Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Trinity: The Outsider: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 5 September 2021 by The Reverend Robert Green. (James 2: 1 – 10 and 14 – 17; Mark 7: 24 – end)
Some years ago in some Christian circles, it became the fashion to wear a plastic bracelet with the initials “WWJD” on it. This stood for “What would Jesus do”. The idea being that when faced with a situation ask yourself the question “What would Jesus do in this circumstance”? Whilst this prompts us to think of Jesus when engaging in any ethical dilemma, it had obvious limitations. Faced with life in the 21st Century, our situations are so very different from 1st Century Palestine, that in answer to the question “What would Jesus do”? we have to answer “We really don’t know”. However Jesus had the capacity to shock his followers and the Establishment in what he said and did: for instance touching lepers and healing people on the Sabbath, both being very provocative actions at the time.
In our Gospel Reading we encounter two people in need, a Gentile woman who challenges Jesus, and a deaf man who lived in the mainly Gentile territory of the Decapolis, the Ten Cities south of Galilee. Both of these in their different ways were outsiders in their communities. Each of these encounters is a sermon on its own, but I would like to concentrate on the second encounter with the deaf man, who because of his deafness, had an impediment in his speech. The crowds bring the man to Jesus, and in order to minister to him, Jesus deliberately takes him away from the crowd. This makes it clear to the man that Jesus is concerned with him as an individual. Deaf people can live in a world of their own, and it is only by touch that they may realise that you are wanting to communicate with them.
In order to demonstrate exactly what he wants to do, Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spat and touched his tongue, and then he looked up to heaven and groaning used the Aramaic word ‘Ephphatha’, which means ‘Be Opened’ or very literally ‘Be unknotted’. Using that word, “Ephphatha” involves definite movement of lips and tongue (you try it!), and thus making it very clear to the man what is going to happen. In all these ways, Jesus is totally sensitive to the man’s needs, and he receives healing of his deafness and the impediment in his speech, and he speaks plainly. To the crowd this healing is wonderful; he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak, surely a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 35 verses 5&6 “Then 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.”
This is what Jesus did when faced with this man’s need. On the face of it, it is strange to us, but he deals with the man that makes sense to him, and that is surely the point. In counselling situations it is vital that we respect a person’s individuality, and their individual needs, and are sensitive to what they are. Each of us are on a spiritual journey of infinite variety, and God respects our individuality, and will reveal Himself to us in many different ways. To some it is a gradual realisation of God at work in their lives, while others have some often-dramatic conversion experience, and their lives are totally changed. However it happens it is right for that person.
Having taken two pilgrimages to Israel it was fascinating to see how different places ‘spoke’ to individual pilgrims as we made our way from Galilee to Bethlehem and finally to Jerusalem. It was not always the obvious places like Nazareth or Jerusalem itself, that made an impact, but simply walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or seeing for the first time, the view from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount, which resonated with some. Clearly evidence of God speaking to us as individuals.
What Jesus did in adjusting his approach to unusual situations is a pattern for us all, but it does require sensitivity, care and above all love for our fellow human beings.