St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37
“Ephphatha!” “Be Opened!”
Last Sunday we focused on the question: How does one sing a noble song? This question was grounded in the psalmist’s confession, “My heart is stirring with a noble song” (Psalm 45.1; NRSV). We noted James’ admonition to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1.22; NRSV). As we become doers of the word, our hearts are blessed – we are stirred with a noble song. Today’s lectionary readings give us further clues to how we might come to sing a noble song.
First, in our reading from Proverbs, we are told “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold” (Psalm 22.1; NRSV). If we are to sing a noble song, we must have the right set of values. Rather than pursue great riches, we should catch God’s love and share that love with others – we should “trust in the Lord” and be “doers of the word.” Theses actions lead to a good name, a good reputation. The psalmist further advises, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but stands fast forever” (Psalm 125.1; NRSV). They are firmly rooted; they have the right set of values.
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, Mark tells us Jesus went away to the region of Tyre. As you may recall, Mark previously recounted Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, his crossing the sea of Galilee to Genneserat where the people immediately recognized him and went throughout the region bringing all who were sick to him for healing. In the middle of this activity, the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem criticize his disciples for their failure to wash their hands before eating. Jesus needed to get away. He traveled roughly 30 miles to the northwest to Tyre, located on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He entered a house not wanting anyone to know he was there, but could not escape notice. A Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, whose daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of Jesus, came, bowed at his feet and begged Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter.
Matthew tells us she initially came out and shouted, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus did not respond; the disciples urged him to send her away for she persisted in her shouting. Jesus told the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She then knelt at Jesus’ feet and begged, “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15.21-26; NRSV).
Mark says Jesus responded by saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7.27; NRSV). By “children,” Jesus meant the children of Israel. We should also note that gentiles were commonly referred to as dogs. Is this Jesus speaking? Did Jesus use such a slur? I think this story shows us a very human picture of Jesus. Sometimes ministry saps our strength and we need time away. What minister has not at some time or other answered rather curtly – the patience can wear thin. The Syrophoenician woman was not easily put off – she was desperate, and she replied: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7.28; NRSV). Picture a group of children eating at a table with a few puppies scrambling around under their feet. When the drop something, the dogs scarf it down. If you watch them closely, you will catch them giving the puppies some of their food. Jesus was struck by her answer; he replied: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7. 29; NRSV).
After leaving Tyre, Jesus traveled to the region to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee, to the Decapolis, where some people brought a deaf mute to Jesus and asked that he might lay hands on him. Jesus took him to a private place away from the crowd, “put his fingers into his ears,” then “spat and touched his tongue,” looked upward to heaven and said “’Ephphatha,’ that is ‘Be opened’” (Mark 7.34; NRSV). The account says, “And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7.35; NRSV). Jesus charged them to tell no one – fat chance of that! They were astounded and said, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak” (Mark 7.37; NRSV). Here we have an echo of the alternative Old Testament reading from Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (35.5-6a; NRSV).
Ephphatha! Be opened! How might this speak to us? It is worth noting that Jesus’ experience with the Syrophoenician woman appears to have opened him to the growing realization that his ministry was meant to encompass all – both Jew and gentile. When we are open to interacting with others who are different from ourselves, we often gain new insights. We may entertain angels unaware and receive gifts we never imagined.
Jesus would have our ears be opened that we might hear the voice of the Spirit which calls us into a deeper relationship with God; Jesus would have our tongue be loosed that we might tell others of the love and the joy that we have discovered.
Jesus would have our hands be opened that we might receive and that we might give. As Henri Nouwen has noted, our normal response to life is to have our fists clenched in a defensive posture. Through prayer, we learn to relax our fists such that our hands may be opened to the mercy and love that God would bestow upon us and that we might pass that mercy and love on to others.
As our lesson from James reveals, Jesus would have our eyes be opened such that we realize that we all stand equal before God. Some years ago, I heard the story of a seminary student who dressed in nice shoes, good slacks, dress shirt, sports coat and tie and visited several churches. He recorded how each church received him, where he was seated, how he was greeted by members of the congregation, the clergy, etc. Some weeks later he donned an old pair of sneakers, some tattered blue jeans, and a faded t-shirt and again visited those same churches. Again, he recorded how he was received. As you can imagine, James nailed it. When well-dressed he was shown favoritism; when shabbily dressed, he was for the most part ignored.
James nailed it. For this reason, he wrote, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2.8-9; NRSV). We are all beggars who hunger for God’s love and mercy. Having received God’s love and mercy with open hands, we need to realize that true love shows no partiality – everyone is to be received and treated as a child of God.
Our reading from James concludes with these words: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2.14-17; NRSV). One of the commentators, Doug Bratt, from Calvin Seminary, reminded me of one of Charles Schulz’s cartoons which I saw years ago. Snoopy is shivering outside in the bitter cold and snow. Charlie Brown and Linus come by dressed in warm hats, heavy coats and warm gloves. They spy Snoopy, and Charlie Brown says to Linus, “Snoopy looks kind of cold, doesn’t he?” Linus replies, “I’ll say he does . . . maybe we had better go over and comfort him.” In the next frame, they are standing over Snoopy looking down at him. Linus says, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.” Charlie Brown adds, “Yes, be of good cheer.” The last frame shows Charlie Brown and Linus retreating. Snoopy is still shivering while he bears a most puzzled look on his face (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18b/?type=lectionary_epistle). As we well know, that’s not the kind of works James has in mind, yet it is an all too typical response to those in need. Let our hearts be opened to God’s love and grace; and as we share that love and grace with others, may our lips sing forth a noble song!