Saturday, September 5, 2015

Undeserved mercy

Mark 7: 24-37

Location is important for understanding this text. Jesus has left Judea, Jewish territory. He has been overwhelmed by requests for healing, and perhaps he was hoping for a time of rest, an escape from all the demands, for just a short time.
The region of Tyre is in a Greek-speaking area northwest of Judea. The people here worship Greek gods, not the Jewish God. Jesus is the outsider here, the minority.
Even so, the news of Jesus healing powers and his care for the poor has reached the people, and there will be no place for Jesus to hide and rest. A woman with a very sick daughter approaches him and falls to the ground, groveling in front of him, begging him to heal her little girl.
People throughout the ages have debated how to read and understand this story of his encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman. Does Jesus tell the woman she is a dog and say it with a wink? Is Jesus really angry, and does he really call her a dog? Does the word he uses mean adult dog, or little puppy?
I think that Jesus is so tired, he lets his human side show. He lets his Jewish upbringing show. And he clearly says to the woman that healing is not available to her kind of people. At least not yet.
But, the woman stands up to him, uses his words, uses humor, and is willing to let herself be called a dog if it means her daughter will be healed. Jesus recognizes that he has been bested and tells the woman her daughter has been healed.  
I think Jesus has had a timeline in mind, the Jews first, then the Gentiles. This encounter has changed the timeline. All are welcome in God’s kingdom, no exceptions.
… From Tyre, Jesus heads east across Galilee, and crosses the Jordan River. The Decapolis is a region of ten cities with Greek and Roman culture on the eastern edge of Judea. Once again, Jesus is the outsider.
People bring a deaf man who also has a speech impediment, perhaps a problem with the vocal cords, maybe also a tied tongue, where the membrane under the tongue is too short to allow the tongue to move much. This time, there is no arguing about who is worthy of healing. Jesus does take the man aside to heal him. While the mother’s daughter is healed from a distance, Jesus touches this man, putting his fingers in the man’s ears. And he spits, and puts some of his own spittle on the man’s tongue. “Open up. Be healed,” Jesus says. And the man is suddenly healed, able to speak normally.
It always amazes me that the healing Jesus gives is so complete, the restoration of hearing includes the ability to know what the person is hearing, and how to form words with the tongue. There is no physical or occupational or speech therapy – the healing is total and instantaneous. 
Jesus cautions the man to say nothing about his healing. Mark’s gospel has a number of these comments, where the people who are healed are urged to remain silent. I believe it is connected to Jesus’ understanding of his mission, his own timeline. I think he is worried too much notoriety will move up the timeline for his death. It also puts too much attention to the healing and takes away the impact of the message of the coming of the reign of God into their midst.
Both of these stories highlight the way grace is given. Even though Jesus resisted healing the daughter because she was from a different culture, the mother made it clear that Jesus was wrong. The healing of the deaf man was done in private, but the effect would have been obvious once he returned to his friends. Grace given to one man is obvious to many.
The people of Jesus time probably thought that grace should not have been given to these foreign people. Such grace to outsiders was undeserved. Even Jesus struggled with it, it seems.
… We still struggle with just who deserves grace. Should grace be given to …
People of color? … People with AIDS? … Pregnant teenagers? … Drug addicts? …
Child and spouse abusers? … Thieves and murders? … Racists? …
Lesbian, gay, and transgendered people? … Homeless people? …
Beggars? …Unemployed people? … Muslims? … Religious fanatics? …
People who never go to church? … Democrats? Or Republicans?

Do you find it hard to wish God’s grace for one or more of these groups of people?  We all judge some other people as less than us. We all want to control God’s grace, and define who is worthy of it and who is not.
In truth, we are all undeserving of grace, because of this judgment of others. Yet, we are all God’s children, and God gives us grace in spite of our judgment of others.
On Friday evening, Mike and I watched Pope Francis speaking with several individuals by way of TV cameras. Francis could see the people, and they could see him on large TV screens.
He affirmed each person, proclaiming the strength within them, empowering them to seek a better future with that power. He reminded them of God’s grace, even though some people might believe it was undeserved for people like them.
For the undocumented student who was denied a college scholarship, he praised him for having assumed responsibility for his family after his father died.
For the mother of two girls, he praised her determination in working hard enough to afford housing for them and moving out of the homeless shelter.
For the girl who had been bullied and shamed because of her skin condition, he praised her strength, and asked her to sing him a song.
He called special attention to the sister (woman religious) in charge of a shelter housing and caring for illegal immigrants just across the border from Mexico. He praised her and all sisters for their committed work with needy people everywhere in Jesus’ name.
This week, notice how you think about people. Ask yourself if they deserve God’s grace. If you answer, ‘no, not really,’ consider what Jesus would say. Remember that they are God’s children, as beloved of God as we are.

Please pray with me. God of mercy, forgive us. We forget that we are ALL your children, and none of us deserves your grace. Help us to see all people through your merciful eyes. Amen