Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 9, 2018
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Mark 7:24-37
A few weeks ago, Kinney and I took a day trip to Jacksonville Beach. Moses, our new puppy, went with us. Upon reaching our destination, we gathered our stuff on the beach—chairs, towels, a picnic lunch, drinks, water for Moses, and, of course, Traveling Jesus. I had high hopes for Moses. I imagined he would enjoy playing in the sand. Although I did not expect him to dive into the ocean, I did expect him to at least tolerate it—to at least walk with us along the water’s edge. I was wrong. What ended up happening was a comedy of errors—Kinney and me eating our food hastily rather than leisurely. And me—pulling and tugging on Moses who was having none of it. None of any of it. “No!” to the water and “No!” to the water’s edge and “No!” to a walk in the sand. “No…no…no…” It was like dealing with a toddler. Nonetheless, the sun was shining, the waves were rolling in, and even Moses choosing to have a temper tantrum rather than play in the “Red Sea”—even that could not dampen the joy of being out in God’s wondrous creation—getting away—resting—being replenished.
Occasionally, all of us need some time away—time to rest and be replenished. For those in ministry or other care-giving professionals, it’s crucial. Without it, things go awry: spiritual, mental, physical health begins to show wear and tear and then…a crisis is inevitable. Yes, sometimes a respite is what is most needed.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark reveals a very human side of Jesus—he, too, needs rest. At least, that seems the most likely reason for Jesus to travel all the way to Tyre, where, hopefully no one knows him. In fact, the text makes it clear that Jesus enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know his whereabouts. Even so, a woman whose daughter is ill finds him. The woman, a Gentile of Syrophoenician birth, bows before Jesus to make her request. And how does Jesus respond? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did you get that? Jesus makes a racial slur toward the woman, calling her no less than a dog! This isn’t like Jesus at all. When has he ever spoken to anyone like this? Is Jesus afflicted with compassion fatigue? Is that what’s going on here?
To say that this is a complicated story is an understatement, so it won’t surprise you that wells of ink have been spilled over it. Some have suggested that Jesus is teasing the woman, calling her a “puppy” instead of a dog. Others have suggested that this is a test, much like the story of Job and because the woman responds so cleverly, her request is honored. After wrestling with this text, I am convinced that there is more to the story. I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus is calling the woman a puppy. Folks, dog means dog and that’s exactly what Jesus is saying. What’s more, there’s no indication that Jesus is testing the woman. This isn’t a test. This is life.
Jesus is fully divine—but also fully human! Keeping that in mind may be critical to our understanding. Having said that, could it be that at this point in his life, even Jesus doesn’t fully know everything there is to know about his earthly ministry? Could it be that he learns something about himself when he encounters this foreign woman who bears her heart and soul to him?
Jesus’ response about the children being fed first indicates his belief that the Jewish people, his family, will be fed first. He’s come for his own people’s salvation—first. That doesn’t mean that the gentiles won’t be included later. So, it may be that Jesus isn’t telling the woman, “No,” as much as he is saying, “Not yet.” But she’s a mother with a sick child! So, she receives his derogatory comment and digs in her heals. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In that moment, it seems that Jesus’ eyes are opened to this woman who has been silenced in her own culture. Who else will see her, if not him? Who else will hear her, if not him? Might his message of hope, even now be for all people? It will certainly be so for her child, because Jesus heals her from afar. Miraculously, the child has hope and a future, because of the tenacity of her mother and the mercy of the Lord.
As strange as it may seem, from here Jesus goes to another place where predominately Gentiles reside. Is Jesus taking the next step, expanding his ministry even now? (I wonder.) A deaf man with a speech impediment, presumably, also Gentile, is brought to him. Using a technique common in healing stories of the day, Jesus uses a sort of “spit-bath” to heal a man who is physically unable to hear and unable to speak clearly.
The Gospel of Mark is known for telling a story within a story, sandwiching one within the other. Could it be that this man’s impediment actually mirrors that of the woman? Are the two stories linked? Even if she speaks, as a woman in her culture, who cares? Who hears her? Who understands? Like the deaf man, she has no voice. But Jesus has a way of giving voice to the voiceless, doesn’t he?
The movie, “The Help,” which came out a few years ago, is a period piece set in the 1960’s. It tells the story of Aibileen, a black woman who works as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi. A widow, she is devastated by the death of her son. Although she takes pride in the 17 children she has helped to raise, there’s an emptiness inside her. This begins to change when Skeeter, a young white woman, returns home from college. Unlike her peers, Skeeter wants a career, so she gets a job as a newspaper columnist. Through a turn of events, Skeeter begins to really see the domestics in her town. She realizes they have no voice in the way they are treated—not really. So, she comes up with a plan to write a book filled with the stories of the experiences of the domestics in Jackson. For safety sake it is to be written anonymously. She convinces Aibileen to share her story; then her friend, Minny, joins in; then others step forward.
Of course, once it’s published, the book creates a scandal and in no time, the people in Jackson figure out the source of the stories as well as the writer. In the end, the dark truth is brought to light and the voiceless are given a voice—though not without great cost. But hasn’t it always been true that giving voice to the voiceless is risky business? Just ask the one who hung on the cross for love’s sake!
Recently, I’ve been reading the minor prophets of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, they speak against the ways of the people in their day. The way that the rich take advantage of the poor, the way that God’s law of love is put aside for personal gain. In God’s time, God will judge how the poor and weak and hurting are treated. That’s a part of our story that we might prefer to gloss over, but Jesus won’t let us. In his ministry, Jesus cares for the poor and the sick and the outcast. Even when it means that he will miss his holiday weekend, by the power of God, he is able to muster up enough strength to hear one more voiceless person’s need and heal her daughter; he is able to have compassion on one more voiceless man and restore him to health.
It’s interesting that when Jesus cures the man he says, “Be opened,” and immediately the man can hear and speak plainly. “Be opened.” Perhaps, it’s the word we all need to hear: Be opened, oh closed heart that is willing to love the person like me, but not the one who is different. Be opened, oh closed mind that will not accept new teaching, so sure of my own wisdom. Be opened, oh closed lips that could share the love of Jesus but hesitates to do so.
Today, when we look around us, what do we see? Do we see someone marginalized by society, being treated badly? Maybe we’ve been less than gracious to someone who is “different” than us. Maybe we’re prejudiced against people of other races—unable to accept that there’s only one race—the human race. Maybe we hold grudges toward those we perceive as “milking the system” or we might have hard feelings toward “those people born of privilege who know nothing about the real world.” What might we have to confess to the Lord? Then, how might we go about setting it right?
Jesus is fully human; fully divine. Can we handle such a Savior? Can we handle Jesus changing his mind? Can we handle Jesus growing in ministry as he takes on each new task given to him by his Abba Father? Or, with clinched fists, must we hang on to a Jesus who knew everything from the moment he was born and struggled to hide his divinity from the other little children? But, didn’t Jesus wear diapers? Didn’t he need to be fed and cared for and disciplined? And didn’t he have a mother who would do just that?
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there at the cross. She refused to leave her son. In that moment, if she had the option to approach a stranger who looked down on her, a healer who might call her a dog—if that had been a choice for Mary in order to save her son’s life—she would have been there in a heartbeat. Of this I’m sure. I know because I’m a mother, too. Call me any name in the book—just heal my child. It’s the love mothers and fathers have for their children. And as fierce as that love is—God’s love for each one of us is fiercer still. God loves us more than we can fathom. God will move heaven and earth to get to us. God will send his Son to rescue us. Fierce, holy love—it’s ours for the asking! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman,” via Wikimedia Commons; used by permission.