Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Threatening Miracles


In the gospel lesson for this Sunday (Mark 7:24-37), we encounter two miracles, which Mark has placed back to back. First, Jesus casts a demon out of the the daughter of a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician lineage. Then, Jesus opens the ears and loosens the tongue of a deaf man with a speech impediment. At first glance, they seem like two little stories of power that are tied together in the lectionary because neither is long enough to stand on its own, but a second look reminds us that Mark hasn't placed them together on accident, and the connection itself may be worth celebrating.

I suspect that, to a faithful Jewish ear, these two miracles sounded like a continuation of the threat to the traditions of the elders that Jesus undertook in last Sunday's gospel lesson from earlier in Mark 7. First, Jesus heals the daughter of a Gentile woman. To use an anachronistic mindset, the optics of this exorcism are challenging. Right on the heels of Jesus' seeming dismissal of the hand-washing and dietary rituals of his people, Jesus offers a clear sign of God's salvation to a woman who is not only a Gentile but described as a Syrophoenician--one of the ethnic tribes that inhabited the Promised Land when God's people arrived and killed them or drove them out. This woman, therefore, is identified as one of the people who stood in the way of the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. Setting aside the problematic overlaps with the Doctrine of Discovery, this miracle is a sign of God's rescuing power being offered to those who threatened to undermine the foundational identity of God's people.

Then, immediately afterward, Jesus restores the hearing and speech of a deaf-mute. The recipient of this double-miracle is not identified as a Gentile, but the miracle is described by Mark as having occurred "in the region of the Decapolis," which was a ten-town area where mostly Gentiles lived. I haven't done extensive research on it, but several websites, probably citing the same source, identify the word that Jesus uses to command that the man's ears be opened--"Ephphatha"--as a "Syro-Chaldaic or Aramaic word" (see, for example, this website). If it is a word of Syro-Chaldaic origin, it may have sounded to those who heard it (or read it) as if the person who performed the National Anthem at the Super Bowl was singing in Spanish instead of English. More than that, however, the miracle itself is identified by the crowd in words that resonate deeply with Jewish hopes: "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

This second miracle is in no small way a fulfillment of Isaiah 35:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:1-6).
Hear those beautiful words! Hear God's promise of rescue and comfort and flourishing to God's people! And notice that the first signs that this promise is being fulfilled include the opening of ears and loosening of tongues. This must have generated quite a buzz among those who were waiting for God's salvation to come.

There's one more piece of the puzzle that I want to offer, and that's Isaiah 35:8: "A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray." In the same prophetic promise, God identifies that only God's holy people will travel on the highway that connects their exile with their salvation. The direct path between struggle and hope is reserved only for the chosen. Yet Jesus is performing these signs of God's salvation on a woman who doesn't belong and on a man who lives on the border between chosen and excluded. I think Mark does this on purpose, and I think it's an opportunity for a sermon.

This Sunday, we hear in Proverbs that God is the maker of rich and poor alike. In James, we hear that one cannot believe in Jesus and show preferential treatment. In Mark, we are reminded that Jesus brings God's salvation to those who are often assumed to be excluded. This was threatening to the religious powers of Jesus' day, and it is threatening to the religious powers of our day. Salvation is God's work among all of us. Whoever it is that we instinctively cut out of God's saving plan, they are the very ones in whom God's salvation is being revealed.

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