There’s a scene in the movie, Walk the Line, that is worth remembering. Walk the Line is the story of country singer Johnny Cash and in one of the early scenes, the boy Johnny and his older brother Jack are getting ready for bed. Jack is given to reading the Bible, as he’s doing now, and he dreams of becoming a pastor. Johnny turns to his older brother and asks, “Why do you spend so much time reading the Bible?” Jack considers the question and then replies, “You can’t help people unless you know the stories.”
“You can’t help people unless you know the stories” — which suggests that stories like the ones we have in today’s gospel reading have something to give us, something to teach us; they’re meant to help us. So what might these two stories – the story of the Syrophoenician woman and the story of the deaf man – have to teach us?
To appreciate their meaning, we have, first of all, to note their context – that is, where they are located in Mark’s gospel. In the preceding passage, Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19) and in these stories he is declaring all persons clean. The first story takes place in the region of Tyre and centers on a Gentile woman and her demon-possessed daughter. The second focuses on a man of indeterminate race in the unclean territory of the Decapolis. The two stories are examples of the same principle: in both, Jesus ignores traditional taboos to show compassion to those considered outside the family of faith.
In the story of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus’ own bias in ministry is revealed. He sees his mission as being, first and foremost, directed to the house of Israel. The question here is whether his healing power is rightfully extended to foreigners. But the woman’s faith – her submission, her persistence, and her expectant trust – convince him to extend healing to her daughter. The lesson is an obvious one, and important to the young Christian community for whom Mark is writing: the church is to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend its good news to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever reason, we might initially deem beyond the pale. Mark wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people that God sends our way. If we are to be open to the Spirit, we need to be willing to change our attitudes and shift our priorities if that’s what it takes to be loving toward everyone we meet.
The story of the deaf man continues this theme, and points clearly to Jesus’ messianic identity. It’s a tender story, really. It is a common experience of deaf people to be left out of what’s going on, and so it has tremendous significance that Jesus takes the time to notice this man, and takes him aside, apart from the crowd, to give him personal attention. Because he cannot hear or speak plainly, Jesus enacts what he is about to do: He puts his hands in the man’s ears and touches his tongue with spittle. (In those days people believed that spittle had a curative quality.) He looks up to heaven to show that it is from God that help is to come. Finally he speaks the word – ephphata, “be opened” in Aramaic – and the man is healed.
The way Jesus deals with this man shows us that he does not consider him to be just another case; he sees and treats him as a unique individual, recognizing the dignity that belongs to every human being by taking him aside and by communicating with him in a way he could understand.
So these stories reveal to us the nature and breadth of Jesus’ ministry, and ours. It is a ministry of compassion that extends to everyone, “outsiders” as well as “insiders.” There are, as St Paul says, no dividing walls now. All are welcomed. Anyone seeking healing and wholeness, or simply in need of good news, is to be responded to with love. And it is a ministry with messianic overtones. Jesus’ healing of the deaf man recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah who predicted that, when the Messiah comes, “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” (Isa. 35:5,6). Jesus’ actions bring to remembrance those words and, in the next chapter of Mark’s gospel, they will inspire Peter to confess that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited “Messiah” (Mark 8:29). In Mark’s gospel, this knowledge is to remain secret until the time is right, but here we see that Jesus’ presence in Tyre “could not escape notice” (7:24) and then, even though he urges the crowd to keep silent about the healing of the deaf man, “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (7:36). There is no hiding the revelation of Jesus, though it can be perceived only by faith.
The people respond positively to these acts of healing. “He has done all things well,” they say. These miracle stories impress and comfort us. They reveal God’s power, and the deep compassion that characterizes the heart of God and the life and ministry of Jesus, God’s Son.
There is another question remaining, that we might try to say something about. A deaf friend of mine, after reading this story, wondered aloud, “What about me?” It’s a legitimate question, and we ought to point out that even in Jesus’ day, not every deaf person was healed, not every blind person received his sight, not every lame person walked again, not every dead person was raised. Though we know and savor the miracles of Jesus, they end up being relatively few in number, touching only a small portion of the population of Palestine in his day.
“Sometimes I wonder if the miracle stories in the Bible do more harm than good,” writes noted author Barbara Brown Taylor. “They are spectacular stories, most of them, and there is a lot of comfort to be had from watching Jesus still the storm, heal the sick, raise the dead. His miracles remind us that the way things are is not the way they will always be…”
“The problem with miracles,” she says, “is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own… [but] most people do not get a miracle, and one of the meanest things religious people can do is to blame it on a lack of faith.” Taylor recalls her experience as a hospital chaplain, encountering well-meaning Christians who came to pray with the sick, but often left patients feeling that the reason they were not cured was because they lacked sufficient faith. She writes, “I believe the church people were well-intentioned. I also believe they had gotten mixed up about what causes miracles. They thought faith made miracles happen. They thought miracles happen along the same lines as those strength tests you used to see at county fairs. It was all a matter of how hard you could hit the thing with the sledgehammer. If you were really strong, you could ring the bell. And if you were not, well, better luck next time… It helps me to remember that Jesus prayed for a miracle on the night before he died. ‘For you, all things are possible,’ he prayed to his abba. ‘Remove this cup from me.’ Only when he opened his eyes, the cup was still there. Did he lack faith? I do not think so. The miracle was that he drank the cup, believing in the power of God more than he believed in his own. I do not expect any of us will stop praying for miracles. I hope not, because the world needs all the miracles it can get. Every time you hear about one, remember that you are getting a preview of the kingdom. There is simply no formula for success, which is a real relief for those of us who cannot seem to ring the bell.” [i]
The power of God at work in and through Jesus, the power of God at work in and through us, is but a sign of things to come. The author of the Gospel of John expresses this when he chooses the word “signs” to describe the acts of Jesus rather than “miracles.” They are signs of what will be, of things yet to come, that give us life and hope in the present. The promise is extended to all – “insiders” and “outsiders” alike. Whoever you are, you are welcome.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels (Cowley Publications, 1997, pp.136-140).
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