It Takes a Community, Pastor Kinsey
Two stories, on the boundaries of community. One to the east and one to the west of Galilee. At first hearing, they may not even seem related. But looking a bit closer, I think we can find at least one way, in which they are tied together. But let’s look at the second story first, of the man from the Decapolis, who was deaf, and then compare it to the first story of the Syrophoenician woman.
The region of the Decapolis was east of Galilee, 10 regions or city-states, east of where Jesus and the Disciple’s home territory in Israel was. It was Gentile territory, that is, non-Jewish, in this case, a loose federation of Greek peoples who had migrated there, some time ago. Mark isn’t interested in the exact location, but only to remind us that it is outside Galilee. The people in the story that Jesus and his disciples encounter, are all Gentiles.
“They,” bring the man to Jesus, it says. What is noteworthy here is that a whole group of people, are the ones bringing him to Jesus, and this word bringing, could mean leading him, perhaps even toting, or carrying him. But why does he need this help? Why so many? If he is deaf – his legs and his eyesight are fine. Why doesn’t he go on his own? That he cannot speak clearly, only means that he likely lost his hearing at an early age. But still, the question is, why doesn’t he come on his own? Why doesn’t he walk up to Jesus himself?
The first answer is, that he likely did not feel he would be welcomed, or, he worried about what Jesus would think of him. All his life, he had been told and made to feel he was unclean and sinful. That was the universal first-century belief. Blindness, deafness, speech impediments – any kind of sickness or demon possession, all of it meant it was your fault, or that God did it as punishment for your sin. The sick, were socially stigmatized, and Jews, especially Priests, were not even supposed to touch unclean people, or they would need to be ritually cleansed.
The second reason, follows directly from the first. The man who was deaf, would naturally have felt unworthy, less than, as a person, and therefore, not someone able to approach the Rabbi. Low self-esteem, we might call it today. Do you know anyone like that? Many stigma’s, live on today. For example, refugees blamed for our economic problems, those living with mental illness wrongly criminalized, when they are more often victims of crime, and our cultural construction of race, which demonizes some, and purifies & privileges others. And this collective sin, over hundreds of years, has produced every layer of demoralization and separation imaginable, in American society.
And so it also makes sense that it would take a small group of friends to bring the man who was deaf, to Jesus, or maybe just to convince him that Jesus would give him a fair shake. They may be walking with him, or even cajoling or carrying him. And it’s his friends who speak for the deaf man who cannot speak clearly, asking Jesus, begging him, to touch him, and lay hands on him.
Jesus did not respond verbally himself. He takes the man aside, in private, away from the crowd. He gives him personal attention. Come into my office! Make yourself comfortable!
Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. (When was the last time you tried that?) But it is meant to show that Jesus gives him very personal attention. And then he spits on his fingers, and somehow asks him, maybe pantomimes it – is it ok to touch your tongue with my spittle? Jesus sighs a little prayer to God then, and says, Ephphatha! Open up!
You might expect Jesus to say, Be healed; or, Open his ears; free his tongue! But this is more than a healing, or curing sickness. Jesus speaks to the whole person directly in front of him. Pastor Dayton A. Williams, a sign language pastor in our synod says, “He treated him with respect. The effect was to change the man's whole outlook on life. Now he knows the truth about God and himself, and it is good news.”
It takes the whole community, to make a neighborhood healthy. The man who was deaf and not able to speak clearly, would not have come to Jesus without his friends, who took the initiative to bring him. And it takes a God who is big enough to take down the barriers of stigma and racism, and other forms of exclusion and hierarchy, to open up our lives, to the truth that sets us free.
And this, I believe, is the connection to the first story, the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus had gone with his disciples to the region of Tyre, west of Galilee, again, in Gentile territory. Jesus entered a house there, to get away from the crowds back home. This was supposed to be some kind of retreat, maybe? What’s clear, though, is that the woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit was a foreigner, religiously and ethnically other, unclean. But in the encounter Jesus has with her, something, amazingly, is opened up.
Now, in one way, this story is like no other in the gospels. Because Jesus, in a one-off, reflects the privilege of 1st century patriarchy, in his first response to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says to the woman, “let the children” – that is, the Jewish people – “be fed first.”
But the Syrophoenician woman, is like the friends of the man who was deaf, in that she is advocating on behalf of another person, her daughter, stigmatized by her illness, her demon possession. She says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And so, undaunted, she stands up for the God of acceptance and openness she expected to meet in Jesus, and challenges Jesus to let go of his prejudice, and channel the God who had anointed and sent him. “She gets Jesus to admit what, and whom, his ministry is all about. She embarrasses Jesus, a little, for his human remark, and gets Jesus to see God, for what and who God truly is.
And so, “The woman tells the truth. And when the truth gets told, worlds change. Her world changed. Same for Jesus – and the rest of his ministry cannot be the same because of her.” (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org)
And so, we might ask ourselves: Do we want our world to change? Are we ready? Or are we sometimes like Jesus was this time, pulled down by human precepts rooted in division and sin?
It takes a community to bring the truth to light, to call it out, and have the courage to name it. It takes all of us to remember that our God, is a God open to the truth, and supporting us in breaking down the barriers that divide us up, one from another.
Illness is not a punishment from God! The deaf man is not evil. He is just like everyone else. God accepts him, loves him. That’s the truth, a truth still not completely revealed, perhaps. But God, is a big-enough-God, who is unafraid to touch the hurting parts of us, the parts stigmatized or looked down upon, the broken parts that are visible, and the woundedness hidden deep inside. God is our closest friend and advocate, sitting down beside us, who understands all of us, individually and collectively.
It takes the whole community, to make a neighborhood healthy. We pray O God, with sighs too deep for words, give us faith, and hope, and vision, to love each other – to proclaim, that sickness is not punishment, or evil. And help us to be friends who carry and accompany our sisters and brothers to Jesus.