Expanding Our Boundaries
CWS Minister and Pastoral Team Coordinator, Silliman University Church
This passage from the Gospel of Mark discomforts me. I can’t quite reconcile the Jesus who was sent to bid the children to come to him with the Jesus who calls this woman and her people dogs. Calling someone a dog was probably a racist remark in Jesus days, used to malign the Syrophoenicians. Why would Jesus use this term to reject a woman who bows at his feet earnestly seeking help for her daughter? For our meditation I will share with you two peoples’ lives and their circumstances, and we will focus on our responsibility towards them.
The first marginalized person is a mother who approaches Jesus with a rather innocent request; “Master, my daughter has an unclean spirit, would it be too much to ask you to come to my house and heal her?” We would expect Jesus to say yes. Immediately, say yes. The Jesus we know stands ready to touch the life of anyone in need. So when the woman makes her need known to him, we assume he’s going to follow her home.
But that’s not what Jesus does. You see, the woman was a Syrophoenician; she was a non-Jew who came from the area that is now present-day Lebanon. Do you see the problem? She was an outsider, this woman. She came from a region that was notorious for its sinfulness. In fact, the ethnic slur that the Jews held for the Lebanese was “dogs.” They referred to those people as dogs.
So what would Jesus do? He does something that seems at first, inconsistent of his true character. He says to this woman “”Let the children be fed first; it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Maybe you would say these are harsh and insulting words. But perhaps Jesus was just testing her, in fact, playfully testing her to see her response.
Whatever the reason, the woman did not sneak away. She continued to press Jesus for a miracle. “But sir, even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” The woman is saying two things; first, that she understands the way things are. The Jews are God’s chosen ones. They sit at the table. They receive God’s rich blessing. The woman understood all this. But she also says that just the leftover blessings were enough to heal her daughter. Her faith was such that even the crumbs of Jesus’ grace were sufficient. And Jesus was so moved by the woman’s faith that he didn’t even have to follow her home. He said, “Woman, for saying that, you can go home because your daughter has already been healed.”
A Mexican Pastor shared this story when he led a Bible Study on this particular passage. He asked the participants about their reaction to the story. A quite elderly woman said, “I see a woman of faith. I see how the woman knew that Jesus had the power to heal her daughter. I see how she had faith and kept “butting” until her request was granted.” Her reference to “butting” puzzled the pastor, so he asked about the term. She replied, “Sometimes the calf has to butt the udder to get the milk.”
The woman’s insight caught the pastor by surprise. He had tried to find a way to excuse Jesus in this story and had not noticed the faith of the Syrophoenician woman. The woman who was Mexican continued saying, “We are like the Gentiles. No one wants to touch us or speak to us because we are poor and dirty.” She looked at the pastor, pointed a crooked finger his way, and said, “But we have more faith than all of you clean, educated and fancy folks.” The pastor who was listening to the story of the woman had received a profound lesson on faith and acceptance. (Vergilio Vazquez Garza, “The Upper Room Disciples”, 2006)
Three weeks ago, a mother came to my office to have her child baptized and she qualified the request by saying, “I am not a church member but I am worshipping here, do you think our daughter might be baptized in your church.” I was touched by her request and I remembered the Syrophoenician woman. She seemed to ask if she could at least get some crumbs that fall from our table. My answer was yes, and her child was baptized last Sunday. She was asking for crumbs but our church gave her the whole loaf.
Our church is a campus church. This is established to minister everyone who wants to be ministered. Silliman University is a community of faith that welcomes and accepts everyone. You don’t have to be a member here to worship or sing or serve or pray with us. The Gospel is free to everyone.
Christians ought to always be drawing the circle large enough to include as many as possible, instead of small enough to exclude some. Silliman Church exists for people who belong to Silliman community and beyond. May you never feel like you don’t belong here. May you never feel like an outsider looking in. You are members of our family, the Silliman family, and we welcome you.
The passage today features another man who had been marginalized by society. He was deaf, and he had a speech impediment as well, which might suggest that he had been deaf from birth. But the man had friends, and they brought him before Jesus and asked Jesus for a healing. Again, Jesus does a curious thing; something we would never think to do. He placed his fingers in the man’s ears, then, he put some spittle on his finger and touched the man’s tongue, and shouted out “Ephphatha!” Be opened! And immediately, the man was able to speak and to hear. Jesus did not say “speak and hear” but rather, “be opened.” Jesus knew that the man had stuff locked up inside him that needed to find a way out. And because of his deafness, there were things that were locked out that needed to find their way in. Be opened, Jesus said, to speak and to listen, to give and to receive, to learn as well as to teach.
God has an expectation to all Christian communities as well. He expects us to be opened: To be willing to consider new things; To be willing to listen even though we may disagree; To risk sharing our thoughts and feelings, even though others may reject us; To make ourselves vulnerable so that we can know and be known by the members of this community of faith.
Today we are all challenged by Jesus to expand our boundaries. To you…to all of us…Jesus is calling out “Ephphatha! Be opened!” As we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord Supper, let us remind ourselves that God through the death of his Son on the cross has broken the walls that separate us. As His disciples we should expand our boundaries to reach out God’s people at the periphery of the society, the least, the last and the lost.
The surprise in the gospel is that we always get more than we asked for. The woman whose daughter was sick was simply asking for crumbs but she received the Bread of Life. The deaf mute simply wanted noise, but instead, he was given a voice and a purpose and a life. How will God surprise us as we expand our boundaries? We don’t know…but what we do know is this: we are family, all of us are family, and God has a future for us. Amen.