The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 9/17/2000
Text: Mark 7:24-37 (James 2:1-10, 14-17)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

More than a generation of preachers at Princeton Seminary were schooled in their homiletical skills by Dr. Donald Macleod. Among the points Dr. Macleod would make during the semester was the importance of choosing a compelling sermon title. In fact, he asked students to give their sermon title before beginning each sermon.

He used to tell of Mrs. O'Leary who would hop on the Fifth Avenue bus on Sunday morning in Manhattan and pass the great churches along that thoroughfare. As the bus would approach each church, she would eye the sign in front with the sermon title and decided, on the basis of what she read, whether to get off the bus and attend that church. Dr. Macleod's constant refrain was, "Pick a title that will make Mrs. O'Leary get off the bus."

Mindful of that instruction, one of his aspiring preachers mounted the pulpit one morning for his first student sermon. Per protocol before beginning his message, he announced: "The title of my sermon is...`There's a Bomb on the Bus.'"(1)

Now, I realize that the strange title for the sermon today may not meet Professor Macleod's standard - Mrs. O'Leary might keep on riding. But it is a quotation from Jesus that the gospel writer chooses to leave in the original Aramaic to call attention to it in a big way, much bigger than normal. EPHPHATHA! It is a command that probably should be repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated. But more about that as we go along.

Our lectionary gospel lesson introduces us to a remarkable woman. She is courageous. She is clever. She is cool. But most of all she is a loving momma who will do anything to help her sick baby girl.

The story itself has always been one that I would just as soon skip over because, at first blush, it makes Jesus come off like some insensitive jerk. This does not sound like the Jesus I know. In fact, I wonder why such a story was preserved in the gospel record anyway. But then the lectionary drops it in our homiletical lap and says HANDLE IT! Can we "rescue" Jesus here, find some way of explicating this conversation that will put him in a bit more flattering light?

The commentators have tried to explain. Some have said that Jesus was just having a bad day - he and the twelve had gone north, out of Galilee (the only time the Gospels have Jesus leaving his native land) for some R & R. But instead of rest and relaxation, he is discovered and confronted by this insistent mother, admittedly, a most uppity woman who was violating every standard of acceptable feminine behavior by publically conversing with a man who is not even her husband. Instead of reacting to her as he normally might, Jesus tries to blow her off with an insult, then finally, wises up and acts decent again. Bad day, uppity woman or not. Even the Son of God is entitled to one every so often. That is what some commentators say. I have trouble with that.

Others suggest that this event was part of the Lord's growth and development - a learning experience for him. If, as the account of his boyhood attests, "Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men,"(2) we may presume that his growth continued as an adult. Being raised a Jew (and being taught by heritage that Gentiles like this lady are nothing more than fuel for the fires of Hell), Jesus learns here that divine love knows no boundaries, racial or otherwise. This was a "learning experience" for him. Perhaps. But I am still not comfortable.

Other commentators? Some say that this bantering back and forth between Jesus and the woman was merely the Lord's way of teaching something. By his initial reluctance to care for any Gentile, he was simply giving voice to the not-so-quietly harbored feelings of his Jewish followers. By finally acceding to the woman's cry for help, Jesus was demonstrating the inclusiveness of God's love and thereby taught his disciples that racism had no place in the Kingdom. This encounter was simply one more of Jesus' parables, this time, come to life.

Possible. Still a stretch, though. How about the language of the encounter? At first glance, Jesus sounds awfully rough. "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." Mom knew the ill-feeling between Jews and Gentiles. But calling her a DOG to her face? Umm!

Again, folks explain that away, and they had BETTER! After all, calling someone a dog, even a pet puppy dog (as the Greek here suggests) is a term of abuse, if ever there was one. But this lady was sharp enough to realize that this was only playful banter, she responded in kind, and it worked - her daughter was healed.

OK. I can live with that (although still a little reluctantly). I live with it best when I remember that I am reading and hearing with WESTERN eyes and ears. One of my cyberfriends, Susan O'Shea, explained it best for me when she recalled a similar encounter during her days as a Physician's Assistant in India more than 30 years ago. She writes,(3)

We had been trying mightily for a long time to encourage the Harijan (the outcastes) to come to the clinic, as they (being toilet sweepers) were at high risk for disease. [Despite terrible reluctance caused by their status as the lowliest in the caste system,] one day a Harijan finally did come to the clinic. The very fact that he appeared there, among the 280 casted persons in the waiting room, told us that he was unusual. His good grooming, his body stance, and his speech told us that he was a man of dignity, self- respect, and appropriate entitlement.

Speaking what was on everyone's mind, I said to him loud enough for everyone to hear, "What's a pig's son (standard form of address) doing here? I thought only casted people got sick."

"Even pigs bleed red," he replied, holding up a bloody hand, "like Americans." (Americans like myself were considered to be outcaste; also 'red-blooded American' and 'Yankee pig' were phrases that were well known.)

Conclusion: If folks took caste seriously, why were the casted people willing to come to an outcaste [Susan] for treatment? They could jolly well welcome another outcaste who came for treatment. It was an absolutely brilliant reply on his part and brought the house down.

From then on we had no trouble with the Harijans hanging back from seeking medical care.

BINGO!!! There is our true explanation of this story. We must read this text through the culture of the Middle East or even the Orient. Otherwise, we are victimized by our ethnic blinders. It was a truly wonderful encounter that used the playful banter of the day (which is unfortunately lost on modern readers). The gospel writer understood it (even if we do not), and that is why it is with us still today.

Come to think of it, perhaps its placement in the narrative right next to the healing of the deaf man should have given us a clue all along. Two things jump out at me from the gospel account. First, the reference to spit. Indelicate, yes, but in the ancient world, it was believed that the spittle of a famous person had magically curative powers. Even today my own children know (and HAVE known since they were little) that a father's spit is the most powerful cleaning agent in the world. ("Come 'ere; let me clean that off for you." Patooey. "No, Daddy, No!") Necessary for healing this man? I doubt it, but Mark reports it anyway.

The second thing that grabs me is this untranslated Aramaic command: "EPHPHATHA...Be opened." As I suggested early on, perhaps this is the inspired writer's way of lighting it up, setting it in flashing neon, insuring that no one would ever miss it. We have just been reminded that the gospel knows no boundaries - not geographic, not sexual, not racial, not any.

The lectionary's epistle lesson adds even more to the inclusiveness of the gospel. Economic and social boundaries? AIN'T NONE! "...if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers."

Admittedly, the church does not handle that instruction very well - we have been shaped by our society rather than the other way around. In reflecting on the passage, one of my colleagues once wondered about arranging a children's sermon during which someone unknown to the congregation (and rather unkempt - a street-person perhaps) would come in to the service on cue to be "greeted" by ushers; then a moment later, someone MUCH better dressed would arrive. Presumably, the youngsters would get a visual lesson from the different kind of greeting the two would get. My friend realized how unfair that would be to "set up" his ushers like that, and finally thought better of the idea. Still...someday...

There is an old Peanuts comic strip that has Charlie Brown and Linus coming across Snoopy who is shivering in the snow. Charlie says, "Snoopy looks kind of cold, doesn't he?"

"I'll say," replies Linus, "maybe we'd better go over and comfort him."

They walk over to the dog, pat his head and say, "Be of good cheer, Snoopy."

"Yes, be of good cheer."

In the final frame, the boys are walking away, still bundled up in the winter coats. Snoopy is still shivering, and over his head is a big "?".(4)

"EPHPHATHA...Be opened!" Can the good news be limited by race? The story of a certain Gentile who sought healing for her daughter says no. "EPHPHATHA...Be opened!" Can it be limited by geography? Not in Jesus' day, and certainly not in ours. "EPHPHATHA...Be opened!" What about sex? Sorry. Not even sex. "EPHPHATHA...Be opened!" At least let us pick and choose whom to have in our church. Nope. "EPHPHATHA...Be opened!"

To be honest, it is a command...not a suggestion, a command...that the church desperately needs to hear. In recent years, we who are Presbyterians have seen our church torn apart as liberals and conservatives have taken their arguments public. Verbal potshots and bombast have been hurled back and forth arguing about abortion or gays and lesbians or language about God or whatever happens to be the debate du jour. Meanwhile, those in the embarrassed middle have been left to despair whether anything good will ever come out of all the controversy. And it is not just Presbyterians - the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, the Baptists have all gone through the same thing. As of a few days ago, the Catholics have their own fuss going as the Vatican announced that THEY are the only REAL church - the rest of us do not quite "get it." Lots of American Catholics involved in ecumenical activities about choked on their oatmeal on that one. Yes, we can be pretty CLOSED...especially CLOSED the church.

But then there is this word from Jesus: "EPHPHATHA!" BE OPENED! And, miracle of miracles, some are actually hearing him. This week I read an article from the Presbyterian News Service(5) noting that some of the most vocal proponents of the left and right in our denomination have actually been sitting down together. Ten Presbyterians from opposite ends of the theological spectrum gathered in a church parlor outside Chicago for the purpose of "speaking the truth in love"(6) to each other while studying passages from the New Testament book of Ephesians. Michael Adee, an openly gay elder from Santa Fe, New Mexico, sat with Bible and commentary in his lap within spitting distance of the Rev. Parker Williamson, executive editor of The Presbyterian Layman, an independent publication known for its strident critiques of anything liberal. Pam Byers, an elder at Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco and executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that supports the ordination of gays and lesbians, shared a sofa with the Rev. Jerry Andrews, a co-moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition, which opposes gay ordination. Amazing! Instead of talking ABOUT each other, they were actually talking WITH each other! Wonderful. Good start. Keep it up!

The word of Jesus to the church is loud and clear: "EPHPHATHA!" BE OPENED! The gospel is not the exclusive province of one group or another, one denomination or another. If we would ever hope to heal the divisions that separate us, we will remember and obey the command, "EPHPHATHA!"

But the word is not just for the healing of the church. Remember, it came first to a man who needed help. The Spirit of Jesus is speaking again this morning and saying to us who need help,

  • "Ephphatha! Be opened." Let your ears be open to Christ's word of forgiveness for your sin.
  • "Ephphatha! Be opened." Let your eyes be open to see the opportunities God is making available in your world.
  • "Ephphatha! Be opened." Let your mind be open to new ways of thinking that will expand your understanding of God's will for you and yours.
  • "Ephphatha! Be opened." Let your mouth be opened to share with your friends what God is doing in your life.
  • "Ephphatha! Be opened." Let your life be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to release from whatever is scaring you, stopping you, holding you back, from becoming the person you want to be, the person God wants you to be.

"EPHPHATHA...Be opened!" No, as a sermon title, that might not get Mrs. O'Leary off the bus. But it is a word we need to hear...over and over and over again. "EPHPHATHA...Be opened!"


1. Mark Sprowl, Meadowview Presbyterian Church, Louisville, KY, via PresbyNet, "Eculaugh" #3160, 7/17/96

2. Luke 2:52

3. Susan O'Shea, via PresbyNet, "SERMONSHOP 1996 08 18," #124, 8/16/96

4. Doug Behm, via Ecunet, "Illustrations for This Week," #435, 9/4/97

5. Via PresbyNet, "Presbynews," #6187, 9/12/00

6. Ephesians 4:15

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