Sermon from 9.6.15
|Isaiah 35:4-7a, |
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17,
Usually when I focus on one of the Gospel readings, I look for theology in the story. I try and ask what the story is telling us about God in the actions or teachings of Jesus. Sometimes we learn about God in response of the disciples, or the healing of the crowd. But I want to focus today on the role of the Gospeler. I want us to look historically at the story—who wrote it and who did he write it for. But reading the story historically does not diminish the importance or the truth of the Gospel. This Gospel is one of the ways that God spoke to the people of that time, and reading and studying the Gospel in its historical context is one of the ways that God speaks to us now.
We have today two stories from the Gospel of Mark—the first about the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the second about the healing of the deaf mute. These stories have some unique characteristics and they provide an interesting contrast to one another. The question that I’m going to ask is why did Mark write these stories the way he did? And what did Mark the Gospeler want his hearers to know about God by the way he recorded these stories.
We think that Mark wrote around 70AD. So he was writing before the destruction of the temple. We think that he was writing for a Jewish community outside of Jerusalem. This community was likely not as observant of the laws as the Jerusalem Jews. Mark may have known Jesus or he may have heard the stories from Peter or other apostles. But Mark likely wrote before Paul—so he doesn’t know the stories of the Virgin birth or the resurrected Jesus. The Gospel of Mark highlights Jesus’ divine nature without referring to either of these later stories.
Mark begins this story of the Syrophoenician woman with the observation that Jesus had travelled to Tyre and that he didn’t want anyone to know that he was there. This preface might be a way of reminding Mark’s community that Jesus even though he was a Jewish teacher, his ministry included people outside of Jerusalem. We can imagine that it would have been powerful for Mark’s community to see that Jesus has direct healing contact with people who are not the most observant Jews.
And then he travels South, on to Sidon and Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. Not only is he outside of Jerusalem, but he is addressed by a Syrophoenician woman. This is a radical idea—first a woman addresses a rabbi, this would be outside the social norms. And she’s a Gentile. And when he rejects her (as any reasonable teacher would have), she argues and he heals her daughter. Jesus also has contact with the unclean spirit that resides in her daughter.
We can imagine that the Marcan community might hear in this story about God’s radical welcome. God is interested in all people, not just the Jerusalem Jews, not only the most observant men. God is interested in all people, even women, even less observant Jews, even people far away who have never even met Jesus, even people possessed by unclean spirits.
Scholars have a couple of theories about why Mark told the stories with a focus on Jesus’ secrecy. Why would Mark have wanted to make Jesus seem mysterious? One theory is that when Jesus says, “don’t tell anyone”, he is referring to his secret nature—his Christology, that part of him that is divine, not merely human. Another theory is that Mark is building a case that Jesus is more than a magician. Mark is revealing his Messianic character to people who believed in magic. There were many magicians at the time who claimed to have special powers. But they were always showing their powers to everyone. So in that context, Mark portrays Jesus as having powers, but not powers that he wants to show off (like the magicians). This is all a precursor to the idea that will come later in the Gospel—this messiah is going to die. Mark is showing that Jesus the man, is more than a human magician who will die, Jesus’ divinity will overcome death. His human nature is flawed, like all humans, but he is divine and will overcome death, unlike any other human.
Mark may have been bringing the stories about Jesus to his community with the purpose of differentiating Jesus. He’s not just another one of your God’s or teachers—he’s different.
That idea that Jesus’s power is not magic, it’s really God’s power, is reinforced in this passage because Jesus’ first healing is a “distance healing”. He doesn’t touch the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. He’s not even there. In some stories, we see people who Jesus heals because of their faith. For example, when the woman with the hemorrhage touches his cloak, he claims that her faith has healed her. But in this story, the woman’s daughter is healed because she challenges Jesus. He says, because you said that, I will heal her. Somehow, even though Jesus is not inclined to heal her, God recognizes that the woman has a need and God acts through Jesus. The Marcan community might have recognized that they too could be healed by Jesus, even though they didn’t meet him, didn’t know him.
God works through Jesus, Jesus is the begotten Son and the risen Word. The story of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter is juxtaposed with the story of the healing of the deaf mute by touching and spit accompanied by the word—“Ephphatha”. Jesus has power that transcends place. It might be that the healing of the deaf mute could have looked like the claims of all the magicians of the time. But Jesus doesn’t claim the power for himself. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus looks up to the heavens, and implores to God, “Be Opened.” His power to heal the person in front of him comes from God, through him.
We can imagine the Marcan community coming to realize that they too could be healed through Jesus.
I take from this historical look at the periscope two big ideas for us.
We, like Mark’s community can see that God is interested in all people—not just the most faithful, not only those who go to one particular Church. We are challenged to think about who is the Syrophoenician woman for us. Who is the one who has no right to speak to us, to demand something? Who is the one who is shunned or silenced by society. Those people—the undocumented immigrant, the mentally ill, the elderly, the poor, the foster kids, the teenagers . . . These are the people who don’t get heard on the news, whose stories don’t get told. They have no right to ask for more, to complain about the things that aren’t right. They are the people who challenge our faith—God is great and we can appreciate all that God has given us, but these people have a right to more, they are not yet healed and we must cry out with them—as the Syrophoenician continued to advocate for her daughter, we must advocate for those who are still in need.