Mark 7:24-37. Deforestation.

 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:5-8 )

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” 

Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:13-19) 

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syro-Phoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her little daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he said “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:24-37)

Jesus has been teaching and doing miracles in Galilee, and has just once again confronted the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They ask him, “Why do you disregard the tradition of the elders?” He replies, “Why do you leave the commandments of God and hold to the tradition of men?” That exchange encapsulates one of the great errors of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees had sought to define the law given to Moses, but they looked at their extra traditions being of equal authority to the law. In practise, they would rather obey their traditions than keep the law- and Jesus gave an example of an occasion when they would break the law in order to keep their traditions. Jesus called people back to the law. He said the law would not pass away until heaven and earth passed away. But he accused the Pharisees of adding to the law.

The other great error of the Pharisees was pin-pointed by Jesus to all the people when he spoke to them about where evil comes from. The Pharisees thought that they could actually become righteous by the law. They thought that they could keep the law, and satisfy God. They were mistaken.

The law is like a medical consultant who can tell you whether you’re ill, and what diseases you have. But it can’t cure you. The law can tell you you’re a sinner. It can’t make you holy. The regulations deal with the outside of things, but real cleanness comes from inside, and more to the point, real uncleanness comes from inside also. The human heart is a factory of evil, producing evil thoughts, evil desires, and evil actions. The law does not change the heart, it only tells you that your heart needs to be changed.

Looking at the outside is helpful. Seeing the spots and blemishes on the outside tell you that the inside is filthy. But tinkering with the outside won’t heal the inside.

 Questions:

1)      Why did Jesus go up to Tyre and Sidon, and does it have anything to do with Isaiah 29?

2)      How would a typical Jewish rabbi have looked on the request from the woman, and why does she even approach him?

3)      What is the exchange between Jesus and the woman about? Why do they speak of children and dogs?

4)      Why does Jesus tell the woman he can’t help her?

5)      Why is the passage about the deaf man who is healed here?

 

1) Why did Jesus go up to Tyre and Sidon, and does it have anything to do with Isaiah 29?

After confronting the Pharisees, Jesus went into the regions North of Galilee; the Gentile lands there. Jesus generally confined his work to Jewish territory. There are only a very few exceptions we know about. It wasn’t until ch.5 of this Gospel- a Gospel written to Gentile believers- that Jesus crossed to Gentile territory. And even then, the area he went to was historically under Israelite control (when Jesus healed the demonised man who lived among the tombs). This Jew-Gentile land distinction is important.

In the Old Testament, the land of Israel is a holy bubble. God lived among men in the garden of Eden. Adam sinned, and was thrown out of Eden, down from the mountain of God. And when God came to rest on the top of Mt. Sinai, there was fire on the top of the mountain, God’s reaction against the cursed earth, purifying and destroying. The whole mountain was cordoned off, and no man was allowed to go on it except at God’s invitation. The tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Temple in Jerusalem, were smaller and more elaborate versions of Sinai. In the Temple, there were boundaries, layers of increasing holiness, bubbles within bubbles. In the centre, there was the most holy place, God’s footstool on earth, with the Ark of the Covenant there. Only one man was allowed to enter in, and that only once a year. The high priest on the day of atonement, with plenty of innocent blood sprinkled around. Then surrounding that there was a holy place, where only priests could go. Then around that a court where Israelite males could go, if they were ceremonially clean. Then there was a court for women and Gentiles. And this was all on Mount Zion, the holy mountain, in Jerusalem the holy city, in the Land of Israel, the holy land. Outside Israel were the dogs, the Gentiles.

This visit to the region of Tyre and Sidon is a rare excursion beyond the ancient boundaries of Israel. Jesus did everything on purpose. Why did he do this?

Jesus is working his way through Isaiah 29. The passage is on his mind- he has just quoted it to the Pharisees, casting them in the role of the hypocritical Israelites who professed to love God, but really still loved their idols. They do their deeds in the dark, and hide their counsel from their God. Isaiah then goes on to talk about Lebanon, a Gentile land, becoming a fruitful field; while the fruitful field of Israel is becoming an unfruitful forest. Lebanon was a forest, quite literally (the cedars of Lebanon are famous in the Bible); and Canaan was a fruitful land, flowing with milk and honey. But Isaiah is using metaphor. He is talking about fruitfulness toward God, and saying that there will come a day when there will be those who worship God in Gentile lands, while in Israel, among God’s chosen people, there will be tangled undergrowth and trees, and no good harvest.

So Jesus has already seen the first half of the prophecy. The fruitful field is a forest. The spiritual leaders and guides of Israel are hypocrites who devour widow’s houses, love money, envy the attention Jesus gets, and spitefully look for opportunities to condemn him. If that’s religion, then we don’t want any, thanks. So Jesus quotes Isaiah 29 at them, and then heads North to the region of Tyre and Sidon- to Lebanon- to minister there.

Mark has told us in an editorial note in (7:19) that that Jesus actually declared all foods clean. He legitimised those who do not adhere to the food laws in the way that Jews did. The food and the land are the same issue at the bottom. The food laws were given to insulate Israel from the Gentiles around them. The land was given as a place for Israel to dwell, not among the Gentile tribes. The logical outworking of what Jesus says and does is that the Jews are not special any more. The day Isaiah spoke of has come, and Messiah has brought blessing for Gentile as well as Jew. The Gentiles are declared clean, because Jesus transforms the categories of clean and unclean. They are included within the circle of those to whom the kingdom of God can come.

Both of the miracles of chapter 7 occur in lands seen as unclean in Jewish eyes. The bulk of the Jews would not expect their Messiah to be going out spreading sweetness and light among the Gentiles. The Gentiles are sinners, dogs, unworthy. The Gentiles are the enemy. Messiah will sort them out, once and for all. But Jesus comes, and he does signs of the kingdom among the Gentiles! Not only that, he declares Israel to be unclean- think of Jesus’ earlier command to the Twelve to shake Jewish dust from their feet in judgement when a town didn’t accept them. The clean/ unclean distinction has not been abolished. It still exists. But now cleanness is through the Messiah. Believing in him makes you clean. Rejecting him means you are unclean, no matter where you live.

(Digression on the “Messianic Secret” of Mark)

Why did Jesus not want anyone to know he was there, even in Gentile ground?

We’ve thought of Jesus’ desire for secrecy before, that he tells people not to speak of the miracles he has done- he tells the demon (1:23), and more demons (1:34) to keep silent. He doesn’t stay where he is famous already, but goes on to new villages before he gathers a large following (1:37-38). He tells the leper not to tell anybody (1:44), and unclean spirits not to make him known (3:12). He teaches in parables so that people won’t understand the secret of the kingdom of God (4:11)., not teaching without a parable, and only explaining to the disciples privately (4:34) He strictly charges Jairus and his wife that no one should know of the resurrection of their daughter (5:43). The one exception is in Gadara, where the man who was possessed is told to tell his family and friends- and that was in a Gentile dominated area. We’ve pointed to 9:9 as telling us the reason for all this: That Jesus’ power could only be properly understood in the light of his death and resurrection. When he had died, and risen, then nobody could misunderstand what sort of Messiah he was. Nobody could expect him to lead an army of Israel against the Gentiles. It would be plain that he had come to fight Satan, to defeat sin and death.

But this is different. Here he is not in territory where this is likely. He is outside Israel.  And furthermore, unlike the other references, this secrecy is not linked to any demonstration of Jesus’ power. Here, it is simply that Jesus and the disciples are trying to get the rest they had had interrupted in the wilderness (6:30-34) and in Gennesaret (6:53-56). The house was their retreat, for them to lay back and catch a breather.

However, it proves impossible to get any rest. Even though they hide away, wishing to escape notice, a woman does come to find them.

 

2) How would a typical Jewish rabbi have looked on the request from the woman, and why does she even approach him?

The woman he meets is Gentile, and this is stressed- “a Gentile, a Syro-Phoenician by birth”.

Your typical Jewish rabbi would look with great disfavour on a request like this. The woman is on the wrong side of two of the most important divisions for Israelites.

First off, she is a Gentile. She doesn’t worship the true God, the God of Israel, but is a filthy idolater. How dare she come to the Jewish religious leader asking for help?

Second, she is a female, a second-class citizen in Israel. Israelite women share their temple court with Gentiles. Israelite women are unclean, and contaminate other things, for several days in the month because they bleed. Does this woman think that Jesus hasn’t got more important things to do than to help women? And worse, she’s asking healing for a daughter, not a son.

Third, her daughter is afflicted by unclean spirits. Short of giving her with leprosy and having her live among the tombs, this woman couldn’t be much more unclean.

But the fact remains that she obviously does have hopes of Jesus helping her. She does come to him asking for help. She doesn’t assume that Jesus will just rebuff her, and tell her to stop wasting his valuable Jewish time.

It is not wholly clear how much the woman understands about Jesus. His fame had spread to those parts; Tyre and Sidon are mentioned in 3:8 as some of the places from which crowds gathered to hear Jesus by the Sea of Galilee. Plenty of Jews lived there as well as Gentiles. She may even have heard one of the twelve preaching in a nearby village. Certainly, she understands that he has power over evil spirits, and can help her child. Jesus is evidently not a typical rabbi in that- other rabbis did not have this power. If she’s heard preaching about him, she might know that Jesus eats with sinners, that he’s called a tax collector to follow him; and then there’s the fact that he actually is out here, beyond the borders of Israel. Surely that isn’t typical behaviour for a rabbi- to hang about in the unclean lands? She is willing to walk into the house where there are 13 Jewish men, because she needs help, and thinks she will get it here.

 

3) What is the exchange between Jesus and the woman about? Why do they speak of children and dogs?

Jesus promises nothing, but instead develops a comparison of dogs and children. This comparison amounts to a blunt refusal to help.

Jesus is likening his coming to a meal. The Jews are the children of God, there at the table, hungry, and waiting for food. Jesus has come to feed them. That is exactly what he has done so far, and especially in the previous chapter. He has looked on Israel as sheep without a shepherd (6:34), and has taken up the role of shepherd, and provided food for them- spiritually, and even physically, multiplying the bread for 5000 men. But the Gentiles are not God’s children. They are dogs.

Dogs in the ancient world were not pets. They were dirty. The diminutive form is used here, but that is not as a term of affection along the lines of “Oo’s a sweet little doggie-woggie den?”. The diminutive is perhaps used because big dogs are not permitted under the table at all. The English have an unusual love of domestic animals, but to this woman, dogs would not be cute furry friends. They would be flea-bitten dirty scavengers, kept only to bite burglars. They are unclean animals according to the law, and they were despised throughout the ancient world. Dogs were proverbially disgusting in Israel- think of the dog returning to his own vomit. But outside Israel also, Goliath the Philistine (1 Samuel 17:43) and Hazael the Syrian (2 Kings 8:13) both think of the dog as an animal to be despised.

Jesus acknowledges the privilege of Israel, and affirms that the time has not yet come for blessing the Gentiles, even if it will one day.  Jesus says that the children’s food is not for her- it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Jesus is saying “Sorry, but I have a conscientious objection to blessing you. You’re a worthless dog, and I’ve come to tend to the children. Should their meal be interrupted so that you can be fed? I don’t think so.”

Even if the woman didn’t grasp this, she could at see that Jesus and the disciples are clearly there for a break, not out with the crowds. He is spending time apart with them, close friends together. The woman at least understood that she was intruding on this, and could understand Jesus as saying “Why should I help you now? I’m busy. I might look like I’m not doing much, but this is important. Come back later”.

Whichever way she took it- and both meanings are there to be taken- it is a rebuff.

 

4) Why does Jesus tell the woman he can’t help her?

Jesus response has often puzzled people. It sounds harsh, cruel, and out of character. Several times so far, we’ve read that Jesus was the sort of man who would exhaust himself helping others. The crowds pressed around him, and he healed their sick, and didn’t even find time to eat; we’ve read that twice. So why here, when there seems not to be anything else pressing for his attention, does he seem to put this woman down?

Jesus knows very well that he is regarded as a popular healer, crowds pressed him about (3:7-10, 6:53-56), but God’s power is not given in an atmosphere of superstition, but in response to faith. Jesus tests the woman, draws her out.

And he is right. He has not come to the Gentiles fully yet. The restriction of Jesus ministry to the Jews, not going outside Israel except to get away for a while, was proper. The time had not come yet for the events of Acts, when the Holy Spirit comes first on Israel, and then out to the Samaritans, and then even to Romans like Cornelius, and then right out into all the Gentile empire of Rome.

But Jesus does not mean to reject the woman’s request outright. His statement recognises future possibility. He says that the children are to be fed “first”. There can still be a later feeding for the dogs. His comparison is meant to invite renewed appeal.

And the woman does appeal. She is humble, and accepts the designation of a dog. But she uses it to her advantage. The dogs under the table do eat crumbs from the meal. They are blessed before their time in that sense. Before it is the proper time for the dogs to be fed, the dogs can pick up crumbs from the children. The meal does not have to be interrupted at all, for Jesus to heal her daughter. It can be a special case. She is just one. She is not asking for the whole loaf to be given the Gentiles, but just a crumb.

Jesus is delighted by her confidence in him. She shows submission to his authority. She accepts his teaching, and is told to go home, to find her daughter well.. Her faith contrasts dramatically with the unbelief of the Pharisees. Her reply shows a degree of trust which puts the disciples to shame. Mark’s readers in Rome would have seen themselves in the woman, and been encouraged. They knew that they lived in an age when the grace of God was poured out on the Gentiles. If Jesus was willing to bless this woman before the proper time, would he not now feed them with all they needed now that their time to be fed had come?

 

5) Why is the passage about the deaf man who is healed here?

Jesus returns back into slightly more Jewish territory. He performs another sign there. A deaf and mute man is hurried along by his friends to see Jesus. Maybe the man can’t understand why he’s being taken, or where he’s going. He can’t hear a thing, and his friends are excited, and maybe in too much of a hurry to stop and explain carefully. They beg Jesus to heal their friend. Jesus doesn’t heal him immediately, and doesn’t heal with only a word. He draws the man aside, and acts out to him what he intends to do- removing the blockages in the ears and the mouth, and looking up to heaven as if to say “this is God’s power at work here.” Jesus is upset at the ravages of the fall. It sorrows him to see a man, made to hear the wonderful sounds of God’s creation and to give him praise, able to do neither. He enters into the man’s world, using sign language of a sort, and heals him. It is in some ways a parable of the incarnation.

But why is this here? Don’t we already have plenty of signs of the kingdom like this? Why is it here, where it is in the Gospel?

Going back to Isaiah 29 again, Jesus is still working through it. Isaiah said, 

Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”

So the flowering of Lebanon is followed by the deaf being able to hear. Which is exactly what we have here. Although a very different character to the woman- he is a Jewish man, not a Gentile woman- the deaf mute is healed in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And we are still in contaminated ground, continuing the idea we touched on at the start, that Jesus is implicitly declaring that all lands are clean though him.

Although in unclean ground, the man himself is probably not a Gentile. This is strongly hinted at by the facts that Jesus speaks to him in Aramaic- which has to be translated for Mark’s Gentile readers- and that his community seem to have some expectation of the Messiah. They even allude to Isaiah in their statement about even the deaf hearing, and the mute speaking, at the end (Isaiah 35:5).

As an aside, you might think it is a little far-fetched, this OT connection to Isaiah.

Sometimes in the NT, people directly quotes of the OT, like “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way…'”

Or “to those outside, everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see, but not perceive, and may indeed hear, but not understand…'”,

Then there are fairly obvious references, like the Holy Spirit coming down as a dove to rest on Jesus at his baptism, and the dove coming to rest on Noah at the new beginning of humanity after the flood, and the dove resting over the waters at creation.

Then there are references about which you might think “well, that’s a bit tenuous, isn’t it? I mean, maybe they weren’t actually thinking of that OT reference at all. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.” But I think we misunderstand how deeply the OT had penetrated Jewish consciousness. It was read constantly. It would be the only textbook in the synagogue schools. Jewish boys would learn to read and write using the law and the prophets. Imagine if there was only one TV show in the world. Eastenders. Or Coronation Street if you’d rather. Imagine that everybody watched the TV as much as they do currently, but that all they ever saw was this show. They’d see literally hundreds of repeats of every episode. The storyline would embed itself in their heads. They’d be able to quote huge chunks of dialogue verbatim. Die-hard Monty Python fans can quote, word for word, sketch after sketch, doing the funny voices and everything. Tell them a joke from Python, and they’ll spot it straight away. The Jews’ knowledge of the words of the OT would be a little like that. The men here would definitely be aware that their words were similar to those of Isaiah, and Jesus would be aware that he was following Isaiah’s pattern.

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