A sermon on Mark 7: 24-37 by Nathan Nettleton, 6 September 2009
When we baptise people into the membership of the church, there is a little bit of the ritual that I’m wondering whether you have noticed or thought about much. Just after the question-and-answer baptismal vows, and just before the candidate shares some testimony of God’s work in their life, a pastor marks the sign of the cross over their ears and mouth and says, “May the Holy Spirit open your ears to receive God’s holy Word, and your mouth to proclaim God’s praise.” Do you remember that?
Well the image behind that little action comes from the gospel story we heard tonight. A man who is deaf and mute is brought to Jesus, and Jesus touches his ears and mouth and says “Ephphatha,” which is Aramaic for, “Be opened.” Now I suspect that if I actually poked my fingers right into the ears of our baptismal candidates, and spat and touched their tongues with the saliva like Jesus did, you’d all be a bit grossed out and probably decide it was time to start looking for a new pastor, but you get the connection. This image is used in the baptismal rite because images of opening the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf and the mouths of the mute are used frequently in the gospels as images of conversion, as images of the change that the gospel is seeking to do in us. I’m not suggesting that these healings were not physical events, but they are used by the gospel writers as illustrations of a blindness and deafness that is more than just physical. In one place, after such a healing, the religious people say to Jesus, “You’re not suggesting that we are blind are you?” and Jesus replies, “If you were blind, you’d have an excuse, but since you are so sure that you see correctly, you stand condemned.”
God is constantly working to open our eyes further to what the Holy Spirit is doing among us, to open our ears further to what the Spirit is saying, and to open our mouths further to proclaim the good news to others. It is on ongoing task. There are so many things that blind our eyes and stop up our ears, and we are mostly oblivious to them, because what we think we are seeing all looks right enough. The way we see things accords with good sense and conventional wisdom and all seems well. But as often as not, the Holy Spirit is working beyond the bounds of our secure assumptions of what is good and sensible and proper.
There was a conversation within our church host group recently that reminded me of this. The hosts were looking at the issue of where our church sends the money it gives away each year. A question came up about whether we should be giving money for projects overseas when there are so many people in serious need in our own country. That is a perfectly good question. There are a number of advantages in focussing on projects closer to home. Often the accountability trail is more transparent, and it gives us greater opportunity to connect in other ways with the project and the people involved. And we’ve pretty much all grown up with the truism that charity starts at home, haven’t we? It is such a universal view that it is almost impossible to imagine questioning it. It’s closely related to another truism: “buy Australian.” If we buy Australian made products, we support local industries, local employment, and the local economy. That’s all good, isn’t it?
Well, funnily enough, a questioning of the “charity begins at home” truism is precisely what Jesus is confronted with in the story we heard tonight, just before he healed the deaf and mute man. Jesus is in hiding. He’s got well away from the places where he is normally seen, and he’s trying to get some well earned time out. But he is seen and recognised, and a woman comes and asks him for help. She falls at his feet and asks him to heal his daughter who is suffering some sort of demonic torment. An understandable and touching request, but Jesus is trying to take time out, and he knows his mission is primarily to the people of Israel, and this woman is asking him to cross all the boundaries, to work on his holidays and not even for the group he has a responsibility to, but to reach out to outsiders, foreigners, gentiles.
So Jesus says “No”. No, it doesn’t fit the big picture. Go away and leave me alone. It comes as a bit of a shock to hear Jesus refuse a request for help, and even more to hear him do it so rudely. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Let the children be fed first.” There is the children, and there is the dogs! Ouch! Even a dog lover like me can’t put a positive spin on that.
But the woman does not slink off with her tail between her legs. She does not accept his ‘no’. She takes the personal insult on the chin, but she challenges the truism, the theological assumption about God’s priorities and Jesus’ mission. “Dogs don’t have to wait,” she says. “There are plenty of crumbs that fall from the table when the children are being fed, and that’s all I’m asking for: a crumb.” She has wittily turned Jesus’ words back on himself, but the theological point she is making is crucial and insightful. “Your mission might be primarily focussed among the people of Israel, but God’s love and grace is for everyone, the whole world is to benefit from what you are doing.”
And Jesus’ eyes are opened. It is a remarkable moment. The story that comes immediately before this is the one we heard last week where Jesus challenged the Pharisees over the hand-washing issue and their boundaries of clean and unclean, pure and impure, insider and outsider. And yet here he is, maybe just a few days later, needing to have his own eyes opened about the full implications of what he has just said. It is bigger than what even you realised, Jesus. What God is doing through you, in the power of the Holy Spirit, can take even you by surprise. Charity may begin at home, but that’s because charity begins now and home is where you are. It does not mean that those close to home matter more than those far away. God couldn’t care less where we draw the lines on our maps, and those on the other side of the lines are no less deserving of our care and support than those on our side of the lines.
And one of the surprising things that we see God doing when God opens our eyes is working and speaking through those we least expect to see God working through. No doubt it is normal for God to speak the word of challenge through Jesus, but sometimes God is speaking through the most unlikely stranger, and even speaking that word of challenge to Jesus himself. “Be open” indeed! Through the unnamed woman, God opens Jesus’ eyes. Through Jesus God opens the deaf mans’ ears and voice. And God’s call to us, is to “Be open.” Be open to what God is doing. Open our eyes and ears and mouths and see what God is doing, and hear what God is saying, whoever the word comes through. And be open to all who God sends our way. “Ephphatha. Be open!”