Proper 18 Year B, Track 2, 9-6-13
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Ps. 146; [James 2:1-17], Mark 7:24-37
“Ephphátha: be Opened!” Open us, O God, to your power! Open us to our own power to speak and act, fueled by your grace! Open us to trust enough in your generous love to take risks with that power! AMEN.
In the chapter just before today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has just miraculously multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd of Five Thousand. Now, he has traveled out of Jewish territory and into Gentile territory, in the region of Tyre. He’s basically hiding out there, because in addition to already being in trouble with his own Jewish authorities, he’s a foreigner at risk in hostile Gentile territory. But, as the Gospel passage says, healer and miracle-worker that he’s already known to be, “he couldn’t escape notice,” and a woman shows up whose daughter is afflicted, seeking healing, as any mother would. The only trouble is, this mother happens to be a Greek Gentile, as Mark is firm in pointing out. So a Jew like Jesus shouldn’t let her associate with him. Let alone she’s a woman, and no woman in her culture should speak to a strange man in public, nor the man to her. But speak she does, bold enough – and desperate enough on her daughter’s behalf – to ask Jesus to “cast the demon out of her daughter.”
Jesus’ answer to this boundary-crossing woman is more “culturally appropriate,” even if doesn’t sound like the compassionate Jesus we know and love. To be honest, he sounds more like a page out of the anti-immigrant playbook in the current presidential campaign: “Let the children – the children of Israel, he means – be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is the kind of dismissive answer that would silence just about anyone other than Jorge Ramos of Univision! “Dogs,” after all, are reviled, dirty creatures: an insult of the first order! But it doesn’t silence this Syrophoenician mother. She comes right back at Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!”
It is hard for us, in the 21st century, to imagine the full force of the dynamics in this brief interchange between Jesus and the Gentile woman. First there’s the layer of Gentile vs. Jewish, a highly fraught matter of national enmities and rivalries, in which the upstart Jews are viewed by the Gentiles as having long since “stolen” territory rightfully theirs. Then there’s the gender dynamic. Women – Gentile OR Jewish – are to be silent. Men are the speakers. Women are to be dependent upon men for their welfare and for their voice. This is not just a matter of practicalities. It’s a matter for fundamental value: a man’s honor is everything to the man’s identity and his whole family’s identity. For a woman to argue with a man in public – let alone to WIN the argument – is to threaten his honor. It is to show him at a disadvantage, in weakness. It is to SHAME him.
The Syrophoenician woman didn’t just speak up against Jesus’ dismissal. She turned his own argument on him and BESTED HIM. In front of his disciples and everyone in the gathered crowd, she SHAMED HIM.
And how did he respond? Did he lash back and throw her out into the hallway? Did he curl up in a defensive ball? Did he whine about how they shouldn’t have let her in in the first place? No. Ephphatha. He was opened. His eyes, his mind, his heart were opened in that moment. And his tongue loosened in compassion. Just as he had multiplied the loaves for the hungry five thousand (and will multiply them again for another hungry four thousand in Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel), he realized that there were crumbs enough to go around for all. And he said, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
In these paired Gospel stories of Mark’s, the deaf-mute man is opened. The Syrophoenician woman is opened. Her daughter is opened. Jesus is opened. Can we dare to be opened, ourselves? We who are bound by our fear of scarcity, can we open our tight-fisted grip and share? Alternatively, we who are diminished and even traumatized by society, dismissed as having no voice, can we dare to be opened and speak boldly, to claim our rightful share of the world’s good?
This week, refugees from war and economic hardship flooded across the Mediterranean seeking asylum and opportunity only to be imprisoned in Hungary if not drowned in the sea and Europe’s government continued to dither helplessly about who should take responsibility and exhibit generosity. Our presidential debate continued to revolve around so-called “illegals.” And, after the shooting of an officer in Texas, the debate on the “Black Lives Matter” movement sharpened a new edge of defensiveness among those who would describe the police as the ones threatened, not the African-Americans. As I read and reread this Gospel story in this environment, it began to seem as if the whole world is closed like a fist around our fear of scarcity and fissured by divisions between those who have voice and those who have none.
Then I read and reread joyous Psalm 146, and the first reading, filled with Isaiah’s lyrical encouragement, and I let the rejoicing sink in, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, opening eyes, unstopping ears, inspiring the lame to leap and the speechless not just to speak but to sing for joy!”
And I thought of how the Syrophoenician mother had the courage to take these promises of Isaiah’s and the Psalm’s seriously, and step right over the social boundaries and ask for what she needed, and not take “no” for an answer. It’s as if she’d just read TED talker and scholar/writer Brené Brown’s latest book, exhorting us to “Dare Greatly!”
Brown would say Jesus’ resistance to the woman’s request comes from the fear of scarcity, fear that the crumbs won’t stretch far enough. She quotes global activist Lynne Twist, who writes, “For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ The next one is, ‘I don’t have enough time.’ Whether true or not, that thought of ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of… Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life…” [pp. 25-26, Dare Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent & Lead]
But interestingly, Brené Brown says that “the counterapproach to living in scarcity is not about abundance. In fact,” she says, “I think abundance and scarcity are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of ‘never enough’ isn’t abundance or ‘more than you could ever imagine.’ [God knows, if abundance were the cure, this society would be awash in open-handed generosity!] The opposite of scarcity is enough, or,” she says, “what I call Wholeheartedness… there are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is [both] vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing [in the face of all that, that nevertheless] I am enough.” [Ibid., p. 29, underlining and edits mine]
The Syrophoenician woman’s “Wholeheartedness” opened her mouth and gave her voice to speak up boldly to the Jewish healer. And the Jewish healer, Jesus, received her boldness with “Wholeheartedness” enough – vulnerability and worthiness enough – to open his own heart, even though those around him would view him as having been shamed.
For me, as a White person in this moment of awareness in the Black Lives Matter Movement, “Wholeheartedness” means being able to receive the anger and frustration of my Black friends and colleagues without personalizing their rage to mean that I personally am shamed and devalued. “Wholeheartedness” means I can be open – ephphatha – to that frustration and take it into my spirit without being diminished or disabled by it, but instead can allow myself to be persuaded by it to take action to push back against the huge tectonic plates of racism that grind people of color into generational economic and educational and emotional disadvantage. I can take action by speaking up about the truth of that racism in a voice other White people can hear because – like it or not – it’s a White voice.
What would “Wholeheartedness” call YOU to hear, see, or do that you haven’t the courage to hear, see or do when fear of scarcity rules the day? Or when your own diminishment has deprived you of a voice? Ephphatha! Leap like a deer! Rejoice and SING! AMEN.