26 September 2009

Proper 23 B - Communication and Compassion

Sermon for 6 September 2009

Mark 7:24-37

By Sharyn Hall

This past weekend I was visiting our son and daughter-in-law and baby granddaughter in New York City. Our granddaughter, Stella, is fourteen months old. She chatters a great deal but rarely forms words. Her parents are teaching her sign language, not because she has a hearing problem, but to help her communicate. This has become popular among parents in recent years. I am amazed at how well Stella is able to communicate using a few signs, and she is adding signs to her vocabulary everyday. She is able to ask for more food, to ask for a book or her ball, to identify a dog, a monkey, a hat and many more things using only signs with her hands. It is remarkable how much she can convey without saying the words.

The sign language she is learning was developed originally for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. Being unable to hear can shut off communication with others and with the world in general. If a child is born deaf, a child can have difficulty forming words in speech because the child cannot hear the sounds. Stella is able to hear, so when we make the signs with Stella, we always say the word so that she can hear the word as well. Medical science has developed many ways to help people with hearing difficulties, and sign language continues to be an important means of communication for them.

In our gospel story today, we see a man who had none of those advantages, and his deafness prevented him from learning to speak. He is trapped in a world of silence, but he has good friends who take him to Jesus with hope that Jesus can heal him. In that society, a person with physical difficulties could be shunned and become a beggar in the street. A deaf and mute man could be vulnerable to ridicule and abuse and have little hope for the future. It is significant that the man in our story had friends who brought him to Jesus and begged Jesus to heal him. It was the kindness of his friends that opened a way to his healing. Jesus who always had compassion for the blind, the deaf, the leper and those whom society rejected, healed the man’s physical disabilities and gave him hope for a future life within a community of family and friends.

Jesus made compassion a cornerstone of his mission from God. He demonstrated that all people, regardless of their place in society, are worthy of God’s love and mercy. He emphasized the Hebrew commandment to love your neighbour as second only to love for God. Thus it is surprising to read of an incident in today’s gospel when Jesus harshly rejects someone who comes to him for help. The story of the Syrophoenician woman has been a subject of various interpretations by many Biblical scholars. Why was Jesus so rude to her? He compared her to the dogs who eat scraps from the table, which was an insult in that culture.

Some scholars have noted that Jesus was seeking peace and rest, so when the woman interrupted him, he reacted with irritation. Other scholars have suggested that Jesus was trying to focus his mission on the Hebrew people to renew their covenant with God. This woman before him was a Gentile who did not believe in God, so why should he pay attention to her pleas for healing for her daughter? Was Jesus being prejudiced? Did he reject the woman because she was not of his faith? These would be disturbing interpretations of his behaviour, but the lesson in the story may be more positive. Whatever the reason for his initial reaction, Jesus changed his mind because of the response of the woman. The woman did not react angrily to his reference to dogs, but with humility responded that even the dogs are given the crumbs. Jesus was impressed by her humility, and by her faith in his power to heal her daughter.

In this incident, we see the human Jesus tired, perhaps irritable, and perhaps capable of making a mistake. Some people would never accept that Jesus was capable of making a mistake in dealing with people, or that he would be persuaded by someone to change his mind, but in this encounter between Jesus and this Gentile woman, we see the power of the spoken word to be hurtful or healing. Words and gestures can be wounding, and the possibility for misunderstanding can be great. On the other hand, words and gestures can bring healing and reconciliation between people.

At first it may seem strange that the story of Jesus and the Gentile woman should be paired with the story of Jesus healing the deaf and mute man, but there is a connection if we consider how we hear one another and how we speak to one another. Many of the problems in families are rooted in miscommunication, misunderstanding, not enough listening and too many words spoken in judgment.

Many of the problems in our world stem from words of prejudice, hatred or ignorance and far too few times of listening for opportunities of reconciliation. If Jesus could be persuaded to change his mind by the sincere words of a woman of different race and religion, why cannot Christians be persuaded to set aside barriers of race, religion and social status?

Jesus as a human being encountered humanity. He was divine and he showed us how we should strive to follow God’s will, but he also taught us how to be human, how to be God’s children despite our human frailties. Many people have called Jesus the Word of God incarnate. He embodied God’s message to the world. Jesus brought words of mercy, compassion and love to all people. As Christians we are called to echo those words of Jesus in this time and in this place and in a world, which often does not want to listen. May God give us the courage to speak with love. Amen.

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