Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC Bangor, Maine
September 9, 2018
Be Opened Mark 7:24-37
As our lesson for the day from Mark’s Gospel opens, we read about a mother who is deeply troubled about her child. The daughter of the Syrophonecian woman is afflicted with a demon–”an unclean spirit”–and so the mother comes to Jesus for help.
In June of 2015, I had a reunion with a dear friend of over 50 years. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Claire and I worked together as staff members at a family resort on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. I told Claire that she is very much the soul sister of the Syrophonecian woman, because she has also been deeply troubled about her child.
Something I absolutely did not expect at the reunion was to be introduced to Claire’sson, Mihdi, then eighteen years old. Claire and Mihdi’s story is long and complicated. It began when Claire found herself unexpectedly pregnant at age 44 with her fifth child. Six weeks into the pregnancy, Claire slipped on a wet floor and began to miscarry three weeks later. Her doctor said the only way to bring the baby to term was to stay in bed for the next six months. That is what Claire did until Mihdi was born in Canada.
While the baby appeared flawless at birth, his weight remained low. At six months, Mihdi had surgery to relieve a blocked aorta. Fluid on the brain became the next alarming issue. A surgeon said Mihdi needed two shunts to relieve the fluid. Based on Claire’s extensive research, she was hesitant to approve the procedure. Claire ended up leaving her husband behind (who disagreed with her decision) and drove the five children to New Hampshire from Canada. Fortunately, the fluid dissipated on its own. Though Claire had no money and no mate and all these children to care for, God brought family and friends to the rescue. Claire expedited his Mihdi’s citizenship, so her son could receive benefits and health care.
Mihdi was evaluated at the Mayo Clinic and distinguished medical centers. No one could explain his many conditions, but Claire was determined to keep moving forward. She said to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, “I intend to do everything I can to keep him alive.”
Claire moved the family to California in 2002, so Mihdi could receive daily treatments from a Dr. Wu. A rigorous schedule of Chinese medicine began in conjunction with physical therapies. However, the problems continued, with extensive oral surgeries at age six and eight. After a stroke at age nine, Mihdi had a long stay in the ICU at UCLA.
When Mihdi was two, he was diagnosed with severe scoliosis—curvature of the spine. Claire researched having titanium rods placed in Mihdi’s back, and a surgeon said he could fuse the spine at 106 degrees. Horrified at the thought of her child being frozen in a distorted pose, Claire continued to investigate and ask questions. A Dr. Lenke examined Mihdi and said he could fuse the spine at 38 degrees! Six months later Mihdi had the life-giving, ten- hour surgery. Miraculously, the boy grew six inches on the operating table.
Today Mihdi stands upright, is in no pain and looks forward to a new existence. Butclearly his mother is right when she says that “Mihdi’s entire life—in the womb and out—hasbeen against overwhelming odds.”
That surely must be the way the Syrophonecian woman felt about the “diagnosis” she received of “an unclean spirit” afflicting her child. In the First Century, of course, next to nothing was known about the workings of the human body. So when a medical condition could not be diagnosed, it was simply regarded as demon possession. Typically when a parent sought relief for a demon-possessed child 2,000 years ago, a medicine man would have said something like, “‘well, your child has a bad demon. What did your child do that was so bad or what did you do that was so bad that she has a demon living inside?'” (Pastor Edward Marquart, “Yelping Puppies, The Canaanite Woman”). With so much ignorance and prejudice round about, is it any wonder that the Syrophonecian woman sought the help of Jesus?
Mark’s story of the woman and her daughter is interesting for many reasons. Before we meet them in Chapter 7, we read that Jesus makes a pronouncement about food before the scribes and Pharisees. In his word to the crowd, Jesus tells them that it isn’t what goes into your stomach that defiles you, but rather the evil things that thrive in your heart. This would have been a shocking statement to the religious authorities and to the townspeople. And then having declared “all foods clean,” we read that Jesus crosses over into the region of Tyre.
Perhaps Jesus needs a break after making this controversial announcement. It could be that he simply needs time to gather himself together. Clearly Jesus wants to have time apart–to have an opportunity to reflect on his ministry away from people. And so he goes to Tyre, a Gentile community. Because he is searching for a private retreat, the text tells us Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” But Jesus’ hopes for privacy are doomed, as he had been in the area–in Tyre and Sidon earlier–and people there knew about his miraculous deeds. And so that is how the Syrophonecian woman finds out about the wonder-working rabbi called Jesus.
Well, the Syrophonecian woman is not a celebrity stalker, but she is persistent. Like her modern counterpart, Claire, the Syrophonecian woman is not content to have a diagnosis of doom and have that be the end of it. Our ancient friend wants help, but there is a catch. She is pagan; she is Syrophonecian, a Greek, a Canaanite. So while Jesus’ word about food would have been one thing, healing the daughter of a pagan woman–a foreign child–would have been truly shocking.
So here we have this woman who has disturbed Jesus’ retreat, and disturbed several other Jewish customs as well. As an “unclean” Gentile woman, her approaching Jesus would have been unconventional and a violation. But interestingly the woman and Jesus have each crossed boundaries: Jesus by leaving his homeland and the woman by daring to engage Jesus. What is perhaps most fascinating of all is the fact that the heading for the story in Mark refers to the Syrophonecian woman’s “faith.” We’re left to wonder, what faith? Does this pagan woman have faith in the teachings of Jesus, of Jesus the man, or Jesus the healer? (Kathryn Matthew Huey, “Be Opened”). We simply don’t know. What we do know is that she is also the soul sister of the importunate widow in the gospels; both women are incredibly persistent. Like my good friend, Claire, like any good parent, the only thing the Syrophonecian woman wants is for her child to be made well. We also know that the woman is a person of means. At the end of the story, we read that the woman finds the child lying on her bed–implying some degree of comfort.
But apart from her economic status, the woman puts herself squarely in front of Jesus. He cannot avoid her. Mark says she bows down at his feet and begs Jesus to cast out the demon. To that request, Jesus says a curious thing and expresses it almost like a riddle: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
In his sermon on this passage called “Yelping Puppies,” Pastor Edward Marquart translates Jesus’ line this way: “Woman, you are like a yelping puppy at a man’s table.” Jesus doesn’t exactly sound welcoming to this mother on a mission, does he? The initial response of Jesus reminds us that Christians haven’t always done a good job of ministering to “the other,” making the stranger feel at home–whether a woman, or a foreigner, or a member of a different ethnic or racial group (Megan McKenna).
It appears that Jesus in our Gospel lesson is annoyed by the Syrophonecian woman’s request in the midst of his private retreat. Hence his “yelping puppy” comment. But this mother of a child who needs Jesus’ help is not about to be put off. She is clever, and her witty retort goes like this: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Ed Marquart reframes her line this way: “Well, a master takes crumbs off the table and feeds his yelping puppy and shuts him up. You just heal my daughter and you will shut me up.” After all this puppy talk, I love how pastor Ozzie Smith sums up the woman’s attitude: “Dogged persistence”! (Rev. Dr. Ozzie E. Smith, Jr., “When Hope Won’t Quit”). What makes this mother so memorable, says Pastor Ozzie, is that she possesses “the hope that won’t quit.” How that reminds me of my dear friend, Claire—or “Cece” as all of her buds know her.
The upshot of the interchange between the distressed mother and Jesus is that she answers Jesus’ riddle. And with her words and her demeanor, Jesus is won over. Not only does the woman bow to Jesus, but she also addresses him as “sir,” the only time that term is used in Mark’s Gospel. The Syrophonecian woman calls Jesus to a new inclusiveness and reminds him of people like herself, the Gentiles, the folks from away, the outsiders. As a result of their interchange, Jesus is opened once again to a ministry of healing and does it on the spot. When the woman goes back to her home, she finds the demon has left her daughter.
In the second story in our scripture lesson, there is another tale of being opened. When Jesus leaves Tyre, he goes to Sidon, near the Sea of Galilee. A deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to him, and Jesus puts his fingers in his ears and on his tongue. With the words “Be opened,” Mark says that “…immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” As the passage closes, we are left with the feeling that not only the man was healed. For the crowd who gathers around them was amazed, Mark says”astounded beyond measure…”
So what are we to take away from these two healing stories from Mark 7? One lesson that seems writ large for me is to pray believing, to pray with “the hope that won’t quit.” In his sermon on this text, Pastor Ed says that we have much to learn from the Syrophonecian woman, and I would add the Claires of the world who refuse to give up. Their “dogged persistence” also reminds us of the virtues of praying believing, of praying expectantly, of praying always that a miracle is possible. And while you and I may somehow believe that God is too busy to worry about our concerns, those are precisely the concerns—I believe—God wants to us share.
So the word for the day is “be opened”—to the leading of God’s spirit to our spirits. Come and see!
Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty