Archive for September, 2015
Healing Mark 7:24
Jesus wants to get away from it all but his bolt hole is discovered by a woman whose daughter he cures. He goes elsewhere and cures a deaf and dumb man. Everyone’s amazed and the more he says ‘don’t tell anyone’ the more they do.
An apt summary of today’s gospel? Need any more be said? (And I’m not expecting the answer ‘No’ !)
A parody in what I’ve just said of the way Mark writes his gospel. It’s crisp; it’s punchy; it focusses on action: it includes 17 miracles and has few parables and direct teachings. So when Mark plugs in some details in his narrative it pays to look at them as we’ll see.
Last week’s gospel reading, focussed on the opening verses of Chapter 7 describing Jesus’ row with the Pharisees over the question of cleanness and uncleanness. A whole ritual had been established for washing up to the elbows after touching cups and vessels which might have been contaminated by contact with Gentiles. Jesus and the disciples stand accused of breaching these man made rules and tradition.
It’s a tense time. Jesus is preached out, prayed out and peopled out. He just wants to ‘get away from it all’; to have some ‘quality time’ on his own or whatever the current idiom is.
But no sooner does he find a ‘bolt hole’ than his cover is somehow blown. And there’s a woman knocking at the door asking him to do a job. (Know the feeling chaps?) And here’s where the details first come into play: for Mark gives us a careful description of the woman.
She is from the area, a mother, a Syro Phoenecian – one of the Gentiles. She has come to see if Jesus will do something for her demon possessed daughter. She’s hoping that he might do something to heal her deepest sorrow. Perhaps she knows it’s a long shot. He’s a Jew and she’s a Gentile and between the two stand centuries of bad blood. She is intruding and he’s tired. Her biggest fear is that he’ll tell her to go away or be unable or unwilling to do anything. And he does indeed give a troubling response to her request: (v27) “ First let the children eat all they want , he tells her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs”.
The detail in focus here is “dogs”. We all know that the word can be used in a pejorative sense: we talk about ‘things going to the dogs’ During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China it was used as a term of abuse for Westerners – they were called ‘running dogs of imperialism’. And that abusive usage of the word ‘dog’ would no doubt have been common amongst the Jews in talking about the Gentiles.
But the precise word which Jesus uses is less harsh than it might initially sound. In the Greek text of the gospel the word used refers to household dogs -domestic pets or puppies. The word ‘children’ in this gospel passage Jesus uses as a simile for the Jewish people.
The woman must wonder for a moment precisely what Jesus’ response could mean. Does he mean that for now, he could only help his own – the Jews?
She concedes that what he says is right (v28) and is inspired with the courage and wit to say that ‘even the puppies under the table eat the children’s crumbs’. Jesus greatly appreciates her answer: not because it was a clever one but by the faith bound up in the woman’s response. Her answer says I need you. I know that by just a crumb of your power my daughter will be healed.
And Jesus responds to her faith regardless of her being a Gentile and once again challenges the established order of things: (v29) ‘for such a reply you may go: the demon has left your daughter’.
Shades of another healing story when Jesus again responded to a Gentile’s plea and healed the Roman Centurion’s servant. On that occasion he said (7:9) ‘I have not found such great faith even in Israel’.
In the second healing story Jesus has moved to a different area where some people bring to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk and challenge him to lay his hands on him and heal him. Is the crowd looking fo some kind of show at the expense of this deaf person? Jesus takes him aside and heals him in a way that stands in sharp contrast to the approach in the previous story. He begins by putting his fingers into the man’s ears. He then spits (presumably onto his fingers) and touches the man’s tongue. Jesus seems to be making contact symbolically or ritually with the defective parts of the man’s body.
Why in this instance Jesus touches and spits when at other times he simply speaks a healing word is unclear. What is made clear and again we return to the detail in the text, is the source of Jesus’ healing power. He acknowledges this by looking up to heaven, symbolically the location of God, and groaning or sighing.
Jesus’ efforts, albeit different this time , result in an immediate healing. The man hears perfectly and now speaks clearly.
Jesus’ injunction to them not to tell is a bit of an enigma: for earlier (Ch5) in the gospel after he has healed a demon possessed man who tries to become one of is followers, he says to him (v19) ‘ Go home to your family and tell them how much your Lord has done for you’ and that’s exactly what he did in the surrounding towns as well. ‘And all the people were amazed’ as it says at the end of that story too.
As well they might be for by these healing miracles Jesus was transforming the old order of things and bringing in the new order of God’s Kingdom. Just as foretold by the prophet Isaiah when he said of the coming Messiah: (35:5-6) ‘ then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy’. Compassion and healing available to all regardless of who they were.
Which leads us to consider: is that transforming power still at work – does God heal today? To which the answer must be an unequivocal ‘Yes’. Much as Jesus did not have a sole way of healing, so there are different approaches today: prayer, the ‘laying on’ of hands, the Oil of the Sick. The rest of the morning could profitably be spent on this, but I’ll make just a couple of comments.
Should people today expect a miracle or be open to that possibility? God does sometimes respond to prayers for healing by working a miracle. And yet there have always been those with strong faith and beset by illness who were not healed. My friend’s wife, very much a person of the charismatic church, suffered the ordeal of Multiple sclerosis before dying but remained rock steady in her faith to the end, even publishing a little booklet of her thoughts and prayers.
In some way, even when God does not work a miracle of physical healing, Jesus always heals his children when they come to him. Sometimes he brings them into a closer and deeper relationship with him, giving contentment and peace even in the face of death. Even when he allows them to die, they are not beyond his healing power.
Death ushers them in to the great and final healing of those who go to be with Christ, where they find that peace which the world cannot give.
We can take comfort as did the Syro Phoenecian woman and the deaf and dumb man that we too can bring our sorrows and pain to Jesus. We can be confident that when his children ask, he never turns them away at the door: never fails to give his children the bread of his healing power. Amen