Hear, Speak, Believe
Mark 7: 24-37
Jesus gets really rough with the people this week. A bereaved but feisty woman comes to Jesus, pleading for her daughter’s healing. Jesus refers to her as a dog and initially makes it pretty clear that she and her daughter are not on his priority list. Then he travels to another town and comes across a deaf man who also can’t speak. What does Jesus do with this poor guy? Jabs his fingers in the man’s ears, spits on him, and grabs at the man’s tongue. Thank God for the healing! Without those bright spots it might be hard to recognize Jesus in these stories.
Last week we heard Jesus sparring with the Pharisees and scribes about purity and whether defilement comes from without or within a person. When he’s done arguing with them he heads out to Tyre and goes straight to someone’s house to hide out. Too late. His reputation precedes him. Even though he’s in Gentile territory here they’ve already heard tell about him and a Gentile woman arrives at the house where he’s staying to see him. She bows down before him and begs him to heal her daughter of demons.
Maybe Jesus is just a little tired and testy. He’s been traveling and he specifically came to this house to lay low for a while. Maybe that’s all true but he also means just what he says. This is his first trip into Gentile territory and he’s really not there for the ministry, but to escape. His mission is to Israel, not to Gentiles. With the woman still bowed down on the floor in her begging posture, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7: 27).
It’s at this point that I am reminded of the great comic film When Harry Met Sally. The two main characters have been friends for a long time and have just started to think maybe there’s more to the relationship. But then Harry gets scared and doesn’t call Sally for weeks. When they meet up at a wedding and he tries to talk to her (as if nothing’s wrong), she calls him on it. In her mind it’s only been several weeks since they’ve seen each other – too soon to make up. In his mind it seems like plenty of time. He tries to explain to her why they’re having such different perceptions of the passing of time. He says, “You know how one year to a person is like seven years to a dog?” And she looks at him and says, “Is one of us supposed to be a dog in this scenario?”
I think about that line when I read this story. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The sting of that insult fresh from the lips of Jesus. A little comic relief wouldn’t be bad. But the Syrophoenician woman isn’t easily offended. She knows exactly which one of them is supposed to be the dog in the scenario Jesus lays out. She knows that whatever she receives will be leftovers after he’s done with Israel and she doesn’t care. She doesn’t miss a beat: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7: 28). And Jesus replies, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7: 29).
One of the things I love about this encounter is that the woman changes Jesus’ mind. When we argue with God it is not just we who are changed. God is changed by the encounters with us, too. That’s the way I’ve read this story for a long time and it’s still part of what I see and hear happening. But this time around I noticed something new. Even though it’s hard not to hear an insult in his words, I noticed that in the very first words he speaks to the woman Jesus leaves the door open a crack. He doesn’t just say that it’s unfair to throw food to the dogs that is rightfully for the children. Before he even gets to that he starts out with, “Let the children be fed first….” “First” connotes that there is a second, that someone else will be fed, too (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, p. 609).
Another thing. Jesus tells the woman her daughter is healed, he does not say “your faith has made her well” as he does in other stories. He says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” For saying that. Normally Jesus makes a slam dunk of his opponents but in his exchange with this woman he lets her words stand (NIB, p. 611). She hears the stories about Jesus, seeks him out because of what she’s heard, and listens when she has the opportunity to speak with him directly. Even when she hears a harsh insult, she uses those very words and images to her advantage. Based on what she’s heard, she turns his words – his dog metaphor – into a statement of truth that he realizes is true. Jesus has ears to hear her, changes his mind or opens it up a bit more (Hearing Mark, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, p. 48). She gives a testimony to the truth of his ministry and for saying that her daughter is healed.
Then Jesus moves on from Tyre and after traveling around ends up south of Galilee. Right away some folks find him and bring him their friend, a deaf and mute man. This time Jesus doesn’t say anything harsh but takes the man off in private. Next Jesus sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, and touches the man’s tongue. After manhandling him, Jesus looks up to the heavens and says a word in Aramaic, meaning “Be opened” (v. 34). Immediately the man can hear and speak. And just as quickly Jesus tells everyone not to tell anyone. They don’t pay him any mind at all and just start talking about how astounded and amazed they are, recounting the healing with more zeal each time he tells them to cut it out.
Imagine that. Imagine that you can’t hear and you can’t speak. The world has been a quiet place of vibrations without sound. Your thoughts have mostly been your own, since you can’t read or write and it’s hard to motion. Food and water are easy enough, but how do you tell someone you’re lonely when you can’t speak? How do you ask someone if they have children or where they’re from? How do you express your condolences at a funeral? Imagine.
And then you hear about this man– well, you don’t really hear much of anything but your friends seem excited and they’re gathered around and they’re talking to some man from out of town. Then they push you towards him and he starts touching you and spitting and looking up at the sky. All of a sudden something changes inside you and there is sound where there was silence and your tongue wants to jump around in your mouth and you hear – you hear! – words coming out of your own mouth.
And the next thing you hear is Jesus saying to keep quiet.
Does this seem strange to you? He’s gone to all this trouble to heal you and the one thing you can do to prove you are healed is the one thing he commands you not to do.
It seems to be film night here because this crazy turn of events reminds me of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. I wasn’t much of a cartoon watcher as a kid but my brother and I loved this particular episode, called “Bugs and Thugs.” We still quote it to each other even now. I’m still not much of a cartoon watcher, but since Woody informs me that these cartoons haven’t been on the air for more than 20 years, I figured I’d better bring a clip so you could see what I mean. [Play DVD clip here]
I have always loved how ridiculous it was for Bugs Bunny to throw himself in front of the one place the thugs are hiding and then, on top of that, to offer up to the cop right away: “He’s not in this stove!” A little like Jesus performing a miraculous healing and then saying, “Don’t ask this guy about it!”
It’s interesting to me that we read these two stories together this week. Why? Other than the fact that they are located right next to each other in Mark’s gospel, what’s the point of the two-for-one lectionary reading this week? As I wondered over that question this week I noticed that the two stories have a couple of things in common.
Both the woman and the man are disobedient in some way. The woman argues with Jesus – kind of like a dog with a bone – until he hears what she says and relents, and heals her daughter. The healed man keeps telling everybody about how he can hear and speak, no matter how many times Jesus tells him to keep it quiet.
Another thing in common is that both the woman and the man give their testimonies. Ryan surprised me at dinner the other night by using the word “testimony” to describe part of what our new worship team will be doing when we visit local churches. As I was talking with the folks at my table, taking care to describe how students might want to offer personal stories about why they are involved at Wesley and what sort of a difference that makes in their lives, Ryan said, “Oh, you mean, like testimonies?” Well, yeah.
The Syrophoenician woman gives her testimony even while Jesus is calling her a dog. She’s heard about him and she speaks the truth about him and his ministry. For saying that Jesus heals her daughter. When she offers up praise and tells the story as she knows it, she receives the healing she came for.
The healed man can’t stop himself from testifying to what Jesus has just done for him – even when Jesus himself orders him to hush up. The only thing that makes sense to him at that moment is to spread the word.
Mark doesn’t tell us everything the man was saying but somehow I doubt that he was asking people if they’d accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. He probably wasn’t reading out loud from the Bible at the amphitheatre. I think he was telling a simple story: There was no sound and now I hear birds. My tongue was frozen in my mouth and now listen to me! I was so broken and so in need of healing, and this man touched me and changed all that.
A simple story, but powerful. Sometimes in the church we leave testimony to the amphitheatre guys. What a shame. Everyone has a story. Each one of us in this room can talk about how God moves in our lives. All of us have questions and problems and worries; all of us have known joy and contentment and peace. What can you say about how you’ve known God through everyday moments like those?
Maybe a better question is: What story have you been keeping quiet and when will you find the voice to tell it?
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis