Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 5, 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Gospel lesson gives us two stories about Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is both an exorcist and a healer. He brings us the Kingdom of God, which, from the beginning, is in conflict with an anti-Kingdom of violence, of sickness, and of lies.
Let’s start with the second story this morning—the one about the deaf man whose ears are opened. And then, let’s work our way back to the foreign woman who wants her daughter set free. We need to start with the deaf man, because the other story is too disturbing to start with. (Is Jesus really calling this little girl a dog?) Besides, Mark wants us to hear both these stories together.
The man has difficulty speaking, as well as hearing. In his day, that means a life of poverty and social isolation. The healing is as much about restoring the blessings of community as it is about physical health. This is true for many of the healing miracles of Jesus.
Jesus speaks to the man, and he is healed. The words of Jesus are the sovereign Word of God. Here, we see God lifting up a person who is crushed with heavy burdens.
In this instance, the Gospel, which is written mainly in Greek, records the precise words of Jesus in ancient Aramaic. This is the language spoken by Jesus himself and many other first-century Jews. And that means that this story is very, very old.
“Ephphatha,” he says to the man. It means “be opened.” It’s about more than opening this man’s ears and loosening his tongue. It’s about opening up his heart, making room for the Holy Spirit of God. When the man hears Jesus, he has to open his mind and his heart and his life. He has to make room for God and for other people. The Good News is all about loving and forgiving the people God gives us to love. In the end, that’s how we receive the gift of God’s love for us, by showing love to one another.
Once he opens his heart to Jesus, this man can never be the same. And neither can we.
The message would be clear to the people around Jesus. They know the prophecy of Isaiah. When they see Jesus healing the man, they know God’s Kingdom has come near. After a long, long time of exile and defeat, God has returned to reign.
This year, I’m helping Fr. Andrew teach a course on Christian ethics to the juniors at the Trinity School of Texas. The textbook we are using is called Kingdom Ethics, and, in the first chapter, it points out that Jesus’ message about the Kingdom is largely taken from Isaiah. According to that prophet and for Jesus himself, the Kingdom involves (1) salvation or deliverance (both now and in the age to come); (2) justice; (3) peace; (4) healing; (5) restoration and rebuilding of community; (6) joy; and (7) the experience of the presence of God.
Today’s lesson is one our textbook talks about. Jesus himself cites it or alludes to it several times in the Gospels: Isaiah says 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.” In our world today, many of us live isolated lives that are filled with various kinds of suffering and grief. We want God to touch us. We need to be healed. But we seldom experience miracles like this one. And when we do (even when we do), we often try to explain them away. And yet, we hear God saying to us: “Be strong and have no fear.” God is with us, and he is strong to save. God loves us, and he is on our side.
These are powerful words for people like us. For we are carrying heavy burdens. These words bring us healing, even when there’s little chance of a cure. They help us trust the God who made us—the God who is always willing to save us. They give us strength to keep on struggling, no matter what it is that we are facing. They renew our hope and trust in the Lord.
Now, let’s get back to the difficult part of the story—the part about that foreign woman and her daughter. This too is a story of healing and conversion—not just for the little girl but for Jesus himself too. In the story, the woman helps Jesus overcome the limitations of his point of view. She talks back to Jesus (she actually talks back to Jesus), and she challenges him to grow. At the start of his ministry, Jesus thought he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. As this woman speaks to him, though, God’s call for him becomes more clear. Jesus learns from her what the core of his mission will be—a universal mission to all people.
But Jesus begins his ministry with attitudes typical of his fellow first-century Jews. Not to the point of sin, perhaps, but to the point of closed-mindedness. He needs to be liberated from any narrow conception of what it means to belong to God’s Beloved People. It’s something the Jewish prophets, especially Isaiah, often warn God’s People about. It is a message many of us Christians need to hear today. And this foreign, pagan woman helps Jesus to hear it and accept it. If his sinless perfection means anything it means he lives his human life out the way we do—one day at a time, being faithful to God in every moment—learning and growing with a limited and changing perspective. He needs to listen and respond to other people, as well as the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Mark is telling us this story about Jesus at a time when his own community is in conflict about who belongs and who does not. Who is in and who is out. That’s the issue Mark is facing. Mark shows us a very human Jesus growing into God’s vision for the Kingdom. As a real man, Jesus is like us in every respect, except sin. As the true God and Savior, Jesus is filled with the Spirit of love, and he faithfully embodies God’s righteousness. And so, he is willing to change his mind, whenever love requires it.
The first Christians made a similar discernment when they decided that non-Jews (that’s most of us) could become Christians without first becoming Jews themselves. The Book of Acts tells the story of the Holy Spirit creating a “mixed body” of Jews and Gentiles, when no one seemed to think that was possible. The Spirit drives the Church outward in love—so that the Body of Christ might include all tribes and races and nations, all sorts and conditions of people.
And that brings us back to the deaf man and what Jesus says to him. “Be opened,” he says. Be open to the neighbors and strangers in your life. Be open even to your enemies. Be open to the person who looks different from you, or who comes to you from far away. Be open (as James reminds us) to those who are poor. Be open to those who don’t share your religion or language or culture. Show no favoritism in your relationships. For our faith is empty and dead (James says) if we fail to bear the fruit of love.
God calls us to be like Jesus. God calls us to be more open, more vulnerable, more loving with our fellow human beings.
Or, in the words of one of the twentieth century’s great Christian theologians (Bernard Lonergan): “Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be responsible. Be loving. And, if necessary, change.”
It’s an important message in a world like ours—where we seem impervious to the claims of Truth, and we avoid the claims of our neighbors.
Be ready to change and repent.
The Kingdom of God is at hand.