Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Proper 18 Year B

Proper 18 Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23; Psalm 125


Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm146

James 2:1-10,(11-13),14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Imported into Jewish culture from Egypt and other neighbors, wisdom sayings in the canonical Book of Proverbs include those imported verbatim and others as variations. They were used to educate the young in the ways of the world. These excerpts vaunt the value of a good reputation, which can be gained by feeding the poor and otherwise not oppressing them.

The psalmist compares "those who trust in the Lord" to the rock-solid imagery of Mt. Sinai, which endures whatever structures are built and destroyed on it over the centuries. The psalmist then pleads, "Restore, O Lord, our fortunes" as surely as rain fills dried up water beds. Even those who "sow in tears will reap in glad song."


Isaiah's doxology (all of chapter 35) describes a reliable trait of God-in-action: the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute sing, even the parched earth is renewed with life-giving water.

The psalmist contrasts human authorities, whose administrations come and go, with trust in God, "the maker of heaven and earth" who is "faithful forever." The Lord "does justice," feeds the poor, "gives sight to the blind," makes the bent over stand upright. "The Lord loves the righteous." And, gives special attention to the traveler in an alien country, orphans and widows. But the "way of the wicked" the Lord twists.

Using the classic Greek format of a dialogue, the writer who takes the name of "James" ask rhetorical questions and then answers them. Does favoritism in the church reflect "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ"? When an obviously well off person walks into your church and you offer her a good seat immediately but you order a less affluent person, "stand here," you upend what the Lord wants. "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith?" After all, it is the rich who oppress you. Because only they can afford to take you to court. More questions: What good is it of you say you have faith but then ignore someone who is naked or lacks daily food? Pious cliches, like "Go in peace" mean nothing without actions that actually alleviate someone's suffering.

Having just insulted the Pharisees for their prioritizing "tradition" over a spectacular display of God's abundance in daily life made possibly by Jesus, Mark now takes Jesus to an unexpexted place, the home of a Gentile, another breach of religious tradition. A Gentile woman pleads with Jesus for her daughter. Jesus responds, "Let the children (Jews) be fed first... and not throw food to the dogs (non-Jews)." But the woman astutely replies that even dogs get the crumbs under the table. Mark describes Jesus as quite taken with the woman's response and responds, "for saying that, you may go" and you will find your daughter healed, which she did. Jesus moves on, deeper into Gentile territory. The crowds introduce Jesus to a deaf man who also had a speech impediment. They begged him to lay his hand on him." Jesus leads the man away from the crowds to a private place. In vivid detail, Mark describes how Jesus put his fingers into the ears of the man, spat, and then he touches the man's tongue, sighing "Ephphatha," which we are told by Mark means, "Be opened." The man immediately hears and speaks plainly! Jesus orders the man not to tell anyone what has happened in private between them. But the healed man becomes an irrepressible witness. Soon the whole crowd is in awe of Jesus. (N.B. The daughter of the Gentile woman is healed by Jesus whom she never even meets because of her mother's intercession, but Jesus intimately touches the ears and tongue of the deaf and tongue-tied man.)

All the readings and the responsory psalms make one thing clear: when God acts, certain things always happen-- justice gets done, the hungry get fed, the blind see, the bent over stand up straight and tall and other corrective actions to human conditions get started and completed.

Mark's account of Jesus' healing the deaf man who also had a speech impediment stands out from all the other healing accounts in Mark and the other three gospels. It stands out for its touchiness. Jesus puts his fingers into the man's ears, he touches the man's tongue (and spits, too). Although done in private-- Jesus and the man are alone-- the surprising story gets out and the awe of the crowds grows.

Jean-Luc Nancy's
Corpus and his many other works have produced wide and deep response, including the last book completed by Jacques Derrida, On Touching--Jean-Luc Nancy. Derrida begins his work, in which he reviews major Western writers on the topic of "touching," with this pronouncement, "Jean-Luc Nancy, the greatest thinker about touch of all times...." (p.4) Derrida's inquiries inspired by Nancy's work go in all directions, including an inspiring section about Jesus. Derrida, the non-practicing Jew, writes, "....all the Gospels present the Christic body not only as a body of light and revelation, but, in a hardly less essential way, as a body touching as much as touched , as flesh that is touched-touching." (pp 99-100) Derrida's (and Nancy's) larger discussion of "touch" explores this human experience which, at the edge,at the limit of physical touch, another sense of touch begins. It is known when we say that we have been deeply "touched" by some one's kindness or generosity, for example. After listing many of the ways Jesus touched others and was touched, in both senses, including the incident in our gospel this day, he writes, "Not only is Jesus touching, being the Toucher, he is also the Touched one, and not only first in the sense that we have just identified (that is, touched in his heart by heartfelt, merciful compassion): he is there as well for the touching; he can and must be touched.) (p. 101)

The deaf man is intimately "touched" by Jesus and is healed; the daughter of the (non-Jewish) woman never meets Jesus but is "touched" by his blessed and glorious healing because of the intervention by her mother who "touched" Jesus with her pleading!

Those who have been "touched" by Jesus and have known personally and firsthand the healing for themselves that comes from his "touch" want to eagerly "touch" others and relieve their oppression. That is where God reliably appears, where the blind see, the starving eat, the bent over stand upright, and other real needs are actually given tangible (another sense of "touch") relief.