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 in 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.”
Brandy had high expectations for Staunton, Virginia. When she moved here with her adult son Verney, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, she knew that one of the best ways she could get connected with the community was finding a church home so she went looking. Each Sunday she would get herself ready with just the right outfit, she would put Verney in his wheel chair, and they would worship with a different church. The days between Sundays were spent in prayer about whether or not it was the right fit.
At some point she felt that she had found her church home and she approached the pastor about whether she could join. The conversation was great, she immediately felt loved and welcomed, she learned about Sunday school options, and different opportunities to serve in the church. But before the meeting was over she asked another quick question. “When do you think you could baptize my son Verney, and when will he be able to start taking communion?” The pastor stared back at her with a puzzled look on his face. “Ma’am,” he began, “I will not baptize your son, nor will I offer him communion. He can’t understand what they mean. And honestly, there would be no point.”
Jesus entered the house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, word about him had spread so quickly that he could not escape notice. A woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit, heard that Jesus had entered the town and she went to bow at his feet.
Up to this point Jesus, as a Jew, had been ministering to the Jews. He had read to them from the Torah, he had proclaimed God’s reign like one of the prophets from old, and he lived according to the law. This woman who came to beg at Jesus’ feet was not Jewish, she was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.
The woman was prostrate on the floor begging the Lord to cast out the demon from her daughter. And Jesus said, “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.”
Imagine a homeless person banging on your door to ask for a favor, or a mother with a handicapped son asking for her son to be given communion, and you can get a sense of what was taking place in front of Jesus.
The unnamed Syrophoenician woman was driven by something more than proper etiquette and expectation; she was so desperately afraid for her daughter’s life that she was willing to beg at the feet of Jesus, a man from a completely different culture and way of life. Yet, Jesus’ response to the woman is one that many of us would rather overlook. We don’t hear Jesus immediately proclaim the grand scope of God’s kingdom; Jesus doesn’t reach out with his hands for a blessing. Instead he calls the woman a dog, and tells her that his mission is for the Jews alone.
The Syrophoenician woman, with no worth or status, does not go quietly into the night. She holds her ground and pushes the point back to Jesus and says: “even dogs eat the crumbs from the table.” When I read this story I imagine a sly smile stretching across Jesus’ face, a smile of recognition that this woman understands the way God’s upside-down kingdom is supposed to work, she believes in God’s goodness, she yearns for the kind of love than goes beyond all borders of culture and race.
So in response to her declaration, Jesus blesses her daughter, and rids her of the demon.
But the story is not over yet.
Jesus continues on his way, and people brought him a deaf man with a speech impediment. The deaf man was brought into a private place away from the crowds and Jesus used the power within him to open the man’s ears and release his tongue. In response Jesus ordered the people to tell no one what he had done, but the more he ordered the more zealously they proclaimed it.
This was radical.
During the first century, the time of Jesus, people who were blind, people who were deaf, and even women had little or no status at all. They were consistently removed from populated areas of life and were largely ignored. In those days people were afraid of anything that was different than the status quo; Jesus embraced it.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man are intricately linked because they demonstrate Jesus’ willingness to upset the expectations of the world and welcome all into God’s love.
After Brandy’s meeting with the pastor, the meeting where he told her there was no point for him to baptize or share communion with her son, she abandoned the church. When I met her for the first time and she told me her story, she couldn’t remember what eventually brought her to St. John’s, but when she got here she was afraid. She was afraid that this church would be like the first. She was afraid that this church would see her son as worthless, invisible, and unworthy of their time.
There is something about our own sinful nature, perhaps our deep insecurity, which pushes us to institute rules that give certain people an elevated status while denigrating others. These divisions can take place over differences in physicality, economics, race, gender, sexual identity, and an assortment of other identifiers. Even today in our modern contemporary world, there is a sense that we are supposed to avoid people who are unlike us, that we are entitled to brush past the people in need in our community and in the global community, and that we have no need to embrace the things that separate us.
Jesus’ actions in the two stories from Mark 7 are worth our careful consideration and emulation. Jesus shows how a worthless unnamed gentile woman and an ignorable deaf man are actually vital and worthy people in the kingdom of God. This story forces us to reopen our eyes and ears to the fact that there are no barriers between God and humankind. Nothing can ever separate us to from God’s love in Jesus Christ, not race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or physical condition. And if there are no barriers between God and God’s people, then there should be no divisions between us.
Brandy was afraid of how this church would respond, but this church knows the stories of Jesus. All those years ago this church community welcomed Brandy and Verney with open arms, he was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and was always reminded that he had a place at God’s table. This church knows that the best kind of faith is crumbly faith; you only need a little taste for the world to change.
When God came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ the world was turned upside down. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus time and again demonstrated that all people are worthy of God’s love. His work and words testified to the fact that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love. Jesus did everything he could to embody how the Lord is good to all, God’s compassion is over all creation. Jesus even went so far as to carry a cross on his back, hike under the ridicule of the world, and die to defeat death.
We remember and experience how far God was willing to go for our sakes in the bread and in the cup of Communion. When we are invited to this table to feast on the crumbly bread of Jesus’ body and partake in his blood we are like the Syrophoenician woman, we are like the deaf man, and we are like Brandy and Verney. We all come with our shortcomings and brokenness, we all share disappointments and failures, but when we stand before the throne we are all made new in God’s love.
I don’t know what you might be going through in your life right now. Many of us are remarkably reluctant, if not downright afraid, to share where we feel broken in our lives. We don’t want to admit our shortcomings or fears.
But remember the people from God’s word, remember the strong and resilient faith of the Syrophoenician woman who gave voice to God’s power in the world. Remember the deaf man whose life was forever changed as he was welcomed back into the heart of the community. Remember Brandy and Verney who were given hope in the midst of fear. And remember that you are always welcome at Jesus’ table, where the crumbs of eternal life are waiting. Amen