Ephphatha – The Rev. Michelle Meech
September 05, 2021
Looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the person kneeling in front of him, “Ephphatha.” That is, “Be opened.”
Ephphatha. Be opened.
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus entered the region of Tyre. To the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, this means Jesus entered enemy territory. The people of Tyre struck fear into the hearts of Jews because, for centuries, Israel had been invaded by people from this region. These were not simply unsavory neighbors they had to put up with. The people of Tyre were seen as dangerous terrorists – completely untrustworthy and immoral beasts that one could barely call human.
And Jesus, for some reason is called to cross the border into the region of Tyre. From the safety and familiarity of his home into a place of danger and risk. Facing the repellent, despicable creatures he has feared since before he can remember… because he was taught to hate them. He was conditioned to fear them.
We’re halfway through Mark’s Gospel and this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles. Jesus is meeting people who don’t know and follow Jewish law because it’s the first time he’s crossed that border.
Why should he bother with these people? The original hearers of this story know that Jesus is a Jew and his teaching is for those who understand what he’s talking about. Jesus’ healing is for his people – the people oppressed by Roman occupation. He has come as a Jewish messiah, for the nation of Israel, so that Israel might be free.
So, why does Jesus, a Jewish man, go into enemy territory – a place of fear and unknowing? It’s clear how he feels about these people because he insults the first person he meets. He encounters a brazen woman who begs on her knees before him that her daughter might be healed.
And he says, “God’s children deserve God’s healing love, not you – you who are a dog.”
A dog. This is a huge insult. Even worse than it sounds to us because Jewish people saw dogs as filthy, unclean, pest-ridden, disgusting animals. They were not kept as pets or even as working animals. They were scourges and scavengers. They were garbage. Jesus has told the Syrophoenician woman, she is garbage.
Think about what Jesus is doing here. Think about how Mark is telling this story. Here’s our Lord and Savior – this person we put on a pedestal, this person who gave us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter a dog. He’s calling her garbage.
Without thinking, he dismisses her. Out of his conditioned contempt for her people, because of what he has been raised to believe in his context which tells him she is not worthy to receive the grace of God. He doesn’t see her humanity at all.
And this woman, whom Jesus finds despicable and easily dismissed, looks up at him, a person of power, as she’s vulnerably kneeling in front of him and she defies his dismissal and claims her place as a child of God. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Even my Syrophoenician life matters.
Ephphatha. Be opened.
It’s an understandable human reaction that when we have been injured, we find some way to protect ourselves. It’s an individual need. And, it can become a social need. Clearly, from any study of human history, we know that this need to protect can become a part of a culture, a culture that spans generations.
We suffer degrees of trauma from our injuries, whether they are physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. We cover up and close ourselves off. I think this is necessary. It’s a part of healing. And then, there’s another part of healing – opening up again.
Ephphatha. Be opened.
It’s not always an easy thing to open back up. So often, people find a way to “get through” the horrible moments in our lives but never truly heal. They may be functioning in many ways but there is a part of them that seems to still be cut off, protected, covered up. I’m not meaning to offer judgment about this. This is the human condition. Most of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual lives are formed by what has hurt us.
But these parts are not fully living parts of ourselves. The effort to protect ourselves takes a lot of our life force making it difficult to offer empathy, to offer mercy, to be kind. When we are living from our wounds, we believe that offering mercy will cost us.
Words from the Christian mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke:
“I want to unfold. I don’t want to be folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie.”
I think we know we have truly begun to heal, we have begun this unfolding, this opening up, this Ephphatha… when we are able to offer mercy.
I spoke about mercy last week – the mercy seat of God being the ark of the covenant. A golden throne where God resides. But it’s not out there… it’s in here. In our hearts.
When we have healed so that we might unfold and become more true, we no longer need to spend our lifeforce protecting ourselves. We are able to see that offering mercy doesn’t cost us anything. And it becomes a natural movement to forgive, to lift others up, to accept God’s wild extravagant love for us.
Jesus’ first response to the Syrophoenician woman is so human. He’s defensive and judgmental, unable to see her as human and unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit because he’s so closed off by expectations and cultural conditioning. Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him in the face of this Syrophoenician woman. And because of that, he calls her a dog.
And the Syrophoenician woman responds, “But my life matters.”
Something inside of Jesus unfolded. Some part of Jesus opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman. So that he could go on and teach others how to be opened. Something helped him to refocus his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him.
Jesus demonstrates for us what it means to be opened, to be awakened out of our certainties – our certainties created out of pain and the reaction to being hurt.
Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved in compassion to heal this woman’s suffering little girl. And when he saw the humanity of the one he feared and dismissed, he released both himself and the woman’s offspring from the shackles of hatred and fear. Both became free.
Jesus is never more real to me than in this story.
And it is here that I find great comfort, that I find immeasurable healing. For the message I glean from this story is one that tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s Kingdom is indeed boundless – it extends to all people regardless of my personal issues with them and any cultural conditioning I might have been raised with.
If Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this “despicable” woman…
If Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is opened by her – telling him, teaching him, reminding him that God’s Reign has no boundaries, no borders… then I too might be saved from my own prejudices.
I might be made a new creation if I am but willing to be taught… to open myself up and listen. If even Jesus needed to be opened up, then there is hope for me too.
Can I allow myself to heal? Can I… can we accept God’s wild and extravagant love so that we may become opened? So that we may become merciful?
Jesus crosses the border into a land of people he thought to be brutal, wicked terrorists so that he would come to know their humanity, to know there is no border, no boundary to God’s liberating, life-giving love.
May we follow our Savior so that we may we be opened too.