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The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B)
Sunday, 9 September 2018

Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:31-37

When last we saw Jesus, he had declared all food to be clean, signalling, perhaps to those present, and certainly to those hearing Mark's story, that the Gentiles were to be include in the Kingdom, the Good News of which is the substance of the Gospel. Jesus also made a profound statement about the way our commitment to the life of the Kingdom of God must not only be reflected in the performance of tradition and ritual, but by both inner desire to be in relationship with God and external acts of love and justice towards our neighbours.

We show forth our commitment to living in relationship with God, as Cranmer put it in the General Thanksgiving he wrote for the first Prayer Book, "not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days of our life." This, in fact, is very much the lesson of the passage we just heard from James. The Kingdom is at its core about seeing God at work in the world, responding to it by entering into community with others who have had the same experience, and working in cooperation with and in imitation of Jesus in works of healing, justice, and love. That is where we left off.

As often happens in our lectionary, a passage is omitted between the one from last week and the one for this week. Sometimes that passage does not illuminate the movement of the story. Sometimes, however, knowing what we have missed is a help.

After reminding the Pharisees that tradition is not the last word on how the kingdom will be enacted, how all food is clean, Jesus himself is reminded that all who come to the God of Israel through him are to be included in this unfolding kingdom. Jesus has travelled out of Jewish territory into the region of Tyre and Sidon and there he met an unnamed Syrophoenecian woman who, in an engaging conversation, taught him a lesson about love, inclusion, and service by pointing to the very natural action of passing scraps to a dog begging (or perhaps just waiting patiently) beneath the table. Here we see Jesus moving from ministry among his own people—with whom he had those disputes about tradition—to an expanded project that includes the gentiles.

Fresh from this encounter, we learn today that Jesus heads off to another region where he meets the deaf Gentile and does not hesitate to heal him. It is kind of an amazing story. For all its miraculousness, it is an incredibly earthy story, full of details that make it all come alive. The man's ailment is a familiar one to us even today and the way it is described is meant to evoke his suffering and shame by mentioning his difficulty speaking.[1] For a variety of reasons, perhaps including preserving the man's dignity, Jesus decides not to heal him in front of everyone, but takes "him aside from the multitude privately." Jesus then does the most extraordinary things:

he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Jesus' performance with the man is dramatic and, in fact, very similar to various recognisable "magical cures current in the Hellenistic world." He seems to be practising a kind of sympathetic magic familiar to Gentiles and perhaps, as Jesuit scholars Daniel Harrington and John Donahue remark "appropriate in a Gentile setting in which Jesus appears as both similar to pagan healers and superior to them." [2] Indeed, one of the marked differences between magic and the divine healing miracle Jesus performs is that the authority and source of the healing power come from Jesus himself and not by the invocation of, or sacrifice to, a god. It is instructive that this episode is omitted by both Matthew and Luke, who would have been familiar with the story, as they may have felt it a bit too magical, a bit too close to pagan religion. Mark, however, seems to see it as a profound example of Jesus' exercise of authority over the forces of the cosmos, a proclamation of his divine identity.

It may seem incongruous, then, that immediately Jesus "charged them to tell no one." It becomes apparent, however, that Mark is getting at something critical about Jesus because he goes on to say, "the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, 'He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.'" Does Jesus want them to proclaim what he did or not? And the answer, it seems, is yes.

Mark's community, the people hearing the story, already knew who Jesus was. They knew him to be the messiah who would suffer and die and on the third day be raised from the dead. This is the truth that the disciples found hard to grasp, only uttered in Mark's Gospel at the end by the gentile, Roman centurion. Nevertheless, people seemed to be moving in the right direction, they see in Jesus the expectation from Hebrew Scripture that in the messianic age "death and sickness will be overcome."[3] They especially see in what Jesus has done the words we heard today from Isaiah:

Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.

The Day of the Lord, the Messianic Age, will be marked with the healing of those who suffer and who, because of their infirmities, have been relegated to the margins of society. Something is afoot, the people realise. While the full proclamation of Jesus' identity will have to wait until the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, word is spreading that Jesus is healing and casting out demons on his own authority, exercising power over the forces of the cosmos, that Jesus is working on behalf of people who suffer and who are excluded from society, that Jesus is bringing his ministry to both Jews and Gentiles, expanding the reach of the God of Israel.

What this all means for us today is not very different than what it meant to the community that first heard this story in the generation after Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Jesus shows us who he is. He is the one who, in continuity with, and in fulfilment of, the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture inaugurates a new age, yet one rooted in God's work of old, in which God's priorities will prevail. He is the one who brings food to those who are hungry, healing to those who are suffering, a place in the community to those who are excluded because of their identity. Jesus calls us to live in the knowledge that this is truly what is unfolding around us, calls us to be a part of it, shows us that it is possible for us to live authentically, with our actions and motivations, consistent with each other, conforming to the expectations of the Kingdom of God. We learn that we should not fear being counted among Jesus' followers, that this is exactly where we are supposed to be, even in this moment.

Andrew C. Blume✠
Barnstable, Mass.
Feria, 13 July 2018

 


1 John R. Donahue, SJ and Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagna Series, 2
(Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 239.
2 Donahue and Harrington 2002, 242.
3 Donahue and Harrington 2002, 242.

© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume