Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Heaven or hell, that’s where each of us is headed, right? When we die, two things could happen. We might head up through bright, puffy clouds and arrive at the Pearly Gates to meet St. Peter, who’s surrounded by sweet angels strumming golden harps, or we might head down into dark caverns of fire and torture, demons with tridents poking at us, our ears filled with the shrieks of pain and fear.
In the popular imagination, I regret shared by many Christians, at the end of life we either get rewarded or punished. It’s Santa Claus: presents and candy-canes or coal and switches. And it’s wrong.
Hell is not an eternal reality. God alone is eternal; love, being, existence, creativity, relationship – that’s eternal. Only what’s united to God, in God, connected to God, is eternal. Hell is moving away from God, what’s without God. Christians are not dualists. We don’t believe that existence is an eternal battle between good and evil. There’s struggle now, but not always. Ultimately, there’s only good. Hell is not its own thing, not its own reality. Only God is eternal.
Hell is a here and now reality. It’s separation from God; it’s isolation and alienation from other people; it’s resisting love and feeling unloved. We all know what hell tastes like. Some of us may be tasting it now. All of us will experience it again. It’s normal, a part of human experience.
Heaven is life, and light, and love; it’s union with God. Some of the gospel writers appear to refer to Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven as synonyms, mean virtually the same thing. The Kingdom of God means God rules. We pray, “Thy kingdom come.” It means, “God rule my life; let your love fill me and animate me and enliven me.”
Heaven and hell are not places. They represent conditions of existence. Heaven and hell are realities in the here and now. We experience both of them now. The purpose of Church is to help us free ourselves from hell, to strengthen us to move through hell and move toward God.
Today’s gospel also mentions “devils,” or demons or evil spirits. Jesus’ ministry included exorcizing, casting demons out of human lives. I’m not given to talking about “demon possession,” but I have a working theory about demons so that I can engage the gospels honestly and try to understand more fully passages like today’s gospel.
We might think of demons as voices of deception and destruction. They divert us from God. They are forces outside of human beings but influencing our lives, sometimes assuming an inner voice, often then an unconscious voice, deceiving us, bringing us down, directing us to self-destructive behavior and feelings. Repeatedly in his ministry, Jesus’ liberated human beings from the demonic. The Holy Spirit continues this work of directing us to God.
The pious name for the process whereby we move to God, become united to God, is sanctification. But “sanctification” probably sounds too airy-fairy, too churchy, so I typically use other words, like growing, or learning, or transforming. I hope, and believe, that the general direction of my life is moving toward living under God’s rule. I’m not there, a long way to go; I still experience hell, but I’m on the way, and the Church – people here, in this room – have been essential to help me move closer to God.
Ultimately, each of us will wholly reflect the life of Jesus, lives full of love and forgiveness, dedicated to fairness and justice, freely and happily giving of ourselves, trusting, peaceful, generous. God created us to be this way. The Church is not about providing tickets to get into heaven when we die, but about helping us to experience and embody heaven here and now. We’re all broken, imperfect people, and church should be one of the things in our lives to help us heal, and grow, and be made whole.
Jesus was a friend of sinners, a friend of everyone who needed a friend. He wants his followers, you and me, to embody this, to provide a home where folks will feel like they belong, are accepted, valued, supported. Of course, not everyone feels accepted by the church, that it’s a loving family. The guy casting out demons in the name of Jesus did not feel accepted, welcomed into the group.
The disciples took exception to this guy casting out demons in the name of Jesus. John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, part of his inner circle, went and complained to Jesus. This person was not part of the disciples, not one of the group, and the disciples wanted to maintain their position, their power, their authority, their exclusivity. Like all of us, they wanted to be special.
Now just before John complained to Jesus, twenty verses earlier in the chapter, the disciples had tried to cast a demon out of a boy, and they had not been successful. Do you wonder if the disciples might have felt some jealousy, some anger at this outsider speaking in the name of Jesus and having success where they have failed?
Jesus hardly seemed worried about this other guy. He told his disciples to leave him alone: “if he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally.” John likely was annoyed, some stranger cutting in on his thing. And yet, here, Jesus is telling him to accept the outsider just as last week he was telling him to welcome a child, a person of low status, as if he were welcoming him or God. Tough standards.
Repeatedly, Jesus pushed his disciples to relate to those outside of the group, to take some risks, to appreciate the positive in others. Today’s gospel warns communities about erecting barriers. Lots of people are trying to find the way to trusting God, and when we fail to love one another or even to welcome another, we may cause others to stumble. It’d be better for us to be tied to a millstone dropped in a lake than to put obstacles between people and God.
Then the warnings get more gruesome: if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if your foot, chop it off; if your eye, gauge it out. Jesus is not endorsing self-mutilation. He’s using the human body as a metaphor for a community. People in a community assume different roles just as different body parts serve us in different ways. It’s a warning that if the behavior of some members of a community threatens its purpose and integrity, they need to be removed or they need to change roles. One person in the wrong role can damage the whole community. Jesus is saying, “Sometimes if the person giving offense is not cut off, then the whole body, the whole community, will experience hell.” It’s tough.
If I were John, I might take Jesus’ comments as a warning that my own role might need to change if I don’t get in line. John’s suspicion of the outsider was working against the group’s purpose. Instead of reaching out and connecting with the stranger, John and the disciples were feeling threatened and acted defensively. They were putting up obstacles between God and other people. Jesus’ message: Relax, stay calm, open yourselves to others.
While I was away in August, the stewardship team developed a plan for some parishioners to speak briefly to the congregation at mass, to talk about what God is doing in their lives. After we sing the Creed, we’ll have our first speaker, and then a different speaker every Sunday through October. I love the idea.
What is God doing in my life now? What am I learning? How am I transforming? Were I to feel no movement, no growth, no learning, in my own life, that’d be hell for me. Our growth – both as individuals and as a community – often is not flashy or dramatic, but it’s deep and real. Sometimes it’s hard to identify, hard to express; sometimes not.
It’d be helpful for all of us to pray and reflect on this theme as we move into our stewardship season. Let’s think and pray about how this parish family is doing the work God gives it. Let’s appreciate how lives are being transformed here, sanctified if you like. Let’s thank God for that taste of heaven.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
James 3:13‑4:3, 7‑8a
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A common criticism of Christianity is that it’s a crutch, trying to create certainty in uncertainty, that it encourages superficial, narrow, black and white thinking, that it justifies instead of challenges its followers’ prejudices and expectations. Frankly, to me that’s a fair criticism. Often Christianity manifests itself in those ways. I just want to be clear: my own faith, of course, isn’t subject to such rigidity and unreality – that’s for everyone else out there.
Today’s gospel shows how difficult it is to follow Jesus. He messes with our expectations and turns our world upside down. The disciples lean on a crutch, and Jesus knocks the crutch out. Jesus challenges his followers, and they resist and resist and resist and don’t get it. That’s a strong, deep, persistent theme in Mark’s gospel, and it challenges me. It makes me wonder what I don’t understand, what I’m resisting, what expectations of mine are so settled that I’m unaware of what God desires for me.
Today’s gospel begins with Jesus predicting for the second time that he will be handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will rise. Three times he predicted his death and resurrection, and the disciples didn’t get it at all.
In chapter 8, the chapter before today’s gospel, Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, Peter’s great confession of faith. Jesus responded by making his first prediction that he’d be killed. Peter then pulled Jesus aside and rebuked Jesus for saying it. “That’s not what happens to the Messiah. The Messiah rules from a throne of power. He’s not killed.” Then Jesus sharply rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” As we know, Jesus sometimes had an acid tongue.
Peter, like all of the disciples, frequently got it wrong. Perhaps we can empathize with them. Being a disciple involves constantly trying to learn and understand and allowing our expectations and opinions to be challenged and sometimes shown to be false. It can build humility in us.
Today when Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, the disciples were silent. Usually we think of knowledge as power, as a way to control and be important, but here the disciples avoid knowing, perhaps fear knowing. There can be safety in ignorance. Each of us knows what it’s like to ignore what we don’t want to hear.
Mark says that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus. They didn’t trust him enough to try to figure out what’s he meant. Perhaps they were worried about getting a tongue lashing from Jesus. It’d be embarrassing, and it might possibly hurt their status among the disciples.
Instead the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, the most important, where each of them stood on the corporate ladder. The first disciples, like us, competed for prestige, importance, power within their circle. They wanted to know their ranking. They assumed that one person’s gain was another person’s loss. We sometimes operate that way too. They didn’t expect that following Jesus is a different way, a way without competition and ranking, without a hierarchy of preference before God.
When Jesus asked the disciples what they were arguing about, again there was silence. This time it was not a fearful or confused silence, but an embarrassed silence. They were scheming, calculating to move themselves up, and Jesus had just told them that his fate is suffering and death. The disciples were at least doing their scheming openly, explicitly. Usually we scheme secretly. It’s a sad aspect of human experience, our inner bondage, our captivity to worrying about position and what others think of us, often grasping for public recognition and attention, our insecurity with ourselves as we are.
The good news of Jesus is God’s embrace and delight in us as we are, that every person is precious and important to him, regardless of the esteem of other people. The most important thing for human beings to know, to trust deep in our hearts, is that each of us is a beloved child of God, that he delights in us. God values in a different way than we do. That truth leads to real freedom, no longer enthralled to petty hierarchies of perceived greatness and importance.
Jesus turned the disciples’ expectations upside down. God’s way, he said, is not about being served, not about receiving deference, but about serving others; not being in first place, but last place. That’s what we’re becoming. To illustrate his point, he cradled a small child in his arms and told them, “If you embrace a child as I do, then you embrace me and God who sent me.” That’s greatness, that’s strength, that’s honor.
The image of Jesus cradling a small child in his arms warms me, and it’s difficult to appreciate the force and challenge of this image. Many of us idealize childhood. I typically recall the soft and cuddly and gentle aspects, the sunnier bits, and forget how difficult childhood can be. I had a relatively fortunate childhood and adolescence, but those years included some of the most frightening and demanding and confusing and upsetting events of my life, huge challenges and feelings of disequilibrium. Can you recall the strangeness and uncertainty?
Childhood in the ancient Near East must have been more terrifying. Children were the weakest, most vulnerable people in society. Infant mortality sometimes reached 30 percent. Of those who survived birth, 30 percent were dead before their sixth birthday, and 60 percent were dead by their sixteenth – 60 percent. More than 70 percent of children lost one or both of their parents before puberty. Jesus was fortunate, part of the 30 percent. Luke tells us that he had a mother and a father when he was twelve.
In the ancient world, famine, war, disease, and dislocation were much more common than in contemporary America, and children were always the first to suffer. They had no standing in society. If their parents died, they were unable to inherit. People didn’t own anything until they reached their majority. Children had the same status as slaves. Indeed, the Greek words for “child” and for “slave” are closely related.
Jesus said, “Welcome and embrace the child seeking comfort and security from you. Provide care and hospitality to him/her. Look for me, see me, and the one who sent me in this child.” It’s completely counter-cultural. Ingratiate yourself with those who are vulnerable and with those whose social status is beneath yours. That’s where we’ll encounter God. Jesus is saying that in a Christian community the people who humble themselves and serve others are the ones with the most authority.
It’s a difficult standard, a reach for most of us. It was a reach for the Jesus’ friends. In chapter 10, the next chapter, just 25 verses further along, the disciples tried to prevent people from bringing children to Jesus, and Jesus sharply rebuked them.
One of the ways for us to move toward more openness, toward more appreciation of those who are vulnerable, of those of lower status, is to appreciate that God gives every person gifts - every person. We don’t always see or appreciate the gifts and contributions of all people, of our reliance and need for others, especially people who are behind the scenes, who have humble vocations.
An experiment. Imagine you’re a single woman living in London in 1946. You attend party where there are several single World War II veterans. You meet one who commanded a tank, and you kind of hit it off. You’re interested and question him, and he reluctantly tells you that he fought at El Alamein in ’42. You know that El Alamein was a decisive battle that turned the tide in North Africa.
A little later in the evening, you meet another veteran and again kind of connect, and under your pointed questioning you find out that he also served in North Africa, but not really on the front lines. He delicately jokes that he worked with the latrine brigade. Once you hear that, are you going to be tempted to glance over his shoulder and eye the tank commander? You know both of them want your telephone number, but you’ve got some crazy idea that you have to choose one. The tank commander is the one with the flair of position, clearly a hero. He’s the one that leaves the party with your number, right? That’d almost certainly be my choice.
At El Alamein, the British led by General Montgomery attacked and defeated the Germans led by Field Marshal Rommel. During the month before the battle and the month of the battle, about 2.5 percent of Montgomery’s army was admitted to field medical stations to be treated for diarrhea or dysentery. For Rommel’s army, it was twenty percent, and nearly 50 percent from frontline troops.
In the desert, flies were a significant problem, and the British sanitation detail discovered that by attaching a simple burlap flap over the top of their latrines, the flies were kept at bay and couldn’t transmit much disease, and almost all of the British troops stayed healthy. Rommel credited his defeat to dysentery.
Heroism is often not where we expect. We often are not aware of it. Concern about status blinds us. In a model Christian community, what we’re trying to become, we try to appreciate the gifts of everyone, we try to use our gifts for the common good, and we try to honor and welcome God in everyone.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Childhood statistics from Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 336.
Exaltation of the Holy Cross
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A group of schools in poor communities across the country states that its goal is to teach 49 percent academics and 51 percent character. The fundamental idea is that while academic learning can be fun, exhilarating, and gratifying, it is also difficult, exhausting, sometimes daunting, and even discouraging. To be able to overcome barriers to academic learning, character is at least as important as intellect.
Students at this group of schools not only get a GPA – a grade point average, but also a CPA – a character point average. The character report card evaluates qualities like enthusiasm, integrity, perseverance, self-control, optimism, gratitude, curiosity.
When I first heard about character point averages, I wondered if churches should give CPAs. Spiritual growth surely overlaps with character development. Churches should help our hearts and souls grow and expand, helping us become stronger, healthier, more Christ-like. CPA might allow us be more aware of our progress, to chart how we’ve evolved.
It may be difficult to measure that transformation. Possibly CPA is trying to measure what is beyond our ability to measure with much precision. But CPA might add accountability. If a parish is not helping its people grow, the character of its people transforming, it’s not doing its business. The main point of CPA is that it directs attention to a top priority: what our souls are becoming. The path to the good life – a life not only of happiness but of purpose, of meaning, of value – comes from cultivating character.
A middle school reading teacher at one of these schools with character report cards discovered a student chewing gum in her class. The student denied it: “No, I’m not [chewing gum]. I’m chewing my tongue.” The teacher replied, “O.K. fine.” Then later in the class, the teacher again saw the girl chewing gum and said, “You’re chewing gum! I see you.” She said, “No, I’m not, see?” and she moved the gum over in her mouth in an obvious way. The whole class saw what she was doing.
The teacher said that a few years ago, before the school began putting such emphasis on character, that she would have blown her top and screamed. But this time, the teacher said to the girl, “Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?” This devastated the student.
The student had often struggled with her own behavior, and in that moment the teacher worried that in the middle of class the student would have a mini-meltdown – what the school calls a “baby attack.” But instead of a baby attack, the girl spit out her gum and sat through the rest of class. After class, she approached her teacher with tears in her eyes. The two had a long conversation. The student said, “I’m trying so hard to just grow up. But nothing ever changes!” And the teacher replied, “Do you know what does change? You didn’t have a baby attack in front of the other kids, and two weeks ago, you would have.”
This student’s moment of failure, lying – moral failure and embarrassment in front of her class, was also a moment of rising up, becoming a new person. She experienced real pain and shame, but it became movement to a new and better life. Trying so hard to just grow up, she held herself together in that horrible moment.
Her story highlights the value of failure, that in uncomfortable moments, when we mess up, that’s where real learning can happen. Some educators argue that we have over-indulged students, protected them from failure, and what kids need more than anything is a little hardship, challenge, deprivation that they can overcome. If that’s true for kids, it’s also true for adults. Our failures, our challenges, our hurts can lead to learning and growth, to fuller, stronger life.
A school administrator said, “It’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’” It’s the ability to see the moment in a larger context. Again, that’s also true for adults. By learning to fail, accepting it and growing from it, we’re more likely to experience happiness and meaning.
Often we don’t try new things, or see things in new ways, or take new adventures because we fear failure. Failure is frightening. Failure is a death-like experience. Failure seems like non-existence. Have you thought about your experiences of failure? What they’re about? I fear that I won’t be appreciated, I won’t be important, I won’t be good enough. The girl chewing gum no doubt feared whether her friends would still respect her or trust her or want to be with her. She had to be worried whether they’d ignore her or avoid her or look down on her or, worst of all, pity her. When we fail, we often feel like we don’t belong, that we’ll be rejected and alone, and that’s like death.
But here’s the good news: death is part of life. I say that at every funeral: death is part of life. The cross, what we celebrate today, shows us that in Jesus, in God, death leads to new life. The cross is where humanity did all it could to shame and dishonor God, but it became the moment when his glory and honor was most visible.
Crucifixion was a vile means of execution, intended not merely to cause excruciating pain, but even more to humiliate and shame: the victim naked, spit upon, often soiled with his own excrement, mocked, insulted, mutilated. And yet this morning we’ll sing “Lift high the cross.” According to John, the cross is the moment of Jesus’ exaltation and glory. Jesus is lifted up on the cross and lifted up to resurrection. For John, it’s the same, the same action, the same event. The cross and resurrection are one.
We honor the cross because it shows us the way to live, that dying and rising are one. It’s the larger context for all of existence, the motif, the pattern of life and growth. We experience it in the seasons of autumnal dying and winter death followed by spring birth and summer growth, and then the cycle starting again, and if we sliced open a tree, we’d see it recorded in the growth rings which witnessing to the life and light experienced after the challenge of a dark winter. If we sliced open the human heart, we want to find those growth rings.
The cross, the fundamental Christian symbol, shows us Jesus dying and rising. This is the way of life, the way of transformation. Jesus is the incarnation of this way, the enfleshment, the embodiment of dying and rising, that this is the way to God. When we’re baptized, we enter into God’s life by dying in the baptismal waters and rising to new life. Jesus repeatedly invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to accept some danger and risk and thereby experience a fuller, richer life.
On Friday morning, I went to a prayer breakfast at All Souls’ Episcopal Church up Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park. September is recovery awareness month, and the DC Recovery Community Alliance sponsored the event to direct attention to supporting folks in recovery and reclaiming lives lost to drugs and alcohol. Joe Clark, an Episcopal priest, a retired rector, gave a talk pointing out that after cancer, alcoholism kills more Americans than anything else. He joked darkly about the biggest difference between someone battling breast cancer and alcoholism is that the person fighting breast cancer is put on the prayer list.
I heard the cross in his remarks. He said that the beginning of hope is when we bottom out. Hope begins when we accept a kind of death, let go of our pride, and glimpse that a new life may be had.
Joe talked about baseball, how it’s a game about failure. The greatest stars of the game only get a hit one out of three times. Baseball, he said, expects errors. Errors are part of the game just as they are part of life, a normal part of the human experience, part of the truth of us, because all human beings are broken. The good news is that in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, brokenness, errors, failure leads to new life.
X In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP, speaking about the goals of KIPP teachers.
 Paul Tough, “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?,” The New York Times, September 18, 2011. The point made here by Angela Duckworth.
 Tough quoting Tom Brunzell, dean of students at KIPP Infinity.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is an extremely exciting one for some of us. When the clock strikes one, within fifteen miles of here, there will be hundreds of thousands firmly settled into the couch, giddy about the return of the Redskins. I don’t bleed burgundy and gold, but I’ll be rooting for RGIII and his peeps, and I’ll continue to pray that Dan Snyder receives a blast of the Holy Spirit and gives the team away to charity. Can you imagine headlines he’d get? He’d be a huge hero. People would be bowled over, talking about what a big-hearted, open-hearted guy he is.
Have you ever thought about what the qualities are of an “open heart?” What do we mean by it? In the Bible, “heart” means the inner self – our being, our essence, our spiritual center, and it’s the seat of our emotions, thoughts, decisions, understanding, will. For the Bible, the condition of our heart matters as much as anything.
The Bible often describes the human heart in grim ways: a hard heart, a callous heart, a fat heart, a proud heart, a puffed up heart, a deceitful heart, a heart made of stone. We could say “ closed heart.” I read a piece by Marcus Borg, and he describes the closed heart as meaning many things:
- a closed heart has limited vision, blindness;
- a closed heart leads to self-deception and self-obsession;
- a closed heart is tight and enslaved;
- a closed heart does not feel gratitude;
- a closed heart does not wonder or appreciate mystery and tries to make everything ordinary;
- a closed heart turns in upon itself and so is separated, disconnected;
- a closed heart has no passion for justice; and, finally and possibly most important,
- a closed heart lacks compassion, the ability to feel what someone else experiences, to have empathy with the suffering of another person.
Every one of us, every human being, has experienced the affects of a closed heart. At times, I’ve even been proud of having closed my heart. It’s a way to protect ourselves. Early in our lives we learn to separate ourselves and to focus on ourselves – that’s often closing or hardening our heart.
Of course, there are degrees of being closed and hard. I just read Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. I’ve never encountered such depravity, carnage, and horror, characters of the most intense violence, brutality, greed, and rapaciousness. The character left standing at the end is the one with the most dark, hardened, and closed heart. I found it difficult to identify with any of them and assumed I had nothing to do with them.
But when I was reading Borg’s description of a closed heart, he pointed out that the milder form of violence is judgmentalism; the milder form of brutality is insensitivity; the milder form of arrogance is self-centeredness; the milder form of greed is ordinary self-interest. Alas, I can identify with those things, and I start to see that my heart needs to be more open.
I follow Jesus because I want a more open heart. My experience of spiritual growth is that it’s about the heart opening. For me, the sacred heart – the heart of Jesus – is the open heart, the pure heart, the heart exposed, vulnerable, and available – it’s the compassionate heart.
But what then can we make of today’s gospel? It begins with Jesus trying to take a Mediterranean beach vacation. He had become well known in Galilee. He left Israel and headed north and west toward the coastal city of Tyre. He tried to retreat briefly from public life, to be unknown, incognito for a bit.
But his reputation had grown sufficiently that even up there in the land of the heathen Gentiles, folks had heard about him. A Syrophoenician woman, a pagan foreigner, approached him. She impudently accosted Jesus, violating proper etiquette and social grace. Women don’t approach strange men. Gentiles don’t approach unknown Jews. She fell at his feet because she wanted something.
I’m sympathetic that Jesus would be annoyed by her, but his response is shocking. He not only refused her, but he compared her to a dog. “You’re not one of Israel’s children, God’s children. You’re a dog.” That’s bad enough in our world. It was even worse then. Dogs weren’t cute, cuddly, amusing pets; they were filthy scavengers. Jews considered them unclean. It was like calling her a rat.
But she didn’t retreat meekly. She had brass. “The dogs get the children’s scraps.” And Jesus did an about-face. Her heart was breaking over her dying child, and her wit, her faith, her resolve impressed Jesus, made him re-evaluate. Then we get the care and compassion we expect from Jesus. He healed her child.
But at the beginning, it doesn’t look like he has an open heart. The way he changed his treatment of her, however, is a sign of an open heart. An open heart can learn, can adjust attitude and behavior, can break the barriers of expectation and habit. The Syrophoenician woman helped Jesus understand his call more fully, what God wanted him to do.
Perhaps, in this moment, Jesus had an epiphany. He seems to have learned that God’s children are not only the Israelites, but all of humanity. God’s care and compassion are for all people. It’s like a light bulb went off in Jesus’ head: “Wait a minute… my Father’s love expands beyond Israel. It has no limits, no borders.” The first part of today’s gospel is the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, but it also looks like a moment of transformation for Jesus, a change of heart, even a type of healing for him and all of us.
The healing is not only individual, but communal. From his table God feeds all. All are his children. Everyone has equal status as loved and cherished by God. Some aren’t better than others.
In the second half of the gospel, Jesus has traveled south and east of Galilee to Decapolis where he encounters a deaf man. In the ancient world, many would have attributed the deaf man’s physical impairment to sin, that in some way he deserved his condition. The deaf, the blind, the lame, the poor, the orphaned, the mentally ill, the foreigner were all on the margins; women also had little public status.
So the deaf man would have been restricted from communal activities. People were afraid of those with physical differences and often treated them as if they had the evil eye. Many cultures in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East have feared the evil eye, even up to today. If you go today to Turkey or Greece, you can buy nazars, circular or eye-shaped ornaments, with a blue dot in the center and blue and white circle around it. They are popular, attractive, tourist trinkets. They are to ward off the evil eye.
Plutarch, an ancient Greek writer, explained that the human eye emanates particles that can physically affect other human beings. So envy, greed, jealousy, and any other negative attitude originating in the heart may be projected outward through the eye onto other people and do real physical damage to them. Some people, those with the evil eye, have the power to hurt others just by looking at them. Strangers, rivals, the physically deformed, and anyone motivated by envy or greed were considered likely to possess the evil eye.
In last week’s gospel, the scene just before today’s, Jesus said that the things that come out of a person are what defiles, not what goes in. Then Jesus listed the defiling things coming out of the human heart, like adultery, theft, murder, and he also mentioned the evil eye, except most bibles translate “evil eye” as “envy.” Several times Jesus mentioned the evil eye, and it’s often translated as “envy” or “unhealthy.” The deaf man would have been suspected of having the evil eye because it was assumed he was envious of those who could hear and speak.
If you fear the evil eye, you have ways to protect yourself. One way is obscene hand gestures. Another are protective charms (like those nazars or sometimes phallus symbols). They were thought to be effective because they distract the evil eye. Another way to fend off the evil eye is spitting. How did Jesus heal the deaf man? He spit.
Jesus does not only giving this man hearing and speech. He made him a full member of the community. People will be less fearful of him. They won’t avoid him. He’ll have similar status with other people.
Both healing stories today are good news not only because people have been physically healed, but we see God acting contrary to our hierarchies of preference and status. All people are his children. All are to be welcomed, accepted, fully part of the community. Good news.
A final observation. Jesus told the deaf man and his people to tell no one. The more people that viewed Jesus as a holy man or special prophet, the more people would envy him, the more people would think that he’s a climber, out to gain social status and position. We now see that wasn’t Jesus’ concern, but not then. So in Mark’s gospel especially, Jesus is always ordering people to tell no one about his healing them.
When he cast demons out of people, the demons identified him as “Son of God,” and Jesus ordered them to tell no one. The demons obey Jesus, but the people don’t obey Jesus. The more Jesus told the deaf man and others to tell no one, the more zealously they spoke about their experience of Jesus healing. Their witness astounded people.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the S… wait a second… I just got a message from Jesus. It’s an order. Jesus doesn’t want any of us to tell anyone about how he’s healed us.
 Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco (2003), pp. 151-54.
 Evil eye from Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), pp. 176-77, 357-58.