“Experiencing Healing and Wholeness”
Every time that I read about Jesus’s miracles, I see new things. These miracle stories impress me, amaze me and change me. I am awed by how the Spirit of God works through Jesus to heal and change lives. And I am convinced that this power is as real today as it has ever been.
Just this week, I visited with a man in his home, who the day before had had his neck operated on to release pressure in his spine. Before the operation, he could barely move across a room. The day after his surgery, he met me at the door and escorted me inside. We sat and drank a beer and ate cheese and crackers, before he, his wife and I stood and prayed a prayer of gratitude for his healing. God still heals as miraculously as ever, and it often comes through ordinary means of surgeons, nurses, medicine and prayer, and it’s just as powerful as ever.
The two stories from today’s Gospel give us vivid illustrations about God’s power being enacted among us. Both examples demonstrate God’s marvelous ability to heal. Both stories have much in common. They illustrate Jesus’ willingness to carry out ministry beyond his own ethnic enclave, and therefore they challenge us to do the same. As we hear them, we must ask, “Can I and will I reach out beyond my own little circle to do God’s work?”
In every church that I have served, there are voices that cry out, “Why do we need to care for other people? Why not just focus on our own members?” Today’s gospel shows us why we need to reach out and share God’s gifts of grace, healing and peace with all people.
When Jesus healed people, he not only corrected what ailed them physically, but he restored them to community. Human beings live with insecurity. Fear causes us to create rules, set boundaries and erect barriers. In the first century, the poor, the orphaned, the mentally ill, foreigners and many women held a very low social status. Despite 2,000 years of humankind’s achievements, many people still live on the margins, and fear drives us to create barriers.
Biblical scholar Mitzi Minor says that Mark’s Gospel reveals God’s priorities in “a worthless, Gentile girl whose mind was devoured by a demon” and “a good for nothing deaf man who couldn’t even speak” so we can see that they are children of God to be embraced and valued.
Both stories feature persons who are healthy reaching out on behalf of those who need healing. Neither healed person was the catalyst for his or her own healing. Rather, each had friends or family members who sought help. The young girl possessed by a demon is healed because of her mother’s persistent pleas. Friends of a deaf man bring him to Jesus and beg for his healing.
These stories remind us that we often need to be the catalyst for another person’s recovery. We may have an aging parent or a sibling with an addiction or a child with emotional instability. We have to get involved and seek solutions especially when someone we care about cannot or will not or is unable to seek healing on their own. We have a vital role to play.
There is also something very messy and real about these stories. The first story is somewhat shocking. In Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman, we are disturbed by his response to her plea for help when Jesus calls the Gentile woman and her daughter “dogs.” Some scholars say that the word “dog” is not harsh, but something endearing like “Pet.” But “dog” is “dog.”
We can make all sorts of excuses for Jesus. Perhaps he is exhausted from travel and meeting countless demands. Perhaps his job as Messiah has become overwhelming. Perhaps he is trying to set boundaries and clarify that his mission is for the Jews alone and not Gentiles.
In fairness, Jesus is probably aware that the Gentile landowners make life miserable for the Jews living in this predominantly Gentile region of Tyre, similar to the way that Israelis now treat Palestinians. This may explain Jesus’ cold remark to the Gentile woman.
But truth be told, the Syrophoenician woman has no right to engage Jesus. She is a woman and a Gentile. It is like an illegal alien barging into the White House and asking the President for a favor. This woman is motivated by fear. She is deathly afraid for her daughter’s health. She does what any mother would do. We expect Jesus to say, “Of course, I will heal your daughter.” But instead he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” A lesser woman would have crept away. But not the Syrophoenician woman. She carries on.
What Jesus does not expect from this woman is her tenacity. What Jesus does not expect is her faith in his power. This unnamed woman’s faith dwarfs the faith that the Jews have in Jesus. It catches him by surprise. Her sense of trust in what he can do far exceeds that of those in Jesus’ hometown, where he could not perform any miracles because of the unbelief of his fellow Jews.
While this woman is resolute in her love for her daughter, she is understanding. She accepts Jesus’ priority to care first for the people of Israel. Yet, she trusts that he is capable of a far greater mission. This Syrophoenician woman calls Jesus to a vision that includes God’s mission to the Gentiles. Love expands all boundaries. This unnamed woman opens the door for Jesus to share his gifts well beyond what he imagines. This woman for whom there is no statue, no footnote in history and no church named after her, transforms God’s work among us.
And Jesus recognizes the wisdom in her words and changes his mind. That is a miracle, especially for many men. Jesus does not lash out. He does not pummel her with words, trash her with a tweet or mock her in public. Instead, he commends her outspokenness. Rather than scolding her or lambasting her to The Jerusalem Times and Gazette, Jesus tells her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
One can only hope that such a response is possible in today’s society, where journalists capture each word and action and where social media provides records forever. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” How would that play in today’s media? How would that sound in a hearing for a Supreme Court Justice? How would that be treated had it been tweeted by a star athlete or a prominent politician?
We are all entitled to have spoken words that we need to walk back. What we are not entitled to is a pattern of belligerent, degrading behavior or words that mock, ostracize and demonize other people. We cannot act as if we have no lessons to learn, no one can change our mind, open our eyes, expand our mission or crystalize our vision.
I know plenty of people who struggle to recite parts of the Nicene Creed. So, they don’t say all the words. I understand that. We are all on a journey to grow in our faith. Yet, surprisingly, I have never met anyone who struggled to recite the Baptismal Covenant, where we are asked:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
We answer: “I will with God’s help.” We recite these words, yet we struggle mightily to enact them, asking, “Why do we have to care for these people?” They are not Americans or French or Italians or Hungarians or you can fill in the blank. They have brought this on themselves.
How does Jesus react? A lesser man would have had the Syrophoenician woman removed from his presence. A lesser man would have had her silenced. A lesser man would have taunted or mocked her or could have easily blamed her for her daughter’s illness. After all, the people of Jesus’ day believed that illness was the result of human sin, and if not the person’s personal sin, then as a result of the sin of his or her parents or grandparents.
But in light of Syrophoenician’s persistent pleas, Jesus reorients his entire mission. This unnamed, long-forgotten woman is the catalyst for the healing of the world – a much wider world than Jesus had focused on up to that moment. After healing her daughter, Jesus heals the man who is deaf and mute. Then he orders the man and his companions to keep silent and not say a word about his healing. Perhaps Jesus knew that they had to witness his death and resurrection before they could understand what God was doing through him.
Yet, the healed man was every bit as insistent as the Syrophoenician woman. He and his companions could not help but give thanks to God and speak about God’s power enacted among them. The characters in both stories point us to the power of God to heal and make us whole.
Medical studies now confirm that people of faith are healthier than nonbelievers and less likely to die prematurely from any cause. Having faith can also speed recovery from physical and mental illness, surgery and addictions. For some reason the body responds positively to faith. Blood pressure and pulse rates tend to be lower. The mind of a person of faith is more at peace. Having faith gives us the ability to look beyond our present problems with hope, which can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. People of faith take better care of themselves. They drink and smoke less and are part of a healing community.
To be whole is something that we cannot do on our own. We can do a lot on our own, but we can never become truly whole and complete and save ourselves without God. So, keep knocking on God’s door. Believe that there’s a healing presence available to you. Receive. Believe. Grasp the power. Tap into it, and it will transform you and others in need of healing. Keep stretching. Keep growing. Keep open. There’s a miracle in your future. Amen.