Weekly Seeds: Be Opened

Sunday, September 5, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Be Opened

Focus Prayer:
Holy One, maker of us all, you call us to love our neighbors as ourselves and teach us that faith without works is dead. Open us to the opportunities for ministry that lie before us, where faith and works and the need of our neighbor come together in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Mark 7:24–37
24 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, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 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. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23 and Psalm 125
Isaiah 35:4–7a and Psalm 146
James 2:1–10 (11–13) 14–17
Mark 7:24–37

Focus Questions:

  1. What does it mean to be human?
  2. How is our humanity demeaned or affirmed?
  3. How do you respond to confrontation?
  4. What makes you more or less open to engaging in confrontation?
  5. What experiences of healthy confrontation can you share?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Jesus wanted a moment of privacy, but instead, he’s confronted with human need. He didn’t know her and neither do we. Her name and that of her daughter is omitted from the recounting of events. Her full story remains untold, but we do know her status as an outsider who somehow–and immediately–heard about Jesus.

In Mark’s version of the good news, he emphasizes that what happens–whatever it might be–occurred immediately. He uses that particular word a lot, even excessively. It must be intentional. The work of Christ wasn’t incremental and gently unfolding; it was urgent, impactful, and instant. There’s no urging for patience or settling for a lesser version of healing, restoration, or repair. Mark wants us to know that when Jesus acted or reacted, there was no delay. Jesus may have wanted to rest and retreat on a regular basis, but he did not choose to avoid confrontation.

Human beings often struggle with confrontation. Our response may include delay, denial, and retreat. We may try to minimize disagreements or even question the veracity of the claims made by another party in order to avoid confrontation with another person or group. The fear of confrontation stems from the potential outcome and the costs associated with it, such as the minimizing of gender inequities that will result in diminished opportunities for those who have benefited from their maleness in the workplace. Loss of privilege is a consequence of justice.

At the same time, others attempt to bypass conflict because of their discomfort with the process or journey of facing difficult conversations and truths. During the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer that were prompted by the killing of George Floyd, I was always taken aback by how many people expressed ignorance of the history, impact, and present reality of racism in America. It’s not quite credible, frankly, when all the instances that sparked outrage fit the pattern of race relations. There is a long list of names and countless unnamed black people who have been killed by police without due process or consequence. The standstill imposed by the coronavirus made confronting this truth more difficult.

I wonder if the continued refusal by some (without any medical justification) to avail themselves of the vaccines is another manifestation of avoiding confrontation. This time, it may be their responsibility or their own mortality. It’s hard to fathom how we have so many people continuing to succumb to a virus while we have multiple antidotes available. It reminds me of the question Jesus asked the person by the pool, “Do you want to be made well?”

The Syrophoenician woman had no such hesitancy in pursuing healing for her daughter. This leads to a confrontation with Jesus that includes some of the most difficult words to hear him utter. “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.’” I cringe every time I read this passage. It doesn’t seem like Jesus. As Kara J. Lyons-Pardue notes, “Readers may experience heightened discomfort in light of recent social and popular medias’ focus on latent racial tensions and women’s stories of victimization by powerful men.” Jesus, who declared his liberating intentions in the temple, who defended the woman accused of adultery as if it were a solitary capital offense without hope of mercy, and who recognized those so often placed in the shadows of society, seems to be acting out of character. It does not make sense that Jesus would speak this harshly to a person in need.

Maybe Jesus was having a bad day. Lyon-Pardue continues:

It is this disappointment of Jesus’s wishes and expectations [to be alone] that provides, from the outset in Mark’s account, the implicit rationale for Jesus’s reluctant tone with the woman. The narrator never makes this connection, surely, but the reader is given enough initial information to draw connections between the backfiring of Jesus’s plans and his antagonistic responses in the first half of this pericope.

Maybe we’re reading this passage without full appreciation for the tone of the conversation:

The narrator may be depicting Jesus as being playful with her by referring to Gentiles not as dogs but as little dogs. In the Greek language, the diminutive often carries with it a note of endearment. Some translations attempt to capture this nuance of endearment by rendering the diminutive as “pup.” Such a diminutive might have played down the unpleasant and unclean dimensions of this insult by referring to Gentiles as young dogs. Her response shows that she has not only understood the riddle but that she is also clever enough to play upon that small element of compassion suggested by this note of endearment. (David M. Rhoads)

Maybe Jesus is testing the woman’s faith and inviting her to overcome his objection. Or, maybe Jesus is speaking allegorically, using a parable, or uttering a proverb. Whatever the tone or exact meaning of the terms, it is clear that Jesus’ response to the woman’s plea is a rejection–of her, her daughter, or of the timing.

The woman demonstrates that she is open to confrontation. Undaunted by his rejection, she counters his objection and does so in such a way that she addresses any of the possible motivates for Jesus’ attitude toward her request:

In her response, the Syrophoenician woman extends Jesus’ riddle. She does not oppose what Jesus has said. Rather, she develops the scenario of Jesus’ allegory so that she and her daughter have a place in it. The scene now focuses not on scavenger dogs but on puppies, which (though no less scavengers) were permitted, apparently because of their dearness, to be near the children and to eat whatever crumbs inadvertently fell from the sloppy eating of the small children. Thus, the woman accepts Jesus’ (diminutive) reference to Gentiles as “little dogs.” In addition, she uses a different Greek word to refer to the children. This different Greek word is a diminutive that refers to “little children” and connotes fondness, here rendered as “the little ones.” Thus, in her response, the Syrophoenician woman not only stays within the Jewish perspective of Jesus’ riddle, she even refers to the Jewish children of God with a term of endearment. (David M. Rhoads)

She appears to change his mind having compellingly argued her case. Immediately, Jesus affirms her words and heals her daughter. The turnaround is swift and stunning and belies a person wanting to be convinced. Perhaps, this confrontation really was just a test. As Matthew R. Malcolm observes, “It ought to be noted that Mark’s Jesus is not above testing the faith of his would-be followers by presenting an apparent obstacle that the suppliant must overcome. In fact, this seems to be characteristic of his disciple-making.”

The woman has already demonstrated a measure of faith in coming to Jesus for deliverance. The faith of desperation comes from a parent deeply concerned for the well-being of her child. Ultimately, Jesus heals her daughter after only a brief, if fairly combative, exchange. But, as already noted, that exchange deconstructs and disputes prevailing cultural notions of belonging and worth. In particular, Mark’s account highlights Jesus confronting cultural norms of honor and shame.

Those words Jesus utters make me cringe because they are dehumanizing. Her response, which Jesus honors, asserts her worth. She comes to Jesus looking for a miracle for her child. She leaves having received that and more–affirmation of her identity and the assertion of her worth. When read against the second part of this passage, what Jesus is doing becomes more pronounced. Just as in the first part, our translations fail to convey the full meaning of the words communicated.

Marcel Broesterhuizen describes the condition of being deaf and mute in cultural context. A person who lacked use of these senses was also believed to be deficient in “more and cognitive insight.” They were not able, in this view, “to effect an agreement with mutual consent” or “internalize teaching” or conform to community standards of behavior. “That was their disability, not the presence of deafness as such.” Recovery for someone in this condition reflects more than healing from a physical impairment. It connotes restoration to communal acceptance and participation.

In both these encounters, or confrontations, Jesus establishes an expansive perspective on God’s community. The man’s deafness was known publicly; his healing happens privately (as does the actual physical healing of the daughter.) The physical reality is important and Jesus attends to it, but that’s not the public demonstration. We have seen public displays of power energizing crowds and astounding critics, but these are private confrontations made with individual people who stand in for their communities as they are affirmed, humanized, and restored.

Certainly, Jesus could make a declaration that all are welcome at the table he sets or that physical disability is not an indication of a person’s worth and honor in God’s estimation. But, show can be so much more effective and compelling than tell. Those who routinely get dismissed can recognize themselves in the Syrophoenician woman and her encounter with the Redeemer who acknowledges her and engages with her fully.

Jesus says, “Be opened” when he restores the deaf man. He does it in private, but the man and those who advocated for his healing cannot keep the miracle to themselves. Yes, this spreads the good news, but it also announces the kindom–the reign of God and the inclusive composition of it. The Psalmist declares, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” (Psalm 125:1) This week’s reading from James cautions against showing partiality and making distinctions among God’s children. We are invited to consider our cultural notions of inclusion in the kindom of God and our participation in it.

Who are our kin and how do we participate in God’s redemptive love enfleshed in creation?
Be opened.

For further reflection:
“The apostles remembered what many modern Christians tend to forget—that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in.” ― Rachel Held Evans
“i found god in myself & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely” ― Ntozake Shange
“We all begin as a bundle of bones lost somewhere in a desert, a dismantled skeleton that lies under the sand. It is our work to recover the parts.” ― Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.