TITLE: Helping the Helpless SCRIPTURE: Mark 7:24-37
Mark's Gospel tells about Jesus feeding the hungry (6:30-44) and healing the sick (6:53-56). It then describes the opposition of the scribes and Pharisees, who didn't think that Jesus' disciples were religious enough (7:1-23). It then tells about Jesus' encounter with a Gentile woman, who pled for Jesus to heal her daughter (7:24-30). Then it tells about Jesus healing a man who could not hear or speak (7:31-37).
In that society, as in ours, there were people who counted and people who didn't -- the in-crowd and the out-crowd. Let me draw your attention to what is happening here. Jesus consistently did great things in the presence of the out-crowd -- the hungry, the sick, Gentiles, or a man who could neither hear nor speak.
But when Jesus came into contact with the in-crowd -- the people who counted -- the people with power -- the movers and shakers -- he got nothing but grief. The "nobodies" received Jesus gladly. The "somebodies" -- the scribes and Pharisees in particular -- ignored the good things that Jesus did, and looked for ways to find fault-- to trip him up-- and, finally, to kill him. Just prior to our lesson for today, they were criticizing Jesus for failing to supervise his disciples.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is in an area called the Decapolis. The Decapolis was settled by Greeks many years earlier, so it was a place where there were lots of Gentiles. I spoke earlier about the in-crowd and the out-crowd. For the Jews, nobody was further out than the Gentiles. Jews had no use for Gentiles. By his presence in this Gentile area, Jesus is saying something to his disciples -- and to us. He is telling us that he has power to transcend the boundaries that separate us from each other -- and he is calling us to follow his example. He is calling us to welcome people who are different -- to help the helpless -- and to go into all the world -- even the uncomfortable parts -- in his name.
It would be easy to misunderstand that when we read the story of the Gentile woman. It sounds as if Jesus treats her disrespectfully. But we must read the whole story to see where he leads her. If we do that, we will see that Jesus wanted to help her and did help her.
And then he helps a man who can neither hear nor speak. The man begs for help, and Jesus helps him. Mark's description of the healing process is quite explicit. Jesus takes the man aside. He sticks his fingers in the man's ears and spits and touches his tongue. Then he says, "Ephphatha," (prounounced ef-fah-tha) which is Aramaic. My Bible says that Ephphatha means "Be opened," but it really means something more akin to "Be loosed," as if Jesus is setting the man's ears and tongue free from whatever was binding them. Then Mark says, "And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly." Mark goes on to tell us that the people were amazed -- and that they went about saying, "He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
This story does two things:
-- First, it demonstrates Jesus' power over the things that leave other people helpless. Jesus enjoys a Godly kind of power, and uses it to help people who have no power.
-- Second, it calls us, his disciples, to show this same quality of mercy to people in need.
I need to be careful here, because we aren't likely to do much good by running around sticking fingers in people's ears or touching their tongues. Jesus enjoyed a Godly power that was unique. He could do things that we can't.
But I also need to be careful lest I give the impression that we are helpless in the face of human need. That isn't true at all. We are not helpless. We, too, enjoy Godly power to help the helpless. Jesus promised, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you" (Matthew 7:7). With God's help we can do things that would otherwise be impossible.
That doesn't mean that it will be easy. It doesn't mean that we won't have to sacrifice. God called Jesus to take up his cross, and Jesus calls us to take up our cross. But when we do that, wonderful things happen in Christ's name. People of ordinary means -- people from whom little could be expected -- begin to do great things in Christ's name.
Throughout the world today, great things are happening in the name of Christ. Jesus' disciples are following in his steps, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, visiting those in prison, and proclaiming hope through faith in Christ.
In most cases, we will never hear about those efforts. Christians labor quietly in their communities without fanfare. But every once in a while word of their work surfaces and inspires us.
A year ago, the Associated Press ran an article about David Timothy, better known as Soupman -- not Superman, but Soupman. Timothy is a middle-aged man -- a non-denominational Christian -- whom Christ gave a vision for helping the homeless. He knew what it meant to be poor and hungry, because his family was poor as he was growing up.
Timothy had a vision for setting up a soup kitchen, but soon learned that nobody wants a soup kitchen in their neighborhood. So he bought a 20-year-old van, began soliciting restaurants and grocery stores for food donations -- and began recruiting volunteers -- and began taking meals to the homeless, wherever he could find them -- along the streets -- under bridges -- wherever. At the time the article was written, he was providing 3,000 meals a month from his SoupMobile, as he calls his old van. He supports himself by working nights at his insurance business.
One of the homeless men made this comment about David Timothy. He said:
"He don't have to come out here,
but he come out here because he got God in him.
He's a good spiritual man."
And so he is. And for every David Timothy about whom you have heard, there are ten thousand David Timothy's whose names you will never know -- people who, because of their love for Christ, are following his example by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving a cup of water to the thirsty, visiting prisoners in jail, or helping in any number of ways those who need help.
Not all of us can buy a van and start a SoupMobile. Not everyone can serve 3,000 meals a month to homeless people -- nor does Christ call all of us to that kind of ministry. But each of us has the power to make a difference. We just need to listen carefully to determine what Christ is calling us to do. We wouldn't be faithful if we answered someone else's call, but we need to be faithful to answer our call.
-- I read about one couple who lived in a college town. Their work for Christ consisted of inviting two students to their home for Sunday dinner each week.
-- Tom Long, the well-known professor of preaching, told about a church that had an offering for the needy. There was a homeless woman in that congregation who had no money to give -- but she came to the altar to offer her prayers for those in need. Is there anyone here who cannot pray for those in need? Is there anyone here who cannot do that much?
Jesus helped those in need -- fed the hungry and healed the sick. He calls us to do the same. He calls each of us to a particular work. I can't answer your call, and you can't answer mine. It is up to each of us to answer our particular call.
What has Christ called you to do to help the helpless? I invite you to ponder that question this week -- and to pray about it -- and to listen ---- and to answer the call to which you are called to help those in need.
And I would like to close with this. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talked about feeding the hungry -- and giving a cup of water to the thirsty -- and clothing the naked -- and taking care of the sick -- and visiting those in prison. He said that, as we do those things for those whom he identified as the "least" -- the outsiders -- those without power -- those who cannot pay us back -- it is as if we had done it for Jesus himself.
Keep your eyes out for people in need -- people whom you might help in Jesus' name. Jesus says that if we help them, we have helped him.