Open to a Better Story
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
Allow me to begin with a series of disappointing stories:
The other day my wife and I decided to go out to eat at one of the trendy new restaurants in Indianapolis that we had heard a lot about. We looked it up online and saw that it was closed. So, we didn’t go.
I bought a book last year that I was really excited to read. I placed it on the top of my “to read” pile in my office. To this day I have not cracked it open.
Some people were once presented with an idea that challenged them; so they did not even try to understand the idea, nor understand the person who posited the idea. These people successfully avoided having their minds changed and were able to go about business as usual.
An archaeologist discovered a long-lost ancient Egyptian vault said to contain treasures of unparalleled value. The archaeologist never opened the vault to explore it and he never told anyone else about it.
A new family moved into a community. The parents and the children all found it difficult to make friends in this new place because it seemed like everyone they met already had enough friends. The new family continues to feel sad and alone.
A child unwrapped a gift from under the Christmas tree and found the one present she wanted most. Unfortunately, it was one of those clam shell packages encased with thick plastic that is heat-sealed all the way around and nearly impossible to open by any mere mortal. So the present remained firmly encased in molded plastic until the family could figure out how to open the package.
These are all pretty disappointing stories. I could unpack each one, add more details, and flesh out the characters, but it wouldn’t change the fact that these are not stories that resonate with us. They are uninteresting and fail to speak to the heart of the human condition because these are stories about things being closed. Restaurants, books, minds, discoveries, groups, presents – these are all things that are only worthwhile when they are open.
We love things that are open. When I say the phrase, “open it up,” it likely brings a smile to your face as you think about an experience of flooring the accelerator of a car or perhaps holding a wrapped gift. The only reason your friends are your friends is because you were all open; they took a risk in inviting you into their hearts, you took a risk in being vulnerable and reaching out. One of the appeals about buying things online is that the store is always open. And I venture a guess that your favorite book is one that you have actually opened and read.
Today’s gospel is ultimately about openness. However, to get there we first have to endure the disappointing story of Jesus NOT being open.
The Syrophoenician woman in the first half of today’s gospel has a daughter with an unclean spirit. The woman seeks out the notorious miracle-worker named Jesus. This is a radical decision because Jesus is a Hebrew man and she is neither of those things. She is a Gentile (that is, not Hebrew) and a woman, which means she has no religious or cultural right to ask a rabbi to heal her daughter. Jesus is well within his religious and cultural rights of his time to say no to her. And boy does he say no!
Did you catch that from the story? The woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus doesn’t just say “No!”; he actually calls the woman and her daughter dogs, which is an unmistakable racial slur.
This is a story about closed-minded Jesus, and it’s disappointing. This is a picture of the Son of God looking a suffering woman in the face and saying, “Sorry, but you’re not worth my time, my compassion, or my miracles because you are not the right type of person.”
The woman remains steadfast, however, and refuses to take no for an answer. With some quick thinking, she turns Jesus’ prejudice on its head and points out an insight that fills her with strength and hope – the truth that God’s kingdom is more expansive than even Jesus had yet come to believe.
This desperate woman pushes Jesus, stretches his vision of God's grace, and makes clear to him that there is room in God's kingdom for all, for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, insider and outsider, even so-called dogs like her and her daughter. Jesus’ mind and heart is open because of the woman’s bravery.
She persisted and her hopeful insight changes the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Recall that from there, Jesus then goes to the Decapolis, which is a Gentile area, and continues his ministry of teaching and healing among both Jews and Gentiles.
Which brings us to the second part of today’s gospel, where Jesus restores the hearing and speech of a man who is deaf. He does so by putting his fingers in the man’s ears, then spitting (why, or on what, we do not know), touching the man’s tongue, sighing, and saying “Ephphatha” (Aramaic for “Be opened”).
Sighing and saying “Be opened.” People, this is beautiful. A man who, just a couple verse ago, was hurling verbal dismissive close-minded insults at a Gentile woman is now in a Gentile land healing people by commanding them to “be open.”
Fair warning to any of us who would be inspired to follow in Jesus’ footsteps: this openness takes a toll on Jesus. He’s still trying to figure out this new open version of himself. We see this in how he takes the man away from the crowd where no one can see. We see this in the way that he sighs before healing the man, which could mean Jesus is still a little hesitant. And we see this in his request that the account of the healing be kept silent.
Another fair warning to any of us who would be inspired to follow in his footsteps: once Jesus starts down this path, he doesn’t stop. And this path leads to his conquering the power of death on behalf of all people, be they Hebrew, Gentile, man, woman, rich, poor, dark skinned or light skinned, old, young, master or slave.
Throughout this next week, as you follow the footsteps of Jesus in your daily life, I encourage you to reflect on what it means that the Son of God moved from closed-mindedness to open-mindedness. I encourage you to adopt a spiritual posture of openness to new possibilities, new people, and new ideas. And I encourage you to be open to a better story.