PENTECOST 14, SEPTEMBER 10, 2006
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the unclean spirit has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, perfectly well.”
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee, and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him,“ Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (NIV)
LOVE BEHIND THE SECRET DOOR
A recent bestseller invited readers to consider who the ten most interesting people to meet in heaven might be. Quite apart from famous names and controversial characters, I think the most interesting people for me to meet might be those about whom I know all too little and whose secret beckons me to learn more. What interests me about people is not what I know, but what I don’t know. For example, just to pick a few people at random, I would be interested in what history doesn’t tell us about St. Paul or Abraham Lincoln or Marilyn Monroe. Was St. Paul married? An interesting theory suggests that his wife may have divorced him because there was a legitimate basis for divorce in Judaism if a spouse committed apostasy? And, so goes the theory, that a divorce may have given Paul some negative vibes about women. What did Lincoln really understand about the economic complications in the Southern states? Was his concern about slavery merely a political or moral issue around which to rally abolitionists and others? What did Marilyn Monroe understand her self-worth to be in the face of her many affairs? Was her suicide really a suicide? Those are the kinds of things I’d like to ask those people should I have a chance to meet them and explore their secrets.
Likewise, as with most people, I too would like to meet Jesus of Nazareth, although perhaps for unusual reasons. The Gospels give us a lot of information about him, but they are sketchy accounts of a life. Hardly full biographies, the Gospels are theological documents which share what certain writers and certain schools of writers thought it important for readers to know. What they don’t tell us, or just hint at, are the things I find interesting.
Today’s Gospel, being a story about two healings, hints at other things that are more interesting to me than the healings themselves. In each of the two accounts, there are comments made by the writer which leave the secret door open, encouraging us to wonder what’s really there. I suggest that it might be interesting for us to explore these hints in order to learn more about Jesus and to learn more about his attitude toward people like us.
I. The Secret behind the Man
In the first story, we have a remarkable encounter between Jesus and a Gentile woman, specifically a Phoenician woman with ties to Syria. It is the first recorded miracle involving a non-Jew and it is the only story which provides conversation between Jesus and a non-Jew which raises eyebrows for the reader. The woman asks Jesus for his help for her daughter and Jesus answers that the children at the table should be fed first, not the dogs. The woman replies that even the dogs get the scraps that fall on the floor.
This is an amazing story. One might thing, because of the potentially negative image it gives of Jesus, that such a story might have been omitted by one who was collecting stories about Jesus. However, perhaps those who wrote this down originally, had seen the wink in Jesus’ eye as he participated in this conversation. Perhaps they who shared it with us wanted to take us beyond the secret door to see how Jesus really was. Elton Trueblood, in his classic titled The Humor of Jesus,
suggests that Jesus is playing with the women here. He is in Gentile territory, he knows that Jews refer to the Phoenicians as dogs, and, controversial as it may be, he plays with her and she plays right back. Her quick wit causes Jesus to respond to her positively and to assure her that what she hoped for had come to pass.
I am less interested in those things which tantalize commentators, such as was this a healing at a distance or a healing involving Jesus’ omniscience. I leave that to those who love peccadilloes. What interests me here is that I get a glimpse of Jesus as a person like you and me, a man with a sense of humor, a man with a common touch, whose style with people may have been more fascinating that the average zip-zap healing story might lead one to believe.
The second healing concerns a man who had a speech impediment probably because he was also deaf. People brought him to Jesus, also in non-Jewish territory, in the hopes of providing a healing for him. I’m not particularly sure why the writer tells us that people were astonished at this miracle unless it was among the earlier ones. However, there are two items in the account which take us behind the scenes, again opening a secret door for us, letting us know something about Jesus as he was.
First, this is one of those rare accounts worth remembering, one in which Mark tells his Greek-speaking audience that the word which Jesus used here is in his mother tongue, Aramaic. Mark tells us that Jesus said “Ephphatha,” a word meaning “be opened.” Apparently, there was something simple, down to earth, about Jesus approach that caught the attention of those who remembered it for us. After all, there were many miracle healers in Jesus’ day, and many had complicated incantations and spells which gave the impression that something really big was about to happen. Further, Mark tells us that Jesus tells the people to keep mum about this incident, surely encouraging them to blab the event to everyone they met. And that of course is just what they did.
Many scholars from Wrede on have attempted to analyze Mark’s description of this technique of Jesus, used more than just here, and have referred to it as the Marcan Secret, even suggesting that Mark’s writer contrived this approach to build interest as the reader moves toward the revelation of Jesus’ true identity after the resurrection. However, it can also be true that among Jesus’ concerns was a desire to simply be who he was in the midst of growing popularity and controversy, a man who had a growing need to affirm people in his own way without being set center stage..
In any case, both of these incidents allow us to see Jesus in a new and different light. They picture him in both cases in his full humanity as a genuinely real and caring person, even if having a rather unique style of interaction. These images dilute the wonderworker and heroic leader image, presenting Jesus, behind the secret door, as an approachable and truly interesting person.
II. The Man and his Affirmation
There is something else that is very striking to me in these stories. Both those who experienced these events as well as the writer himself could have recognized something problematic in these stories and could have chosen to omit them. Were Jesus being sarcastic or condescending to the woman or were Jesus a grandstander who was trying to rally crowds as he built his case for a confrontation with the authorities in Jerusalem, these details could have been omitted. However, there is something affirming about these incidents, helping us to see who Jesus was for others and who he is for us.
It’s important for us to see that even though there were potential conflicts between the Messiah of the Jews and Gentiles across the border, Jesus had a style about him which was both intriguing and affirming. And just as one more deaf and dumb man needed not to be dealt with, this man across the Jewish border was, from the writers’ standpoint, as important as any other. To Mark, this was a story-- this was an “Ephphatha”-- worth remembering.
Personally, I appreciate Mark’s approach because I am not only fascinated by what I don’t know about Jesus and what these stories reveal. I’m very interested in whether he knows and cares about me. These stories with their interest in hidden details tell me that Jesus cares not just about Gentiles on the Syrian border, but Gentiles like you and me. He is capable of knowing our hurts, our guilt, our desires and our needs. He also wants to bring us out of our deafness and dumbness and help our tongues to sing songs of hope and praise. (Is. 35:5)
I’m writing this sermon from Mwika, Tanzania, on the slopes of Kilimanjaro where I’m serving as interim professor. Across from the window of the guest house in which I’m staying is a 100 year old parsonage built by the first missionary who came from Germany to evangelize this place. The parsonage is empty but I know that it contains a secret. I cannot enter the large double-doors, but I can peek in the windows. I can tell that this room was the pastor’s study with the bookshelves and the repository for the communion wine. I can see that other rooms were living areas, large enough to entertain people, dining rooms and kitchens large enough to host and befriend guests. There is much that I can’t tell from just this building, but there are other things here which tell me more. I can tell that there was great love expended here because there is a large church and a college campus here. Music fills the air as various choirs practice and musicians perform to sing God’s praise. An office helps 13,000 orphans in Tanzania, largely the result of HIV/AIDS. Congregations throughout the Kilimanjaro region, tracing their roots to this place, regularly gather to celebrate God’s blessings in their lives. I can’t open the double doors of the parsonage, but I know that behind them, there are still wonderful secrets telling of the affirming love of the first pastor and his wife who lived there.
It is just that way with Jesus. Behind the stories of his healings and parables, his teaching and touching, there is so much more. There is an evidence of affirming love that claims people everywhere, including you and me. There is the assurance, hidden within details in the Gospels, that Jesus practiced a love that would not let people go. And more than that, there is the evidence, in the lives of people and in the ministries of churches in our world today that Jesus’ claim on them has been understood and accepted. And at the personal level, in our own lives and the lives of so many around us, there is the assurance that for all those locked up prejudices and antagonisms, burdens and grudges, there is an “Ephphatha” that wants to set us free.
Here at the university in Makumira and the college in Mwika there is a Lutheran family from Sweden, the Loevkvists, father and mother, four children, and soon to be a fifth. They read about the need so serve as volunteers in the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. They thought about all the challenges and problems that might arise for them, but they said, “this is for us. This call has our name on it.” And although their lives are complicated because they teach on different campuses and spend a lot of time driving and getting up at early hours, these two music teachers are sharing a love that will not let them go as they prepare a new generation of church musicians to praise their Lord. There are many secrets we don’t know about them, but we know of their love and it haunts us.
Perhaps there are secrets in your life as well, doors that need to opened, love that wants to be shared. Perhaps just as you have been affirmed by the Savior’s love, you are looking for ways to affirm others. Let someone know about it today. Surprise someone with a secret you’ve been keeping too long, the secret that you too want to be a little Christ to others—that you too care about them more than they may think you do.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus