Readings: Isaiah 35:4-9 Psalm 146 James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37
I have long been a fan of the lyrics of Pink Floyd, not because I advocate their way of life, but because those lyrics speak some powerful and harsh truths about the world. One of the great songs is “Us and Them,” in which the common acceptance of broken relationships in our culture is mourned. The gospel reading today relates to us the way Jesus addressed some of that brokenness.
Both stories in Mark 7:24-37 are about non-Jews. Jesus goes first to the “region of Tyre” and then into the “region of Decapolis.” It is sufficient to know that these were territories where the dominant population demographic was not Jew. The woman in the first story is clearly identified as “Syro-phoenician,” a term that Mark’s target audience in the first century would have immediately recognized as not a Jew. The man in the second story lives in Decapolis and has friends who care about him enough to bring him to Jesus. It is logical to conclude from his integration into the culture that he is not Jewish, either. In both stories, Jesus works healing just as he has been doing in the Jewish communities. As Jesus travels through these non-Jewish areas his message is the same message he has been preaching from the beginning – “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We can hear that message behind these two miracles.
In these stories, Jesus preaches another message as well, to the Jews of his day, and to any of us who are inclined to view our own culture divisively. Many Christians today feel threatened by cultural restrictions that are building due to the increase in completely secular thinking coupled with a dramatic increase in immigrants who adhere to a wide variety of religions. The sense that Christian ideas and Christian values are not dominant in our culture has produced in many Christians an “Us and Them” mentality. This attitude is sometimes expressed in ugly confrontations. Jesus’ message to the Jews of his day, and his message to us today, spoken by his actions, not his words is the same message God spoke to ancient Israel. As Israel encamped around Mount Sinai, even before God had given them the Law in the Ten Commandments, God gave them a commission. He said, “The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5b-6) The work of priests is to mediate between God and man, and the clear message of this statement is that God intended for Israel to tell everyone about him and to draw everyone into worship and service to him. The same message is repeated in Revelation when the book opens with this prayer: “To him [meaning Christ] who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:5-6) When Jesus brought his message of healing and reconciliation to non-Jews, he brought his commission to all his followers. The commission of the church, like the commission to Israel at Sinai, is to be mediators between God and humankind throughout the world. We are to take the message of the kingdom to everyone.
Isaiah described what it was like for everyone who comes to the Lord. He said it was as if water had suddenly bubbled up in a desert. He talked about healing and about the joy someone would feel if he were cured of deafness and a speech impediment after a lifetime of suffering. Isaiah even said that in the place where God’s kingdom burst out there would be a highway for all his people where the redeemed could walk safely. Instead of a blessing to which everyone is invited, it almost sounds like something for “us” that shields us from “them.”
When Christians start feeling that the world is divided between us (Christians) and them (everybody else), it is easy to feel scorn for “them.” This is not God’s plan. The whole world is his creation. Every person is his unique creation for his own unique purpose. Not one person was excluded from God’s love when Christ died on the cross. As God’s priests, we are called to share the same message Jesus shared with Jews in Galilee and with a Syro-phoenician woman in the region of Tyre and with a handicapped man in the region of Decapolis: “The kingdom of God has come near.” The message is not a treasure to be held close to the chest of Christians, protected from the ridicule of secular thinkers and adherents of other religions. The message is a treasure that we must share with everyone. We, God’s priests, are called to tell the good news and let everyone know that the kingdom is for “them” as well as for “us.”