Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In last week’s gospel reading, Jesus got into an argument with the Pharisees over the Jewish purity laws, and his rather lax attitude towards them. And he walks straight out of that argument into Gentile territory. He’s looking for some peace and quiet: ‘he wanted no one to know he was there,’ says Mark. But he’s out of luck. For into the house comes barging this bold, pushy, gobby woman pleading that he heal her daughter.
Those purity laws that Jesus had been arguing with the Pharisees about are put to the test here. Transgression of boundaries abounds. The national, religious, cultural and gender boundaries which delineated nicely who was clean and who wasn’t are all thrown into disarray when this Syrophoenician Gentile woman demands an encounter with Jesus.
And she is determined to get what she wants, and what she knows her daughter needs. She persists, as those used to finding themselves on the wrong side of the fence so often have to. And there is a conversation in which, however we try to parse it, Jesus sounds pretty rude: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
This episode serves as a hinge in Mark’s Gospel. In the background are the arguments in the early Church about the mission to the Gentiles. The woman’s plea to Jesus comes in between two miraculous feedings: of the 5000, when twelve basketsful of leftovers were gathered up, and of the 4000, when seven basketsful remained. And these are there not because Jesus did a repeat but slightly less impressive version of a feeding miracle, but because the first was for the Jews and the second for the Gentiles. The feeding of the 5000 was on home territory; five signifies the Torah, the first five books in the Old Testament; and 12 represents the 12 tribes of Israel. In the later feeding, in Gentile territory, four represents the four corners of the earth, and seven the days of creation. It symbolises wholeness and completion.
And in both miraculous feedings, Mark records that ‘all ate and were satisfied.’ And that’s what the Greek says in today’s Gospel reading: ‘Let the children be satisfiedfirst’, says Jesus. The feeding of the 5000 comes first: the gospel is preached first to the Jews. But it doesn’t stay there: the feeding of the 4000 follows, and the mission to the Gentiles. And it’s a pushy, desperate woman, an outsider several times over to the covenant, who is given the foretaste of God’s universal love in the healing of her daughter.
In last week’s gospel, Jesus declared all foods clean. In this week’s, we see that extended and enacted: it is not just foods that are declared clean, but people. Those whose race or nationality or gender or illness had put them on the wrong side of the fence, who had been told this distanced them from God and who were left begging for crumbs are brought into relationship with Jesus.
And as if to draw this point even more clearly, the very next thing we hear about Jesus is that he heals a deaf man with an impediment in his speech. In the bible, illness and disability are often seen as arising from sin: they are a sign that someone is out of favour with God, or being punished for something they’ve done. The purity laws meant that most disabilities or illnesses restricted your access to God, the temple, and the community. From that there often flowed isolation, stigma, shame, and poverty.
There is no denying this view of illness and disability in the bible. But it’s not the only one. In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet Isaiah proclaiming the restoration of Zion. Over time, Isaiah’s prophecy was taken to depict the coming kingdom of the Messiah, when all things would be restored in God. And there we read that ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’ The first people mentioned in this restored vision are those with disabilities. Their presence and belonging is a sign that the kingdom has come. And Mark deliberately draws on this passage from Isaiah when he describes the deaf man with impaired speech: the word used for the speech impediment is used only twice in the whole bible: in that Isaiah reading, and here in Mark. This is the announcement that the promised kingdom has arrived in Jesus Christ.
And notice what Jesus does. He takes the man aside in private away from the crowd. He’s not interested in doing a miracle to attract adulation and attention. Wonder workers were common in first century Palestine, and Jesus is not one of them. He refuses to instrumentalise the man, to use him for his own ends. There is of course an irony in Jesus telling the man whose speech he has just restored that he mustn’t tell anyone about it. And that should give us pause for thought before we rush into congratulating ourselves that we fully understand Jesus and what he’s about.
The voices that tell us who Jesus is are those whose tongues will not be stilled, even at Jesus’ command. They are the voices that come from the edges: they are not the disciples, who, especially in Mark, are often depicted as slow to understand and believe. They are not the religious professionals, safe in the knowledge of their own purity and superiority. They are the ones who have been drawn to Jesus, despite all the obstacles in their way, all the voices telling them they don’t belong. They are the ones who have been spoken to, recognised, encountered, touched. They are the ones who have discovered, beyond any physical healing, restored relationships, community, a place to belong.
In breaking the purity codes Jesus shows us what it means to be human. It is to be in relationship, including being in relationship with those who are different from us. It’s the easiest thing in the world to erect barriers that separate us; to demonise or blame those who are other. We don’t do it through purity codes so much anymore: we do it through benefits sanctions and hostile immigration environments – but the effect is often the same. But what Jesus shows us is that everyone’s humanity is diminished when we act like that.
In Jesus the kingdom of God comes near. And the Church is called to go on living his life and proclaiming his love. And we will only be credible to the extent that we look like, speak like, act like, and love like Jesus. That means paying attention to the voices on the edges, dismantling our fear, repenting of some of our attitudes, and opening our hearts to real encounters. In today’s gospel, the heralds and signs of the kingdom are a foreign woman and a man with disabilities. Yet for too long the Church has silenced women and treated people with disabilities as, at best, objects of pity and compassion. Yet here they are in the gospel, demanding grace, overflowing with good news, made one in Christ.
If the Church is called to continue the ministry of Jesus, it is called to be a sign of restored humanity: a place of truthful and real encounter, of community, where all can find a place to belong; a place where the structural barriers of sin that we so often erect to exclude others are dismantled. That takes us way beyond tolerating people, or doing things to them or for them. It’s about recognising each other as brothers and sisters, making space for each other’s needs and gifts, living beyond the barriers of difference into true unity in Christ.