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 sighed and said to him, “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 7:31-37
Two things strike me straightaway in this passage: Jesus’ gestures and His futility in trying to get people to shut up. The scene comes on the heels of the story with the Syrophoenician woman. There we find yet another example proving what we’ve seen in Mark’s gospel all along: Jesus’ mission was not to heal as many people as He could, or cast out as many demons as He could, or even to be understood by that many people. He is quite certain of what He’s there to do, and it really isn’t what many modern people think. It’s a sharp reminder that Jesus wasn’t a miracle man who went around doing as much social good as He could. He has a specific mission and will not allow Himself to be drawn away from it in the limited time He has. His messianic vocation will lead Him to the cross at just the right time, but He is not a universal problem-solver or even trying to spread the healing message of the gospel as widely as possible.
Where the Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus, this time it is Jesus who goes to the deaf and mute man. This is the same region where Jesus had cast out the Legion of demons into the pigs, so the crowds certainly know of Him. Jesus takes him to a private place away from the crowd. I wonder if this was a kindness shown to a man who undoubtedly had endured much social pain. At any rate Jesus does something He hasn’t done so far with healings: gestures. Always before Jesus has simply spoken the miracle into being. But this man is deaf and mute; he wouldn’t know what Jesus said, so Jesus performs some sign language. Mark’s gospel is so full of symbols and typology that you might argue that everything Jesus did was “sign” language, but here it is plain to see.
When Jesus pokes His finger into the man’s ear, we are reminded of an Old Testament precedent. When Jesus anoints the man’s tongue with saliva, again, here is a powerful biblical symbol. When Jesus breathes a great sigh, powerful symbolism is being enacted. You’ll have to come to the worship service to hear these things preached, but suffice it to say for the moment, they are chock-full of meaning to reveal Jesus to us better than ever.
The man’s “tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” Jesus had taken him off privately, but it will not remain hidden. “Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” At this point in Mark’s gospel it is difficult to keep track of how many times Jesus had hoped to be alone or to escape the crowds, all to no avail. He obviously needs more time do accomplish His mission because the scribes and Pharisees know about Him as well as Herod Antipas, so it’s getting thick. Isaiah prophesied that blind eyes would be opened, deaf ears unstopped, and dumb tongues would sing, and that’s what’s happening.
Their astonishment indicates that Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled. That prophecy is the renewal of Israel after the dreadful years of exile. “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’” That’s the song of the redeemed whether in the days of Jesus’ ministry on earth or today when Jews, Gentiles, women, men, and children are given sight, hearing, and singing. And that’s the gospel!
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 had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her 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. – Mark 7:24-30
If you’re going to read this passage through modern evangelical eyes (Jesus’ mission is to get people ask Him into their heart), then He frankly comes off as a racist who’d rather insult a hurting woman than save her. I don’t think too many people would put it that way, but everything’s there to make the point. But if you read it through biblically-informed eyes, especially informed by the milieu of the second temple period, you’ll see that the personal vocation of Jesus was not to spread the gospel of the kingdom to the Gentile world. It was to tell the Jews that their long-awaited Messiah was at hand. Israel was to be redeemed first and then the rest of the world would be brought under the rule of Israel’s God.
Jesus is in “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” which is a Gentile area a little north of Galilee. “And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know.” He seems to be keeping a lower profile after all the miracles with the crowds and saying some pretty controversial things about purity laws and food. This woman comes and “begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” His response is an apparent insult: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jews often thought of Gentiles as “dogs,” and Gentiles had a few choice things to call the Jews as well.
This is a sharp reminder that Jesus wasn’t a miracle man who went around doing as much social good as He could. He has a specific mission and will not allow Himself to be drawn away from it in the limited time He has. He is called to difficult and dangerous tasks and must proceed carefully. His messianic vocation will lead Him to the cross at just the right time, so he is not a universal problem-solver or even trying to spread the healing message of the gospel as widely as possible.
Nevertheless, this woman has a great come-back line. “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And it worked. He basically replies, “Well played! Off you go to find the demon has left your daughter.” This is where the previous passage in Mark about cleanness and uncleanness is connected. This Gentile “dog” is an example of the old barriers, the old taboos, being put away. She has more than crumbs under the table. She, like so many other Gentiles, are going to find a seat at the table itself.
And thus Paul can write, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” And that’s the gospel!
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” – Mark 7:14-23
Jesus is dealing with some pretty sensitive stuff here. Most of the well-known martyr stories in His day were about Jewish people who endured torture or even death for refusing to eat unclean food, especially pork. If He is going to take on the unclean food issue, He might need to speak in parables in order to break this one to the crowds. Only a fool speaks of its supposed martyrs with direct insensitivity!
And then here comes a short but pointed parable: “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And, par for the course, the disciples don’t get it. They ask Him what the parable meant when they got to the house. He tells them. We might expect Him to say something to the effect of “externals don’t matter; physical things don’t matter; what matters are the spiritual things—internal things.” At first glance it seems that is what He said, but upon closer inspection, we might be shocked to find that that’s precisely what He did not say!
Instead of saying that external and physical things are bad, and internal or spiritual things are good, we find that the internal things may be quite bad, and external things (i.e., food) are “clean” (v. 19). Feelings are helpful humanizing things God has given us so that we may interact better with the world. Feelings are also fallen, broken by the Fall. There is a warning here since some may suggest that if we get in touch with our deepest feelings, or listen submissively to what our heart is telling us, that we’ll know the truth. On the contrary, Jesus is suggesting that human motivations are often poisoned wells and are the real problem to which the purity laws were pointing in the first place.
Jesus’ point is that the purity laws don’t actually remedy the human problem. The bible’s codes of purity in the law of Moses were signposts pointing to a destination greater than themselves. Jesus is that destination. If you arrive at the destination, the signposts are a distant memory because you’ve arrived. That doesn’t mean the signposts were worthless or incorrect, but their job is complete. We find here that the purity codes were not a timeless way of living; it’s simply that they reached their peak in Jesus Christ. From now on everything is different because He is the remedy for the human condition, making all things (yes, even those fallen feelings) new. And that’s the gospel!
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 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 honors 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 7:1-8
Mark pursued a theme earlier in the book where the scribes and Pharisees pursued Jesus and tried to get Him to say something incriminating. He kept showing them up according to their own arguments, so they started spreading around that He was possessed by Beelzebul. A lot has happened in Mark’s gospel since then, but now we see them returning. They mainly work in Jerusalem, so it appears that they are journeying to Galilee to accuse Jesus. That makes sense when you consider that He recently fed well over 5,000 people. That’s going to get some attention. Accordingly, they attack on the subject of food. They want to discredit Jesus as an acceptable host. His disciples who “ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” obviously were not the kind of people a good Israelite would go to for food!
It’s not only about food though. The last miracle Mark reports came after Jesus walked on the sea and stilled the waters as He got into the boat with the disciples. “And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.” Not unlike the woman with the issue of blood who touched Jesus’ garment, those who did so were made well. All the scribes and Pharisees have left is to (in the name of righteousness, of course) get the people to believe there is uncleanness with Jesus. Don’t take food from His unclean disciples, and don’t touch His unclean garments if you know what’s good for you!
Jesus pulls no punches in His response to these Jerusalem goons. He quotes Isaiah 29:13, which is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, especially on those who are reputable in “wisdom” and “discernment” (v. 14) but are based on “a commandment taught by men.” Jesus is letting them know that He knows they are guilty of hypocrisy, claiming to be teachers of God’s truth and law, but in fact, they are just making it up as they please. This is a devastating claim if you are a scribe or Pharisee.
The larger issue here is who speaks for God. Both Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees hold the Scriptures as being what God has said. But who’s right? It isn’t simply a matter of differing perspectives: somebody is terribly wrong. Then again, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus’ point is some abstract idea of “scripture vs. tradition,” as though tradition is something always bad. Instead Jesus is challenging the very foundation on which the Pharisees had built their society. If the Kingdom of God was coming as Jesus was healing, feasting with outcasts, and waging war on the kingdom of darkness, then Pharisaic tradition, so deeply layered and ingrained in the people, was being ruled out.
Mark writes his gospel to let us know—yea, even a Gentile audience as the parenthetical explanation in vv. 3-4 suggest—that the Shepherd-Warrior-King, the Greater David, is here and He does what has been prophesied in God’s holy word. The corrupt traditions cannot stand and the truth shall prevail in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. And that’s the gospel!