EPHPHATH, BE OPENED
September 5, 2021
In the movie “Dances with Wolves”, Kevin Costner, as Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, speaks these words about his Lakota neighbors, “Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be.” It is at this point that Lieutenant Dunbar recognizes his bias, and this new realization opens him up for new understandings, a new life, and a new name, Dances with Wolves.
A bias is defined as prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another. All of us have biases in our understanding of our world and all that live within. These biases develop over time through what we are taught, formally and informally, through what we are told by those we know and respect, and through what we personally experience. These biases effect how we think and behave until something comes along to make us rethink, change our mind, and behave differently.
In our statements of faith we profess that Jesus was fully human. We say that Jesus knew the life that we know. This means that Jesus also had biases because he too was a product of his upbringing and heritage. In our gospel text this morning, Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman brings his bias to the forefront.
Ministry takes its toll over time for a variety of reasons. Jesus had been on the move, teaching, healing, and doing miraculous things. He visited his hometown and was unable to perform any deeds of power there because he was rejected as an anointed one of God. Jesus had received word that John the Baptist had been executed. Then to top things off, pesky scribes and Pharisees hassled Jesus about his disciples eating with defiled hands because they did not wash them. Jesus was in need of a break, time away, and so he set out for the region of Tyre.
Tyre was in northwestern Galilee and it was inhabited almost entirely by Gentiles. Both Tyre and Sidon were cities against which prophets of the Old Testament had pronounced God’s judgment. Even in Jesus’ day these cities and their inhabitants were considered unclean, off limits because the region in which these cities were located had a long history of paganism. They were not Jewish friendly cities either. Perhaps Jesus chose to go there to rest because he figured that the religious authorities and other Jews would leave him alone and not cross over into Gentile territory. Even there, however, Jesus was unable to lay low.
News that Jesus was residing in a local residence reached the ears of a Gentile woman. This particular woman had a young daughter who was ill and she needed Jesus’ healing touch. As we know, the bond between parent and child is almost unbreakable. Most parents would sacrifice themselves and do whatever was necessary to help their child. This woman was no exception and she headed to the home where Jesus was staying. Bowing down at Jesus’ feet, the woman begged him to make her daughter well. Jesus responded with words that sting our ears and make our jaws drop wide open. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Okay, feed the children first. Wasn’t the woman’s young daughter a child? Yes, she was, but Jesus’ reference to children was not spoken in the context we generally think of. The children Jesus was referring to were the sons and daughters of Israel. Jesus understood God to have a pecking order that made the Jews, God’s chosen people, a number one priority. Following that line of thinking, Jesus understood his priority was first to the Jewish people before all others. The Gentile woman had an understanding of her own and she stated it clearly. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
My dad always said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. There was too much at stake for this woman to simply give up and go away quietly. Her daughter’s life literally hung in the balance. She persisted and remained in the conversation, addressing Jesus’ line of reasoning. In essence, the woman told Jesus that she wasn’t interested in taking God’s grace, healing, or blessings that had been reserved for the sons and daughters of Israel. She was there for the leftovers. She was confident that any measure of God’s grace, healing, and blessing would be sufficient for her need.
This outsider, this Gentile woman from an “unclean city”, made Jesus confront his bias. Ironically, going back to Jesus’ previous confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees regarding eating with unwashed hands, Jesus argued that the law should not stand in the way of healing those in need. The Gentile woman challenged that same law in a new and unique way that opened Jesus’ eyes, mind, and heart. Her faith and argument made Jesus see her humanity. Jesus could not ignore the woman’s love for her daughter, her respect for the God of Israel, her person-hood as a child of God in her own right, or his priority to address the woman’s immediate need. The result: Jesus changed his mind. The woman’s daughter was healed.
Not only did Jesus’ encounter with this Gentile woman change his mind, it may also have literally changed the trajectory of his ministry. The second part of the reading for today has Jesus, not returning to Jewish territory, but continuing on toward the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon in Gentile territory.
In Sidon, it was a deaf man with a speech impediment that was brought before Jesus. Those of us with hearing disorders know how our lack of hearing often leaves us out of a conversation because we miss important bits and pieces. Since in Jesus’ day physical disorders were often looked upon as punishment for sin, it left those suffering from such disorders isolated even more. After all, who wants to be found in the presence of a sinner?
This time around there was no debate and no more dog reference. Jesus was a man of action. Jesus removed the man from the crowd, stuck his fingers in the man’s ear, touched the man’s tongue with his spit, looked up to heaven and said, “Be opened.” Immediately, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Just as importantly, the man was then able to be fully reunited with his community.
Ephphath, be opened, is the phrase of the day. A large part of being open as a body of Christ and as individual servants of the kingdom is for us to come to the recognition that we have biases. Because we are human, we have to recognize also that these biases can hinder our relationship with God’s greater kingdom and stand in the way of the new life and new possibilities God has in store for us. The way of Jesus is a narrow way and we are going to fall off the path in our efforts to follow him. That’s okay. Jesus made mistakes too. He learned from them and did better the next time. So can we. Prayer was Jesus’ best tool and it is ours as well.
O Lord, we need thee every hour, teach us thy will,
and thy rich promises in us fulfill.
We need thee, oh we need thee; every hour we need thee;
O bless us now our Savior, we come to thee. Amen.
(“I Need Thee Every Hour”, Public Domain)