What do you most love to listen to? Let’s hear some of your responses; shout them out! I love to listen to the sound of the wind in the trees. I love to listen to the voices of my children talking to themselves. The ability to hear, and hear well, is amazing. It’s something I try not to take for granted. My father-in-law suffers from a severe hearing loss and I notice how it changes his daily life—how often he misses what’s occurring in the moment, how hard he has to work in order to follow a nuanced conversation.
“Be opened,” Jesus says as he touches his fingers to the ears and the tongue of a man who is both deaf and unable to speak clearly. The man’s hearing is healed, his speech restored. I imagine this moment is truly life-giving for him, given that he lived in a world without hearing aids or sign language, or the personal and political support a deaf community. And at the same time, when Jesus urges the man, “Be opened,” I believe he’s talking as much to his heart as he is to his ears and tongue. Listening is, above all, an act of openness, of attentive presence. It is the setting aside of one’s own agenda in order to authentically receive the other. Listening takes more than hearing. And listening is possible even for those who can’t perceive sound. We can listen with our hands and eyes, listen with our intuition and compassion.
This past week, a photograph shocked the globe into a posture of listening. As one reporter put it: “The numbers associated with today’s migration crisis are huge: 4 million Syrians fleeing their country; 3 million Iraqis displaced. But it was the image of a solitary child—a toddler in a red T-shirt, blue shorts and Velcro sneakers, found face-down on a Turkish beach—that shocked and haunted the world this week.” Listening well and deeply is heard work; even in the best of circumstances, it can be emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Attending to the image of Aylan Kurdi’s innocent little body is excruciating. It’s almost unbearable to take in his father’s desperate cry at the loss of his entire family: “I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms.” This listening shatters us open. It confronts our numbness and complacency. It rips the Band-Aid off the gaping wound that is our lack of compassion. It cuts through our polished and removed rhetoric, revealing the fear and brutality that undergirds the immigration policies of so-called “developed” nations such as ours.
In today’s Gospel text, the deaf man is not the first person who is first “opened”; who learns to listen. It is Jesus himself. A Gentile woman pleads with him for help on behalf of her little daughter. And Jesus, as one commentator puts it, “is caught with his compassion down.” He replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” When he refers to “the children,” he means the Jews. In other words, he intends to restrict his ministry to his own people. And when he calls her a “dog,” he’s not just being rude; he’s buying into the racist, sexist norms of his culture. In this moment, Jesus seems to be worrying that there is not enough of God to go around. He needs to ration his ministry, to decide who is worthy to receive its blessings and who is not.
But the woman answers him, “Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” New Testament Professor Matt Skinner reflects:
It’s not simply that [the woman] cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes—somehow—a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. Go ahead, children, eat all you want. But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings? (Recall the leftovers when Jesus fed 5,000, and perhaps more, in Mark 6:43.) The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor—even now.
Jesus’ replies, “For saying that you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” “For saying that.” Literally, the phrase reads something like, “because of this reasoning, argument, or logic.” The key word is “logos.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is God’s logos, God’s word. Mark doesn’t use the same phrase but surely the theological significance of logos is in the background somewhere here. The woman becomes a messenger of God, a word from God. And Jesus, in this moment, is opened to God’s word.
He learns to listen in a way he never has before.
The Syrian father and his lifeless son resemble the Gentile woman and her sick daughter. Both families convey a powerful message from the powerless. They bear the word of God to us all. They call us to be opened to God’s true desires for us and our world. It is often the case in the Bible that the people who are on the margins of power are the ones God chooses to speak through. Those little ones are the messengers who most fully embody the counterintuitive logic, the astonishing abundance of God’s kingdom, God’s new creation.
This story about Jesus’ encounter with the Gentile woman is difficult to reconcile with our picture of Jesus as a compassionate healer, a justice-loving preacher, and a self-giving servant of all. Still, I love this text for what it does to make our picture of Jesus more complex and more real. This passage contradicts the traditional doctrine about Jesus—that he is human, but not human quite like the rest of us; that he’s a model person without flaw, without sin. Instead, this small anecdote reveals a Jesus who is not only capable of error, but of participation in evil. In his initial response to the woman, Jesus is not an acceptable model for us to follow, and certainly not a model human being. At the same time, Jesus’ willingness to be confronted, and changed, and opened is something to emulate.
As Jesus places his hands on the deaf man’s ears and tongue, he looks up to heaven. With that gesture, he acknowledges God. He proclaims that the power to heal, and nourish, and bless is not his to control, not his to give or not to give. I also think it’s significant that he speaks to the man in the passive voice. “Ephphatha,” he says. That is, “Be opened.” Jesus honors the man’s own relationship with God. He doesn’t presume to know exactly what healing is needed or how it can happen. He is clear, now, that he is not the agent of the healing, just the messenger. Jesus himself has been opened by God, and to God, and now he invites this man into that same posture of listening.
Following our pizza night, I’ve been pondering something theologian Gordon Lathrop says about the church—that we ought to have a “strong center and a wide open door.” What this means to me, in light of today’s text, is that we ought to ground our life together in discipleship, that we should be serious about following Jesus. But such strength of commitment doesn’t require us to believe particular doctrines about Jesus, or to close ourselves off to doubts and questions, or to be all preachy and try to convert others. It means learning to listen as Jesus learned to listen, being opened by God and to God as Jesus was opened. It means creating permeable boundaries life “inside” the sanctuary and life “outside” in the world. It means setting a table in the street because that’s a safe place for our neighbors who buzz by on their bikes to get a taste-test, a crumb of God’s healing nourishment.
The word of God is not something inscribed in ink on a page. It is a person-to-person encounter through which God confronts us, changes us, opens us. Listening, truly listening, to this word is heartbreaking and joyful, exhausting and nourishing. May this rich path, this Jesus path, be ours.