When Jesus Went on Vacation
| Mark 7:24-37
|Sun, September 10, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Welcome back. That’s what this Sunday morning is about in churches all
across the country. Summer is fading. Labour Day has come and gone.
School is in. And the conversations in classrooms and offices and churches
are predictable. How was your vacation? Even here in the pulpit the talk is
about a vacation. Oh, the heading for these stories in Mark’s gospel doesn’t
actually say: ‘Jesus goes on Vacation’. But it could. All of the signs are there
in these verses. The first clue is in the geography. “From there he set out and
went away to the region of Tyre … then he went by way of Sidon towards the
Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis”. As any inhabitant of 1st
century Israel must be aware, Jesus is going cross-border traveling. In fact,
this is the one time in Mark’s gospel that he leaves his homeland to visit
foreign cities. This is the first clue that these stories portray Jesus on vacation.
But, of course, he may intend that his trip be all business and no pleasure.
This may well be a mission trip to those who, like us, are not Israelites.
That is where the second clue appears. When he arrives at his destination in
Syria “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there”. It
doesn’t sound like he’s got any evangelistic tent meetings planned, does it?
Jesus leaves Israel, arrives in Tyre and finds a ‘bed and breakfast’ where he
can spend some time alone and unnoticed. Mark does not even make mention
of an entourage of disciples following Jesus’ every step. It is as if Jesus is
trying to travel undercover, away from the crowds and paparazzi. And later,
when called upon to heal a deaf man, Jesus sighs as he carries out the healing.
“Looking up to heaven”, writes Mark, “he sighed”. This does not sound like
an enthusiastic Jesus, eager to do the healing work of God. This sounds like a
tired, stressed Jesus in need of some much needed rest and relaxation. Sure
enough, after healing the deaf man Jesus orders everyone “to tell no one”. He
doesn’t want to be overrun with people desperate for healing. He just wants to
When Jesus comes back from holiday and his disciples ask the inevitable
question: “How was your vacation?” what does Jesus answer? By the sounds
of it, he describes an interrupted sabbatical. So much for his attempts to avoid
notice and to escape the crowds. Even beyond Israel’s borders his reputation
makes it impossible for him to escape notice. Even in the ten Greek cities of
the Decapolis people bring their ill for a cure. The problem is, of course, that
Jesus and his disciples simply assume that the mission he received in his
baptism at the Jordan was to his own people. There is enough need for a
Messiah in Israel to keep Jesus occupied for a lifetime. Besides, surely God
intends Jesus to bring healing and redemption to the people who are bound as
partners with God through the ancient covenant, their sworn testament of
faithfulness to be God’s people following God’s way in the world. Surely
Jesus is not also sent as the Messiah to all those who have not made promises
to keep the Torah – the law – of God. Surely.
You can hear these assumptions in the surprising language of Jesus. It is
surprising because we don’t imagine that Jesus – our beloved Jesus – could
ever be lacking in compassion. But see the foreign woman – the Gentile who
is Syrophenician by birth – see this coloured woman and hear her odd accent
as she humbles herself at Jesus’ feet pleading for the health of her possessed
daughter. Is her daughter an addict? Is she the victim of abuse? We do not
know what demons possess her … we only see her desperate mother at Jesus’
feet pleading ‘kyrie eleison’, ‘Lord, have mercy’. To which Jesus replies: “Let
the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw
it to the dogs”. Now dogs in the 1st century Mediterranean world are not
family pets. They are third world dogs … scavengers that inhabit the villages
looking for whatever scraps they can find. In that world Israelites spoke of
their foreign neighbours and immigrant labourers as ‘dogs’. This is the
intolerant language of the street and of the talk-shows. To our surprise, it is
Jesus’ talk as well. He assumes that he is meant to feed the children of Israel.
The others – the Gentiles who make up the rest of the world – will, like dogs,
just have to wait. This Jesus sounds like he really does need a vacation!
But, in the end, Jesus tells this story on himself. When he returns from
vacation this is what he recounts and remembers. Something happens that day
that changes things. It happens in her reply to his crude dismissal of her. She
does not slink away. She does not weep and wail. She uses his rabbinic logic
to get what she has come for – her daughter’s health. “Sir”, she reminds him,
“even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”. With this bit of
repartee Jesus agrees to offer a crumb … and her daughter is restored to well-
being. It is the same on his tour of the ten cities of the Decapolis. “They”
bring him a deaf man with a speech impediment. Mark does not tell us who
“they “ are. Are they his disciples? Are they friends of the deaf man? Are they
the curious who want to see if what they have heard about his powers are true
and who find the first likely subject for their experiment? Who knows? What
we do know is that Jesus avoids the glare of publicity again, taking the man
away where they can be alone together. There he performs the miracle of
healing, opening the man’s ears and mouth with a touch and a word. And
word spreads quickly, in spite of Jesus’ attempts to keep everything quiet.
When Jesus returns to Israel from his brief foreign excursion his mission has
spread … unintentionally. In Mark’s gospel Jesus has no intention of
including Gentiles … of including us … until now. Now the mission of the
One who was sent to save Israel is becoming the mission of One who was sent
to save the world.
Perhaps you have glimpsed the serendipitous parallel between this morning’s
reading in Mark and the lesson from the letter of James. The three year
lectionary cycle is taking us through Mark and through James, passage by
passage, week by week. There is no intended thematic linkage between the
two. But listen to James today. He exhorts the church not to show favoritism
to the wealthy or powerful or educated when they show up on Sunday
morning. He reminds the church that the way of Christ is a path that treats the
rich and the poor with equal respect. Isn’t this precisely what Jesus confronts
in himself as he meets a foreign woman on foreign turf for the first time?
There is to be no favoritism … even between Jews and Greeks … even
between the religious and the non-religious. And there is more. James goes on
to insist that a faithful community of Christians simply cannot be indifferent
to poverty. It simply must respond to need with acts of sacrifice and care.
Words will not be enough. So, too, Jesus when confronted with yet another
needy man cannot turn away. He sighs … fatigued, perhaps … overwhelmed
by the demands, surely … and then he gives what he has to give – health to
the one in need.
The New Testament world is a world marked by social boundaries. Racial
divides are huge. Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, Syrophoenicians and treat one
another with disdain. Within each community there are clear demarcations
between the honoured and the shamed, between the clean and the unclean.
And at the bottom of the social ladder are the demon possessed, the taboo
leper, the disabled deaf and blind, the shamed prostitute and tax-collecting
cheat. Do you recognize this New Testament world? It is eerily familiar,
wouldn’t you agree? This world of insiders and of outcasts … this habitual
favoritism for the well off and able-bodied that keeps the poor and disabled
outside looking in … is our world. See, then, that Jesus’ healings are never
just a private event but always a highly social act. His touch creates
communities in which the possessed can belong again. When Jesus speaks his
healing word the disabled are no longer ‘nobodies’ but instead become
‘somebodies’. This is why they seek him out. They come because they have
been alienated them from the world by an illness or condition that has made
them less than human in other’s eyes. And they know that with Jesus there can
be no favoritism … no indifference. They know it even when he forgets or
tires of his calling.
And, my friends, this is what the Risen Christ is still up to here, in our life
together. Oh, it is not a simple task. It is a person-by-person healing. One by
one our demons are exorcised and we find a place of honour at the Table.
Slowly we learn that the church is not the possession of a certain kind of
people. It is not a white man’s club. Nor is it to be owned by one theological
encampment or another – ‘progressives’ or ‘conservatives’ of whatever stripe.
The church of Jesus Christ is intended to be a radical social movement in
which all who find a place die to their worldly honour or their previous shame
and give up their reliance on wealth or their enslavement to poverty. Too few
people outside the church know this … and too many people inside the church
have forgotten this! Yet God has not forgotten the church or the world. Look
at what God in Christ is doing here and now, in us and in this congregation.
Here, one by one, we are being healed and fed and welcomed at the Table.
And then here, one by one, we learn to offer this healing touch, this food of
companionship, this surprising welcoming embrace. It is impossible for us to
create such a community on our own. Our instincts to play favourites are too
strong. Our tendency to indifference is too potent. Thank heavens that it is not
we who create the church. It is God in Christ whose awesome Spirit is at
work, forming us into a people worthy of being known as disciples of Jesus.
Thanks be to God who still goes this way with us.