Sermon 9/6/09, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37
This week, we’re starting a new focus in worship, centered on asking ourselves the question: Who and what is God calling us to be? Who are we meant to be, each one of us? Who are we meant to be as a congregation? Each week, through October, we’ll look at a different aspect of what God seeks for us to be, and think about how we can live out God’s hopes for us. This week, we start with a challenging beginning.
No matter how many times I read this gospel lesson from Mark, I can’t quite come to terms with it. I’ve read commentaries and articles and scoured sources for inspiration. Nothing satisfies me. I want a clear explanation of the passage. Tell me why Jesus says what he says to this woman, please. I even find myself going back and forth in my own understanding and interpretation of the passage. This text appears in more than one gospel, and so it shows up in the preaching cycle every year. I’ve preached a few times on this passage, in some form, and it never fails to stretch me. The first time I preached on the passage, I thought perhaps that Jesus had simply had his understanding of his own mission widened by a persistent woman who demanded attention. She shared grace with him. A role reversal of sorts, but one that foreshadowed the universal nature of the gospel message that would come in the fullness of time. Another time I preached on the text, I figured that actually, Jesus gave in to the woman’s demands so easily that he could not really have meant to not heal her daughter in the first place. Jesus was somehow playing a role or something. And somewhere in the process of struggling with this strange text, I barely even remember to study the second half of our passage for today – a second healing, where Jesus opens the ears of a man who is deaf.
Let’s look at this strange set of healings more closely. Our passage begins with Jesus setting out after his teachings to the scribes and Pharisees, disciples and crowds, about what is clean and unclean, the lesson we heard just last Sunday. Jesus reminds them that it is what is inside a person that can make them clean or unclean, not what is outside, external, what goes in. It is not the superficial that makes us unclean or clean, but the contents of our hearts. Jesus reprimands the religious leaders for holding onto human traditions so tightly that they miss the point of the commandments of God to love.
After this confrontation, we find in our text for today that Jesus has set out for the region of
When I’m confused about the meaning of passages in the Bible, it often helps me to check the immediate context – what happens right before and right after this passage. Knowing where the story falls in the overall scheme of things can help point us to what the story means, instead of trying to take a passage out of context as a stand-alone teaching. In context, we can ask: Why is the story here? Does it illustrate a point made in an earlier scene? Is it setting the stage for what comes next? If we look at the ‘before’ to today’s passage, and remember that Jesus was talking about it being what is inside, not what is outside, that makes a person clean or unclean, and then see him interacting with a woman who was, well, a woman, and a foreign woman, a Gentile woman, a woman of a different race, a woman with an unclean, demon-possessed daughter, a woman begging on her knees, strike after strike against her, according to ritual, custom, tradition, practice – where is this story leading us? If Jesus had been teaching about what really defiles a person, and how people weren’t unclean for the superficial reasons the Pharisees insisted on, and then he went from there directly to a region where the majority of people were foreigners, unclean under purity laws, for no apparent reason, what can we suspect about Jesus’ intentions with the woman? Despite appearance to the contrary, it seems Jesus must have gone to
If we turn to our epistle lesson for today, the meaning of the interaction between Jesus and this woman becomes even deeper. This letter is one of my favorite books of the bible, written by James the brother of Jesus, but it is almost overwhelming in its depth of convicting teaching. Today, we read his most famous words: “Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” James, much in the vein of last week’s gospel lesson, is writing that it is not a person’s outside appearance, outside status, outside position that matters in the eyes of God. Such a simple lesson, isn’t it? Haven’t we known this since we were children? Been taught this since kindergarten? Perhaps in a way, James’ text can seem to us patronizing, or even, at least irrelevant. Do we really need someone to tell us not to judge people by what they’re wearing? We must really be advanced from the folks of Biblical times by now, right? But I suspect that actually we are often like I was in show and tell all those years ago. We’re ready to dole out expert advice because we’ve read the Book, but we’ve never actually put its contents to use yet ourselves. What does our living say about our believing? James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
James’ understanding of faith and works can be applied even to Jesus’ ministry. Faith by itself without works is dead. Teachings about what is right, knowing and being able to say what is right, means absolutely nothing if you don’t actually do what is right, and live rightly. How many followers do you think Jesus would have had if he had talked all this good talk about who was clean and unclean and then refused to be in ministry with those who were outside the typically accepted community? If such leadership cultivated followers, we could all have our own disciples, because we’re mostly very good at knowing the basics of faith. It is the living-out-of-faith part that causes us to stumble, where Jesus did not.
The problem with our understanding of “loving your neighbor” is that we have sculpted our lives until our only neighbors, the only ones we interact with, are people who look like us, who dress like us, who shop where we do and own the same kinds of things we do and who generally believe the same kinds of things we do. Despite Jesus’ living examples to the contrary, despite his habit of literally walking miles out of his way to find himself among people different from himself, we always seem to define neighbor in the narrowest, most literal ways possible. Hey – living, as I do, above a quiet insurance agency, on a block that has only two other homes, one of which is empty, I can declare that I get along with all my neighbors perfectly. But Jesus literally traveled across the country to find examples of what he meant by neighbor. He went from region to region to show us the full scope of what it means to love your neighbor, putting into practice all that he was teaching.
If we finally go back to the second part of the gospel lesson, where Jesus heals a deaf man, I’m now struck in particular by some phrases in the text. Jesus says, “Ephphatha – Be opened!” And the people react, “He has done everything well; he makes even the deaf to hear.” God’s words seem so often to be lost on us – we’re unwilling to hear what God is shouting, unwilling to accept God’s love for ourselves and God’s love for others. But even those of us that are seemingly deaf to God’s calling to us, Jesus has, can, will open us. How does God need to open your heart? To whom do you need to be opened? Whose voices are you unable or unwilling to hear? Will you let Jesus help you hear God’s persistent calling?
Let’s not be distracted from the heart of the message this week – don’t be so caught up in how Jesus addressed this bold Syrophoenician woman that you miss the bold things Jesus did for her. He crossed a boundary, and reached out a hand, and extended God’s grace, where no one else deemed the people worthy of receiving it. He has done everything well. Let us go and do likewise.