There were two stories in our Gospel reading today, but it’s not just a biblical “buy one get one free”. They are meant to be read together, because they have a common theme. They are both about hearing and speaking. In both stories someone is given the ability to hear and speak properly.
In the second story that theme is obvious. A deaf man who has an impediment in his speech is healed. “Ephthatha”, Jesus says to him. “Be opened”. And that’s what happens. His ears are opened, his tongue released. We are told he then “speaks plainly” – the Greek word is “orthos” which literally means “rightly” or “correctly”. For a long time no one has been able to make out what he is saying when he speaks, but now he can tell it like it is. We don’t know what he says when he “speaks plainly” for the first time – perhaps words of love or thanks, but perhaps there are some home truths to deliver too, things he wants to say to those who may have sidelined or ignored him over the years, as so often happens to those who can’t hear or speak properly. Whatever he says, though, his life is transformed.
So it’s easy to see where the hearing and speaking comes in that second healing miracle, but I think it is just as important in the first; in fact, one leads on to the other.
To understand this, we need to know a bit of history and geography.
Jesus is in the region of Tyre, we are told. But why? It’s not an obvious place for him to be at all. If you look at the map I’ve handed out, you’ll see that Tyre is to the north of Israel, and it’s in the land of the Phoenecians. Tyre was a thriving international sea-port; the Phoenecians had always been great maritime traders and people from all over the world came through Tyre. It was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-everything sort of place. It was just the kind of place, in other words, which good Jewish people were taught to avoid. In Tyre you’d be sure to come face to face with foreign gods, foreign customs, foreign food, things which Jewish people wouldn’t just have found strange but thoroughly unclean. So what’s Jesus doing there?
He may have been trying to get away from trouble in Galilee. He had been arguing with the religious authorities, challenging their interpretation of the law, and things were starting to get heated. But all the same, there must have been more congenial places to take refuge.
He is heading out of what should be a land where he feels at home into one where he definitely won’t, where he is bound to encounter things that will challenge and disturb him. Perhaps it’s a bit like the time at the beginning of his ministry when he went into the wilderness. People saw the wilderness not as a place of peace and quiet, but as the haunt of demons, the frontline of the spiritual battle. There Jesus confronted Satan, the tempter, the one who challenged him to look deeply at himself and his own motivation. But Jesus also discovered that in these challenging places his Father was close at hand; angels were sent to minister to him.
We don’t know much about the Syrophoenician woman who comes to him to beg for her daughter’s healing, but what we do know is important, because it explains Jesus’ initial reaction to her. At first glance she probably seemed far more like someone sent to try him than a ministering angel.
She is a Gentile, not a Jew, for a start; we can assume she worshiped the foreign gods of Phoenicia. She seems to come to Jesus on her own, which was uncommon. Respectable women stayed at home; their husbands, fathers or brothers spoke for them, especially to complete strangers. But where is the man who should be speaking for her? Where is the child’s father? She might be widowed, but the Bible usually tells us if this is the case. So perhaps the father was a sailor or a trader, long disappeared over the horizon, just passing through. Whatever the story, the fact that she comes to Jesus alone, tells us that there is something about her background that is suspicious.
And sure enough, Jesus seems to be completely wrong footed by her . His first response is dismissive to the point of rudeness. That can seem shocking if we expect Jesus to be some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing perfect superhero, but he wouldn’t be human if he never had to learn anything, and no one can learn without getting it wrong. Some commentators suggest he is just engaging in playful banter, testing her faith, but you don’t playfully banter with someone whose little daughter is desperately ill. That would reflect even more badly on Jesus.
Jesus must have realised he would face unknown challenges when he set off towards Tyre, but that’s the problem – unknown challenges aren’t things you can’t prepare for, and he wasn’t prepared for this one. It’s a bit like those reality TV programmes that put people in extreme situations – marooned on a desert island or having to live in some gruesome historical re-enactment. They must know when they sign up that they’ll be asked to eat apparently inedible foods or do things that will terrify them, but presumably they think they’ll be able to cope. Predictably, they are all caught out sooner or later, when they reach the limit they didn’t know they had – the TV producers rely on it to make these programmes interesting. If the contestants rise to the challenge, though, it is often a moment of transformation, the moment that makes the struggle worthwhile.
And that’s where we come back to that theme which unites the two stories in today’s Gospel. I said at the outset that they were both about hearing and speaking. In the second story Jesus heals a deaf man’s so that he can hear and “speak rightly”. But it seems that before Jesus can do that, he has to have his own ears opened and learn to speak rightly himself. This determined, desperate Syrophoenician turns out to be a ministering angel after all, someone whose words change Jesus’ ministry, just as much as Jesus’ words change her life and the life of her child. Because of her he learns that his message is for the Gentiles just as much as for the Jews. In fact he seems to put that lesson into practice straightaway, because the deaf man he heals may well be a Gentile too. He lives in the Decapolis, among the ten Greek towns on the east side of the Sea of Galilee founded by Alexander the Great. Jesus seems to be taking a very roundabout and strange route home. But this Syrophoenician woman has taught him that he is just as likely to find God at work in these places as he is in the heartlands of Jewish faith.
These stories were important to the early church because they had to face the same struggles as Jesus. Most of his first followers were Jewish, and they found it really hard to welcome on equal terms Gentiles who wanted to follow him. They argued bitterly among themselves about whether Gentile followers should have to follow the Jewish food laws and be circumcised. They battled too over the place of women in the Church, struggling to get their heads around the very egalitarian vision of the Kingdom Jesus had left them. At gut level it was difficult to change attitudes they had grown up with and never questioned. But stories like this reminded them that even Jesus had needed to grow in his understanding of his ministry too, and that it hadn’t always come easily to him either.
For that reason they are important stories for us. We probably like to think of ourselves as open, caring, tolerant people – and I’m sure we are. But I’m prepared to bet that there are still some people whose voices we fail to hear, people we dismiss as having nothing to say that’s worth hearing, people who we haven’t even noticed are trying to speak. We may be deaf to whole groups who seem different to us. We may fail to hear the voices of the poor, or close our ears to the rich, assuming they know nothing about our struggles. We may write off those older than us as hopelessly out of date, or those younger than us as naïve. We may talk over people, speaking for them rather than letting them speak for themselves. We don’t trust them to know and speak their own truths. This week many have heard afresh the voices of refugees, seeing them for the first time as real individuals, people like us, but it took a shocking picture of a drowned toddler to forge that human connection.
The same deafness can affect our relationships with individuals too. We can probably all think of people whose voices we tend to screen out and avoid. Perhaps we’ve fallen out with them and can’t believe they have anything to say that we want to hear. It is bound to be loaded with their own agenda. We stick our fingers in our ears and turn away. But if we can’t bring ourselves to listen to each other, nothing can ever change.
It seems to me that our deafness to each other – conscious or unconscious - usually springs from fear; fear that giving ground to others, giving them space in our lives– will leave us without what we need for ourselves. Jesus’ own concern seems to be that if he gives his attention to Gentiles, there won’t be enough for the people of Israel. But the woman’s response reminds him that there’s no need to ration the love of God. Only those who know they have plenty to eat would let scraps fall to the floor for the dogs. There is more than enough to go around; the table of God’s love is laden. It’s a message which is central to Jesus’ teaching, but it seems that even he needed to be reminded of it from time to time. And if he did, then surely we do too.
It might sound like asking for trouble, but perhaps this week we should pray that God would send us a Syrophoenician to disturb us; someone whose voice we have found it hard to listen to in the past. Let’s pray that God will remind us that it is safe to let go of what we cling to, because our God is infinitely bigger and far more generous than we can imagine.