Saturday, September 8, 2012

Be Opened

Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (Mark 7.34-35)


One of the worst sicknesses I’ve ever endured occurred a few years ago, when I contracted a sinus infection that spread to my left inner ear. Pressure built up behind my eardrum, creating unbearable pain that left me in yowling in agony. I was stranded in a Dallas hotel, in the care of a local physician who called on me once a day for nearly a week and room service staff who brought me juice to wash down an arsenal of high-power antibiotics and painkillers. Before the doctor would release me to fly back to Chicago, he wanted to be certain the infection hadn’t spread to my right ear and hinted it might also affect brain tissue. Although my partner, Walt, called constantly, I was totally alone, in a strange place, facing the possibility of being hospitalized far from home. Inability to hear in my left ear compounded my sense of isolation. I lay there, in insufferable pain, helpless, contemplating terrible outcomes. Deafness. Brain damage. Very possibly waiting for Walt to get to me while strangers herded me through the ER and hospital admissions.

My condition’s most awful aspect, however, was how I sounded to myself when I spoke. The voice that came out of my mouth no longer matched the one in my head. It seemed to belong to someone else and, after a while I became unsure I could trust it. (This was partly due to the haze of medication, I’m sure.) But as my condition dragged on, I began to feel less and less in control of my situation. There was the Tim in dire pain and the Tim trying to put words around his pain, and they weren’t the same Tim. I was fragmented.

Astounded Beyond Measure

The deaf man in Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7.24-37) is in a similar situation. Inability to hear has impeded his ability to speak clearly. The voice behind his clogged ears bears little resemblance to the one he utters. My brief experience with his type of affliction drives home how fragmented his daily existence must be. Obviously his neighbors feel for him. When Jesus passes through their region, they bring their deaf friend to Him, begging Him to touch the man. What happens next is most irregular. Rather than curing the deaf man on the spot, Jesus pulls him to the side, out of the crowd’s sight. As though diagnosing his illness, Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears, spits—an odd gesture Mark doesn’t explain—and touches the man’s tongue. He looks up to heaven, lets go a deep sigh (we’re not sure what to make of that, either), and, in the man’s native Aramaic, Jesus says, “Ephphatha,” or, “Be opened.” Immediately, the obstructions in the man’s ears dissolve, his tongue is released, and he’s able to speak plainly. All of the disjointed pieces inside his head come together. Suddenly being able to hear again is a miracle all its own. But being able to hear himself—having his speech reunited with his inner voice—is what makes him whole.

Even more than that, the deaf man’s restored speech brings healing to his entire community. Family, friends, and neighbors who couldn’t understand him now hear him clearly. They no longer have to compensate for his disability. They’re free from the guesswork and stress of parsing his inarticulate self-expression. Freeing the man’s ability to hear and speak is how Jesus makes the community whole. One whom they’d lost has been returned. And that miracle loosens their tongues. Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about the miracle, but they can’t keep quiet. Verses 36 and 37 read, “The more He ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.'” Astounded beyond measure—I so love that! It is exactly what happens when we approach Christ on others’ behalf. What Jesus does for them somehow spills over into us. We can’t possibly contain ourselves, because the wholeness Christ imparts to others inevitably makes us whole as well. We can’t help ourselves from proclaiming, “He has done everything well!”

Voluntary Deaf-Mutes

In the wake of the US political conventions, I’ve also been astounded beyond measure—though not in the good way witnessed in Mark. I’ve been thoroughly astonished, in some cases disgusted, by the prevalence of clogged ears and twisted tongues in our community. From the highest podiums of power to running commentaries flooding social networks, we are encompassed with people whose hearing and speech are severely hampered. Their ears are clogged with inflammatory rhetoric that impedes their ability to express themselves clearly and effectively. Hearing and reading what they say, I think, “Surely that’s not what they believe.” Surely their inner voices cry out for an end to poverty, violence, and injustice. Surely they hear a booming call for righteousness in the depths of their being—a resounding declaration that callous indifference for the least among us must cease. Surely something within them wants to convey concern for others beyond themselves. But the deafening roar of tyrants and charlatans has robbed their freedom to express their faith and humanity in understandable ways. And, all contrary evidence aside, I must believe this is true, lest my ears also become infected and clogged, lest my own speech also becomes harsh and nonsensical, lest I too become a burden to my community, a liability that makes those I live with less than whole.

At the same time, I’m convinced the political deafness and jabber polluting current discourse are merely magnified symptoms—an outbreak, if you will—of a more invidious contagion. We no longer care to listen to one another, let alone the voice of God that calls to us from deep within. We’re no longer concerned about what we say, let alone how we say it. We have become a culture of voluntary deaf-mutes, purposefully closing our ears to anything we don’t want to hear and disregarding the confusion and harm our words create.

We’re becoming increasingly fragmented as people, with the holy person inside us bearing little resemblance to the vain, self-serving one portrayed in our words. We need to find Jesus and beg Him to touch us. We need Him to diagnose our sickness, penetrating the garbage cluttering our ears with His pristine fingers, loosening our twisted tongues with His mighty hand. We need Him to speak to us in language we understand, commanding us to be opened. When our ability to hear and speak clearly is restored, we will be made whole. Our communities will be made whole. Peace, justice, and compassion will be restored. We will be astounded beyond measure and say, “He has done everything well!”

Lord Jesus, if ever we needed healing it’s now. We beg You, come to us, pull us aside, lay Your hand on us, and command us to be opened. Amen.

We have become a culture plagued by clogged ears and slurred speech. We need Christ's healing to be made whole.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Watching the Detectives

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7.5)

Clinging to the Past

Now and then someone who knows me casually will say something like, “You’ll love this, since you were raised in the South,” or, “Can you explain such-and-such to me? I didn’t grow up down South.” They’re always surprised when I say I grew up in Chicago, raised by Alabamians who viewed their Southern heritage as a sort of ethnicity. When my brother and I were very young, our parents pointed to our neighbors—the Hogans and Leonardis and Borkowskis—and told us that, just as they followed certain customs passed down from their elders, we too behaved certain ways and believed certain things because of where we came from. We talked differently than our neighbors, not only in accent, but also in terms of what was and wasn’t said. Our family dynamic was different. Our sense of hospitality and social obligation was different. And, most obvious, our religious life was different. Nobody went to church more often than the Wolfes—twice on Sunday, twice during the week, with nearly every Saturday consumed by some sort of outreach or fellowship event. So I am a Southerner through and through with remarkably little experience of what living “down South” is actually like.

Although my parents were grateful to serve Chicago congregations and adapted very well to their urban surroundings, they mourned the slower, more genteel life they left behind. And they kept their Southern identity alive by transmitting its values and practices to us. Common courtesies—saying “please” and “thank you,” “ma’am” and “sir”—were drilled into us, along with very specific shows of gallantry and refined table manners. (To this day, I walk nearest the curb when accompanying a lady down the street.) This is not to say our neighbors didn’t raise their children do likewise. The difference was we weren’t taught to be mannerly because it was polite. Our manners grew out of who we were—or perhaps more accurately, out of the past my parents were clinging to.

In Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7.1-8,14-15,21-23), we see a very similar situation, as a few Pharisees and scribes, desperately clinging to the past, confront Jesus about His followers’ poor table manners. The disciples don’t wash up before dinner. That deeply offends the Pharisees. To understand why they’re offended and why Jesus responds to their complaint as He does, we need to understand what they’re trying keep alive by perpetuating ancient traditions.

Ferreting Out Scofflaws

Palestine is unique among Roman conquests in that the Jews are permitted to practice their faith and customs without interference. While other conquered nations must swear allegiance to Caesar and adopt imperial beliefs, the Jews’ willingness to die for their faith tradition has resulted in a somewhat schizoid way of life. First-century Jews live under two governments and legal codes: their own religious law and Roman occupation. On the surface, life is not much changed under Caesar: temples and synagogues stay open, social customs remain intact, and civil justice is administered in Jewish courts. At the same time, however, Roman presence in Palestine is undeniable and the Jews recognize that any bold move outside the status quo could bring down Caesar’s fist. In next to no time, Israel and Judea—the Jewish twin kingdoms—could become like their neighbors: impoverished replicas of Rome. The largest Jewish sect, the Pharisees, are obsessed with preventing such a fate by safeguarding traditions of their past. Jewish identity is everything to them, and they make it their lives’ work to preserve it. In many ways, they operate like detectives, ferreting out scofflaws and confronting their non-compliance to Jewish law in public.

Word of a new, radical Rabbi’s success in the provinces compels a group of Pharisees and scribes—i.e., Temple academics—to leave Jerusalem and investigate. As a rule, people clean up their acts when they see the Pharisees coming. Jesus and His followers don’t do that. The Pharisees arrive and are appalled that this rough-and-tumble bunch ignores one of their most basic traditions: they don’t wash their hands before they eat. They challenge Jesus: “Why do Your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7.5) Ordinarily, that would be enough for any leader to apologize and promise to do better. Not Jesus. He disregards their complaint, and challenges their obsession: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (v6-7)

Accommodating the Pharisees' tendency to feign obtuseness when it’s convenient, He breaks it down further. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” He says. (v8) He does a bit of legal gymnastics to prove He’s as fit as they in manipulating the law to find fault with others. Then He addresses the crowd collecting around this brouhaha. “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand,” He says. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (v14-15) And what might those “things that come out” be? In this context, they’re self-righteousness, slavish observance of archaic customs, and myopic judgment of others’ behavior.

Reach for the Future

Throughout His ministry, Jesus’s problem with the Pharisees springs from disgust with the political motives behind their holiness. They’ve transformed spiritual law and religious custom into a nationalist agenda and appointed themselves the keepers of all things Jewish. Their unforgiving scrutiny of others is basic to their intentions to homogenize Jewish identity in such a way that past traditions are preserved. On one level, this is a noble effort. But on a deeper one, it results in the diminution of those who don’t abide by every letter of the law and excludes anyone who doesn’t fit the Pharisees’ idealized profile. I like to think that even as Jesus challenges His Pharisee accusers, He glances around at His followers. Their hands are dirty. Their lives don’t stack up. But their hearts are close to God. They are the first fruits of God’s kingdom, a new ideal that will survive centuries of political tumult and regime change. While the Pharisees cling to their past, Jesus and His disciples reach for their future. That’s why Jesus keeps such a close eye on the Pharisees, even as they watch Him closely. His Shepherd’s heart will not permit the rude comingling of faith with a political agenda to endanger His flock. Yes, in the current circumstance, Jewish identity is important—but not to the extent that its traditions sacrifice justice and acceptance for the sake of preserving it.

In the current political climate, we can expect challenges from self-appointed keepers of Christianity. They function like a band of detectives, scrutinizing everything we do and say, eagerly hoping to catch us diverging from traditional norms. This text is particularly illuminating for faithful Americans striving to build God’s kingdom amid cries of “taking back” the nation—restoring old values and traditions that no longer promote justice and inclusion, protecting a “Christian” identity that is no longer relevant in a rapidly changing world. We cannot live in the past. We must reach for the future, looking to God to lead us to peace and compassion and equity for all. 

Watching the detectives is vital. When we see them coming, the last thing we should do is tidy up and be polite. We must own our identity as Christ's followers and demonstrate discipleship by removing all rancor and hostility from our lips, even when our non-conformity to the mythic Christian past triggers rancor and hostility. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” Jesus says in verse 21. Live from your heart. Speak peace and justice. Know that you’re being watched and use that as an opportunity to embody God’s kingdom in a culture overrun with self-appointed detectives. Leave their past behind. Reach for your future.

When we see self-appointed “faith detectives” coming our way, the last thing we should do is tidy up and be polite.