately trying to obscure Christ’s rudeness. Maybe he is calling her a little dog, a puppy – that’s kind of cute, isn’t it? Well, the traditional interpretation is that he’s being a jerk to her to test her faith.
The trouble with this is: (1) there is no mention of testing in the story, like we get in Job, (2) nothing else like it occurs in the Gospel of Mark, and (3) what a cold-hearted picture this paints of Jesus testing the poor woman in her moment of greatest need.
Jesus may be a jerk, but the good thing he does is listen to this mom. Maybe encountering this outsider actually shakes Jesus up and changes him, indeed, changes his whole mission on earth. In his conversation with this woman, our very human Lord realizes that he is here for everyone, not just the Jewish people. David Lose says that “Jesus had not yet realized the full extent of God’s mission or the radical nature of the kingdom he proclaimed.”
We worship Jesus, fully human and fully divine. He is not some holy icon floating above everything, he gets angry and makes mistakes and can be cranky with his mama. This fully human man can change his mind and realize that his mission is greater than he had thought. His mission is to bring about a kingdom, not just for Jews but for everyone, no exceptions!
When Jesus opens his heart to this outsider, she teaches him something.
Jesus changes. The actions of this woman move him from prejudice (I’m only here for the Jews) to inclusion (I’m here for everybody). Barbara Brown Taylor describes the moment this way: “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.” The Syrophoenician woman’s faith and persistence teach him that God’s purpose for him “is bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around.”
We have another outsider story today, the story of the deaf man. Remember that in those days, if you were deaf, or had a speech impediment, indeed, if anything was wrong with you, it was thought that you were being punished by God for your sins or the sins of your parents. You were outside the boundaries of healthy, ‘normal’ people. You were an outsider. Jesus takes the man away to a quiet place, puts his fingers into his ears, then spits and touches his tongue. Then He looks up to heaven, sighs a great sigh, and says, “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.” And just like that, the deaf man can hear. His ears are opened, his tongue is released, and he speaks plainly. Ironically, now that he can speak, Jesus orders him to keep his mouth shut. Thanks, Jesus.
Let’s jump to our reading from James for a second. It’s all about how we need to be open to outsiders. James asks us what we do when two outsiders, one rich, one poor, come into our church. Do we embrace the rich man in fine clothes while dismissing the poor man in dirty clothes? Both men should be treated equally. James calls us to task:
“Listen my brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? … Is it not the rich who oppress you? If you show partiality, you commit sin.” So that poor outsider in his dirty clothes deserves as much of a warm welcome as the rich guy, maybe more. We must open our churches, our minds and our hearts to outsiders.
What is it like to for us follow Jesus, a fully human God who opens his heart to a poor, Gentile woman and allows himself to be changed by her? In this vulnerable action, he teaches us how to open our hearts to outsiders. Christ’s loving message is for everyone, including people who don't look, behave, vote, or worship like we do.
One of the many things I don’t like about getting old is the tendency to get more closed up, more set in my ways. I know my own mind – I don’t need to listen to opposing opinions. I’m happy with myself, I don’t need to change.
Debi Thomas writes: “Be opened. Be opened to the truth that God isn’t done with you yet. Be opened to the destabilizing wisdom of people who are nothing like you. Be opened to the widening of the table. Be opened to Good News that stretches your capacity to love. Be opened”.
Please pray with me. Lord, open our eyes, that we may see you in our brothers and sisters. Lord, open our ears, that we may hear the cries of the hungry, the cold, the frightened, the oppressed, the imprisoned. Lord, open our hearts, that we may love each other as you love us. Amen.