Where is the Good News in today’s gospel? Jesus casts out a demon and heals a deaf man, and that might be enough good news; but this lesson begins with a woman getting rough treatment from Jesus. In our current age of political spin, it’s hard to imagine why the author of Mark included this part of the story; it challenges our picture of Jesus as admirable and remarkable. It seems he is capable of the public gaffe too.
But Jesus did not have a publicist – at least, not until later, when the gospels were written. He had a real life, real feelings, and in today’s gospel, a real moment of conversion. His understanding of what he was called to do was changed and expanded because he listened to a gentile woman’s challenge. And from that moment, he moved forward, and kept up his work of healing and feeding and teaching, with an expanded awareness of who this Good News was for.
Because this story is in Mark, which focuses so much on the actions of Jesus, we are not given any information about what Jesus thought, only what he did and said; so we’re not offered any reflection on this incident. Jesus just picks up and keeps working tirelessly to demonstrate the Kingdom of God.
It seems that the gospel is a verb, at least here in Mark. It’s several verbs: teach, heal, listen, touch, feed, reach across boundaries, make God’s love real in people’s difficult lives.
This is extraordinarily good news; that God wants us to be whole, and God demonstrates that in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Further, God wants us all to be whole, whatever our particular circumstances. Jesus woke up to this reality when confronted by the Syro-Phoenician woman, and he never looked back.
The Good News here has two sides. The first is that God’s love is boundless, accessible by all, available to us in every challenge, in every moment of pain or difficulty. But the second is that we ourselves are called to enact the gospel, to remember and demonstrate that the gospel is a verb.
The letter of James is emphatic on this point: faith, without works, is dead. This author was tired of people who claimed to follow Jesus behaving as though believing was enough. He had watched far too many people in need come to the Christian community, only to be ignored in favor of the wealthy and well connected. James wanted his readers to remember the whole gospel, not just the believing part.
The church has spent an enormous amount of time and energy over the centuries arguing about belief: from the Council of Nicea in 325, to the Protestant Reformation in the 15th century, to the 20th century crises in churches confronted by world wars and social upheaval, the church has struggled to define itself and understand what its core beliefs are. Some churches have taught that believing the wrong things can exclude people from God’s salvation. Certain forms of fundamentalist Christianity teach that a notoriously evil person who claims faith in Jesus just before death will be saved, while a good and kind person who has never accepted Jesus as his personal savior will be damned.
James is quite clear. Faith can only be seen in what we do, not what we say. The gospel is a verb.
The late Verna Dozier, Episcopal teacher and theologian, put it this way: “Don’t tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”
Jesus, when confronted by a person who came from outside his comfort zone, did not go away to the hills to study the matter; he shifted and enlarged his understanding on the spot, and did what she needed him to do.
We are challenged to move ourselves from narrow perception to broad perception, to understand that God’s love is for everyone, and that we are agents of that love.
To be agents of God’s love does not mean that we develop halos and a saintly patience; it means to remember that the gospel is a verb, and act accordingly.
Verbs, of course, come in two categories: doing and being. We can’t “do” our faith every minute of every day. We must also take the time to “be”; to breathe, rest, pray, listen, be still. Jesus did this regularly, in the midst of an extraordinary schedule. If all we do is run from action verb to action verb, the verbs we’ll encounter are “collapse” and “die.”
A gospel life – the life to which we are called, as followers of Jesus – will contain a lot of verbs: pray, rejoice, encourage, offer, remember, imagine, love, share, embrace, give, rest, be. The verbs that aren’t welcome, according the Jesus and the letter of James, are: judge, reject, exclude, limit, hoard, forget, despair.
When learning a new language, it is easiest and best to start with the present tense. When we learn the language of the gospel, it’s also useful to begin right where we are, and move forward. The past imperfect is, thank God, in the past; today and tomorrow we can make stronger, better choices to embody the gospel and share God’s love. Jesus is our example in this: after his confrontation with the woman in today’s gospel, he learned from his mistake and moved on to the next person in need of his healing touch.
There is an urgency to Jesus’ movement in the Gospel of Mark; he is constantly on the move, relentlessly demonstrating the kingdom of God he proclaims. It can be both exhilarating and exhausting to read and to imagine, and for those of us who follow Jesus, it sets a high bar. If we accept that the gospel is a verb, we might feel a relentless pressure to be doing something all the time, as Jesus appears to do in Mark. But Jesus also takes the time to renew himself through rest and prayer. The point is not constant, urgent action, but an attitude of readiness, and faithful response to the situations in which we find ourselves. James puts it this way: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
The flip side of faith without works is a muscular, life-changing faith, a self-offering, world-loving faith, faith that understands the gospel as verb and not noun.
So look around yourselves; where is the gospel verb needed? What incomplete sentences surround you and your community of faith? Who is hungry? Who is lost? Who needs a helping hand? What verb are you called to be for those in your neighborhood? Almost certainly, God is not calling you to argue theology or liturgical precision with your neighbors, but to serve them in Jesus’ name.
You have been given gifts that you are capable of sharing, no matter who you are. You can teach someone to knit; you can cook a meal to be shared; you can fix a car; you can write a poem that soothes hearts; you can lift heavy things or help someone to support a heavy burden. You can listen. You can offer the wisdom of your years or the energy of your youth. You can change your community; some of you have enough of what it takes to change the world. All you have to do is decide that you, yourself, are a gospel verb; let go of the past tense, and move, with God’s help, into God’s future tense, the reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.