On this the Second Sunday of the Season of Creation, we celebrate Humanity. In Mark 7: 24-37, the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Mark reveals that Jesus ain’t no super-hero! Jesus is a flesh and blood, down to earth, fallible, short-tempered, and sometimes narrow-minded human being, very much like the rest of us.
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The anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Mark, provides us with the shortest of the four gospels — just 16 brief chapters. But don’t let that fool you. The writer of this account of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth packs more action into his short gospel than any of the racy novels, spy thrillers, mystery novels or tell all biographies that you can find today on Amazon. Today’s reading occurs barely half way through our anonymous storyteller’s account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and already Jesus has: been baptized in the river Jordan and been tempted in the wilderness by the evilest of villains, Satan himself. Jesus has gathered together a motley crew of disciples, and he has cast out demons, cured lepers, healed the sick, the lame, and the blind. Jesus has preached to the multitudes, appointed apostles, and he has even been restrained from preaching by his own family because they feared that Jesus had gone out of his mind. Jesus has turned away his own mother and brothers in favor of teaching the crowds of people who gather to hear what this itinerate preacher has to say. Jesus has taught the crowds in parables, calmed the stormy sea and if that wasn’t enough he brought a dead girl back to life only to be rejected and scorned in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus has had to face the death and decapitation of his cousin and fellow evangelist John the Baptist. He has somehow managed to feed five thousand people with just five loaves and two measly fish. To top it all off, Jesus, this walking, talking, healing, miracle working, super-hero has managed to walk on water.
In just six brief chapters, the anonymous gospel storyteller we call Mark has painted the picture of a mythical super-hero. A man of the people who is capable of amazing feats of daring do. Not even Superman, Superwoman, Spider Man, Wonder-woman, Bat Man, Cat-woman, James Bond or Lara Croft could match the heroic deeds of the anonymous storyteller’s amazing Jesus. Our storyteller’s Jesus is a super hero’s, super hero.
In many ways this picture of Jesus keeps our mind’s eye far away from understanding just who this itinerant preacher, who somehow managed to change the world, really was. According to our anonymous storyteller, Jesus really is some kind super-natural, super-human being. Jesus is a hero beyond all other heroes, whose abilities are beyond the bounds of the natural order of things. A hero who stands head and shoulders above all the rest. A super-hero whose abilities, sensibilities, wisdom, knowledge and kindness are beyond those of us who are but mere mortals. And if this was all there was to our storyteller’s Jesus, then there really wouldn’t be much of a story here. You see as long as we see Jesus as SUPER – super hero, super natural or super human, then following Jesus is no more demanding than following your favorite super hero in a comic strip. The exploits of these heroes may be interesting, intriguing and maybe even enlightening, but each and every one of us knows that we can’t do what they do. We may be able to follow their exploits and applaud their heroism, but we cannot be like them, any more than we can do what they do. They are after all super heroes; heroes whose abilities are beyond the average mortal. Indeed, I am sure that many of us follow Jesus in much the same way as we follow the exploits of the other heroes we have set for ourselves. We admire Jesus, we trust Jesus, we may even wish we could be more like Jesus, and we are even willing to listen to some of the things that Jesus said. But when it comes to following Jesus, we often let ourselves off the hook, because after all look at what happened to Jesus. They nailed him in the end and if it weren’t for intervention from God on high, Jesus would never have escaped the clutches of death.
Fortunately for us, there is more to our anonymous storyteller’s gospel, than there is to the story of the average comic-strip super hero. You see unlike the average super hero, Jesus is all too human. In today’s story, Jesus is a flesh and blood, down to earth, fallible, short-tempered, and sometimes narrow-minded human being, very much like the rest of us. In this story Jesus’ humanity is revealed.
Jesus has just finished teaching and feeding a huge crowd of five thousand people. After dismissing the crowd, he and a few of his followers climb aboard a small boat and head off to the other side of the sea. Jesus goes ashore alone and retreats to a mountaintop to pray. A storm picks up and Jesus walks across the water, and calms both his followers’ fears and the wind itself. When they get ashore, Jesus is quickly recognized by the waiting multitudes.
Crowds of people seek out his healing touch and he cures many of them. While taking a break, Jesus engages in a theological debate with the religious authorities, who cannot understand why this rag tag bunch of Jesus freaks are making such headway with the people. No matter where he goes, Jesus can’t escape the crowds of needy people, who seek his help or the religious authorities whose constant questioning is designed trap him.
So, Jesus goes to a place where he should have been safe from the prying eyes of those who wanted something from him. He leaves the land of Israel and goes away to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land inhabited by gentiles. Surely, gentiles would leave this Jewish rabbi alone.
According to the story: “Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” No doubt weary and in need of rest, Jesus seeks a little break from saving the world around him. But even in a foreign land, Jesus cannot escape notice. Jesus’ fame has spread far and wide in an age when only word of mouth can fan the flames of notoriety. It seems as though even the gentiles have heard about Jesus’ miraculous powers.
We are told that a gentile woman entered the house where Jesus was hiding out. This woman must have been desperate because: her daughter’s affliction drives her to ignore all of the rules of propriety. She goes alone into someone else’s house and approaches a guest. Even if we forget that she is a woman and ignore that according to the rules of the time women were not permitted to speak directly to a Jewish man, we must remember that she was also a Syrophoenician. The animosity between the Syrophoenicians and the Jews would hardly have allowed for polite conversation. It is difficult for us to understand the feelings of revulsion that Jews had towards gentiles. Jews only spoke to gentiles when it couldn’t be avoided. And when a Jew had contact with a gentile, that Jew became unclean and wasn’t permitted to take part in any social gatherings, especially worship. It would have been considered an outrage for any gentile woman to approach any Jewish man, let alone a Jewish rabbi. But the woman’s desperation and concern for her daughter’s plight pushes her forward into someone else’s home, where she does the unthinkable. She bows before Jesus and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter.
Now, this is hardly Jesus’ shinning hour! Up until this point in the story, Jesus has performed all sorts of super human deeds. but, Jesus is tired, and he responds in the most human of ways.
Jesus responds to the woman’s pleas, not with kindness or sympathy, but in the same way that you or I might respond. Jesus snaps back at the woman with an insult. Jesus lashes out with a well know racial slur of his day. Jesus insists that the children must be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Our English translation misses the rudeness of Jesus insult. In the original Greek the insult is clear. Jesus calls the woman a dog; a female dog. It seems that calling an insistent woman a female dog goes all the way back to Jesus’ day. Why is it that even now strong, bold, persistent women are so often dismissed as female dogs? To be kind, we could simply say that Jesus is clearly having a bad day!
So, this gentile woman, this bitch who has dared to approach Jesus, to plead for his help is offered nothing more than an insult and Jesus declares that his time and energy must first and foremost go to his own people and not to the dogs, not to the bitches. But despite Jesus’ words and attitude, the woman refuses to be silenced by his insult, this woman persists, this woman defies social norms and she engages Jesus in debate.
This unnamed woman’s passionate persistence is a force to be reckoned with. She reminds me of so many women that I have known over the years. Women who, in the moment of despair, hopelessness, and rejection found the courage, the personal resilience, the indomitable faith—something way down, beyond themselves—to stand in the midst of their adversity. To let their voices be heard. Women who refused to keep silent even though all of society said they should. Women who dared to go against the grain and dared to be open to something new and different. Instead of withdrawing and fading into the background, this woman for the sake of her daughter refuses to be daunted by Jesus’ insult. She turns Jesus racist slur upside down and insists that, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,”
Suddenly, Jesus, as tired as he is, must re-think his position. Jesus must struggle with this woman’s words. The way our anonymous storyteller tells this story, it seems that Jesus realizes for the first time that his mission wasn’t only to the Jewish people, and that in addition to the multitudes who await him in his homeland, Jesus must also meet the needs of foreigners whose habits and customs appear offensive. Jesus has to begin to think the unthinkable. Through his encounter with this persistent woman, Jesus has to begin to question his own attitudes towards those of other races. Then Jesus has to make a decision which requires great courage, because he knows that if he associates with gentiles he will be despised by the religious authorities and run the risk of being judged as unclean.
In this ever so brief little story the anonymous gospel storyteller, we call Mark gives us a glimpse of Jesus the Human One. Let me remind you that in Greek the title that is translated into English as the “Son of Man” is actually “ton anthropos”, which means the human one. Man in greek is “aner” …the term “anthropos”, means humanity. But for some reason even Biblical literalists refuse to translate this phrase literally. But our anonymous storyteller is very specific, in his portrait of Jesus the Human One’s reaction to his encounter with the Syrophonecian woman. Gone is the super hero. Gone is the brilliant debater who can overwhelm his opponents in any verbal joust. Gone is the energetic miracle working, wise, kind, gentle, soft spoken, super hero none of us could ever measure up to. Here in this story, Jesus is a weary rabbi, who finds himself accosted by one more needy person. A person, who according to all the rules he shouldn’t have had to deal with. A person who manages to take Jesus’ insult and turn it around on him. A person who somehow knows that her daughter’s need of him is far greater than his claim that he is not responsible.
Suddenly, our superhero is all too human. So human that he responds to the needs of another with anger resentment and even an insult. So human that for the only time in the scriptures Jesus loses an argument. So human that Jesus realizes that he must actually change his mind. So human that Jesus must be willing to grow. So human that Jesus must realize that no matter how much he would rather not be the one called upon to help –no matter how many good reasons there were to ignore the pleas of the needy, Jesus comes to realize that he must broaden his horizon. So human that Jesus is able to accept the Syrophoenician woman’s challenge and open himself to her teaching and do the unthinkable. So, this all too human Jesus responds, to this woman’s pleas for help, and Jesus tells her that the demon has left her daughter.
I don’t have enough time to go into the ancient understanding of demons or their perceived relationship to illness. What’s important here is not whether or not Jesus preformed a miracle. This story is not about a miracle. This story is about the nature of Jesus the Human One. This all too human Jesus has walked a mile in your shoes, in my shoes, in all our shoes. This Jesus knows what it means to struggle to understand what he must do. This Jesus knows what it means to grow weary, to seek refuge from the constant demands of life. This Jesus knows what it means to have to expand his thinking, to include everyone, even those that his own people despise.
I find it so much easier to identify with this human Jesus than with Jesus the superhero. But there is a danger in identifying with this Jesus. You see Jesus the superhero is really very safe
whereas this all too human Jesus is incredibly dangerous. After all none of us can be expected to follow Jesus the superhero to work miracles. So, we can safely admire Jesus the miracle worker without ever expecting that we are called to walk in his shoes. But Jesus the Human One, the One who walks around in the flesh just like us. The One who knows our pain, our struggles, our desires, our needs and our ways; this One is so much more demanding, so much more dangerous. This One calls us to search ourselves so that we can open our own hearts and minds. This One calls us to think the unthinkable.
Thinking the unthinkable is difficult, because it always feels as though the unthinkable is directly opposed to everyone’s expectations. Those who dare to think the unthinkable nearly always find themselves, just as Jesus did, rejected by the establishment, especially in the early days when the unthinkable is very new and very strange. It was once unthinkable to say that the earth is round, and so the church persecuted anyone who suggested that the earth was not flat. It was once unthinkable that humans could fly. It was once unthinkable that women should have not only have a voice but also a vote. It was once unthinkable that children should ever speak unless they were first spoken to. It was once unthinkable that a country could or should survive without capital punishment. It was once unthinkable that women could be priests. It was once unthinkable that men could or even should offer tender and loving care to their children. It was once unthinkable that men should be nurses or women should be doctors. It was once unthinkable that divorcees could remarry in the church. It was once unthinkable that a lesbian could serve as your pastor.
There are many things that remain unthinkable today. For many people, it is unthinkable that we should have to concern ourselves with the needs of those people who haven’t had the good sense to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves. For others, it is unthinkable to suggest that we should make restitution to those whose land and culture our ancestors stole. There are others who think that it is unthinkable that we should be called upon to make sacrifices so that people whose only crime was being born in poverty can be fed, clothed, housed, and live with dignity. Some people believe that it is unthinkable to vote for someone who promises to raise taxes so that the poor can be fed and housed, hospitals can tend the sick, and schools can educate children. And this week as the anniversary of September 11th approaches, so many of us believe that it is unthinkable to expect terrorists to respond to justice and mercy rather than to force.
Jesus thought the unthinkable. Jesus healed the gentile woman’s daughter and he went on his way. And it didn’t take long before Jesus was confronted by yet another person’s needs. Still deep in the heart of gentile territory, the crowds bring before Jesus a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment and they beg Jesus to lay hands on him. We need not get hung up on whether or not our anonymous storyteller, is writing about a man who is physically deaf or whether or not his deafness symbolizes all those who, like us, fail to hear. What is important to our storyteller is the change in Jesus’ attitude. What is important is that: Jesus, changed by his experience with the Syrophonecian woman, doesn’t even hesitate. There is a man, who needs his help and Jesus heals him with his touch, some spit and a word: “Ephphatha, be opened.”
Be opened. Open your hearts and your minds to the needs of those around you. No matter how tired or weary we may be. Regardless of whether or not we’ve heard it all before.
“Ephphatha, be opened.” Be open and like Jesus dare to think the unthinkable. Hear the cries of our sisters and brothers and participate in their healing. Ephphatha, be opened.