Jesus sighed. You might have missed it. You might have breezed past it on the way from Tyre to the Decapolis. But pause for a moment on that word in Mark 7:34, ἐστέναξεν.
There’s a lot going on in that sigh.
Read: Mark 7:24-37.
Jesus sighed. It wasn’t an exhalation of contentment after a belly-filling meal. Nor was it a breath released through a smile looking out on a sunny valley bathed in morning dew.
No, this was a groaning kind of sigh. The Greek root word is στενάζω, stenadzo. It’s the same word used to describe the groaning of those waiting for the redemption of their bodies in Romans 8:23. The same word used for those yearning for heaven in 2 Corinthians 5:2 and 5:4.
And in the next chapter of Mark, it’s this same groan Jesus releases in exasperation when the Pharisees demand a sign from him, testing him. Not one for a dog-and-pony show, Jesus refuses. With that sigh he gets back on a boat and leaves.
But with this sigh in chapter 7, he stays. Jesus sighed, and he healed a man who could neither hear nor speak.
Yet there’s more going on in that sigh than you might think.
This healing comes after an encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who begged him to heal her daughter. When she first approached him, he refused her and called her a dog.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27).
Ouch. No matter how high your Christology, there’s no getting around this low-down insult. This is an ethnic slur. It would have made the original hearers of Mark’s Gospel gasp. It makes us gasp, too.
But her response – the response from this Gentile woman not worthy of his healing – stops him.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28).
The disciples surely gasped. Maybe Jesus gasped, too.
He could have back-handed her just then. This insolent woman. Who does she think she is?
But no. He does not kick her away like a dog. He recognizes what is happening here.
Do we? Do we recognize what’s happening here?
Jesus changes his mind.
This foreign woman, this desperate mother from a people not his own – she teaches the great teacher something that changes his mind.
She teaches him that there is enough for everyone. That it’s okay to move beyond your own clan and share with others. There is no need to withhold healing or food or miracles just because someone is from a different tribe. She is unchosen, begging on her knees. And yet – she is clever and witty enough to use her words to ask for what she needs.
“For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29).
Touché. You got me. You’re right. I was wrong.
Wow. Just wow. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. The Syrophoenician woman. The disciples. Mark’s church. And we breathe a sigh of relief, too.
Because this means Jesus is the best kind of teacher – the kind who listens and learns. The kind who can admit when he’s wrong.
He’s the kind of teacher who can be grumpy and probably needs a nap because everyone is after him all the time to do something for them and all he wants is a break, dammit. Get away from me. You’re not even one of my people. You’re no better than a dog.
Oh, but sir, there’s more in you than you know. Even the crumbs of your healing power are enough. Just touching the hem of your garment is enough to heal a woman suffering from constant bleeding. Just saying a prayer over a few loaves of bread is enough to feed thousands.
Jesus, there is enough in you to go even further than you first thought. Your power is not just for your own people. It’s for the whole world.
And in that moment, his eyes are opened. His ears are unstopped. His tongue is released to give her the release she seeks for her daughter.
This is a pivot point in Jesus’ ministry.
Because right after that, he goes to the region of the Decapolis. Ten cities in Gentile territory. Did you catch that? He’s going out of his comfort zone now. He’s pushing beyond his ethno-centrism. He’s taking his healing to the Gentiles.
And who is the first person he encounters there? A man who cannot hear and cannot speak. He’s a Gentile. A man not of his own people.
“They begged him to lay his hand on him.” (Mark 7:32).
Just a touch, Jesus. That’s all. You can do it.
This is not a public healing, though. Jesus takes the man away from the crowd. Perhaps he’s not quite ready for the Gentile gaze, the scrutiny of a people who regarded his people as inferior. Maybe even thought of them, the Jews, as dogs.
But there they are, the Jewish healer and the Gentile man who cannot even ask for crumbs from the table.
It’s such a fleshy, spitty healing. No social distancing here. There is an exchange of bodily fluids. There is a touching of tongue. Maybe even tongues? The intimacy between these two strangers, these two ethnic groups, these two men, these two humans, is, well, breath-taking.
And that’s when the sigh happens.
You might have missed it. You might have breezed right past it on the way to “Be opened.” But don’t skip that sigh.
There’s a lot going on in that sigh.
The groaning sigh as Jesus looks up to heaven, pushed beyond his limits, nudged by a dogged woman from a people not his own.
The word even sounds like a sigh: Effatha. Effaahhhthaaahhh.
Maybe this word was not just for the man, but for Jesus himself.
Be opened. Be open to people who are different from you. Be open to changing your mind.
Jesus sighed with a groan that released his prejudice and his bias. A groaning sigh that comes from the gut-wrenching realization that you are touching a man — exchanging spit with a man — whose people have conquered your people. A people whose soldiers will spit on you and whip you and nail your wrists and ankles to a cross for these kinds of healings.
It’s a groaning sigh released while looking up to heaven, entrusting his breath to the One who sent him a dogged Gentile woman. The One who breathes through him to open the ears and release the tongue of this Gentile man. A man whose earwax is now on his fingers. Whose spit is now mixed with his own.
For they are, truly, one body.
The external labels fall away. Language barriers lift. Skin touches. Their shared humanity heals them both, because this is what Jesus has come to do. Heal the world. Heal the divisions, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the disabled-phobia, the xenophobia.
Jesus sighed. Don’t miss that sigh.
Be opened! Effaahhhthaaahhh . . .
Author’s note: I am indebted to the pastors from the Clergy Emergency League weekly text study for key insights that informed this piece.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).