This morning we heard two healing stories about Jesus. Both of them a little controversial and open to multiple interpretations. I would like to back up a little bit and start with a short geography lesson and a recap of what we have heard in the last few weeks to get a better feel for what Jesus is doing. This, I hope, might help us as we interpret these stories.
Back in chapter 2, Jesus starts at Capernaum on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee where he calls Peter, Andrew, James and John, fishermen who live in this area and there he teaches and heals a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, then heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Next, he proceeds to visit nearby towns and heals a leper who despite being asked not to say anything, spreads the news far and wide and Jesus can no longer go into the towns, but has to camp out in the countryside because of the crowds that are following him. Jesus returns to Capernaum, possibly staying with Peter where he heals a paralytic and begins to draw the attention of the Pharisees. Jesus continues teaching and healing people around Capernaum and people have begun coming to hear him from Judea, Jerusalem, from as far south as Idumea, down around Masada and the southern part of the dead sea. They are also coming from the towns of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia on the Mediterranean, northwest of Galilee in today’s Lebanon. The crowds have gotten so large that he has to preach from a boat so they don’t crush him.
At this time he calls the twelve and takes them up a mountain, probably close by. Then we are told he “went home” which is probably Capernaum which had become his home base for his ministry. Again, the crowds are pressing in on him. This is where his family comes and entreats him to stop this madness.
Jesus and his disciples then get in a boat and cross into the area of the Decapolis. This is when he stills the sea and heals the man with a legion of demons. Up until now, Jesus has stayed close the Galilean side of the Sea of Galilee and as far as we know, it is Jews, both those from Judea and ones from the Diaspora, persons who became scattered after the various conquest of Israel/Judea have been traveling to see him. The Decapolis is clearly Gentile territory as they raise pigs, though the demoniac was probably a Jew, we are not told otherwise.
Jesus goes back across the Galilee and there he heals the daughter of a synagogue leader and a woman with a hemorrhage. Jesus makes a trip home to Nazareth where he is rejected, still within the region of Galilee, but a good distance from the Sea of Galilee. Jesus continues to move about from village to village in the same general area, and now he is sending his 12 disciples out in pairs to begin practicing what they have been witnessing. It is during this time that John the Baptist is executed. Jesus is still hanging out close the Sea of Galilee, where he feeds 5,000, walks on water, and continues to teach and heal people. Now we are to last weeks lesson where he his confronted again by the Pharisees.
Up until now, Jesus has stayed within the area of the Galilee, with the one exception of the short boat trip to the Decapolis. As far as we know, the people with whom he has interacted have mostly been Jews. His primary mission up to now has been to bring the bring the good news to the children of Israel and to bring healing to that specific community. Beginning in the middle of chapter 7, with today’s reading, Jesus appears to be broadening his territory. There is evidence to suggest that he has had to do so just to get a little rest. We are told he entered a house in the region of Tyre and didn’t’ want anyone to know he was there. We were previously told that people had traveled from Tyre to see him in Galilee and perhaps he is staying with one of his followers.
However, Jesus’ arrival did not go unnoticed. A Gentile, a Syrophenician woman, in other words a local, heard that he was there, crashes his vacation and bows down at his feet begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ response is not what we expect. He tells her “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch, not what we would expect from Jesus. “Dogs” was a common term used to describe outsiders. Dogs were not generally household pets at this time. Packs of wild dogs were noisy, destructive and menacing. The Jews used this term to describe non-Jews, the Romans used the term “barbarian” of non-Greco-Romans meaning they sounded like barking dogs, i.e. they did not speak Latin or Greek. Today, we would consider such language a racial slur and it would be highly inappropriate, but we must be careful about judging people in other times and other cultures. We may rightly find the behavior unacceptable, but much we do and say today they would have found equally unacceptable. I suspect Jesus was telling the woman that his first priority was to the children of Israel and not to the Gentiles at this time. He was using the language common at the time. But, being Jesus, I also think he knew what the outcome of this conversation would be and may have been putting up a wall so this woman could demonstrate her faith. She responds to him “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She does not try to argue that she is just as good or better than the people Jesus has been serving, but she latches on to his metaphor and uses it to justify her case. Jesus then heals the girl stating, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Humility, persistence, and the faith of the mother brought salvation to the child.
Jesus goes back to Galilee, not by a direct route, but by a wide clockwise circle around the Sea of Galilee visiting the area of Sidon, where we know some of his followers were from, circling around through the area of the Decapolis. Imagine going from Culpeper to Gordonsville by way of Washington DC and Richmond on foot. We get no explanation for the route and only get one story from this long journey. Once again it is not the person in need that is initiating the action, it is the friends of a deaf man with a speech impediment who approach Jesus. Last time, the sick person was not present, and Jesus just declared that she had been healed. This time the man is present. Jesus first takes him away privately; it is important to note that he is not putting on a show for the crowds. Jesus sticks his fingers in the man’s ears and spits on his finger and touches the man’s tongue. Mark records Jesus’ exact word, “Ephphatha” – “be opened”. Some people have been offended that Jesus uses what seems like “magic” in this healing. Why Jesus chose this method at this time we have no explanation, but Harper Collins study Bible indicates that it would have been what the people were expecting, it was the common way healing was done at the time. What I think is more important is that Jesus was willing to touch the man who would have been considered “unclean” because of his disability. The man was completely healed, immediately.
Was Jesus purposefully broadening his sphere of influence, teaching and healing along the way or were the crowds pushing him farther and farther out and his compassion was such a natural extension of himself that even as he sought refuge from the crowds, he ministered to the people he met? Perhaps a bit of both. God has used forced migration of people to spread the good news on more than one occasion. First, Joseph’s exile into Egypt, then the Israelite/Judaean exiles into the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, later the persecution of Christians by Rome and many more throughout history. I don’t think God causes these hardships; human beings, by our choices, bring about the suffering that often causes people to flee their homes and look for safety elsewhere, but God never wastes anything, and resurrection and hope can be found even in the middle of these tragedies. Our challenge is to find ways to reduce the suffering and increase the hope.
Jesus’ methods are not always clearly explained in scripture. God always meets us where we are. The Bible is a history of God engaging with people in their own context and taking them to the next level. There is a lot we miss if we are not aware of the cultural context, and even then, we need to focus on the purpose of the story and not get sidetracked on peculiarities that we may not understand. The primary purpose of the scriptures is to revel God to us and help us understand that God loves us. We are fallen creatures who need guidance and rescuing which God through Jesus has been and continues to do. We just need to recognize and embrace the gift.