Isaiah 35: 4-7a. Mark 7: 24-37
Here is a sentence you will not often hear me utter.
I feel sorry for David Cameron.
Back in the middle of August he made an unguarded comment about the ‘swarm’ of migrants waiting to cross the English Channel. He was immediately accused of dehumanizing desperate people who often risk their lives to get to a country where they believe their lives will be safer.
In just the last two weeks the word ‘swarm’ has come back to haunt David Cameron, as we have all been shocked by the stories of people dying in lorries in Austria, crowds desperate to board trains in Hungary and of course this week’s terrible image of 2 year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who died in the sea off Turkey together with his mother and brother.
Suddenly we are waking up to the idea that these are people who need to be helped, not a sub-human ‘swarm’, a pest and a problem.
I feel sorry for David Cameron because I doubt that he meant his words to be dismissive or hurtful, he was perhaps just echoing the sentiments so often used in some of our newspapers, until this week.
I hope that perhaps if he heard today’s Gospel reading David Cameron might take comfort in the fact that even Jesus gets it wrong.
The Syrophoenican woman – someone today we might call a Syrian – is a Gentile, a non-Jew. It was common practice in Jesus’ time for Gentiles to be referred to by Jews as ‘dogs’. The first shock to our modern ears comes when Jesus does that, too. The Syrian woman wants help for her little daughter and kneels at Jesus feet to beg for help.
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’.
There really is no way of dressing this up – Jesus calls her a dog.
We might expect her to either slink away, rebuked for bothering the Jewish healer, or even to react in anger – having come for help, not abuse. But the woman’s reply is courteous and quick ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.’
Jesus replies ‘For saying that, you may go- the demon has left your daughter.’
However shocked we may be that Jesus calls her a dog in the first place, Jesus’ disciples must have been really shocked first by her reply and then by Jesus’ response in healing the girl. The rabbi has made it clear he is here for the children (of Israel) not the foreigners they call ‘dogs’ – but Jesus changes his mind and heals the Syrian girl.
Jesus changes his mind? Can we believe that Jesus can change his mind? And what does it mean for the gospel if he does?
Mark pairs this story with the story of the deaf man, in the region of the Decapolis – the ten towns. This is an area where the Gentiles would have been in the majority, in other words Jesus returns to Galilee via even more foreigners, proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing those who come to him.
It seems that Jesus has seen, through the encounter with the Syrian woman, that the gospel of God’s love is not just for the Jewish people, but for everyone.
And what does Jesus do for the deaf man who can hardly speak? He heals him of course, but he uses this colourful word ‘Ephphatha – be opened’.
When this reading was last set in the lectionary – three years ago – the then Pope, Benedict, said that this word described Jesus’ mission in one word ‘Ephphatha’. What does it mean for the gospel to be summed up in the command ‘Be opened’?
If Jesus himself has just had his vision of the Gospel expanded & his mind change by what happen in Tyre, perhaps ‘be opened’ refers to our minds.
Perhaps we need to accept that we see Jesus doing what Isaiah promises when he says “here is your God…he will come to save you.. the ears of the deaf will be unstopped”. But Jesus does not come for the children of Israel but for the ones whom they thought of as dogs – the foreign ‘swarm’.
Perhaps, like the deaf man, ‘ephphatha’ refers to our ears – let your ears be opened & listen to what God is saying around you. What is our proper response to people fleeing violence and poverty and fear?
Perhaps it refers to our churches – be opened – recognise that this gospel is for everyone, not just for the few who are like you. Let you doors be opened to the misfits and the unwanted and the desperate.
Perhaps David Cameron needs to think about what it means for our borders and our hearts to be opened and to be ready to respond to the needy with love, not scorn.
As we gather at the communion table we need to open our hands and our mouths to receive what Jesus gives us.
I pray we will also open our hearts and minds – to receive all that the gospel has to give – a message of grace and love and acceptance – for you for me for everyone.
Be opened. Receive. Amen.