In this sermon, delivered at the Church of the Holy City (Swedenborgian) in Wilmington, DE, Rev. Shada Sullivan explores the inner significance of Christ’s perplexing healing encounter in the Gospel of Mark.
Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV)
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”*
Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven §1690:2-3, 1692
The Word’s description of the Lord’s life in the Gospels mentions none of his trials outside his final crisis, except for the one he faced in the wilderness. No more was revealed to the disciples. What was revealed seems so mild that it hardly amounts to anything, as far as the literal story goes; to speak and answer in that way is no trial. The fact is, though, that he was tested more severely than any human mind could ever grasp or believe. No one can know what a spiritual crisis is like except the person who has lived through one. The trial mentioned in [the wilderness] sums up all the Lord’s trials, which consisted in his battling the self-love and materialism that filled the hells, out of love for the entire human race.
All trials target the love we feel. The severity of the trial matches the nobility of the love. If love is not the target, there is no trial. To destroy a person’s love is to destroy the core of that person’s life, since love is life.
The Lord’s life was love for the whole human race, a love so great and good that it was pure, unalloyed love. He allowed this life of his to be attacked continuously, from the dawn of his youth until his final moments in the world.
Hardly anyone can see what the battles of spiritual crisis accomplish. They are the means for dissolving and shaking off evil and falsity. They are also the means by which we develop a horror for evil and falsity, and gain not only conscience but strength of conscience; and this is the way we are reborn. For that reason, people who are regenerating are thrust into combat and undergo terrible trials — if not during their physical lives, then in the other life, assuming they can regenerate. In consequence, the Lord’s church is called the church militant.**
The two places that we hear about in our reading today, Tyre and Sidon, are by the sea. Perhaps some of us took vacations by the sea, or a lake, this summer. These are places, at least in our culture, synonymous with letting go of our routines and our anxieties, and reveling in the simple joys of our earth: sun, sand, water. Jesus was also trying to get away from the everyday. Perhaps more important than being by the sea, was the fact that Tyre and Sidon were beyond the boundaries of Herod’s kingdom, who was one of Jesus’ main adversaries. The path Jesus had taken was a difficult and exhausting one. He needed a break. So we are told: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.” Just a moment to himself.
But it wasn’t to be. A Syro-Phoenician woman, meaning a Canaanite, a gentile, comes to beg him for a healing for her daughter. Jesus does not respond well. He essentially calls her a dog. The greek word is diminutive, but not in a cute way, in a condescending way. The Jews of the day hated dogs, and had done so for centuries. As far as they were concerned, dogs were unclean scavengers, not the beloved friends that we now carry around in purses and feed organic food and let sleep in our beds. There is no getting around this insult. Yet, instead of crumbling, as many of us might do, the woman stands her ground, and delivers a pithy argument in Jesus’ own style, just as he had previously bested others. Jesus is shocked into changing his tune, and he heals her daughter from afar.
So, welcome back everyone, we are starting off with a bang this fall, with a difficult and controversial gospel story. Why difficult and controversial? Well, how did this story make you feel this morning? How did it make you feel to hear Jesus being so insulting to someone who simply came for his help. Let’s be honest, Jesus doesn’t mince words when rebuking the religious and political elite of his time; certainly he has said worse to them and we cheer him on. But rarely does he speak so to those who come to him for help in faith. In those cases, we are used to the compassionate and giving Jesus, not the testy and bigoted Jesus. What are we to d with this Jesus that we have been given on our text today? This Jesus likely makes us extremely uncomfortable.
Many times preachers will try to figure out how to make Jesus look good here. He is just testing her, they might say, trying to strengthen and purify her faith. In Matthew’s version, the disciples get involved, perhaps he is trying to teach them a lesson too. But these “tough love” interpretations do not sit right with me. Out of love for her child, this woman sought out a leader of a different faith and people, crossing religious, cultural and gender boundaries to approach him. This woman’s faith was already strong, her discernment on point, her courage on display. She didn’t need to learn anything. Perhaps, just perhaps, she was supposed to teach Jesus something.
In Swedenborgian incarnational theology, we understand Jesus to have both a human and divine nature. He was human just as we are human, but his soul was divine. Now, the upshot of this view is that Jesus felt just as human as we all feel. Sometimes he was in sync with his divine nature and sometimes he was not, just we are are sometimes able to feel a distinct connection with our soul-natures, and though most of the time we are truly mired in our earthy humanness. When Jesus was fully in his human nature, he would often speak of God the Father, essentially his own divine soul, as separate.
These were the times that Jesus was vulnerable to temptation, just as we are. Now when we think of the temptations of Jesus in the gospel, we tend to think of the big ticket ones: Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and of course, the cross. But in reality, Jesus was tempted all the time, by big things and small, just like any human being. And it is my opinion, that is story is one of those small times. Jesus was exhausted, and depleted.
I know that I myself, when I am exhausted and depleted, I am not my best self either. Who of us, after being interrupted for the umpteenth time when we just wanted some peace, hasn’t whirled around and said “What???” This is our humanness on display, our concern for our own well-being yes, but also our
own fear about not being in control, not trusting God’s abundance in the moment, not being willing or able to summon compassion. It is easy to be compassionate when everything is going right, when we’ve had our coffee, we’re within our tribe and within our comfort zone. It is much harder to summon compassion when we are feeling challenged and off-balance.
It’s also important to remember, however, that in this gospel story, Jesus was not being, in the words of Rev. Wilda Gafney “generically human.”*** Most of the time we are quite 1 willing to concede the generic humanness of Jesus because then we don’t have to think about what that really means. But Jesus wasn’t a generic human, Jesus was an actual human, an actual human being in his own place and time, subject to the physical and cultural heredity of his context. And so that means, that his temptations were sometimes also according to the cultural heredity of his context. And in his context, Jews did not like Canaanites and the feeling was absolutely mutual. To the Jews, Canaanites were lowly idolators. To the Canaanites, the Jews were their once-upon-a-time conquerers and occupiers, just as Rome and others had later conquered Israel.
There was a centuries-old tension. By religious and cultural training, Jesus was biased against this woman. He did not want to squander his precious energy on her. Now, by this point in his ministry, Jesus surely knew such biases did not serve the kingdom. Jesus’s words in the gospel of Mark’s parables paint a picture of an expansive, wild and generous kingdom, one not necessarily received by those you would expect. Jesus had
even healed a demon-possessed gentile two chapters earlier and sent him to spread the word of the gospel to his people. But biases run deep, and in a moment of weakness and likely, self-preservation, Jesus spoke from that bias. And I know that makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, and a little disappointed. But, when I think about it, the disappointment comes only because I have forgotten what temptation really is, and what temptation is for. Temptation and spiritual trials are not for the purpose of demonstrating that we are pure, perfect and righteous. Temptation serves the purpose of bringing to light that which stands in the way of our regeneration, revealing to us the work that we still need to do. Let us take Jesus’ wilderness temptations from Matthew as an example. Satan dares Jesus to turn stones to bread, to throw himself off a cliff, and offers Jesus rulership of the world if only he would worship him. Jesus’ answers are so smooth and immediate that we forget that for the temptation to mean anything, a small part of Jesus had to have wanted to show off his power, and wanted to rule the earth. For the temptation of the cross to mean anything, then Jesus had to have been afraid to die, had to have been anxious that his actions might be in vain, had to want to give up.
We don’t hear his struggle in the wilderness with Satan, but we do hear it in Gethsemane and on the cross. And we hear it in his words to the Syro-Phoenician woman. This is okay. That’s what makes these stories of
temptation so powerful. When Jesus was born into a human body, and a human nature, even with a divine soul, his actions were not pre-determined. They were choices. Those choices propelled Jesus towards glorification, the union of that which is human with that which is divine, and this journey mirrors our own. We too journey, inch by inch, day by day, towards the union of our human nature with our soul-nature, the alignment of our action with the divine love that animates our being. In the words of Karoline Lewis: “We forget that our God became fully human not only for the sake of solidarity with the joys and pains of humanity, but also for the sake of telling us the truth about our humanity – which always attempts to curtail God’s sovereignty.” ****
We see Jesus’ humanity curtailing God’s sovereignty in our text today. It might make us uncomfortable to see Jesus so human but the gospel tells us the truth; sometimes our humanness is ugly. But what is illustrative here is not that Jesus was biased, but how quickly he was willing to be turned around. We know he had long been doing spiritual work, expanding the hearts and minds of the people around him as well as his own. He had a moment of weakness, a moment dwelling in dark human feelings, in a prejudice
he had been marinating in since birth. But the woman’s wit and persistence reminded him of how he was limiting her in his mind, and his response was not of bluster, defensiveness, or excuse. His response was to return to what he knew was right with no fanfare and no hesitation, and to heal the person who needed to be healed.
This story is ultimately a hopeful one because it depicts what is possible. None of us will likely be offered a chance to rule the world by Satan, or thankfully, have to choose to be martyred. But we will all get a chance, many chances indeed, to enact this episode. We will many times in our lives find ourselves smack in the middle of our biases, drawing a line between ourselves and an “other” and doing so in a way that diminishes and belittles them. Instead, may we open our awareness to what we are doing, may we open our eyes to the humanity of the person in front of us, may we quietly, faithfully, let go of that which closes us off to another, and may we choose to be a channel of healing.
It probably won’t surprise us to note that right before this story, Jesus had been challenging the purity codes of the religious elite, specifically ceremonial washing. It caused him to say: “Listen to me everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of the person that defiles them.” And in our text today, Jesus himself became the parable by which this idea was brought to fullness.
The Syro-Phoenician women’s external, outside context defiled her in Jesus’ eyes, made her less worthy than his fellow Jews. But her words humanized her to him, and reminded Jesus of his own words and this own ethos. Jesus’ eyes and ears were opened, just as for the next man he would encounter. The faith being purified was not hers but his. The miracle was not only an healing of a child, but the “overcoming of prejudice and boundaries that separate [people].”*****
Rev. Shada Sullivan is a graduate of United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia and The Center for Swedenborgian Studies in Berkeley, CA. She grew up in Australia, and came to the United States in 1994 to attend Bryn Athyn College, a small Swedenborgian liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia. She has spent time as a chaplain as a stay-at-home Mom, and as leader of the sermon writing team at NewChurch Live (newchurchlive.tv). She now lives in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two children and serves the Church of the Holy City in Wilmington, Delaware as Pastor.
*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Secrets of Heaven. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2013.
*****New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abington Press, 2009. p.461