This is the twentieth installment, comprising Act 3. Scene 6, chapter 7: 16-23, Scene 7, 7:24-30, and Scene 8, 7:31-37, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the nineteenth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 6, 7, 8: 7:16-23; 24-30; 31-37
16 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 28 But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter." 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak." (NRSV)
At the end of Act 3, Scene 5 I wrote,
Jesus says, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile"(7:14-15). It is a stimulating saying, but what does it mean? Does Jesus mean only to denounce Pharisaic interpretations of the purity laws? Is he spiritualizing the whole of the discussion, noting that it is the human heart and mind, twisted by sin, that create true defilement not how one carries out certain rituals? Surely Jesus cannot mean to reject the kosher laws themselves, in which certain foods did indeed defile, for his Church would argue over this for decades after his death, indicating no clear teaching regarding the kosher laws or, rather, no clear rejection of the purity and kosher laws.
In this passage I rejected that Jesus intends to say that food which is not kosher does not defile, as this would remain an issue for decades in the later Church after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection (see Acts 10 and 15 for instance). And when Jesus is alone with the disciples and they ask him about what he means, he does spiritualize the teaching saying that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person" (7:21-23). This is a key manner in which Jesus teaches: it is the heart, the spiritual being, the inner person, which is rife with sin; the body, the exterior person, is not defiled by “things” but by “spiritual dispositions.” Sin is a spiritual matter, not exactly a physical matter. On this score he does indeed challenge Pharisaic interpretation of the purity laws by not reducing them to matters of ritual, but a matter of one’s orientation to and openness to God’s will and law.
But Mark adds an editorial note, which does jibe with the Church’s later decision on Kosher food laws, a clear clue for the readers, or auditors, to pay attention: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (7:18-19). Mark’s note that Jesus “declared all foods clean” is an interpretation of Jesus’ saying which only became clear to the Church in the post-Easter environment, but Mark’s interpretation, I would suggest, is not just his own: this represents the stance of the Church, which Mark feels is too important to leave aside. Without this note, the focus on purity and food is on the interior disposition of the disciple with respect to sin, now it is on Jesus’ challenging not just the teachings of the Pharisees but of the Law of Moses itself. One can certainly see this sort of nuanced reading of Jesus and his relationship to the law more often in Matthew 5, for instance, but this one aside is a note to the Gentiles from the narrator, a point too explosive to be missed: our response to the food laws comes from Jesus himself.
Scene 6 interprets and completes Scene 5, while Jesus is alone with the disciples, but in Scene 7 Jesus moves on to a Gentile city, Tyre, a movement prepared, I would argue, for all listeners by Mark’s declaration that Jesus now considered “all foods clean.” As in Galilee amongst Jews, so in Tyre amongst Gentiles, Jesus cannot be alone: the Messiah desires to be alone, as we have seen throughout the Gospel, “but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (7:25-26). When she begs Jesus to exorcise her daughter, Jesus briskly brushes her off: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (7:27). Keep in mind that "food" in Greek in this passage is artos, and another more specific translation of this is "bread."
A number of questions arise which a hearer asks Jesus as his response to the woman sinks in, but one must feel the tension in this scene and the dissonance in all of the questions: the previous passage declares “all food clean,” but you won’t feed this woman? You fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish, but not this woman? If you wanted to feed the “children” – undoubtedly the Jewish people – first, why exactly did you go to a Gentile city? Were you seeking Jews in this Gentile city, for the Jews lived throughout the Roman Empire, and she broke in on the party? Why did you call her a “dog,” a derogatory term for Gentiles, which is not softened by the fact that it is in the diminutive form in Greek (“little dog”)? As the challenge of Jesus’ statement sinks in, the woman responds with power and grace, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (7:28). She does not back away from Jesus; she knows he can heal her daughter and her child takes precedence over any insult of fear she might have. Though the word is not used by Mark, the audience, we, know that what she has is faith. Whatever food you do have is good enough for my (Gentile) daughter, she says, so please, do it. And Jesus does heal her daughter because she does not back down in fear but presses her case in faith. As with the Gerasene demoniac in Act 2, Scene 5 another foray into Gentile territory has borne fruit. Notice, too, that though Jesus desired to be alone, some measure of secrecy, he heals the woman, as with the Gerasene demoniac, and sends her on her way with no call to remain quiet about who has healed her daughter. Gentiles get to talk about the man who healed them.Crumbs of bread are enough.
It takes on added resonance immediately in Scene 8, the last Scene in the B (chapter 7) of the A-B-A markan sandwich which is chapters 6-8. For Mark makes it clear that Jesus leaves Tyre and returns to home territory, both in terms of geography and people, the Sea of Galilee. Yet, it seems that he does not stay there but goes to “the region of the Decapolis” (7:31), a Gentile region as we saw in Act 2, Scene 5. In this scene, Jesus heals “a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech” (7:32). Jesus, however, heals the man in private not in front of the crowd – though the point of this is not precisely clear. If the crowd had been begging Jesus to heal the man, if Jesus takes the man away privately and heals him, and if the man upon leaving Jesus is healed, one would think that Jesus’ act could not have any air of privacy about it.
A couple of dramatic details reveal that Jesus might still be maintaining a difference in attitude to Jews and Gentiles in his healing. Jesus heals the man with physical touch and an Aramaic word, "Ephphatha," which Mark translates as “be opened" (7:34). If Mark cannot expect his Greek speaking audience to know the Aramaic word, why would Jesus use it in a Gentile region unless the man he was healing was a Jew? Mark rarely maintains Aramaic terms, but when he does, they have significance. If the healed man was Jewish, then Jesus’ response to the healing makes sense: he enjoins not just the healed man but “them,” the crowd, to say nothing. This might indicate that Jesus is again amongst a Jewish not Gentile crowd.
Why the mystery of the Messiah for the Jews, even if no one can remain silent – “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (7:36) - and the openness of the Messiah with the Gentiles? An answer is coming soon in Mark’s Gospel, but it does not have to do with Jesus’ identity as such, but with his destiny.
John W. Martens
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