If you were with us last week, we spent some time in the gospel of Mark chapter 7, where Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and Scribes for trying to shame his disciples into following their traditional rules—rules that were not part of the law, but something above and beyond.
Today, we’re going to pick up precisely where we left off last week, with two stories that show us a side of Jesus we don’t often see in the gospels; but I want to give you some fair warning that the first story, at least, will sound harsh and dehumanizing to our modern ears. I’m not going to try to explain it away or minimize it, but I promise that we will come back around to it.
Scripture: Mark 7:24-37
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He 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.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘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.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
It’s been said that half of ministry—not just pastoral ministry, but the ministry of everyday, that we’re all called to—is showing up. So we’re already halfway there!
But I also believe that the next 45% is sticking around through the awkward. So as much as I would like to just skip this reading and move on to the next warm, fuzzy thing, we’re going to stick this out and ask the hard questions. We are going to wrestle with this passage until it blesses us.
First things first: how are these two stories related?
In both stories, Jesus is laying low after his very public clash with the Pharisees. So low, in fact, that he leaves the bounds of Israel and goes into Gentile territory. Tyre was a port city on the Mediterranean that was, primarily, Syrophoenician. After his encounter there, he heads around Galilee to the Decapolis. Both times, he tries to hide out and rest—and both times, he’s quickly recognized and suddenly confronted with someone desperate for his help.
But these two people get two very different responses. Why? Why is Jesus seemingly so rude and insulting to the Syrophoenician woman, and determined that the man he heals in the Decapolis (without any argument) shouldn’t tell anyone?
Looking at the first story, we have to confront a hard truth—no one in that room, and no one for the first hundred years, at least, of Christianity, was shocked or surprised that Jesus called his woman a ‘dog.’ It was a pretty common insult among Jewish people in that time and place. By identifying Jewish people as “children” and Gentiles as “dogs,” the people were highlighting their own status as heirs to God’s promises—and everyone else as, well, not.
Jesus himself sets this hard boundary in the gospel of Matthew when he says that his mission is first to the people of Israel, and then to the Gentiles. It’s as though he’s saying: it’s not your turn.
This is a belief that was hard, even for the disciples, to let go of. So hard, in fact, that after the resurrection, even when Jesus himself sent Paul to preach the gospel to Gentiles across the known world, there was an intense disagreement among them about whether those Gentiles had to first convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus.
The shocking thing for them was not Jesus’ actions, which were very much a product of the culture he lived in, but the woman’s persistence. She was on a mission, desperate to save her child by any means necessary. Is there anything you wouldn’t do, anything you wouldn’t endure, to do that?
Even when Jesus dismisses her with an old proverb, she claps back and turns it around in such a way that he cannot deny her. Her boldness and her faith are rewarded, even if Jesus doesn’t acknowledge them specifically.
Mark tells us this story not necessarily to make a point about boldness or faith, though those are good themes, but to remind us that even though the welcoming of Gentiles was controversial in the early church, Jesus himself could be convinced to cross his own boundaries and take this mission of teaching, healing, and hope to the ‘others.’
In Christ’s death, those boundaries died, too. In Christ’s resurrection, we are welcomed fully into the family of God. There are no more barriers, no more borders to God’s love. As Paul would write to the church in Galatia, who were mostly Gentiles: “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female—for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
But even as many would later be called to preach this gospel in every corner of the known world, in our second story, Jesus is still trying to hide himself and his power.
His plan to lay low in Tyre failed, so he headed around the Sea of Galilee towards the Decapolis, where he had previously healed a possessed man. So it’s no surprise that he’s met with a crowd, also desperate to see this man healed.
Jesus doesn’t argue this time, but he does take the man away from the crowds. He He could heal from far away—we just saw him do it, but this time he gets up close and personal, sticking his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting on his hand and touching the man’s tongue. It makes me a little queasy to think about, but here Jesus reminds us that he doesn’t care so much about purity rites, about staying clean and unmarked by the people he heals. Healing is just as much about connection as fixing some problem.
And in that connection, we also see that Jesus is capable of healing not only the body, but the soul. While we see hearing loss or speech impediments as physical issues that can be worked around, in Jesus’ time they were considered character defects, possibly even purity concerns, and would’ve cut this man off from most of society.
So as Jesus leads him back to the crowd, he’s not just physically different—he’s also being restored to the community, to relationship in a new and unhindered way, to a different sort of wholeness.
Given what he’s just done, it’s a little ironic, then, that Jesus encourages them not to speak about it. They have seen and heard this good news, and now they can’t do anything but talk about it.
The joy, the stories, the wonder and astonishment cannot be contained.
So what do we do with a slightly snarky Jesus who can’t hide the good he does, who can’t help but cross boundaries to help those who ask?
I wonder if we start with naming the good work we see in one another. I wonder if we start with praising the people who show up to cook dinners and sort clothes for the clothes closet, who plan lessons for our kids, who sign up for nursery duty, who call to check in with folks, who collect the offering and serve on committees and prepare communion, who send cards when they’re thinking of us.
It’s a lot easier to complain than encourage. It’s a lot easier to go about our lives not noticing the good work going on around us, seeing the worst in one another rather than the best.
Y’all know Mr. Rogers, right? Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, and also hosted the TV show Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood for several decades. He talks about a time when he was in seminary, and he had to go listen to another preacher and evaluate them. So he and a friend picked the best local preacher they could think of, and went to visit that congregation on a Sunday morning—only to find that the regular preacher was on vacation, and they had a pulpit supply preacher instead. Fred was wary, but he’d heard good supply preachers, so he stayed.
This is what he told a friend about that day, much later:
“Unfortunately, this man was neither good nor meaningful. Fred suffered through the sermon, mentally checking off every homiletic rule the man was bending, breaking, or completely disregarding. The sermon went against everything Fred was learning in seminary. When it ended (“mercifully,” he later told me), he turned to the friend beside him to commiserate. But before he could say anything, his words were muted by the tears he saw streaming down her face.
“He said exactly what I needed to hear,” she whispered. That bungle of a sermon was exactly what she needed to hear? Fred didn’t know what to say. But as he began to ponder the gulf between their reactions, he realized that the essential difference lay within: she had come in need and he had come in judgment. And because of her need, and the sincerity of the old preacher, the Holy Spirit was able to translate the words—poorly constructed as they were—into exactly what she needed to hear.”
Perhaps our task, as with Mr. Rogers and Jesus’ disciples, is to learn to withhold judgement, to honor the work of the Holy Spirit in one another, to give up our assumptions about those who check different boxes than we do, to listen to our ‘better angels’, rather than give in to our anger, our exhaustion, or our defensiveness.
What sort of a world would that be? Could there be healing and reconciliation there? Could there be a wideness to God’s mercy, such that even our enemies are enfolded into that healing and hope? Could we build bridges over the political and theological and cultural boundary lines that divide us?
I think that’s what the kingdom of God might look like. I think that if we could take even a step or two in that direction, we too might find ourselves astonished at the Holy Spirit’s capacity to speak precisely to our need.
Thanks be to God, y’all. Thanks be to God.
 Hollingsworth, Amy. The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor (pp. 33-34). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.