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Who, What, and Why? (Sermon September 9, 2018)

By: Jared A Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

Mark 7:24–37 (NRSV) [1]syrophoenician2-53870_186x186

The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith

(Mt 15:21–28)

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.

Jesus Cures a Deaf Man

(Mt 15:29–31)

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.”

 

Last week, we had an unforeseen incident in our family, and I was unable to share my sermon personally. I do want to thank Marc for sharing it with you all and I hope that what was needed to be heard was heard. The main point of that sermon is that at times those of us who are religious can get caught up in our dogma. We can get hung up on the things we believe to be true, and at times we can neglect the why behind those rules. Often people can develop a legalistic fervor that can become judgmental of those that believe or practice faith contrary to those of their religious order. When this occurs, we become focus on performance, doing the proper things at the proper times, instead of living an authentic life of faith.

There is nothing wrong with these rules and doctrines. Most, if not all, have very beneficial spiritual and social applications behind the various teachings. Why do we practice our faith in certain ways? If you have not thought of this, if you cannot provide and answer to that question we might be leading a life of legalism instead of faith. We can very soon become known for the practices we participate in instead of being known for our faith itself. This has been a problem with religion from the dawn of time. Each group even among the pagan religions were known for their practices. The interesting thing is that most of the things we remember are not the core theological beliefs of our faith, but the oddities of it. Quakers do not practice communion and baptism like everyone else. Quakers are quiet. Baptists immerse and do not dance or drink alcohol. Episcopalians well they are merely Catholic light, and Catholics they… That is just within the practices among Christian groups, what about other religions? What do we know about Islam, Buddhism, or Zoroastrianism? If we were to look at our knowledge of other beliefs we usually compare them to our own, how similar are they to us, then we judge them accordingly. There are some things that are essential, for instance the belief that Jesus is central to salvation but what happens if those essentials are similar? We begin to look at those other things, and often those other things are not divinely inspired laws but are human interpretations of scriptures. For each of these rules religious orders have there is an equally scripture backed rule stating the exact opposite. How is it that one group can promote temperance and another moderation both use the same scripture to prove their points?

This is the situation that Jesus was found in last week. The pharisees were questioning Jesus about a rule they promoted about washing before eating. This rule can be supported by scripture, but only if we twist it a bit to include all people under the rules of a priest. Like I said earlier, it is not always a bad thing, but it is a religious interpretation of mankind not a divine order. Jesus held them accountable for this. Saying that it is not what goes into the body that causes corruption but what comes out. The various sins against mankind and God, come from within. It is our hearts that cause us to act certain ways. That is the why behind the what.

This week we meet Jesus as he travels north, out of Israel. He goes into the ancient region of Syria, part of which we know as Lebanon, to the city of Tyre. This city has a long history and relation to Israel. At times this nation had a partnership with Israel. During the era of David and Solomon, Israel and Lebanon were trading partners. It was from this area that the great timbers for construction were purchased. But at other times this region was the enemy. The city of Tyre was founded by Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a seafaring culture that traded with civilizations all around the Mediterranean Sea. Scholars are not sure where they originated because they seem to be a culture that is similar yet distinct from the others. They are often depicted as wearing kilt type garments which would lead some to believe that they might be Gaelic in heritage, yet their tools and pottery also resemble that of the Greeks. Most likely they were a melting pot type of culture. They moved into an area established a trading post or city and integrated to the surroundings. When troubles came they fought ferociously but were also willing to live at peace.

Tyre, was part of the history of Israel for most of its existence. They were both friend and foe. They were at war and at peace. They were influenced and influential. Tyre both help Israel and contributed to their downfall. Like Israel Tyre was a desired piece of real-estate for the competing Empires. This island city was home of two harbors, making it a prominent city of trade. They were most known for purple dye, this is one of the greatest commodities that the Phoenicians dealt. But like Israel this city was once laid to waste. Alexander the Great in his conquest of Persia, filled the channel between the mainland and the island with dirt and walked across to conquer it. This was such a massive undertaking that even today, Tyre is not an island because it is still connected by this massive causeway first constructed by Alexander, although it has been expanded a great deal since. Like Israel, Tyre was conquered and reemerged to retake its former place.

Tyre, was and remains a land outside Israel. Yet Jesus traveled to this city. Jesus made a point to go out of Israel to meet with those in a city of Gentiles. I want us to think of this considering what was discussed last week. Another manmade rule that was held by the Pharisees was that you could not eat with sinners. This is contrary to the laws of Moses which tells them to treat the alien with the same hospitality as their countrymen. The reason they would not eat with the gentiles was because they did not follow that same rules and traditions as Israel. They ate unclean things, they did not follow the same customs. If they were to eat with these unclean people, the religious Pharisee might become corrupt as well. Yet Jesus made a point to visit this city, not only did he visit but he went into the home of one of its citizens.

While in that city, Jesus was met by a woman. We know her as a Syrophoenician, Gentile, or a Canaanite woman depending on which Gospel account we are reading. What this means is that she was a native of the land. She was both Syrian and Phoenician, she was a Gentile and of the tribes that inhabited the lands prior to the conquest of Israel. She was in every way outside of God’s promise as we could get. And to top it off, she was a woman. In any of the ancient cultures she did not poses the social clout to be speaking with a Jewish Rabbi. This did not stop her. Her daughter was being held in bondage and she had faith that Jesus could free her from this shadow of evil.

It is important to keep this portion of scripture in context with the conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees last week, because it will give us some understanding of Jesus’s response to her. She approaches Jesus in this house and begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus responds 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.”

This statement is very derogatory. Jesus was using the common vernacular about people outside of Israel, referring to this woman as a dog. She knew full well what Jesus was saying. He was telling her that His mission and ministry was first to his own nation. He is their messiah, he is their prophesied king, he did not come to minister to the outsiders. This does not mean that because we are not Jewish, we do not have access to Jesus. What it means is that the revelation of God comes first through the Jews. It was their nation that God chose to reveal himself to the world through. This is the only reason they are honored among the nations of the world. It is not because they are special in and of themselves, it is only that God chose them to show himself to the world. But like the manmade rules of the Pharisees, Israel often forgets their place among mankind. They are set apart not because they are greater, but they are to be the light to the nations. They are to live a life in ministry to the nations. Because of this role, they are often taken advantage of, but when they live according to the ways of God, they also become a blessing to all those nations around them because they show them what true human live should be like. They can be a blessing, but often they became a source of tension. Using terminology such as dog, is one way to cause tension.

Jesus looks at this woman and speaks to her. The fact that Jesus spoke to her even using such a terrible statement is something spectacular. And within this conversation we find a beautiful truth about life. “[F]or It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus says. And she responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She knows more about her relationship with Israel than most Pharisees knew about their relationship with the aliens among them. Yes, she had no right to demand a hearing from their rabbi, for she was not a member of their community, yet she did have a right to be near. She might be a dog, but a dog is able to sit under the table and no one is going to stop her getting the crumbs that might fall. Jesus is basically saying that the revelation of God is to be to and through the Jews. That is why he spends most of his time with them, that does not mean that the Gentiles are not welcome. They too can receive the revelation, but only when it comes through Israel.

She has faith that this God of Israel can do what He promises. She believes that this traveling preacher, is the one that was promised to the children of Israel, and her desire was to have this God heal her daughter. There is no difference between this woman and Ruth. Both were outsiders but knew that God was the God of all people. Jesus saw this seed of faith in her. She did not know the full extent of God’s grace, she did not know the rules, or the traditions. She was not a child of Israel, but she knew what she knew and believed. She was of a different culture, she practiced different things. She ate different foods, and she did not wash according the customs of the elders, because she did not know those customs. All she knew was what she had seen and heard. That single grain of faith was enough. That single grain of hope changes everything. She might not have a full vested faith, but it was enough to recognize who provided the wholeness she needed, and God responded, and her daughter was healed.

Jesus left the city of Tyre and proceeded to Decapolis. He returns to Israel, but he goes to the region of Israel that was settled by the Greeks. This again is a statement against the manmade regulations imposed on the religious community. He wants his followers to be very aware that human persons are not to be rejected because of who they are. They are not even to be rejected by their actions alone, but we should look deeper and understand why they are doing what they do and walk with them in faith. When he entered this town, the residence brought a man to him who was deaf and had an issue with his speech. It is important that Mark noted that the man had both issues present. If someone lost their hearing later in life, most people around them would not sense the disability. They would simply see that an individual withdrew from conversations and became more isolated. The fact that this man had impaired speech shows us that he was either born deaf or lost his hearing very early in life. I personally have experience in this area, since I have been hearing impaired from early childhood, and the doctors that examined my hearing were often amazed that I did not have impaired speech as well. I must give that credit to my mother who patiently taught me to speak as clearly as possible.

For most the lack of hearing is a forgotten disability. In ancient times, especially when dealing with exorcisms the ability to converse with the spirit was important. This man could not speak, he could not hear to acknowledge that Jesus was attempting to communicate with him. Yet the people were amazed by Jesus’s ability to heal even this man.

Let us look at the way Jesus provided this cure. The first thing to note is that Jesus did not do this in front of everyone, but in private. The second thing is that he placed his fingers in the man’s ears and spat and touched his tongue. My first response is gross. I say this because I have seen what is in ears, but the second part is how is Jesus touching this man’s tongue? Let us remember that Jesus is proving a point, he is showing the disciples and the religious leaders that manmade rules, though they may be beneficial, are not always the will of God. Jesus looks this man in the face he grasps the man’s head and places his fingers in the man’s ears, he spits and touches the man’s tongue, and he looks to heaven and speaks the word Ephphatha which means open. He speaks in Greek. He touches a man and converses to the Father in Greek. All people are loved by God. All people have the opportunity of grace. All people Jew, Greek, Phoenician, all people are loved by God. They may not act the way we do, they may not have the same traditions, or understanding, but that is not necessarily sinful. The what must be looked at through the why.

As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends let us consider the risky and unorthodox approach Jesus used to present the Gospel this week. If we look at it from the surface we might see something scandalous: the use of derogatory phrases, or spending time with people different than himself. But we know that Jesus did not sin. Let us look at our own lives and see if we are focused on the core of the Gospel or only on manmade religious dogma. Are we focused on the hope that Christ gives or our institution? And are we loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ in our lives at work, at home, at the doctor’s office, and in the store as well as here in this Meetinghouse.

[1] Image by:  Thierry Ona: Forgiveness

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Jared A. Warner

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