Sermon preached at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church on September 9th, 2018. Lectionary gospel reading from Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV).
Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
“What is a miracle?”
This is the question I’ve had on my mind this week as I’ve reflected on the lectionary for today. Our gospel reading contains two stories which are typically called miracles, even if the label is not used in the text. In one, a demon is exorcised; in the other, hearing and speech are restored.
But here’s the question I want to explore with you now: what is the point?
Of what should we be impressed? What is the shape of the pressure of these stories on our hearts?
Some might say the point is in how these supernatural powers reveal the divinity of Christ. I wonder though. For a first-century audience, 2,000 years before our time, miracles and healings were a) commonplace, and b) not “supernatural” at all—they were considered part of the normal functioning of the world.
Jesus was hardly the only teacher known to multiply food, evict demons, raise the dead, or heal diseases or injuries. Maybe because of this, his miracles rarely seemed to surprise people or function as proof of anything more than his membership with a certain class of spiritual people.
Without rigorous and documented understanding of cause and effect or laws of nature, there was no surprise that what we moderns call “the order of nature” could be set aside. So the questions became focused on the meaning of an event or performance rather than the fact of its occurence. The same would apply to its being recorded in a testimony such as our Gospel of Mark.
Now two millennia later, many of us have the opposite problem tackling these miracle stories. Most of us have certain reliable expectations of the natural order. Raised in the middle ground between scientific education and the claims of supermarket tabloids and cult leaders, we are naturally skeptical about these claims. We want to know “how?” and we ask “really?” However, I invite you to consider the same solution our ancient ancestors applied, and consider deeper questions of meaning, purpose, and teaching.
In this light, when we turn to today’s two stories, maybe we can consider them as philosophical or psychological tales which happen to be using miraculous elements merely on the way to exploring certain themes.
When I turned my own attention in this direction, here is what caught me this week:
In the first story, the focus of the narrator is on Jesus’ exchange with the Gentile woman. The question is not of power but of will—does this outsider deserve help? The answer is “yes,” and her humble refusal to accept anything else changed the course of Israel’s mission. But the actual act, the exorcism, is handled casually. Jesus speaks at a distance, the demon leaves, and no one remarks in surprise.
The second story is different. The man born deaf, with resulting speech difficulties, is an obvious and uncontested candidate for healing. But Jesus labors over this one. He draws the man aside in private, just as he does with raising the dead, and begins an involved and very earthy ritual.
Jesus reaches out and inserts his fingers within the man’s ears. Then he spits—whether directly or transferring the spittle on his fingers—and smears his own saliva onto the man’s tongue. Then he raises his eyes to the heavens, implying maybe an appeal for power, or connecting to the transcendent, before breathing out in a deep sigh: “Ephaphatha!” Be opened.
Our narrator assures us that immediately the man hears, immediately his speech is intelligible, and despite the precautions of Jesus, bystanders are in awe and the word about his power spreads.
Why? Why is this second miracle so powerful?
Maybe it had to do with the first-century assumption that defects from birth were already divine interventions from God (rather than later curses which could come from demons), and that this healing showed a different level of power.
However, whether originally intended or not, I hear a different message from the inclusion of this story in our gospel. And I think it has to do with the very human (rather than demonic) trouble with hearing.
We struggle with hearing. Not just receiving sound waves, but actually having these waves echo in our hearts. Hence the plaintive cry of Isaiah in mourning ears which do not hear and hearts which do not feel.
The miracle in the first story is not the eviction of the demon but the opened ears of Jesus which heard the voice of God from the mouth of a Syro-Phoenician woman and allowed his heart to change and expand.
In the same way, it would be miraculous for a Zionist Israeli to be able to truly hear the plea of a Palestinian citizen. It would be a miracle if our entrenched partisan sides in this country today could hear each other beyond rhetoric and slogans. It is a miracle every time a socially conservative parent is able to hear the heart of their gay or transgender child. It can take a miracle for those blinded by addiction or depression or other mental health issues to hear those who are trying to help. It can take a miracle to truly believe and trust in love at the deep core of our being.
It is harder to open our ears to that which will break us and heal us than it is to quarrel over whose teacher is right or whose tribe is best. Jesus knows this very well, and he longs to whisper “be opened” into your heart—will you open your ears?