Ephphatha… let our ears be open, let our hearts be open. Amen
It is convenient, in some sense, that this Gospel reading is actually two short stories. One could preach on one or the other. The second one is a straightforward story of healing of a deaf mute, with a fun Aramaic word. The first story can give a preacher all kinds of trouble, like indigestion.
So, we will stick with the indigestion story, the first story. Why in the world would I say it could give you indigestion? (and why in the world stick with the harder story… ?) The answers are related. The story troubles many people, preachers included, for numerous reasons. First is that Jesus seems mean, surly, even nasty. This woman didn’t do anything to deserve this treatment other than not being born a Jew, and I’m not sure that being a Gentile merits this treatment. The second reason is that it looks like Jesus learns something in this story; that troubles some people. If Jesus is God, the son of God, then how does God learn something? Can God learn something? Is learning a trait of God’s? And thirdly, didn’t the letter of James just talk about not showing partiality, (and this being a Jesus thing, that he didn’t show partiality), but this so looks like partiality. “I’m here for the Children of Israel, not the dogs…” Wow… just wow.
Anyway, I think that more often than not, it does anyone the most good if we stick to where we get stuck, where one wrestles with passage. So, let’s stay here for a moment. My first disclaimer is this is one of those stories where you really wish you could interview Jesus. “What exactly did you mean by this?” Clearly, we don’t have that luxury.
So, let’s see if we can work through our conundrum in understanding this passage.
First off, it is helpful to know that the word that Jesus uses for dogs, in his comment to the woman, is the diminutive. In other words, Jesus uses the term for “little dogs,” “puppies.” One can imagine that Jesus is is leaning into a universal practice of calling Gentiles “dogs,” but by speaking of “puppies,” he is speaking with a nod, nod, wink, wink, to the woman, that prompts her to know that Jesus is safe. Might it be that he thus emboldens her to answer, “even the dogs get the crumbs?” Might he actually opening up a space, giving permission, for her to press her case?
Remember, scripture doesn’t give us sarcasm, or smirks. Because the Gospels are written quite a while after Jesus’s death, the Gospel of Mark being the shortest span of all the gospels, of at least 30 years since the death of Jesus, any understanding of HOW something is said, is lost. So, this bit of information helps, but it does not solve the whole problem, because we don’t REALLY know what Jesus meant. We are only guessing.
Be that as it may, the woman DOES push back, press her case. It does seem to me that having faith, being open to faith, being open to healing is an appropriate attitude to have in the presence of the Lord God who can heal all.
On Monday a friend shared a poem about this very passage, written by a pastor, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, which I will share. Where the poem takes us is this: it acknowledges that Jesus may have learned something, but it hones its focus on something that is actually more important to us. The Syrophoenician woman not only is healed because of her faith, but the woman learns that her faith is the source of the healing.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” —Mark 7.28
From the slime that’s been slung, through the epithet thicket, through the tangle of shouldn’t and couldn’t and can’t, with love and guts and feist she rises up, not with a desperate plea but simply knowing more, for the moment, than Jesus does of what is possible, and what is right. She names the slight, slingshots the slur, paints the gallows, exposes the lie— and claims her human place. And Jesus learns a thing or two, about her, about those pagans, about himself. About grace. It’s not Jesus who does the miracle. She does. The power is in her faith in herself, and her daughter, and their place in the house of grace. The healing is in her rising up. And you, sister: what have you been called?What table have you been shoved under? What crumbs are yours, that will multiply like loaves and fishes? Name them.
Not all of us have been shoved under a table, but some definitely have, metaphorically of course. And the image of Jesus as a miracle worker is not actually a helpful image if we can’t also multiply loaves and fishes in the image of Christ. We are co-creators with God, we also co-healers with Jesus. We can feed everyone and we can take care of people, and not to win points in heaven, but because this our calling with others in the world.
Do I think Jesus learned? I don’t know, maybe. Do I think Jesus was mean? Probably not; it doesn’t fit with everything else we know about Jesus. Do I think Jesus was showing partiality, maybe, and he learned to expand his own vision; or maybe not, and he was simply employing a teaching strategy. Do I think that God’s house is grace, and Jesus invites us to the table? Absolutely. So whether Jesus learned or not, or was doing what he intended all along, the Jesus stretches his arms wide and in the end, blesses her faith. The message is clear: there is room for all in God’s house.
Let us pray. O God, Open our ears, open our hearts, show us how to crawl out from under the tables where we find ourselves; help us grow in faith so that we too may multiply loaves and fishes.
Isaiah 35:4-7a Psalm 146 James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 Mark 7:24-37