The scriptures referred to are Mark 7:24-37 and James 2:1-17.
There is a sad display going on right now in the social media. Because of the number of shootings of unarmed African Americans and deaths while in police custody (11, nearly one a month, in the last year) a movement called Black Lives Matter has arisen. You see the hashtag next to stories about such incidents, and even events like the shooting of 4 pastors and 5 parishioners in a black church by a white supremacist in Charleston. Basically they are spotlighting the fact that this happens to blacks an inordinate amount of the time, often over minor incidents like a broken taillight or an incomplete stop.
But some have apparently interpreted the hashtag to imply that other lives don't matter. So we see the hashtag Blue Lives Matter highlighting the gun deaths of cops which was up to 48 in 2014, though lower than 7 of the last 9 years. (Actually over the last 10 years slightly more officers are killed in incidents with vehicles, either in accidents or being struck by cars.) And we would be churlish to deny that law enforcement officers put their lives on the line daily. But the overwhelming majority of intentional killings of officers are shootings. The deaths protested in Black Lives Matter are those of unarmed African American civilians. They were not killed in shootouts with police. So the two movements are not focusing on the same phenomenon. They are parallel tragedies. Only the unreflective see these as some kind of zero sum game.
Imagine you were reading a book on violent deaths in America. The passages on the deaths of unarmed blacks by cops are highlighted in brown by Black Lives Matter. The passages on the deaths of cops by armed criminals of all races are highlighted in blue by Blue Lives Matter. The two don't overlap. You could call the book All Lives Matter, if you like. But the highlighting is important because each is a serious problem and needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.
Nevertheless some people apparently think that to acknowledge one of these is to somehow deny the other. And I see posts on Facebook that make it seem like it's some kind of competition between which group has the most victims or lack of media attention. If so then women would win this grim contest because between 1000 and 1600 die every year due to domestic violence. If we highlighted those passages in pink, there were be twenty times more pink passages in our book than blue or brown.
It's not a competition. There's no reason we can't admit that all 3 are major problems that need to be addressed and that each calls for a different set of preventive measures.
James, the brother of Jesus and the head of the church in Jerusalem, was dismayed at seeing discrimination in the body of Christ. Deferential treatment was being given to the wealthier members of the church. The poor were being treated as an afterthought. And that was not right.
And people were distorting Paul's teaching of salvation by grace through faith to mean that one did not have to do any good works after being saved either. That's like thinking after you got a liver transplant you don't have to change your habits and can go back to drinking all night. The purpose of salvation is to save you from what you become without God. We cannot save ourselves by good works but only by the action of God in Christ. But once saved we do good works for the same reason a person who had life-giving surgery adopts healthy habits. To do otherwise is to go against the very reason you needed to be restored in the first place.
James is saying that if you really have faith in God, you will act in love, just as if you are following doctor's post-op orders, your blood pressure should be normal, your heart beat should be steady and you should be able to exercise again. If not, something's wrong for those are symptoms of good health. If you accepted the riches of God's grace and love to save your life, you should be sharing those blessings in concrete ways with others. If not, there's something wrong for those are symptoms of spiritual health. Love impels us to help those we love. As Christians we are to love our enemies, our neighbors and each other in the body of Christ. A person saved by Jesus should be unable to let anyone starve or go cold.
We have a lot of problems in this country that are failures of compassion. Treating people differently based on things like race, economic status, what country they come from, what gender they identify with, what gender they love, or anything else is not Christian. Jesus didn't decide he would die for some people but not others. He died for all. (2 Corinthians 5:15) Which means he hasn't written anyone off and neither can we.
In fact when Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged,” the Greek word krino can also mean “condemn” and “sentence.” So Jesus is telling us not to condemn or pass a verdict on someone. We do not know the whole story on anyone; only God does. This doesn't mean we can't judge actions, words or thoughts as being good or bad, spiritually healthy or unhealthy. And I think it is legitimate to point out actual contradictions between what people say and what they do, as Jesus did. But we cannot see into people's hearts or futures or know all the experiences that shaped them for good or ill. Their ultimate fate is God's alone to determine.
This is why prejudice is bad. It is bad reasoning and it is immoral. To look at someone and judge them by their color, their gender, their clothing, their culture, their language, their religion, their apparent wealth or lack of it, where they live or where they came from is wrong. As God says to Samuel, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
In fact the whole Bible consists of story after story in which God uses unlikely people to do his will. He picks an old man and his post-menopausal wife to be the ancestors of his people. He chooses the second son who is essentially a conman to father the 12 tribes of Israel. He chooses a slave in prison to save a nation from famine. He chooses a stutterer to be his spokesman before Pharaoh. He chooses a prostitute to help his people bring down the walls of Jericho. He chooses a man who breaks his vows to defeat the Philistines. He chooses a womanizing shepherd to be king of Israel. He chooses the fiance of a poor carpenter to bear his son. He chooses a hotheaded fisherman to lead his apostles. He uses a zealous pure-blooded Pharisee to bring his message to the Gentiles. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Samson, David, Mary, Peter and Paul were not the people we would choose to do God's will. God saw in them things we would not have seen. So much for prejudice.
In today's gospel, Jesus deals with 2 people that most folks would write off. I want to deal with the deaf and mute man first before we get to the trickier story of the Gentile woman.
Jesus was in the Decapolis,which simply means the Ten Towns. It is a largely pagan area to the east of the Jordan River. And even here people have heard of his healings. So they bring him a man who can neither hear or speak. Or perhaps he cannot speak very clearly, for that's what the Greek implies. And if he could speak but not well, that means he may have been able to hear at some point but lost his hearing, perhaps as a child. The only reason Helen Keller could learn to speak was that she lost her hearing (and sight) at age of 19 months. In fact the breakthrough for her came when she connected the sensation of feeling water and the spoken word for it she learned before her illness with the finger signs her teacher Anne Sullivan made into her hand. That's why when Jesus healed him, the man was able to speak. He had heard words before he lost his hearing.
The problem is that Jesus was not a magician. He did not mumble magic words or use magic items to heal. He healed those who trusted him. Faith in him was the key element which is why he was not able to heal many in his hometown. They could not stop looking at him as the kid who grew up among them and see him instead as God's anointed. But how is Jesus to communicate with a deaf man and let him know what he intended to do so the man could put his faith in him?
Jesus adapts to the situation. He meets the man at his level and mimes what he is going to do. He puts his fingers in the man's ears, first stopping and then unstopping them to let him know he is going to heal them. Then he spat, that is, made something come out of his mouth, and touched his finger to the man's tongue, letting him know that soon things will be coming out of the afflicted man's mouth and off his tongue. Jesus then looks up to heaven and sighs dramatically, letting the man know that his healing is coming from God. He says, “Be opened,” not in a secret, magic language, but in Aramaic, his everyday language.
The man gets Jesus' meaning and reacts, talking clearly for the first time in ages. He hears the ambient noise of the world, Jesus' feet shifting on the floor, his own voice speaking. He hears Jesus tell him not to publicize this but, hey, now that this marvelous thing has happened to him and he can talk once more, how can he keep silent? And everyone is amazed.
Now what does this have to do with prejudice? Those who were deaf were classified with other groups like women, slaves, minors and the mentally ill as people not educated enough to keep the law. This man was probably treated at best as one does a developmentally disabled child, not as an adult able to think and make decisions for himself. Now he could be fully a part of the community. He could go to the temple and not be excluded as imperfect. Jesus showed how fluid and superficial the categories between acceptable and unacceptable are.
Now let's go to the story that immediately proceeds the healing of the deaf man. But before that let us remember last week's gospel. Jesus essentially says that what goes into you, including non-Kosher foods, doesn't make you unclean. He says it is what is comes out of us, out of our hearts, our sinful intentions turned into immoral words and works, that make us unclean.
Again Jesus is in a largely pagan area, the region of Tyre. A Gentile woman comes to him. She is Syrophoenician, meaning she comes from the same stock as evil Queen Jezebel. Furthermore, she comes from an area with heavy Greek influence. She could well have shrines to Zeus and other gods in her home. She is by definition unclean.
She asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Now Jesus had just said that externals don't make you unclean, only what is in your heart. He is not a pagan magician. He needs her to trust him. But how does he find out what is in her heart? How does he see if she truly has faith in him and in the true God?
He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is probably quoting a popular proverb here. Jews did not, despite what some say, routinely call Gentiles dogs. True, dogs were seen as scavengers by the Jews, but Greek influenced households kept them as pets. So the woman would have heard this differently. Even pets are not fed before the children and the children's food is not first offered to the pets.
Jesus is saying that the primary focus of his ministry, with its fast approaching end, is the children of Israel. God has spent a lot of time working with his people, laying down the foundation of what kind of God he is—just but merciful, gracious and loving, the one who provided Abraham with the sacrifice in place of Isaac, and who inspired Isaiah to speak of his servant whose suffering brings healing to others. And yet God's people are still slow in picking up who Jesus is and what he is doing, despite all the prophesies in the Hebrew scriptures and all the healings he has done. He has to work with them further. The disciples, his future apostles, will be sent to the Gentiles. And they are, by the way, listening to this exchange. They are probably scandalized by the woman's presence in this house. Jesus needs them to see what is in her heart as well, if they are to get even an inkling of what Jesus meant by what is and is not unclean.
Now the woman could have given up after hearing what Jesus said. She could have just dismissed Jesus as a stubborn Jew and accepted the cosmic unfairness of the Jewish God. But she is a mother. A mother with a sick child. She is not done yet. She still has hope and she is persistent, something Jesus admires in people coming to God for help.
She takes what Jesus said and wryly extents the logic of the proverb. True, we don't feed our pets in lieu of feeding our children. But the pets get the crumbs that drop from the childrens' table. In fact, if her situation is anything like what I've seen with my little ex-patient and with my granddaughter, the kids deliberately drop food to the animals to see them feed. You put a kid in a high chair and if there are dogs in the house, they will crowd around the high chair, worshipfully and attentively waiting for manna to drop from heaven in the form of tater tots, green beans, bread and if they are lucky, meat. Dogs aren't picky, just grateful.
One other point. The woman addresses Jesus as kurios, “Lord” in Greek. Now it could also be translated “sir” as our lectionary does. But the fact is that in Mark's gospel, nobody, not even the disciples, call Jesus “Lord”--except this woman.
Jesus sees that the woman has faith. Instead of leaving and going to some pagan temple to ask some other deity to heal her daughter, she sticks with Jesus and shows she is putting all her faith in him. And he replies, “For saying that, you may go— (I wonder if she was worried for a second that he was offended and dismissing her)—the demon has left your daughter.” (For they believed that illness was caused by invisible-to-the-eye beings called demons whereas we believe they are caused by invisible-to-the-eye beings called germs.)
This woman made an impression because her story is told not only in Mark, the earliest gospel, but is repeated in Matthew, a gospel that appears to have been written to Jewish Christians. She is an example of finding great faith in the heart of someone you wouldn't have originally judged to have had it.
Prejudice is as old as mankind. It may even start in infancy. A recent study showed that babies have a hard time distinguishing individual faces in races they haven't encountered. In other words, people of different races all look alike to them. But babies who have interacted with people of other races can pick out individual faces from others of the same race. So experience with people different from ourselves can help.
And quite apart from the fact that God made us all in his image, we need to get over our racism and jingoism and xenophobia and parochialism for another reason. We are the dominant species on this planet. Regardless of how you feel about global warming, it is impossible for 7 billion beings with loads of scientific know-how and industrial capabilities not to be affecting our planet in major ways. We need everyone to cooperate if we are going to keep the earth habitable. And I mean everyone. Rosalind Franklin, a Jewish woman, did the crucial research that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Dr. Samuel Kountz, an African American surgeon, performed the first successful kidney transplant between humans who were not identical twins and developed the prototype for the machine that can preserve kidneys for 50 hours so they can be transplanted. It is now standard equipment in hospitals and labs. Ajay Bhatt, an Indian American computer architect, was co-inventor of the USB. Dr. Kenneth Matsumura, a Japanese American scientist, invented the Bio-Artificial Liver, which buys people with a damaged liver time to get a transplant. The lithium batteries in your cell phone, PC and iPad were invented by Rachid Yamazi, a Moroccan and French scientist. The first total artificial heart was invented by Dr. Domingo Liotta, an Argentinian cardiac surgeon. And we have WiFi and Bluetooth thanks to scientific developments made during World War 2 by Austrian American actress, Hedy Lamarr! Everyone has a gift to share.
The world seems to be Balkanizing, devolving into smaller and smaller groups based on nationality, race, language, culture, and even sexual preferences and identities. We are so intent on raising the awareness of all the different varieties of human beings that we are chipping away at the awareness that we are all one species. Tribalism is increasing. And as Christians we need to be on the forefront on bringing people together. Christianity is after all global and is growing in places like Africa, South America and Asia. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4 Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa and 1 in 8 lives in Asia and the Pacific. The number of Christians in those two areas is roughly equal to the number of Christians in the Americas. There is no longer a place that can be called the global center of Christianity. Which I'm sure is how God wants it to be.
God is love. God commands us to love one another. So hatred or indifference to others are anti-Christian. We need to work for justice and equality and freedom and respect for all. Yes, certain groups that have been singled out for abuse and injustice need special attention. But we must see past these superficial characteristics and treat each other as fellow creatures made in the image of the God who is love.