Do You Want Some Change?

Matthew 15: 21- 28

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Message

I remember a story told to me by my friend Smitha Nair who has a passion for narratives and short stories. It goes this way. A man called Mahesh is washing his car on a Sunday morning. He is whistling and singing when he sees a man who is in a ragged outfit. He looks exhausted and absolutely out of sorts. He was walking in the direction where Mahesh was washing his car. So Mahesh assumes that this man is a beggar and is coming to beg. He debates with himself “These are lazy people who do not work, why should I give them my hard earned money? These people are the real nuisance of this society.” But in a split second there is another voice that says “It maybe not his fault that he is poor. What will he eat if everybody thinks like me?” And when the man comes quite close Mahesh takes out some change from his pocket and asks “Hey, do you want some change?” The man sheepishly replies “Don’t we all want one” and walks away.

This passage in the Bible puts me in a very awkward position. We see Jesus just not in a foreign land. The term ‘Canaanite’ woman points to something more than just the geography of the place. Canaan is the land founded by Noah’s son Ham – you remember Ham, he was the one of Noah’s three sons who was shunned by his family after he saw Noah one night, drunk and naked.  Noah cursed Ham, whose name he changed to Canaan, and vowed that Canaan would forever be cursed and that his descendants would always be slaves to the descendants of his brothers.  Thus, in ancient Israel, the people of Canaan were thought of as cursed and were felt to be beneath the lowliest of Jews.

It is here we see a Canaanite woman who comes crying out for her demon possessed daughter. She cries out saying “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” (vs 22). The expectation would be that Jesus would melt with compassion and heal her. But oh oh. No. He is absolutely silent. That is when disciples urge Jesus to send her away as this woman is a nuisance. If one remembers before the miracle of Jesus feeding the Five thousand, the Disciples use the same words “Send them away” as it would be inconvenient and painful to feed the multitude. So it is to them that Jesus rationalizes that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Vs 24). But the woman does not quit but knelt before him begging to help him. If His silence was embarrassing, then surely now the reply He gave was shocking. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (vs 26). There are many justifications to this statements. The greek word for stray dogs is Kuon and for a pet dog is Kunariois. So it is not that offensive is what one says. But I would not like to dilute it. The Church believes that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. When he was on this earth he was conditioned by the prejudices of His time.

“Therefore he was obligated in all things

to be made like his brothers,

that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest

in things pertaining to God,

to make atonement for the sins of the people.

For in that he himself has suffered being tempted,

he is able to help those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 2: 17)

 

So it may look embarrassing to say Jesus had prejudice but then the Bible portion does not dilute it or spiritualize it.

We too have drawn circles where we define “us” and “them”. We too have prejudices that label people different from us. We have deep disrespect for their choices. We manage to draw the boundary of our mission and the scope of our churches. Tradition and heritage becomes a great excuse to exclude people and to send them away. Let me confess that I have prejudices against women, against people with different sexual orientations, people of different race and religion. I try to deny it or just to be silent about it. But this text shows that in the midst of constant groaning around us, we do not have a choice. What would our response be?

In the meanwhile let us look at what the woman had to say to Jesus. “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (vs 27) She played to the logic of Jesus and says that we too have the share of the table even if it is just crumbs that fall from the table. Jesus had out smarted and outwitted many Pharisees and Scribes. People were amazed by His answers. But clearly the ‘Canaanite’ woman had outwitted Jesus here. The point is Jesus is ready to change here. He is ready to enlarge his circle. He says “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (vs 28).

Let me also reiterate one phenomenon that is very popular in ‘New Age spirituality’. The question is are you a “Born- Again”? I have been stumped by this question. It is an attempt to make Jesus and his scope restricted to a select few who have some fire insurance against the fire in the hell. It is drawing a very small circle with ‘us’ and ‘them’ clearly defined’. Chapter 15 starts with a conflict between Pharisees and Jesus as Pharisees loved to manage the idea of who is pure and who is not. Church today has reduced itself to indulge in this petty business of managing the holiness of who is in and who is out. Jesus corrects the Pharisees where disciples feel intimidated and say “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (Vs 12). But the beauty of this chapter is that Jesus is corrected by the outsider ‘Canaanite Woman’. And Jesus is not offended and He is ready to enlarge the circle. He agrees ‘We do need some Change.’

Let me quote some historical facts from the page of Nalloor Library.

‘Slavery was a social evil which prevailed all over the world including what is now the state of Kerala in India. According to the 1836 census there were 164,864 slaves in Travancore vis-à-vis a total civilian population of 12,80,668.

Slaves were treated like animals and the cost of one slave was that of an ox, cost of an ox was 5 (big para) measures of Paddy or Rs. 10/- only. Slaves were chained and sold like animals in markets.

Kottayam, Changanasserry, Thirunakkara, Alleppey, Kayamkulam, Kollam, Attingal, Chirayinkizh, Kaniyapuram, Pettah and Kovalam were the notorious slave trade markets of the time. Churches in Cochin were used as godowns for the slaves except for Sundays. Slaves were exported out of the kingdom. There was no one to speak on behalf of these unfortunate people.

With the arrival and the teachings of the CMS (Church Missionary Society) missionaries, people became aware of this social evil. In 1819, Munro Island was given to the missionaries, by the then Travancore Government along with the slaves residing there on the Island. Munro Island is located at the confluence of Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada River, in Kollam district, Kerala, India.

In 1833, England passed the Slavery Abolition Law. CMS missionaries, Benjamin Bailey and Joseph Peet made a historic declaration on 8th March 1835, giving freedom to the slaves in Munro Island.’

If you read carefully Churches were used as go downs for slaves. Church Missionary Society (CMS) challenged this. If one remembers, CMS played a very important role in the Reformation of the Church that we  call the Mar Thoma Church. Rev Baiju Markose says that before the reformation the Church practiced untouchability and indulged in social evils. It was more of an ethnic exclusive club. But the Reformation challenged the boundaries of the circle of the Church. That is how we started getting involved in mission fields and started working among ‘untouchables’ first time among the ‘Vetons’ in Othera. So then the meaning of reformation is to constantly expand the circles. But as many of my friends have pointed out we over the years are becoming more conservative by demarcating our ethnic boundaries.  People outside the walls of the church are challenging us to expand our circles. But we are busy managing holiness. Lent is a time to realize that we need, not just some change, but a whole lot of it, if we are followers of a Saviour who humbled himself to be corrected. May the Triune God break open the circles where we are busy resisting the change. 

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

 

(Dear Friends, this is to provoke a debate. So rather than just’ likes’ please feel free to agree, disagree, challenge, oppose, criticize what is written. Also you can add your vision and inputs. Would really appreciate it.)

Image

Ephphatha: Lord Open Us UP

 

 

Text: Mark 7: 24- 37

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet.  The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”  She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.  He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”).  At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Message

There are two miracles that we are going to deal with. In the first part Jesus is in the Gentile area of Tyre. One must assume Jesus was here on a retreat, to rest. His weariness was very evident in his response too. It was in such a context that a Syro- Phoenician woman arrives for the healing of her daughter.  It is said that she begs Jesus. We will have also read Matthew 15: 21- 28. To the request of the woman there response of Jesus was,Jesus did not answer a word (Matthew 15: 23). Here Jesus behaves as if he had not heard the woman’s plea. When the disciples insist he answered “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 15: 24) When the woman insists and pleads further Jesus answered “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7: 27). What? Jesus said that? We have to understand that Jesus is fully God and fully Man. Here Jesus displays his self-understanding and mission which was till then only restricted to the Jews. There is where the answer of the Syro- Phoenician woman is important. “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” ( Mark 7: 28). This is what moves Jesus to heal the daughter of a Gentile woman. This is the “Ephphatha” moment for Jesus where he opens up from his ethnic understanding of ministry. He reaches out. In a way when Jesus was acting deaf towards her, the woman opened up Jesus ears. When Jesus spoke words that did not heal, the woman loosened his tongue to proclaim words of healing. The greatness of Jesus was he was ready to be opened by a gentile woman.

After this encounter Jesus goes to again a Gentile area of Decapolis. Here some people bring a deaf man who can hardly speak so that Jesus can heal. There are all possibilities that this man was a gentile. Jesus took him away from the crowd and put his fingers into the deaf man’s ear. Here Jesus is communicating with the deaf man. By putting his fingers he was communicating the act of healing. His spit on the tongue signified loosening so that the man with labored speech could speak clearly. Then Jesus looked up to heaven with a deep sigh and said “Ephphatha” which was the Aramic word for open up. My humble observation is that these two miracles are interlinked where the first miracle is the Syro- Phoenician Woman facilitated the “Ephphatha” of Jesus ministry and attitudes. The second miracle helped Jesus to reach out the gentiles and open up the Deaf man who had a labored speech.

I remember that when I joined for Masters in Social Work (M.S.W.)in 2003 I had so many prejudices that made me a very closed person. There were many students who were from the rural belt of Maharashtra and I as an urbanite felt it was below my dignity to interact with them. When everybody in the class ate lunch sitting on the floor I decided to sit on the chair. I only associated myself with the English speaking urban people. Best thing was I was not even aware of this discriminatory behavior of mine. It is when one of my friends Sangharsh challenged me at this point. He observed this inherent contradiction in my behavior and confronted me. This confrontation was not easy to digest. I also was in no mood to accept that I had done something wrong. Sangharsh is a person filled with passion for justice for the people who are oppressed. During our course itself he started living in the slums to understand the problem of the people.  It is in association with him and his commitment to the Dalits and needy that I could slowly accept my closed behavior. My friendship with him was the Ephphatha moment for me in my life. This helped me overcome my elitism in some sense. It helped me realize my disability sprouted from my attitude towards people. If one wishes to be effective Christians and human beings we have to open up. We have to realize that the prejudices that we hold against people and communities does not reflect who they are but is just a mirror reflection of who we are.

As a church too we need to open up. We love to have mission fields in far off places like Tibetan border, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. We are also ready to support it. But how far have we been able to make an impact in the places where we have our churches. The questions posed by Rev Sunil George Mathew at the Delhi Diocese Clergy Conference were:  How are we associated with the larger benefits of the Society? How many from the church are ready to send their children as doctors to places where there is no medical facility? How many are ready to send their children as social activists and social workers? As writers who challenge the system? What are we doing to address the spectrum of disabilities that the society is facing? With the rise in sexual crime against women, how have we responded?Are we using the Government Welfare Schemes for the larger benefit? Are we engaging with the panchayat? Before the Great lent begins, let these questions challenge us.

Let us pray. “Lord we have turned Lukewarm. Our hearts are closed. Our eyes are closed. Our ears are closed. Our Mouth is shut. Lord we pray that you touch our heart. You touch our eyes. You put your fingers in our ears. Lord with your spit, loosen our tongues. Let us hear you say “Ephphatha”. Lord open us up. Amen”

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati