MARK 6-8. EYES TO SEE & EARS TO HEAR
Beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand (6:30-44), Mark relates a series of miracles, including the restoration of the deaf man’s hearing and speech (7:31-37) and a blind man’s sight (8:22-26). The passage culminates in Peter’s confession of faith, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). Along the way, Jesus encounters the antagonism of the scribes and Pharisees (7:1-23; 8:11-13) and the lack of faith of the disciples (8:14-21). When the latter worry about not having enough bread (keep in mind that Mark has just related both the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Feeding of the Four Thousand), Jesus says, “Why do you reason that it’s because you have no bread? Don’t you perceive yet, neither understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, don’t you see? Having ears, don’t you hear? Don’t you remember?” (8:17-18). Jesus’ has come to impart physical healing, but his greater purpose is opening spiritual eyes and ears.
MARK 7:24-30. HE WENT AWAY TO TYRE AND SIDON
24From there he arose, and went away into the borders of Tyre and Sidon. He entered into a house, and didn’t want anyone to know it, but he couldn’t escape notice. 25For a woman, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of him, came and fell down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race. She begged him that he would cast the demon out of her daughter. 27But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Greek: kynariois). 28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord (kurie—sir or Lord). Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29He said to her, “For this saying, go your way. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30She went away to her house, and found the child having been laid on the bed, with the demon gone out.
“From there he arose, and went away into the borders of Tyre” (v. 24a). This is Gentile country. The region of Tyre and Sidon was the home of Jezebel, Elijah’s enemy (1 Kings 16:31). It inspired the ire of the prophets (Ezekiel 26:15-17; Zechariah 9:3). It is remarkable that Jesus would visit such a place—except that he came to break down the barriers that divide people. He came to save people—not to exclude them.
“He entered into a house, and didn’t want anyone to know it” (v. 24b). Given the character of this story, the house seems likely to be a Jewish home. Jesus’ purpose for visiting this area is unclear. Verse 24 makes it sound as if he is looking for solitude from the crowds that have pursued him in his Galilean ministry. Perhaps he simply wants time alone with the disciples.
In verse 19, Jesus said that food can’t defile people, because food is soon eliminated without ever penetrating the heart. Thus he declared all foods–and all people clean. (Williamson, 137; Brooks, 120).
When Mark wrote this Gospel (65-70 A.D.), the church included many Gentiles. The fact that Mark must explain Jewish customs (7:3-4; 7:11, 19) suggests that his readership is predominantly Gentile. By Mark’s time, the church has gone through considerable struggles to determine its right relationship to Gentiles. This story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman reflects that struggle in its earliest moments. It avoids pronouncing the ascendancy of either Jews or Gentiles (Boring 213).
“Yet he couldn’t escape notice” (v. 24c). In both this story and the next, Jesus’ efforts to maintain a low profile are frustrated. Just as the sun cannot be hidden in the sky, neither can the Son be hidden on the earth.
“For a woman, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of him, came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race” (vv. 25-26). Mark double-emphasizes that this woman who lives in Gentile territory is herself a Gentile—a Syrophoenician Gentile, no less—a Gentile of this abominable Gentile area. “She begged him that he would cast the demon out of her daughter” (v. 26).
Phoenicia is a long narrow coastal strip bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the west and mountains on the east—the coastal plain of modern-day Lebanon. Its southern boundary is Mount Carmel (due east of the Sea of Galilee), and it extends approximately 185 miles (300 km) north from there. Major cities include Ptolemais, Tyre, and Sidon. “Syrophoenician” links this woman with Syria and Phoenicia.
We are shocked at Jesus’ response. “Let the children be filled first, for it is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (kynariois) (v. 27). This is one of the most troubling verses in the New Testament. The mother is asking healing, not for herself, but for her daughter. It must be difficult for a Gentile woman to ask a Jewish man for help, but her need is overwhelming. She comes in faith as a deferential supplicant—what more could Jesus ask? As it turns out, he could ask that she be Jewish—“Let the children be filled first, for it is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Some scholars try to soften Jesus’ words, suggesting that this is a well-known proverb that would not sound so harsh in context—or that the diminutive, kynariois, refers to household pets, implying an affectionate tone. However, it seems inappropriate to try to domesticate Jesus’ words. We cannot validate this saying as a common proverb, and it is a cutting remark even if it refers to household pets. Most Biblical references to dogs are negative (see Exodus 22:31; 1 Samuel 24:14; 2 Samuel 16:9; 1 Kings 21:23; 22:38; 2 Kings 9:36; Isaiah 56:10; Matthew 7:6; Luke 16:21; Philippians 3:2).
R.T. France gives a refreshing perspective with regard to this problem. He says that Jesus is functioning as a devil’s advocate, and not disappointed with the woman’s strong rejoinder (France, 296). (A devil’s advocate is “a person who expresses a contentious opinion in order to provoke debate or test the strength of the opposing arguments”—Oxford Dictionary)
The scriptures are clear that Jesus knows people’s hearts and responds accordingly. A rich man comes asking what he must do to gain eternal life, and Jesus, knowing how the man loves money, says, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross” (Mark 10:21). There are other accounts like this in the New Testament—accounts where Jesus knows people’s hearts and responds accordingly (see 12:15). If that is true, Jesus surely knows this mother’s heart too—and knows that she will not buckle if he presses her a bit. He does so to give her the opportunity to win her case.
Jesus clearly feels it necessary to focus his mission on the Jews. While he has occasionally visited the Gentile shore of the Sea Galilee (the eastern shore), this visit to a place with a significant pagan history is unusual. The time will come when Gentiles will be welcome in the church, but the time is not yet.
As Paul said in his letter to the Romans (written earlier than Mark’s Gospel), “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16). There is a natural order in every good endeavor. A builder must lay a solid foundation before erecting walls and roof. So it is that Jesus limits his ministry to Gentiles in deference to the people whom God chose so many centuries prior. Ministry to Gentiles will come in good time.
“But she answered him, ‘Yes, Lord (kurie—sir or Lord). Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs'” (v. 28). In this Gospel, on several occasions Jesus refers to himself as Lord (2:28; 5:19; 11:3; 12:36), but this is the only place where another person calls him “Lord.” It is ironic that the person calling him “Lord” is a Gentile woman rather than one of his disciples.
The woman answers well, acknowledging the special place of the Jews, calling attention to her own need, and using Jesus’ words to press her plea. The kynarion—pets indeed—are part of the household and are under the master’s care. The woman uses the image of children carelessly (or perhaps purposely) dropping bits of food on the floor. What harm will come from allowing the kynarion to partake of the scraps that will not be eaten by the children in any event? What harm will come of Gentiles participating in the bounty of the messianic banquet?
“He said to her, ‘For this saying, go your way. The demon has gone out of your daughter'” (v. 29). Note that:
• Jesus does not accompany her to her home. He does not touch the child. He does not issue a healing command. He simply reports a healing that has already taken place. The emphasis in this story is not on the healing but on Jesus’ relationship to Gentiles.
• In Matthew’s account, Jesus commends the woman’s faith (Matthew 15:28), but here he commends her good answer.
“She went away to her house, and found the child having been laid on the bed, with the demon gone out” (v. 30). The woman does not plead for Jesus to come to visit her daughter. She first expressed a simple but profound faith by coming to Jesus, and she now expresses a simple but profound faith by departing. Her faith is much like that of the Roman centurion (Matthew 5:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)—also a Gentile. Arriving at her home, she finds the demon gone and the child well.
This woman serves as an example of persistent prayer that refuses to be discouraged when prayer is not immediately answered. She provides us with a model for engaging God fully and passionately in prayer rather than simply reciting rote prayers or a laundry list of our needs. Not every fervent prayer will be answered as we ask, but God honors fervor and has little regard for half-hearted, lukewarm prayer (Revelation 3:16). The archetypal model of fervent prayer is Jacob wrestling with God at Peniel until he received a blessing (Genesis 32:22-32).
This woman also serves as a model of a parent who loves her child enough to take an active role in the child’s life. She could have found excuses for not going to Jesus, but she went. She could have allowed herself to be discouraged at Jesus’ initial response, but she persisted. Her daughter’s life was at stake, and she wasn’t about to accept defeat.
There are two ways that parents can go wrong here. One is to become a “helicopter parent,” hovering too closely—advocating excessively for their child—intervening too quickly to resolve conflicts for the child. Helicopter parents are a particular problem in little league sports—and school officials see far too many of them. Studies show that the children of helicopter parents don’t function as well as children of parents who allow their children to work out their own children’s issues.
But the opposite problem is failing to provide appropriate guidance and support. Many parents today are content to practice laissez faire parenting, and the results are often disastrous. The church needs to call parents to take an active role in guiding their children. Just as the inattentive gardener begets weeds, so do inattentive parents beget troubled children.
The woman also provides a stark contrast to the scribes and Pharisees who challenged Jesus in the preceding story (7:1-23). They know what the prophets said about the coming messiah. They have seen (or at least heard about) the Feeding of the Five Thousand (6:30-44) and the healing of the sick in Gennesaret (6:53-56), but they chose to find fault with Jesus and his disciples (7:1-23). In other words, given every opportunity to see through the eyes of faith, they have chosen to see through the eyes of unfaith. This woman, a Gentile, chooses to see through the eyes of faith.
MARK 7:31-35. THE DEAF AND MUTE MAN
31Again he departed from the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the region of Decapolis. 32They brought to him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech (Greek: mogilalon). They begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside from the multitude, privately, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat, and touched his tongue. 34Looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!” 35Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was released (Greek: kai eluthe ho desmos tes glosses—and was loosened the bond of the tongue), and he spoke clearly.
“Again he departed from the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the region of Decapolis” (v. 31). This itinerary seems odd. Sidon is north of Tyre and the Sea of Galilee is southeast, so Jesus goes out of his way to visit Sidon. Some scholars suggest that Mark is unfamiliar with the geography of this area, but it seems more likely that Jesus simply decides to visit Sidon before leaving the area.
The word Decapolis comes from two Greek words (deka and polis) that mean “ten cities”—although more than ten cities were members over time. Most member cities were located south and east of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, but Damascus (located 60 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee) is a member city. The Decapolis is not only these cities but also the region in which they are located. The population of the region is primarily Gentile, but there are Jews living there as well.
These cities were established by Greeks, and the Jews resented this Gentile presence on their border—a resentment that sometimes broke into open warfare. The Greeks responded by devising a loose confederation of cities to provide for the common defense, not only against Jewish incursions, but also against desert marauders.
The Romans encouraged the growth of Greek culture in the Decapolis as a way of limiting Jewish influence in the region.
The mention of the Decapolis in verse 31 is significant because it shows that Jesus is choosing to stay in Gentile territory rather than to return to the more familiar nearby cities of Galilee.
“They brought to him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech. They begged him to lay his hand on him” (v. 32). This is reminiscent of the healing of the paralytic, whose friends brought him to Jesus (2:1-12). We know very little about this man or his friends. Some reliable scholars think of them as Gentiles (Edwards, 226-227), but it seems possible that they are Jewish. Given Mark’s care to label the Syrophoenician woman as Gentile (v. 26), it would seem that he would do the same here if the man were not Jewish. Also, the laying on of hands is a Jewish healing practice, and the request that Jesus perform this act (v. 32) may indicate that the man’s friends are Jewish. However, there is no mention of faith on the part of the friends or the deaf man.
Deaf people commonly have difficulty speaking clearly, because they cannot hear how words sound. The man has “an impediment in his speech,” which might indicate that he was not deaf from birth but that he learned some speech (however imperfectly) before becoming deaf.
There is a significant parallel between the deaf man and Jesus’ disciples. The man can neither hear nor speak properly. The disciples cannot understand what Jesus is telling them, and are thus hampered in their proclamation. They, too, need Jesus’ touch so that they might see, hear, and understand.
We, too, need Jesus’ touch so that we might understand. Just as Jesus’ first disciples failed to understand and to proclaim him faithfully, the church today often experiences the same failings:
• Preachers are tempted to proclaim a Prosperity Gospel (“Believe and Grow Rich!”) instead of challenging people to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Not only is the Prosperity Gospel is an easier “sell” than the cross (at least in some quarters), but preachers are more likely to grow rich by preaching it.
• The church too easily tolerates divisions within its midst—racial, gender, national, denominational, and socio-economic—because crossing these dividing lines makes us so uncomfortable. We find it far easier to stay with our own kind than to reach out to those who are different. However, Jesus’ visit to the Decapolis demonstrates his commitment to those who are different and calls us to share that commitment.
• The scriptures call us to worship God—to give God glory—but our worship agenda is too often “what we get out of it”—God serving us rather than us serving God.
• In these and a thousand other ways, we demonstrate our own blindness and deafness. We, too, need Christ’s healing touch.
Jesus “took him aside from the multitude, privately” (v. 33a). We don’t know why Jesus takes the man aside for healing. Perhaps Jesus’ action is related to his desire in the previous story to keep his presence secret (v. 24).
“and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat, and touched his tongue” (v. 33b). This healing is very different from that of the woman’s daughter. In that story, Jesus took no action other than to report the healing to the mother (v. 29). If Jesus seemed too-little-engaged in that instance, he seems too-much-engaged in this one. He puts his fingers into the man’s ears. He spits and touches the man’s tongue. These are common healing procedures. If we were offended by Jesus’ sharp words to the woman (v. 27), now we are offended by the fingers in the ears and the spittle on the tongue. If Jesus could heal the woman’s daughter without even a word, why does he not do the same for this man?
“Looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him,‘Ephphatha!’ that is, ‘Be opened'” (v. 34). Looking to heaven demonstrates Jesus’ dependency on the Father. His sigh demonstrates his sympathy and compassion. “Ephphatha” is an Aramaic word, which Mark translates for his Gentile readers—“Be opened.”
“Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was released” (Greek: eluthe ho desmos tes glosses—was loosened the bond of the tongue) (v. 35) The image is that of a man whose tongue was in bondage—literally tongue-tied—and whose tongue, at Jesus’ command, finds freedom of movement and expression.
While Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears and touches his tongue, it is only when Jesus utters his authoritative word that the man’s tongue is loosened (Guelich, 395).
MARK 7:36-37. THEY WERE ASTONISHED BEYOND MEASURE
36He commanded them that they should tell no one, but the more he commanded them, so much the more widely they proclaimed (Greek: ekerusson—from kerusso—a word related to kerygma, which is the preaching of the Gospel by the early church) it. 37They were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak!”
“He commanded them that they should tell no one” (v. 36a). The irony is that the deaf/mute man can now speak clearly, but Jesus forbids him and his friends to speak of this miracle—the most important thing that has ever happened to him.
Jesus has commanded silence in several earlier instances—of unclean spirits (1:25, 34; 3:12)—of a leper (1:44)—and of the little girl’s parents (5:43). Why would this be?
• When Jesus’ mother pushed him to solve the wine problem at Cana of Galilee, Jesus responded, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). The timing was not yet right for Jesus to reveal his Godly power. That would be especially true in this overtly Gentile and pagan land.
• A successful exorcism might draw crowds of petitioners and curiosity seekers who would take Jesus’ ministry in a direction that he did not want to go.
• Or it could be that Jesus models his ministry on the Servant motif found in Isaiah 49:1-6, where God acts through concealment and hiddenness.
“but the more he commanded them, so much the more widely they proclaimed (ekerusson—from kerusso) it” (v. 36b). The word kerusso (proclaim) is related to the word kerygma, which is the preaching of the Gospel by the early church
Just as in the previous story (v. 24), Jesus will not be permitted anonymity or privacy. However, Mark gives no hint that the crowd’s kerygma—their proclamation—is bad (v. 36). Instead he portrays them as “astounded beyond measure” (v. 37).
“They were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well'” (v. 37a). Their proclamation, “he has done everything well” (v. 37), hearkens back to Genesis 1:31: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Their assessment, “he makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak” (v. 37b), alludes to Isaiah 35:5-6a: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” This allusion is strengthened by the use of the word mogilalos (speech impediment) in v. 32. This word is used only twice in the Bible—here and in Isaiah 35:6 (LXX—the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament).
The Isaiah passage looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, and the crowd’s proclamation in verse 37 reveals Jesus as the Messiah. In the next chapter, Peter will confess Jesus as Messiah (8:27-30), but the crowd (perhaps without fully realizing the significance of their proclamation) has already beaten him to it.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan