In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
Was there ever a time in your life when you were desperate for help? When you didn’t know to whom to turn or how you would manage? What did you do? If you are among the breathing and living I suspect you are familiar with this experience.
I think of the young mother just diagnosed with stage four breast cancer or the head of household with kids in college who has lost a job and may not be able to pay for a huge mortgage, or a teen no longer able to stand the social media harassment he is getting because he is gay, having suicidal thoughts. And perhaps the best timely metaphor for utter despondency is the sight of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi migrants fearing for their lives and desperately trying to board trains in Hungary. Where do you turn when that kind of hopelessness paralyzes you?
Today we see how Jesus deals with two people who are in desperate need. The first, a desperate parent who is a gentile, an outsider and knows that she is an outsider. She begs Jesus for mercy for her daughter but he seems to ignore her or at least talk about her as if she were not even present. Is it because she is not a member of the right race or class?
She is relentless, and who in that situation would not be? This may be her daughter’s only chance to be relieved of this horrible affliction. When Jesus utters those strange words about not taking away the children’s bread , she comes right back at him. Even the dogs get to enjoy the crumbs that fall from the table. “So, if you can’t give me the whole loaf of bread,” she says, “at least give me a few scraps.”
That gets his attention. “I have not seen such faith—no, not in Israel.” I think Jesus is giving us a whole new understanding of what faith is here. It is not so much a blind acceptance of dogma or obsession with religious law. Could it be the determination to make ourselves heard when we are beaten down by our desperation; to trust that some greater Power, some Transcendent One, some all Good and Loving Being may just listen to us? Could it be about relentless, persistent, even aggressive asking for what we so desperately need because we do trust?
Next comes a deaf man. In the time of Jesus, people believed that if a person was deaf, blind, or disabled in some way, it was a sign of God’s wrath and punishment. There was a perception that the person was bad and had gotten what he deserved. The Jews also believed such people were unclean and would avoid physical contact in order to prevent themselves from becoming contaminated.
The guy also had a speech impediment and had learned that his life predicament was under God’s curse. He would not have felt worthy to approach Jesus and make a complete fool out of himself. I wonder if those who brought him to Jesus didn’t have to drag him all the way. Jesus takes this outcast deaf man aside for a close encounter. Can you imagine the horror expressed on the faces of the crowds when he touches the guy’s tongue and puts his own spittle on his ears?
What Jesus does next is striking. He looked up to heaven and sighed. I imagine it was a deep anguished sigh while thinking, “Good God, what this poor creature has suffered in this intolerant, unloving world because of his condition and how awful that he thinks it is because you have cursed him!”
Then Jesus addresses him directly and says “Ephphatha!” “Be Opened!” And immediately his ears were opened and his tongue was released. What we learn from these episodes is that there is no such thing as an outsider or outcast in God’s eyes.
Jesus twisted the religious right that witnessed these events both by recognizing the faith of a gentile woman and by intimate touch of a man who was judged unclean and cursed. This inclusive, welcoming God is often lost on modern church denominations and societal institutions where there is still judgment and exclusion and some of God’s children are still looked upon as outsiders.
I wonder if these two stories are not placed side by side because at first Jesus did not seem to be listening to the woman. She had to speak loudly and clearly before he reacted. Then he is struck by deafness of this man and wants to emphasize how important is the ability to listen, really listen if we are truly going to “be opened.”
Jesus did not just open this man’s ears, loosen his tongue, and release the woman’s daughter from whatever possessed her. He opened up their entire life. He gave them a new beginning, a fresh start in life, and a world that would now be accessible to them. The most significant effect of this healing was that this woman and man could now be participants in the life of a community—no longer outsiders. So where in our lives do we need to be opened? From what or whom are we feeling shut off? To whom do we need to listen more intently? From what thing that possesses us might we need to be released?
“Ephphatha” was a command – not merely a suggestion. God wants us to be open to new ways of thinking that will expand our understanding of God’s love for us. God wants us to be open to share with others what God might be doing in our life. God wants us to be open to the outsider, inviting them to receive the healing grace God wants to offer them. God wants us to be open to the movement of the Spirit nudging us to try new things, explore new avenues, discover creative strains of energy we didn’t think we had in us. And God wants to release us from whatever may be holding us back.
What we’ve heard today in Mark’s Gospel are sacred events that reverse the brokenness of the world—the deaf can hear, the mute can speak, the dead live, the outcast is welcomed, and our demons are defanged. They tell us that a new world—the reign of God—is emerging and Jesus is the presence of that reign in the world.
We are called to be that presence by healing the brokenness of the world and reversing the torment, praying for the broken and acting for their sake. Sometimes, however, in the face of real desperation there is little more we can do than sigh, releasing a deep and guttural groan from our aching hearts, knowing that Jesus sighs right along with us.