The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18—Year B; Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 — Video
We definitely get a sense of God’s passion today. Isaiah 35—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.
The psalmist picks up this refrain: Happy are they whose hope is in the LORD their God; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
So, God is about caring for the oppressed and opening up the eyes of the blind and unstopping the ears of the deaf and setting the tongue free to sing for joy! And certainly, that’s what Jesus is about in that passage we just heard from Mark.
They have brought a deaf man to Jesus who had an impediment in his speech. So, he takes this man aside in private, away from the crowd, and he puts his fingers into his ears, and he spit and touches his tongue. Then he looks up to heaven, he sighs, and he says to the man, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, and his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
And Jesus orders the people to tell no one, and the more he tells them not to talk, the more zealously they proclaim it. The text tells us, “They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”
Jesus is totally about God’s passion for the poor and oppressed, for the blind and the deaf and the mute; Jesus is totally about God’s passion for those who are bowed down, for the widow and the orphan and the stranger and the hungry. See Luke 4 where Jesus reads the Isaiah text that talks about these concerns and says to those gathered, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” See Matthew 25 where Jesus proclaims unequivocally that in caring for the least of these, we care for him.
Jesus has a Godly perspective; he’s got the right vision; he gets what God is all about in this world; he embodies it in his every action, in his every encounter. He has done everything well. Right?
I love this story from Mark 7. It is one of my most favorite stories about Jesus because this is one of the times, recorded in the sacred text, when Jesus absolutely blows it. He gets it totally wrong. Let’s walk through this story again.
Jesus has just finished arguing with the Pharisees and scribes about how they make a mockery of the commandments by clinging to their human tradition. He has gone off to the region of Tyre. Tyre is a lovely little town over on the coast. You almost get the sense that Jesus wanted a little downtime, a little seaside holiday. He enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. He wants to be left alone.
But he’s Jesus. Word about him has spread. The chances of him going unnoticed are zero to none. A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately hears about him, and she comes and bows down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. Read an outsider to outsiders. She was a woman and a Gentile—culturally, that’s two strikes against her.
She begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. And listen to how he responds. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Really Jesus? Honestly, did you just call a woman whose daughter is suffering, a woman who has come to you for help, did you just call her a dog? Did you really just tell her that she and her daughter are not worthy of healing because she is not an Israelite, because she doesn’t belong to the right tribe? Did you just deny her care and concern because she is a “them” and not an “us.” Uh, Jesus, can you like remember how you just chewed out the Pharisees and scribes for letting their human tradition get in the way of showing care and compassion for a fellow human being? What gives? Not your finest hour.
On this occasion, Jesus flunks pastoral sensitivity. And not only does he not extend care, but in the process, he shames the woman; he equates her to a dog. Wow.
And she, she calls him on it. She stands her sacred ground, and she calls him on it.
But the woman answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
This stops him cold; she completely turns the tables on him, and then HIS eyes were opened, and HIS ears were unstopped, and he saw, in a way he never had before, just how big God’s vision really is.
Then Jesus said to the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
It is so important for us to know that the Lord we worship, the Lord we follow, absolutely had the capacity to blow it, just like you and just like me. And this woman, where did she get the strength, the moxie, to stand up to Jesus and call him on his narrow and myopic vision? How was it that she trusted her own intuitive wisdom that she and her daughter were indeed worthy of Jesus’ care and concern? How was it that, in the face of his authority, she could call Jesus to lay down his armor, and call forth the best of Jesus’ heart, and call him to move beyond the limits and boundaries he had placed on his compassion? I’d love to know more about what had shaped her and forged her strength.
There’s something else about this exchange that is important. When Jesus is confronted with the magnitude of his empathetic miss, he immediately circles back and makes it right. That’s the very definition of accountability—admit the mistake, figure out how to make it right, and make amends, and he circled back immediately and without shame. When we mess up with someone, and they call us on it, we can easily get sucked into the shame vortex. If I were Jesus, I would be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m the Son of God, how did I mess that up so badly? Worst Son of God ever,” and I would be paralyzed.
When we go into the shame pit, we either move to blame or the could-I-just-please-disappear-now place or that icky how-can-I-win-you-back place, and in that state, we are actually less likely to own our mistake and set it right.
Jesus didn’t go to the shame place. When the tradition talks about Jesus being as we are in every way, yet without sin, I think this is what it’s talking about. Sin literally means “missing the mark,” not shame; but even more, sin is about separation.
Jesus missed the mark, just like we do, but Jesus didn’t allow anything to throw him out of God’s Presence—not even his big, colossal, messy mistakes.
Jesus didn’t allow his mistake to separate him from God. Jesus had an unshakeable sense of his own worthiness; he didn’t allow his mistake to trigger his shame; he didn’t turn on the woman and blame her, nor did he disappear on the woman, nor did he try to win her back—he simply stayed connected; he circled back; he gave her the care and concern and compassion she deserved, and he healed her daughter, and in so doing, HIS vision was healed so that he could SEE and HEAR in expanded ways.
And when he left her, he went to the Decapolis—he went to Gentile territory and opened ears that were blocked and set tongues free so that they could sing for joy.
Thank God this story is preserved in our tradition. The Lord we follow—he made mistakes, and so will we, every day.
Can we step into those uncomfortable moments when it all goes off the rails? Can we be as brave as that Syrophoenician woman and call one another on those misses when they happen? Can we be as brave as Jesus and stand still while a brother or a sister brings to our awareness the narrowness of our vision and those places where we are lacking in concern and compassion? Can we take a cue from Jesus and know in the depths of our being that our mistakes don’t have to throw us out of God’s Presence? Can we skip the whole shame cycle, can we skip the whole blame-disappear-grovel thing—it is such wasted energy! Can we commit to the practice of circling back and know that as we do, our eyes will be opened and our ears will get unstopped and our vision will expand to match the expansion in our hearts and something in us will get healed and made whole? And then, can we rejoice because in that moment, all of our tongues will be set free to sing for joy. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 6, 2015