‘“Ephphatha!”’ in us!
Jas. 2:1-10 [11.13] 14-17; Mark 7.24-37
May I speak in the name of the Son to the glory of the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
‘This is where the rubber meets the road.’ When my sister purchased the ‘Fighting Fat, Fighting Fit’ fitness DVD one night following a newly-qualified drive to ASDA, there followed several (albeit short-lived) nights of the front room being taken over by exercise mats and sweatbands as Sally and her friend were put through their paces by Harvey Walden, erstwhile American marine with no-nonsense approach and tough-love patter to match. (Think a younger George Foreman.) By the third circuit of the exercises, the sweat-busters (including myself, who gave the thing a try long after the girls were lapped – ha!) – were informed with tongue defiantly out of cheek, that, ‘This is where the rubber meets the road.’
So we might receive the texts for this 15th Sunday after Trinity with this phrase in mind. St. Mark has no need of a gimmicky American patois to sell the Gospel to us, however, for the account we read presents with all the wondrous immediacy of surprise and shock who is the Christ of God as Mark reveals him. The evangelist’s opening gift to us is the unnamed Syrophonecian woman. Jesus has just had his set-to with the Pharisees about ritual cleanness when we meet her – and so as not to short-change you on American usage before breakfast – smashed them out of the park in the process. It appears that this woman is the perfect entrant stage-left as the drama toward Jerusalem unfolds.
A gentile pagan with an epileptic daughter, no axe whatever to grind and a magnitude of faith enough to reform both of their lives in a trice is followed shortly after by a man devoid of sight and hearing who is yielded in desperation by his friends to the healing ministration of the Master.
And here is where the rubber indeed meets the road. Between the pair of them, the Syrophonecian woman and the similarly anonymous deaf-mute demonstrate last week’s keynote teaching of Jesus that clean hands lathered in spiritualised ritual do no good whatever if a person’s heart lies besmirched within them. It is that which must-needs come out of the body, says the Lord, whether by word or action, that will always uncover our defilement irrespective of how clean our hands are. Better by far to eat your food with hands caked to high heaven then, and have a heart baptised in the freedom of a clear conscience, than vice versa.
So the Pharisees stand in antithesis to our two figures in today’s Gospel. There is nothing that should amaze us about their piety either then or now. There are still plenty of them around for sure, and we do well to keep our own motives and behaviour in check every now and again lest we become like them. Why does she say Mass like this? Why doesn’t he swing the thurible like that? We are all subject to the snares of legalism and may easily become Pharisees rather than disciples of the King of Love if we are not minded otherwise. As the writer of the epistle to James puts it, ‘You do well if you fulfil the royal law.’ (v. 8). This law’s statutes imprint upon the heart and not in tomes of writ with myriad interpretations and infinite shadows of turning. It is a beautiful law, but it needs ongoing pragmatic attention: the law of love is a living, moving thing that has its being in the very heart of its enactment.
Faith, James exhorts, is to be a doing business if it is genuine. An active sharing; a relational gift rather than a juridical proposition. It is that real-time experience through which the incarnate God commands us, ‘Ephphatha!’ Be opened. Be opened to even greater things than these. And those who hear this command spoken shall see them: deaf-mute, desperate mother, penitent sinner alike
‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is as clear as it gets for those who truly seek God: it is the golden rule; the changeless law of liberty into which the figures in today’s Gospel may look with unclouded eyes, for they have only their truest selves to give in pursuit of the love which they so greatly need; the love they open up before us in our own unrelenting need. The friends of the deaf-mute man begging Jesus to heal him are entirely unencumbered in their step of faith as they offer their friend purely and wholly to the commanding touch of Jesus. Like the humble mother before them, they also realise that even to ask for a crumb from the master’s table is enough. It is truly an ‘Ephphatha’ moment. The command of the Lord to the man’s mortal body to be changed through restored sight and hearing is a turning point for his friends also as well as we who hear about him.
‘Even the dogs eat up the crumbs from their master’s table’ recognises the astute and humble lady whose daughter is healed of a demon (v. 28). Both of these practical movements of faith – faith with works as James might have it – transform not only their direct recipients, but equally we who seek to fulfil the royal law of God today. We hear the ‘Ephphatha’ of God and our hearts are opened that bit more if we allow the Master to similarly touch and unstop us of that which must-needs come out.
The author of the letter to James commends such a faith to his Christian community. A faith that is not built on misappropriated fidelity to a law whose letter kills, but much more one in which rubber meets with road where God the Father’s Son can move to touch blind eyes and purge away the sins that bind and defile. A faith where the Spirit ever gives life
The Syrophonecian woman and the deaf-mute man are filled to the measure of the fullness of this faith, and bear no trace of deadness. Their need for, and reception of, the love that commands openness to the life of God and all it can do, teaches to us more wisdom than the Pharisee could ever hope to possess.
‘Ephphatha!’ Be opened in us, O Lord, that we who seek to fulfil the royal law might be, like them, the bringers-in of your Kingdom here.