Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

Ephphatha! Open Up!

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9 September 2018Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 146; Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37.

Greetings of peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ!

Please join me in a short prayer: “Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts bring us closer to you. Amen.”

Today’s gospel reading (Mark 7:24-37) narrates two healing miracles of Jesus that happened in Gentile territory – Tyre and the Decapolis. The first and more familiar story is that of a Syrophoenician woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit. This is my favorite passage in the Bible because a woman from a different ethnic and religious background dared to defy socio-cultural and religious norms to beg Jesus, a male Jewish teacher, to heal her sick daughter. I can understand why a mother would do such a thing for her child. But I remember it was unthinkable in biblical times for a woman to speak to a man in public. Yet here is a Gentile woman who dares to speak to a Jewish rabbi in public, begging him to cast the demon out of her daughter!

This is one story that has made many readers uncomfortable because Jesus seems to show a lack of compassion for the woman and her daughter. His response to the woman’s plea was: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” His statement reflected the Jewish stereotype/label for Gentiles, the non-Jews, as ‘dogs’; while the Jews claimed the label, ‘children of God’. Some preachers have tried to lighten the label’s connotation by saying that Jesus only meant ‘household pets’ rather than the stray dogs. But the general Jewish regard for Gentiles as “unclean” was common knowledge in biblical times. Driven by her love for her daughter, the Syrophoenician woman responded to Jesus: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Such wit and humility prompted Jesus to respond: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” We don’t know how the healing happened but when she reached home, she found her daughter lying on the bed, completely healed.    

The second story is that of a deaf-mute man, brought by some people to Jesus when he came to the Decapolis (the ten cities). Although the man’s ethnicity is not identified, scholars surmised he must have been a Gentile. We know from our experience that deafness and muteness always go together because one’s ability to speak is connected to one’s ability to hear. We learn a language by listening to and mimicking how people speak, pronounce, and use different tones. Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute man was similar to exorcism: spitting on the ground was a warning against evil spirits; touching the man’s ears and tongue was a sign of infusing him with God’s power; saying a word, Ephphatha, was a command in Aramaic that meant, “Be opened” or “Be released”. Immediately, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue released, and he spoke plainly – a description that he was healed, freed from the demon that was believed to have bound his ears and his tongue.

In biblical time, disease/illness was associated with demon possession or sin; if not one’s sin, of one’s parents. We recall the story of a blind man about whom Jesus’ disciples had asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Perhaps it made sense to people in the early days that whatever could not be explained was attributed to the supernatural. But Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:1-10). 

So what do these stories have to do with us who may not find ourselves in similar situations as the demon-possessed daughter or the deaf-mute man? Or for whom many diseases can now be explained scientifically? Or where some medical breakthroughs have been found? Are these stories too remote from our reality or situation today?

Some of us may wonder why this kind of healing miracle does not seem to happen anymore in our time. My father kept asking why God did not hear his prayers for my mother to be healed from cancer and for him to be restored to good health. I responded to him that illness/sickness and ageing are aspects of our human finitude, and that healing can take different forms, including returning home to God where there is no more pain, struggle, or suffering.

I believe that healing miracles still do happen, if we have just the eye to see them. Early last week, the BBC carried the news that a one-year old toddler, who was born profoundly deaf, started to hear and respond to sounds following a cochlear implant. Serious cases of deafness require more than a hearing aid which simply amplifies sound. Isn’t it a miracle that people with various disabilities are now able to live life in its fullness because of scientific discoveries and technological innovations? Consider the invention of the hearing aid, sign language, and then the cochlear implant; the braille for the blind; the wheel chair, artificial leg and arm, etc. Many people with physical disabilities have overcome their limitations and have done well in the paralympic games. Isn’t it a miracle when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6a).     
I also believe that biblical stories have much deeper meaning than what we can easily see. That is why, through Bible studies and sermons, we keep trying to go beyond a literal reading of scriptures. And when we do so, we can go beyond the healing of the physical body to the mending of the spirit. Apart from the physical disabilities and shortcomings, or diseases that affect parts of our physical bodies, these biblical stories also speak of the deeper spiritual deafness/muteness, disability or disease that people with good ears, good tongues, good sight and good bodies, might actually be suffering from.   

In the first story, Christ Jesus demonstrated for us what being deaf to a cry for help and compassion looked like. As a Jew, he understood his mission was to the Jews, the children of Israel. It was a Gentile woman who confronted and cured Jesus of that deafness. Jesus’ encounter and dialogue with the Syrophoenician woman led to his Ephphatha moment. He opened up to a new realization of the wideness of God’s grace, mercy, compassion and love. It was not gender, not ethnicity, not religion, not social status or any distinction that determined or ensured who was worthy of the kingdom of God. Rather, God makes anyone and everyone worthy of God’s kingdom because that is the very nature of God.

Today, we Christians with sound bodies may also be deaf to cries for help, understanding, and compassion, especially if they come from the so-called “outsiders”, i.e. those who are not among the “insiders” like us. But another word for “insiders” is “inmates,” which is used to refer to those confined in prison or hospital. Being “insiders” can be like a “prison” too, with walls that keep us separate from the outside world. 

Sometimes our deafness is imposed on us by messages that limit God’s love for all people – starting with “Don’t talk to strangers” or “You cannot trust anyone” and on to our preconceived ideas about people who are not like us or not among us. Sometimes our deafness can be willing or willful – e.g. when we refuse to hear new information or prefer to cling to half-truths, fake news, baseless conclusions and old stereotypes. Sometimes we deafen ourselves to unfairness suffered by others; we tune out or cut out others we don’t like or disagree with (something worse than just clicking a thumbsdown on facebook).

Like in the biblical time, we still use various labels to identify ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ In fact, we have more labels to distinguish groups of people today, which create walls rather than bridges. Consider this list of labels: by religion or denomination, ethnicity or race, gender or sexual orientation, social status or education, political or ideological orientation, ability or disability, and what have you. Instead of responding to the command Ephphatha, which means to open up, to be opened or to be released, and to see everyone as a child of God, we may end up being more plugged up by our old beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions that put a limit on God’s love. As Christ Jesus showed in the story, to open up means going out of one’s comfort zone – venturing into “Gentile” or unknown territory, engaging in conversation or dialogue with strangers, being willing to learn from and with them. Unless we do so, we remain “inmates” in our comfort zones, plugged up with our limited knowledge or narrow understanding of God’s love.  

The motto of the Kowloon Union Church, “where all are one,” is a call for us to break down walls that divide, in our life as a congregation and in our individual places of work or study. May we learn from Jesus that overcoming deafness begins with our realization of our own shortcomings or limitations; and that overcoming our deafness leads to helping others overcome their limitations. That is how the good news of transformation in Christ Jesus is shared. As James put it, “What good is it … if you say you have faith but do not have works? … faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14a, 17). 

Dear God, help us overcome our deafness and our muteness, so that we can help others overcome theirs. Ephphatha! May it be so!

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, September 09, 2018

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