September 6, 2015 Mark 7: 24-37
Rev. Catherine Purves
What are we supposed to do when Jesus says something or does something that seems completely out of character? Today’s reading illustrates that this does sometimes happen. How do you explain away the pieces of the gospel puzzle that just don’t seem to fit? Does the presence of these awkward quotes and peculiar actions unnerve you? How can we make sense of them, and how can we explain them to others when someone asks us, “Did he really say that?” and “Did he really do that?” If what we say and what we do reveals something important about who we are, then what do these two strange stories from the Gospel of Mark really tell us about Jesus?
I realize that was a lot of questions to encounter in the first paragraph of a sermon. Many, if not most, of us don’t come to church on a Sunday looking for perplexing questions to ponder. We have plenty of perplexing questions already, in other areas of our lives. What we want here is assurance and answers that will support us when we have to deal with a difficult diagnosis, family problems, financial worries, and those unexpected tragedies that always seem to hit us broadside. Answers, not more questions, is what we want.
Fair enough. But we all know – because we’ve had them dished out to us time and again – we all know that shallow and simplistic answers are not going to help us. In the long run, they offer no real hope, and in the short term, they often become just one more burden for us to bear. If you’ve ever spent time in a funeral home or in a hospital waiting room, you know this is true. Sometimes well-meaning people go to great efforts to assure you that there is a silver lining in every cloud, that everything is going to work out, that there is nothing to worry about, which amounts to saying that the pain and confusion that are tearing you apart don’t matter, because, according to those givers of free advice, everything happens for a reason and you’ll see that, eventually. But the truth of the matter is that nothing is that simple, that hope is hard, and that faith in a Jesus who is sometimes hard to know and understand is a challenge. The only way we can tackle that challenge is by facing up to our tough questions. Living with the questions is how we live in faith.
When confronted with the two stories we read from the Gospel of Mark today, we have to be wondering, whatever happened to gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the one who loved all people no matter who they were? Did he really say, in response to a mother’s plea, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did he really say that? And having just healed a little girl of demon-possession long distance with no visible effort, why then did he resort to sticking his fingers in someone’s ears, spitting on his tongue, sighing as he looked up to heaven, and saying, like a typical 1st century physician, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.” Poking and spitting and sighing – did he really do that?
Oh, we could possibly come up with some sort of ‘explanation’ or justification for why Jesus said something like that about a sick little Gentile girl, calling her a dog who shouldn’t be fed. And we could maybe excuse the poking and spitting and sighing as behaviors that would be understandable in that culture. But somehow these strange statements and behaviors don’t fit our picture of who Jesus was. Do we need to adjust that picture? How unnerving that would be.
I’ve said that there is no simple answer to these questions, so I’m not going to be able to give you one. The only ‘answers’ I’ve found in Bible commentaries were unconvincing to me. I’m as puzzled by these statements and actions of Jesus as you are. All I can do is share with you how I cope with the lack of answers and with the fact that faith is not simple, life is not easy, and our knowledge of God is limited.
First, let me draw your attention to the closing words of John’s Gospel. Every time I read these words, I am amazed at how John has once again turned my/our limited understanding into awe and acceptance. Referring to himself, someone who knew and loved Jesus, he says, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” We rely on the biblical witness to Jesus Christ. The testimony of those who wrote the Gospels is true, but it’s anything but simple. These testimonies sometimes conflict with one another. They reflect what four different individuals saw and understood about Jesus. That is what makes our understanding of Jesus multi-dimensional and not a flat uninspired list of events and sayings. Jesus was a real person. The pieces of his story that don’t fit seamlessly into a simplistic view of Jesus accentuate the fact that Jesus was a flesh and blood Savior, not a cardboard cut-out of some idealized messiah figure.
This is emphasized even more in the final verse of John’s Gospel. It is a humble recognition of the fact that we can only ever know Jesus in a limited way. John writes, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” We don’t know everything. We can’t know everything. And some of what we do know surprises and confuses us.
The Gospels don’t present us with an airtight case for faith. They point to a person of infinite complexity who has the capacity to surprise and shock us, to inspire and captivate us. We are only ever getting to know this Jesus by asking our questions, puzzling over the answers, stretching our imaginations, and recognizing that, at the end of the day, all we can do is trust in the witnesses who present their incomplete stories about Jesus, and then try to draw near to the Savior in faith.
How we respond when people ask us, “Did he really say that?” and “Did he really do that?” is one of the challenges of our faith. Our response need not be defensive, however. Jesus doesn’t need us to defend him. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t understand that myself, but let me tell you why I am a follower of Jesus.” I truly believe that Jesus was God’s Son. The questions I have about him don’t change the faith that I have in him. He was fully divine, but he was fully human too. We don’t know what he liked to eat for breakfast, or the true nature of his innermost private and prayerful struggles. In so many ways, his life is a mystery to us. And yet, on the other hand, we know so much when we put together the stories, the sayings, the parables, and the collected memories of the people who knew him during those three brief years of ministry. We have a picture of him that is incomplete, but that has the capacity to keep on growing as we relate to him as our Living Lord.
So when I read stories like those of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf, mute man who was healed, I take a step back, and set them in the context of everything else that I know about Jesus. And then I am drawn to the conclusions of each of these stories. Because Jesus was moved by the woman’s love for her daughter, and he did heal that little girl. And while the strange healing techniques employed by Jesus in the second story may confound us, the man was cured; that’s the important thing. And the response of his friends surely indicates that those techniques were not a stumbling block for them. Mark tells us, “They were astounded beyond measure, saying ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” No matter what questions we might have about these stories, it is clear that the desperate mother and the man and his friends were, at the end of it all, simply thankful for all that Jesus had done.
And when we think about all that Jesus has done – and we can come up with a whole lot of intriguing and important questions about that – but when we reflect, faithfully and prayerfully, on who Jesus is and what he has done for us, those other, smaller questions will find a place for themselves in that bigger picture, and they will lose their power to upset or unnerve us. We don’t know all that there is to know about Jesus. We don’t have answers to every one of our questions. But we are getting to know Jesus more and more, and that is an adventure well worth taking!