24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
A journalist once had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa and so he said “Mother
Teresa, you believe in God so I guess you must pray regularly”. “Yes, I do” came her reply. “So what do you say?” asked the Journalist. “Oh mostly I just listen”, she said. Thinking that he now had a great scoop, the very words of God to Mother Teresa he said “Ah, so what does God said to you?” “Oh mostly he just listens too”.
I would like to talk about listening to God, just a little bit, because I am drawn to the word “Ephphatha” that Jesus said – opening the deaf man’s ears – and I feel strongly that we too need to be able to hear God’s voice as a Parish so that we might walk in the right paths.
But I have to first unpack the first story because it is perhaps one of the most fascinating and challenging stories in the bible. It throws up questions of discrimination and questions of Jesus’s divinity and humanity. So Jesus is possibly tired and fed up, he doesn’t want to be noticed, but a Gentile woman finds him and begs him to get rid of a demon in her daughter. I tend to think that “demon possession” in their terms was either something like epilepsy or mental illness.
So Jesus responds saying that the children should be fed first and it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. What a horrible response – the woman would be well aware that the Jews referred to non-Jews as dogs. There is that famous prayer that Jewish men at the time used to pray – “Thank-you God that you didn’t make me a gentile, or a woman, or a dog”.
Admittedly, the word used in this text is “little dogs” rather than “dogs”, but I don’t think it makes it any better – it is dehumanising – I find it frightening when any group diminishes another, dehumanises them, because once we do that we can make them other than ourselves and treat them badly.
The woman responds that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the children’s table. And Jesus is impressed by this response and tells her that her child has been healed.
There are two possible interpretations of this story – the first is that Jesus is learning – that he listens to the woman and learns from her, and indeed this changes his ministry. The story is set between two mass feedings – and the symbolism and locations of these meals suggest that the first was for Jews and the second for Gentiles, the “dogs” suddenly finding themselves at the table and no longer eating the crumbs. This reading of the story would suggest that Jesus in his humanity had to learn to be Christ in his divinity. I quite like this idea – I am doubtful that when Jesus was a child he had the wisdom of Christ, I doubt that in his essays at school he wrote things like “God is love and all who live in love, live in God and God lives in them”. I doubt he said to his brothers “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called Children of God”. On this day Jesus learned something about equality between races that undid the racist teaching that he had learned before. Jesus then has a time of ministry to the Gentiles, the story marks a turning point.
The second interpretation is that Jesus is testing the woman and she comes through with flying colours. The woman is remarkably persistent – under the circumstances – she has been put down, insulted and she still keeps going. I dislike this because I find it insulting, the notion of Jesus testing her, especially in the context of the insult. But it does preserve the notion of Jesus being unchanging, emphasising the divinity of God.
How do you see Jesus? Do you see him learning? I think that is the reading that I take, in which case if it is ok for Jesus to be wrong sometimes, to learn from others, to be challenged and change his mind, then it is surely ok for us too.
Moving on to the story of the deaf man hearing, the reason I think we need to listen to God, particularly at this time, is because times are hard in the parish. Over the last few years the numbers of people who have attended our three churches has reduced probably from 134 per week to 87 per week. The amount of money we spend has stayed constant at about 45k per year, before paying our parish share, but our income has gone from 108k to 78k over the past four years. Alan will preach about this next week, but we the long and the short of it is we can’t afford to replace Carol, and the Vicarage will be let until the situation changes.
These numbers look depressing, and they need facing, but my belief is that God is with us, God will lead us through this. And in the meantime my hope is that we will come together more closely as a parish, we will need to work together, to help each other. My belief is that churches have seasons, and at the moment it is Winter, but Spring is coming. This belief has been strengthened by experiencing once again such a strong call to come here and it has been strengthened by finding such faithful people and the warmth of the welcome and friendship when we arrived. I am convinced that together we will have the persistence of the Syrophoenician woman to work though this, the humility of Jesus to hear others and change where we need to, and I believe that Spring will come. I hope that you will also have that belief. Amen.