Christ Centered Resources

When Jesus Went on Vacation

Rev. Ed Searcy

James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 10, 2000
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 be alone. 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.