+ 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.