The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is a favorite of mine. It is one of the only times in the New Testament when someone argues with Jesus and wins. This Gentile mother who by custom and tradition shouldn’t be talking to a man, much less a Jewish man, courageously begs for help for her beloved daughter. And Jesus, who felt sure he was called to help solely the lost sheep of Israel, refuses to help her. He says crudely, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” A slur any way you look at it.
But this woman, this mother, was not to be turned away, and twisted his demeaning words into a recognizable truth—“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus relented and healed her daughter.
A stirring story about a mother’s love. An emboldening story about how to deal with biting words and those who use them. An unusual story hinting at a broadening of Jesus’ own vision of his ministry.
I think we sometimes forget to allow Jesus to be human as well as divine. Humans don’t always see things clearly. Humans sometimes speak out of tiredness or anger or hurt or plain stupidity and say nasty things. Humans make mistakes. I think this story is a window into Jesus’ humanity.
He really believed that he had been called to follow in the great prophets footsteps: teaching and preaching and healing—among the children of Israel. But his fame spread far and wide, and people who were in need--physically, emotionally, spiritually,--began to flock to him. And the people who were hungry for good news and healing weren’t just Jewish. And it’s not as if Jesus asked people to present their identification before he helped them. The conflict between thinking that he was sent for a ministry to a specific people, and the reality of being the embodiment of God’s love in our world [that conflict] was bound to arise. The really amazing part of this story is that Jesus listened to that Syrophoenician woman—he changed his mind. And then he changed his ministry.
We know this because right after the story of the healing of that woman’s daughter, we find Jesus going “by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” That doesn’t mean much to us geography-poor American Christians. But for the people of the Near East who knew the area, it meant he was STILL in Gentile territory (in fact, he was moving deeper into Gentile lands—not skirting them as some would have done). So when people bring a deaf man and beg for his healing—we are probably dealing with a deaf Gentile, and Gentiles who are asking for help.
Jesus doesn’t try to turn them away as he did with the Syrophoenician woman, he seems to have accepted his wider role in being God’s emissary. He uses “techniques” heard about in other healings—touching, spitting, asking for God’s help. What is singular in this story is the utterance “Ephphatha”—“Be opened.”
Now I don’t want to imply that this is a magic word—that by saying “Ephphatha” Jesus was summoning down the mysterious hand of God to do this healing. Certainly healing took place, and God had a hand in that. But “Ephphatha” is an Aramaic word that means “be opened”—exactly what Jesus was asking to be done for that man. It wasn’t an “Open Sesame” or “Abracadabra” type of utterance. It wasn’t holy words spoken in a foreign tongue. It was a prayer in the language of the people who lived there—Jesus’ language.
I can’t help but wonder at the story teller who wrote the gospel of Mark placing these two stories next to each other. Yes, they are both accounts of Jesus in this region healing Gentiles. And yet, together they seem to comprise more than that. They are a glimpse into what “be opened--Ephphatha” might mean.
Of course, Jesus was talking about the desire for the deaf man to hear again, and for his tongue to be released into understandable speech. But what else was being opened? Was it Jesus’ own eyes about who he was there to talk to? To heal? To turn around to God?
Or maybe it was the early church, the Palistinian Christians who may have been Mark’s first audience, who needed to be reminded that there were those outside the “approved” group who could find their way to Jesus. There was much discussion in those early years about how one became a Christian—a fight between those who believed you needed to be Jewish and then a Jewish Christian and others who believed that being a Gentile Christian alone was enough.
And what does “Ephphatha” mean for us? Don’t we need to examine ourselves for human blindness, human deafness, human speechlessness, human tribalism? What needs to be opened in our hearts and minds as we consider who we are as a church? What might we have to open in our way of outreaching to a world that increasingly thinks we (the church) is irrelevant, hypocritical, judgmental, or even harmful? Have we become too comfortable in our vision of who we are supposed to help and to heal, that we might push away some with callous words or actions?
So I am haunted by that word: “Ephphatha.” Somehow it is a concept that is so simple—if something is shut, open it. It reminds me of the seemingly simple suggestion from the gospel of Matthew (7:7), “Ask, and it will be given you; Seek, and you will find; Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Or Jesus’ summary of the law: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And yet, we all know how hard it is to follow simple suggestions if it means changing time honored traditions, or worse yet, changing something about ourselves.
And that is where I rest today. Knowing that because we are human, we do not always have ears to hear. Because we are human, we do not always perceive clearly. Because we are human, we do not do the things we wish, but do the things that we did not intend. Make no mistake, being human is not an excuse.
“Ephphatha” is the cry of Jesus that the heavens be opened and that all our blindness and deafness and muteness and closedness might be pried open even a little. That we might be changed, like Jesus was; that we might be healed.
This is not an abstract wish. We have the opportunity to live out “Ephphatha” right here. We are getting to know our brothers and sisters at the 8am service. And I hope that we can all “be opened” to hearing one another’s stories, to speaking about our dreams and visions for this world, to sharing in the ministry that God places before us, right here, and right now.
I am sure that this is a little daunting, as every new venture is. We don’t know what we are going to hear. We don’t know what we are going to decide to do or not do. We might have to give some things up. We might have to try things a new way.
To that I say, “Ephphatha.” May we be open to the murmurings of the Spirit as we try to figure out what is happening here at United Church. May God bless us with patience and good humor and a willingness to be changed into what God dreams for us.
And we have the opportunity to invite West Orange to “be opened” to the beautiful array of diverse voices at our festival on Saturday September 22 from 10-2. We hope this can be an event that welcomes all, recognizing that we might not all hear each other, we might not all understand we other, we might not all even like each other—but we can all insist that we are God’s beloved children, and together we have been given the responsibility to care for this world, and for one another.
And so I say “Ephphatha”—May we be blessed so that we might be a blessing to all who come, and to all who might hear or see or learn of our celebration. May we light our light, and hold it up for all to see. And may it spark wonderful things, in God’s name.