15 Pentecost, Proper 18
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a remarkable man. He is incredibly joy-filled. When he preached at my Connecticut bishop’s consecration, he proclaimed that God was about drawing all the people together in love. Aware of his thick African accent, he opened his arms to the crowd and made a huge embracing movement, and beamed at us. When Desmond Tutu beams at you, you feel like sunshine has broken out inside.
This week, Jesus does not remind us of Desmond Tutu. Jesus is a man on a carefully edited mission. His work- as he has stated himself several times- is to go to the lost sheep of Israel, to redeem them.
Yet as a Christian people, a major part of our hope for our own salvation lies in the fact that we believe that God’s mission to redeem humanity goes far beyond the people originally chosen as “God’s chosen”. A few of you were born Jewish. The rest of us came from pagan or Gentile roots. Most of us would identify with that Gentile woman. What a shock it is, to witness our Messiah behaving so rudely. How can Jesus balance God’s love for the world, and his own interpretation of his mission as being solely for Israel?
Jesus came to that region of Tyre, hoping no one would know who or where he was. I imagine he was physically and mentally exhausted by the ordeal of coming fully into his identify as the human and divine Son of God. The Gentile woman breaks all manner of social and religious boundaries and norms to beg Jesus for his intervention on behalf of her daughter. Jesus slams the door shut. He calls her a dog, and declares that his message is not for dogs.
Let’s sit with that for a moment. Commentators have taken pains over the last few centuries to soften that a bit, but it was a huge insult to call a person a dog. Think for a moment of the rudest name you could think of to call someone- the sort of names I could never repeat out loud- that is what Jesus called that woman. And there is nothing- not even being the son of God- that changes rudeness from what it is. Jesus was just rude.
The Gentile woman snaps such a quick reply- I wonder if she wasn’t used to being called names. She claims that forbidden food for herself, declaring herself worthy. She is outright prophetic. A prophet is one empowered by God to speak truth.
God’s saving grace is not limited to one group. God did not create any group of human beings for abuse, degradation, or damnation. God created all human beings out of love, and all human beings are entitled to the first fruits of that love. Jesus, in his humanity, needed a prophet- that Gentile woman- to open him up.
Just so I don’t sound too heretical: am I saying that Jesus erred, or that the fully divine fully human Messiah had to change? I believe this incident depicts one way in which divine and human Jesus was called into deeper relationship with humanity. In any relationship, we stumble and hurt each other. In good relationships, we learn to express that hurt and work through it. Jesus faced the demons of exhaustion and separation. He chose to work through that to remain in relationship and to take the risk of being opened to others. And oh, how that has paid off.
Immediately after this incident with the Gentile woman, Jesus encounters a deaf man. The way we treat deaf people is a problem even today- I’m not going to discuss that today. In Jesus’ time, deafness and other physical disabilities were an outward mark of extreme sin.
Jesus, having been opened up by the prophetic rebuking of the Gentile woman, opens himself to this deaf man. And here’s what is so remarkable about what he did. I’ve read more commentaries than I can remember about how Mark depicts this healing taking place in private so that Jesus would not fall victim to claims that he was a magician, or that after that public rebuking by the Gentile woman, he desired privacy as he was remembering that relationship was more important than anything else. I don’t think this is what is happening at all.
Let me show you. He takes the deaf man aside. He puts his fingers in his ears. He spits and touches his tongue. He looks up to heaven, sighs, and, finally, only at the end, speaks- “Be opened”. Again, without me explaining it in spoken words.
……………..(preacher performed the gestures only, minus the spitting)…………………………
Jesus takes the man aside and speaks to him using the only language that man is able to understand- a manual, signed language. And he does not heal the deaf ears as much as he opens the man up- “be opened”, not “your faith has made you well.”
This isn’t about healing the physical disability of deafness. This is about choosing to open ourselves to each other in relationships. Jesus chooses to live out the truth that the kingdom of God is found in us human beings opening ourselves to each other and to God, even as God opens Godself and reveals himself to us. When God created human beings, God made art and we were very good indeed. There are absolutely no barriers between God’s love and human kind. There should be no barriers between us either. In the name of God, be opened.