James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
This morning, when you got ready for church, did you…
…have more than one pair of shoes to choose from?
…have more than one kind of food available for breakfast?
…have another way to get here besides walking?
Congratulations! You’re rich! At least, richer than 95% of the population of the world.
We hear the first lesson this morning from Proverbs, contrasting the value of right behavior against merely having and acquiring wealth for its own sake, that “a good name” is better than riches; a good reputation has greater value than silver and gold in abundance. That rich people and poor people alike are God’s creatures, and one group has no superiority over the other merely by virtue of having more of the world’s goods. That in sharing what we have, who are rich in so many ways, we honor God, who is present in those who are in need.
The letter to James goes even further with this: the famous one-two punch of the letter is the conclusion of today’s portion: Faith, without works, is dead.
How can faith be seen, the writer asks, if it does not show itself in some outward and visible way? If favoritism and class status hold sway in your assemblies, O church, and those whom Christ loves especially (the little ones, the poor ones, the marginalized ones) are further pushed aside and ignored, how can you call yourselves followers of Christ?
The author is essentially accusing the readers of functional atheism—that is, they say that they are following the ways of God, but give no evidence of anything of the kind. They say “We believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth” but apparently have forgotten the words of the writer of Proverbs: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” All means all; nobody gets special status over and against the others.
And this is a lesson we have trouble with, we inhabitants of planet earth. We love to draw circles and lines and build walls and borders and say “We’re here; you stay over there. You’re not us; we are not you.” We rejoice in our supposed specialness and look askance at “them people,” however defined. We forget the Great Commandment, or what the author of James calls “the royal law…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And so God continues to push us out of our self-crafted envelopes and safety zones, out into the big scary places where borders and lines and circles break down and dissolve into meaninglessness. Out to the margins where things are fuzzy and hazy, where God can sneak into our lives, and open us up in ways we don’t expect.
Jesus is on the margin this morning, in the region of Tyre, way up north away from Galilee. He’s in gentile territory for sure—surrounded by “them people”—because things were getting a bit too hot to handle back home. After beginning a significant ministry, which included the feeding of five thousand people with twelve big baskets of bread and fish left over afterward, Jesus has attracted the attention of the religious leadership, who do not like what he’s up to. Who are suspicious that he is already pushing the envelope too far, and who come all the way from Jerusalem to see what this itinerant rabbi is doing. His cousin John the Baptizer has been put to death by Herod the not-so-Great, and Jesus and the disciples have removed themselves into foreign parts for a while.
“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. But a woman, whose little girl had an unclean spirit, immediately heard about him.” I wonder what she heard? That he was able to heal those who were sick; that he had fed five thousand people with miraculous bread and fish? That he was on the run from his own people in Galilee and Jerusalem?
In any case she comes to him, in faith and desperation equally mixed. You know what that feels like when you are in a situation—both believing that God can do something for the person you love, and desperately unsure even what to ask for.
She is a woman (Strike one); a non-Jew (strike two); and a citizen of a community with which ancient Israel had a thorny relationship at best (strike three.) And Jesus himself has not discovered just how God is pushing him out of the comfort zone.
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The children of Israel, as far as Jesus was concerned, were the proper objects of his ministry, and no one else. He was not sent to minister to “them people” outside the covenant community. And let me be clear: For a male, a rabbi, an observant Jew, to call a gentile woman “DOG” is not a compliment. Period.
The woman will not be dissuaded—in fact, she gives back as good as she gets. “True, sir (the word could also be translated “Lord”), yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s leftovers.” It’s a bit of a slap—she knows somehow that the mission in Galilee has not been completely well-received, that there are indeed plenty of “leftovers” that the “Children” have refused or ignored or turned up their noses at. She calls Jesus out!
And he is able to hear that—and respond to it, in a way that I think even surprised him. He turns around—commits an act of repentence. Metanoia. “For that, go—you have what you asked.” And she went, and found the child safe and sound.
Jesus goes back to Galilee, back into familiar territory, back to those with whom he feels far more at home. And there he encounters a man who is both deaf and unable to speak clearly. He heals this man of both his deafness and his speech impediment, and he uses a wonderful, strange word: Ephphatha. Say it with me. Ephphatha. It means “be opened.” It’s one of the words that we think Jesus truly used, because it’s Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. Ephphatha—be opened. And the man’s ears were opened, to hear Jesus speaking to him; the man’s mouth was opened, to share the words he heard Jesus saying, and to tell what Jesus had done for him. And then he wouldn’t shut up!
Ephphatha—be opened. Opened to the voice of God speaking; open to speaking the words of God to those nearby. Both the deaf man and Jesus himself underwent an experince of being opened, to discover something new and startling and life-changing in this morning’s gospel. Neither the deaf man, nor Jesus himself, could ever experience the world in quite the same way again.
Pray with me:
Give us, O God, the gift of ephphatha—open our ears, and eyes, and hearts, to see and hear and speak and tell of your love and mercy and grace in our lives, to those nearby, in this world, this day. Help us to know and love our neighbors as ourselves, as you have known and loved us from the beginning, in Jesus Christ our Lord.