Arguing with Jerk Jesus

sermon for 6Aug15 (Mark7:24-37; James2:1-10,14-17)
With a lucky volunteer from the congregation, let’s act out the 2nd part of this Gospel reading, the healing of a deaf man with a speech impediment. It’s in five steps:
1. Jesus took him aside.
2. He stuck his fingers in his ears. (In this case, we’ll presume he-Jesus put his fingers in his-the other man’s ears.)
3. He spat and touched his tongue. (Hmm. So is Jesus spitting on this other guy? A wet willie?)
4. Looking up to heaven, he sighed. (Actually, the better translation there is “groaned.”)
5. And he said, “Ephphatha.”

With odd abracadabra words and arm-waving and trance-like states and potions of saliva, this sounds an awful lot like witch doctor, medicine man, wonder-worker magic healings. If that’s what you’re hearing, then, really, you’re hearing it right. Though it’s unusual for us to think about Jesus in that way, in his time period, these would’ve been regular elements of healing.

If you’re not convinced this weirdness is normal, think of similarities in our medical industry, where doctors move their hands over you, feeling for things you can’t sense and even able to look inside your body with machines. Is spit so gross compared to tissue grafts or penicillin that comes from mold or even aspirin originating from a swamp plant? Should we be picking on a word like “ephphatha,” when most of what comes out of medical mouths is unintelligible mumbo-jumbo to lay-folk?

That framing for the second part of our reading is an effort to help in hearing the first part, because it feels like such a nasty interaction Jesus has with the Syrophoenician woman. He refers to her as a dog. To put that vulgar insult into perspective, we still have a female dog-related term used as a crude expletive. I’m going to leave it as the “b-word.” C’mon, Jesus!

It sure doesn’t feel like the Jesus we’re used to. He just finished feeding hungry crowds. Two chapters later, he’ll take a child in his arms. We expect Jesus to be sympathetic to our needs. What a friend we have in Jesus? Not here; this seems like Jesus the jerk.

Now, there are various explanations for this out-of-character behavior. Some say that Jesus is testing to see if the woman will continue to advocate for her daughter. The problem with that idea, though, is that there’s nobody else Jesus tests like this, pressing them to “prove their faith” or something.

At our pastor’s Bible study this week, we were speculating of another cause. The city of Tyre, where this is set, is on the Mediterranean coast, and it says Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there. We wondered if the woman was interrupting when Jesus just wanted a day off to have some vacation free time for himself to go to the beach.

Probably the most obvious explanation is that Jesus didn’t live with our standards of etiquette, nor do we understand the relationships of his time. It was against the law for a man and woman to be alone together. Plus, she was a foreign woman. Plus she was from people who were among the worst enemies of Jesus’ people.

And though there are plenty of occasions that give the opposite perspective, some look at this passage and remind us that Jesus wasn’t a feminist, that that kind of identity was still millennia away. Jesus did lots to encourage and involve and care for women. The early church provided some of the biggest leadership roles regular women had had in the history of human culture to that point. There’s lots about Jesus and Christianity that was and is changing culture. Still, this passage with jerk Jesus may show how he was also a product of the culture of his time, and so he remains outside our comfort zone here.

And the foreign woman might be, as well. Even called derogatory names, she still won’t give up. She wins an argument with Jesus, the Son of God. How do you like that thought for a persistent, dedicated woman, that she’s able to beat God in a debate?!

So in these verses, it may be that jerk Jesus makes us uncomfortable. And it may be that the resiliency of this woman in her contentious disputing makes us uncomfortable. That discomfort may be good for causing us to re-examine our faith and our attitudes. So we’re going to reflect a bit more, placing ourselves both in Jesus’ situation and in the woman’s, to try on the discomfort and find what it means.

Let’s first assume jerk Jesus’ place in this story. Honestly though, when it’s us instead of Jesus, it’s not nearly so surprising. We disregard people in need fairly frequently. We say nasty things to or about others when we should know better. We don’t like to be interrupted or argued with. We’re also part of our culture, which tries to tell us that people’s problems are their own—their own fault, their own responsibility, not ours to worry about.

In this reading, again, we want Jesus to be nice and caring and welcoming. That’s supposed to be his job, we want to claim, and not ours. With that, there’s some thought that this story served as a mirror for the early church; they met in secret in homes like Jesus was here. What, then, when outsiders came for help or assistance or wanting to be part of the community? The story reflects inhospitable, exclusionary attitudes back at the church. When Jesus shows us what that judgmental nastiness looks like, we have to recoil and ask ourselves, “Is that really what we should be?”

That’s also the setting of the reading from James, a letter attributed to Jesus’ brother. It points out that we fall into favoritism and privileges that cave to the world’s sin and that kill the faith we proclaim.

And yet we still wish to keep out people who aren’t like us or avoid those who are different and maybe even justify our refusal to help on religious grounds, that they’re unclean and not following the rules or they’re foreign and outside our bounds or they’re the ones with the problem and not us. But this story of Jesus and words from James make us question that reduction of God’s blessing.

Jesus, after all, changes in the story. He concedes the argument. He helps the little girl and listens to the woman.

So, transitioning to her perspective, God bless her for sticking with this fight and not giving up for the sake of her daughter. She’s even more impressive when we realize she might well be a single mother, since there’s no man there in the story who would’ve been better able to approach Jesus.

Putting ourselves in her shoes, I’m sure there are plenty of you who would go or have gone to the mat and refused to back down in pursuing the good of your children or those you love. As I’ve gotten to share some of these moments in your lives, I’ve been around those contentious conversations on behalf of family that have taken place in schools and hospitals, in courtrooms and in lines at government agencies and, yes, in church.

Instead of individually, when we think about it broadly and corporately, this isn’t just about how we stop a bully or treat a sick child—much less how a daughter gets more playing time or a son a better shot at college. In society, sharing this unrelenting concern is what makes us fight together to fund education and to make sure kids have something to eat and are safe. It affects how we vote and how we treat the planet for future generations. It opens our eyes to refugees on the other side of the globe, including as we are moved by the drowning of a three-year-old boy, whose family was incidentally leaving not far from the setting of an ancient worried and hurting family in our Bible story.

As I point out that Lutheran Disaster Response is among those who are and have been striving on behalf of Syrian refugees, maybe that helps us integrate the two sides of our discomfort and mirror back how Jesus responded when confronted with the need. We can see lots of amazing things that the church is doing to respond. Together, we become demanding for children, as we write letters to Congress for childhood nutrition and as our Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wis. tries to maintain budget funding for school lunches and as we served this summer at Monona Munchies. Soup for Schools steadily provides scholarships with peaceful opportunity for Palestinian students stuck in Occupation. The insistence and persistence is there in the ELCA Malaria program: 2½ years ago malaria had been killing a child in Africa every 30 seconds and we’ve cut that rate in half. Still every 60 seconds is not good enough, so we’ll keep at it. These are among the vital reasons we need to get back to our congregation’s benevolence payments, and I’m confident you’ll keep responding to the needs we face.

That’s the big picture, but as we’re integrating our lives and this story we have to recall the intimacy of the Bible story, too, that the mother is confronting Jesus. This is what prayer is at times: an argument with God, though that can also make us uncomfortable. You may not feel you win as quickly or that God gives in like in the Bible reading, but still there are plenty of times and those reasons to be demanding, not to say, “Dear God,” but “Hey! God! You promised to love me and this doesn’t feel much like you care at all right now. Hey, Jesus, if you’re forgiving me, why am I still dealing with this shame and guilt? Hey, I’m just trying to be a parent, a vocation you put me into! I’m laboring to love my neighbor. Are you working with me? It should be better than this!” Prayer as insisting on God’s promise to you is not only acceptable but is absolutely the point of the promise, the covenant, the relationship. Something good is bound to come from those arguments with God.

That synthesis may be an ongoing reflection point for us on this Labor Day weekend: How are we a church or how are we Christians who meet people in the midst of struggles and suffering and the mess of everyday life? How do our attitudes or behaviors keep others away? How do we stop the name-calling and the denigrating? How do we welcome and listen and do what we can to help? Where should our prayers be interceding, arguing with God to keep the promise of an abundant blessing? Where do we need to be more persistent in our caring?

Hymn: There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy (ELW #587)