24 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. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 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. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
1 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” 4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. – Mark 7:24-8:10
One interesting cultural dimension we regularly come across when reading the Bible is the distinction of “clean/unclean.” It seems foreign to us modern Westerners because our society simply doesn’t have this same emphasis. At least, we don’t think we do. While we may not have official, political and religious clean/unclean distinctions (as some countries still do today), we have unofficial categories of individuals, groups, and types of people whom we would never want to associate with. Today, with the political tensions in the air, that may come across political divides. But it is easier to see when looking back on history.
Just this last week, on September 8th, was Ruby Bridges 66th birthday, the first African-American student to integrate an American elementary school in the South, at the tender age of six years old. Ruby and her mother had to be escorted by US Marshalls on their way to school in New Orleans every day of the year, as they marched pass protestors screaming slurs and threats at them, at one point seeing a woman holding a small coffin with a black baby doll in it. The entire school board assumed that Ruby, being black, would simply not be academically capable of keeping up with the other white students. There was only one teacher who was willing to take Ruby on as a student, and the rest of the students in that class were removed by their parents to other classes or pulled entirely from the school—Ruby spent every day of that school year eating lunch alone. Ruby’s father lost his job, her mother was refused service at grocery-stores, and her grandparents, share-croppers, were evicted off their farm.
Today, as we look back on the bravery of a young six-year-old girl and her parents and are appalled at such overt racism, we are given a helpful analogy for how the people of Jesus’ time would have viewed those who were deemed “unclean.” Why did parents pull their children from being in Ruby’s classroom? While there was no law or religious code enforcing it, they all felt, in some degree, that being around an African-American was somehow detrimental to their children. Of course, this is not a perfect analogy for the clean/unclean of Jesus’ day—which was not exclusively race based (Jews could make themselves ritually unclean), but the posture that ardent Jews of Jesus’ day felt towards outsiders, non-Jews, was very, very similar. As we look at the story of Jesus we will see, time and time again, that Jesus seems to always go out of His way to push against this mentality. Jesus works intentionally to show that with His coming, those who are on the “outside” are brought in.
A Gospel Recap
As Christian preached last week, Jesus has come as the long expected Jewish Messiah, “from the right line at the right time.” However, He also wasn’t what anyone expected. Jesus is extremely popular with the common people, but He associates with individuals and does things that lead the religious elites to become incredibly skeptical, even to the point of being convinced that He needs to be put to death.
At the beginning of Mark 7, Jesus enters into another debate with the religious leaders, who note that His disciples do not follow their traditions of ceremonially cleansing their hands before they eat. This was not a teaching from the Bible, but was an additional practice that they had built around the Old Testament’s purity laws. After Jesus exposes their hypocritical adherence to their own traditions at the expense of the clear commands of the Law (Mark 7:6-13), He then shockingly explains that ingesting the wrong food is not what makes you ceremonially unclean, “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…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 7:15, 20-23). Where does defilement come from? Certainly not from eating with unwashed hands—Jesus says that there is “nothing outside a person” that can make him unclean. Rather, impurity is buried in our hearts and is made manifest by our sin and sinful desires.
The problem is not “out there,” friends, but “in here.” The source of sin is not in ideologies, people groups, politicians, or Hollywood. We can certainly see its effects there. But the nuclear reactor of sin lies within the heart of every human being—we are the problem. When a fog or smoke lies thick, you notice that it always looks like it is forms a thick wall just a few hundred yards ahead of you, but right next to you it appears that there is no fog, no smoke, when really you are just as much in the smoke as those far away from you. That is what sin is like; it looks like it is always out there, far away from you, when in reality you are just as mired in it as everyone else.
Mark, as he is relaying this account, provides this concise editorial comment: “Thus he declared all foods clean,” Mark 7:19b. What does that mean? It means that Mark is understanding that Jesus has brought about a cataclysmic, watershed moment in the history of redemption. The old covenant prescribed a number of specific laws that marked God’s people off as distinct and unique from the surrounding nations, the non-Jews. God’s program with His people in the Old Testament was to create a gathered nation-state that was marked off by God’s laws of morality, purity, and civil codes. One of those distinct laws was the kosher laws surrounding food: certain foods were off-limits for Israel to eat. When Jesus pronounces that all foods are clean, He is signaling that there is now coming a change to God’s covenant with His people—and that is precisely what Jesus has come to do, to bring about a new covenant. This means that the civil laws of Israel and the purity of laws of Israel are now set aside. But this also means that God’s people are now no longer required to adopt many of the traditional Jewish customs in order to be included in God’s family—which means that a relationship with Yahweh, something that primarily has been with Jews, is now open and available to non-Jews, Gentiles.
Remember, Jesus says that “nothing outside a person defiles him”—not just food, but there is no-thing that can make someone unclean, and that includes other people too! This was Peter’s lesson he had to learn when he was told to go preach the gospel to the Gentile, Cornelius.
Now Mark is going to show us the same truths that Peter learned: that if foods can’t be unclean, then people can’t be unclean either. Mark sandwiches three stories of Jesus interacting with Gentiles immediately after this declaration of all foods being clean: the Syrophoencian woman, the healing of the mute man, and the feeding of the four thousand. All of these are showing what Mark has been laboring to show all along in his gospel with Jesus’ interactions with women, lepers, demon-possessed, sinners, and tax-collectors: Jesus has come to turn outsiders into insiders, and to reveal that those who thought they were insiders are really outside (See Mark 3:22-35). Let’s look at these three accounts in reverse order
The Four Thousand (Mark 8:1-10)
We are told that during Jesus’ time of being in a Gentile territory (“In those days” 8:1), He is teaching to a great crowd out in a desolate area for three days and they are left with nothing to eat. Jesus then performs play by play almost the exact same miracle we saw a few chapters earlier where he fed the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44). But the five thousand He fed then were five thousand Jews, and in John’s gospel Jesus explains the symbolic significance of this feeding by comparing Himself to Moses who gave the Israelites bread from heaven (manna) in the wilderness (John 6). However, here, Jesus is performing the same miracle, acting as a new Moses to Gentiles. A new Moses to Gentiles? How could that be? Well, Jesus has come, as Paul tells the Ephesians, to take Gentiles who were once estranged from Israel and to unite the two together into one new man (Eph 2:11-22).
The Deaf Man (Mark 7:31-37)
While Jesus is in the Gentile region of the Decapolis (7:31) a deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus and we are told that those who brought him “begged Jesus to lay his hand on him,” (7:32). While “laying your hand” on a Gentile was not as outrageous as laying a hand on a leper or a woman with a discharge of blood, it would was still culturally not proper to touch a Gentile (see John 18:28 where the Pharisees refuse to even enter Pilate’s headquarters lest they become defiled). Here, however, Jesus not only lays His hands on them but He thrusts his fingers into the man’s ears and places his spit on the man’s tongue!
Jesus’ use of spittle to perform a healing appears totally baffling to us—especially because thus far Jesus has healed people exclusively with His words or at times laying His hands on them. Why use spit here? Well, we aren’t sure. Apparently spittle was commonly used at that time for medicinal purposes, so perhaps Jesus was just accommodating to popular customs, perhaps He wanted others to know that He wasn’t casting a demon out of this man, but merely healing an infirmity. We aren’t sure exactly, but we know that Jesus’ physical interaction with a Gentile would have certainly raised some eyebrows.
Even more surprising, the word used to describe this man’s speech impediment is only used one other place in the entire Bible. It is the prophecy of Isaiah 35 where God promises that when Israel’s exile ends, He personally will come and deliver them and He will transform the world into the glorious New Creation: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy,” Isaiah 35:5-6a. What does this mean? It means that Jesus is bringing about the end of His people’s exile—but, wonder of wonders, He is including Gentiles in the promise of new creation!
The Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7:24-30)
Certainly the most surprising of the three stories rests with the account of the Syrophoenician woman. This is surprising, first, because of the region that Jesus travels to: Tyre and Sidon. Tyre (formerly known as Phoenicia) had been the home of Jezebel, the wife of the pagan king Ahab. Together they were the most wicked power couple of the entire Old Testament; they represent Israel when it is at its worst. There is a reason that no one names their son Judas, and there is a reason that no one names their daughter Jezebel. Tyre is repeatedly decried for its wickedness by the prophets in the Old Testament (Ezek 26:17; Zech 9:3) and was also a bitter enemy of Israel, who sided with Seleucid armies against Israel during the Maccabean revolt. Furthermore, Tyre was infamous for their extreme and gross pagan worship.
Nevertheless, Jesus journeys to what would have been seen as a region that no faithful Jew should ever venture. And there He finds a woman who “falls down at his feet,” (Mark 7:25). The last person to fall down at Jesus’ feet was Jairus in Mark 5:22. Jairus could not be in a more different social class than this woman—he was a man, a Jew, and a ruler of a synagogue. In 7:26 we read what one commentator calls a “crescendo of demerit,” “Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth and she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” She is (1) a woman, (2) a Gentile, (3) not just any Gentile, but a Syrophoenician, and (4) her daughter has a demon. Nevertheless, she literally throws herself onto Jesus and pleads for His help. Even Matthew the tax collector would have been scandalized by this woman.
Jesus response is surprising. He speaks to the woman in a parable: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” Mark 7:27. What does Jesus mean by that? He seems to be echoing a common Jewish sentiment—Gentiles were unclean, like dogs. They were not “God’s children,” that is, Israel. So why should Israel’s Messiah be consorting with or helping those outside of Israel? But look at the woman’s response: “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,” Mark 7:28-29. In Matthew’s account of this, Jesus responds to the woman: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done as you desire,” Matt 15:28. Jesus at first appears cold and disinterested, but then immediately flips and commends this woman’s faith and grants her request. What happened?
First, notice that this woman with such a shameful social standing is the first person in Mark’s gospel who understands one of Jesus’ parables. She answers back to Jesus from within the parable itself, knowing exactly what Jesus means by it—Jesus’ own disciples don’t even understand the parables without Jesus’ special help. Earlier, as Jesus is laboring to explain the true source of defilement, He cries out: “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” (Mark 7:14). In Mark’s gospel, a true disciple is marked by someone who hears Jesus’ words, understands them, and applies them (Mark 4:20). Here, we have the first example of someone hearing, understanding, and applying Jesus’ words—this woman is, at this time, somehow more of a disciple of Jesus than His disciples are.
But what is it that she understands? As the text says, she understands that Jesus’ evaluation of her is correct: she is a dog, she is unclean. She doesn’t deserve anything from Jesus. And yet she comes, asking for just the crumbs from His table, unclean though she be. And it is this acknowledgment, this confession of total spiritual bankruptcy which turns Jesus’ loving heart towards her. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3). This is exactly what Jesus is wanting to teach His disciples, wanting to teach us all: what makes us unclean isn’t something out there but what is in here. It is not certain human beings who make us unclean, but rather our own human nature, our sin, which makes us unclean. As the prophet Isaiah tells us: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags,” Isa 64:6.
After Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing Duncan, she eventually becomes haunted by her guilt, by her uncleanness. She sleepwalks to the sink and manically scrubs her hands: Out, damned spot! What is she doing? Lady Macbeth is desperately trying to wash her hands clean of symbolic blood that stains them, but nothing eases her agonized conscience. Not all the perfumes of Arabia could sweeten this little hand, she tells us. That’s what Isaiah is telling us. No righteous deeds, no good works, no amount of charity, no donations, or activism, or penance will make us clean. Not even coming from a religious background, being raised a Jew, will make you presentable before God. And it is only when we recognize that truth that we can have an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ.
Admit Your Need
Do you remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9? After Jesus heals the man he explains: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains,” (John 9:39-41). The only people who are kept from seeing Jesus are those who see no problem with themselves. Non-Christian listening today: your doubts are not keeping you from Jesus, your past sins, your guilt, your burdens are not what are preventing you from coming to Jesus. In fact, they are the very things that qualify you to come. Jesus has come for the sinners, not the righteous. For the unclean, not the clean. And if you will merely admit your need, admit your sin, and like the woman fling yourself at Jesus’ feet for mercy, you will find it. He is gentle and lowly, a merciful high priest who will in no way shut you out. He is eager and able to save you to the uttermost. His death on the cross has secured every means necessary to provide cleansing, forgiveness, and restoration. Did you feel like an imposter wearing white on your wedding day? Do you feel like a phony leading your family in prayers? Do you feel like if any of your closest friends were to find out how deep your doubt, greed, and lust were they would be repulsed by you? Jesus is here, with open arms for you today.
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to the Cross I cling
Naked come to thee for dress
Helpless look to thee for grace
Foul I to the fountain fly
Wash me Savior, or I die
Dear Christian, recipient of grace, do you treat others the way Christ has treated you? Are there “outsiders” that, in your estimation, don’t deserve the time of day? In our day, the biggest divide might be across political barriers. Would you be able to sit down and share a meal with someone you strongly disagreed with politically? Would you be able to see how Christ may invite them in, or already has, to be a part of His family, to be your sibling in Christ?