More Good News from Mark
In the proceeding passage (Mark 7.1-23) Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7.19). In these two stories he declares all persons clean. The stories advance Jesus’ repudiation of traditional codes and their taboos and advance the building of an inclusive community of faith.
The first story (7.24-30) is set in Tyre, a large Phoenician port city of Syria. The focus of the story is not simply on the healing, but on the Gentile question: Does God’s care and healing mission extend to all people? Everyone? In a world of tribal, nationalistic, culture-bound gods, this is a crucial, even an arresting and radical question. Jesus’ rebuff of this woman seems to make use of an aphorism. Inside of Judaism, Gentiles were labeled “dogs.” Dogs were not cute, they were not pets, they were not domesticated, they were not fed. They were dismissed, disgusting scavengers. This is obviously a racist insult, a slur. The point in this passage is clear: “Jews first.” Historically, God’s incursion into human history did work through the Jews first. Cf. Paul’s explication of this in Romans.
This is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. So sharp and troublesome that is nearly impossible to imagine a largely Gentile church wound invent it. A question is obvious: Was Jesus engaged in racism and bigotry in his use of this insult, or does he use it for ironic purposes? Scholars are divided on this question. The majority, it seems (and most are Christians, after all) seem to think that given all of Jesus’ sayings and all of his ministry, and his inclusion of Gentiles in God’s care and work and community—make the idea of a racist, bigoted Jesus completely incongruous with everything we know about him on the whole. Many scholars think this is an example of “peirastic irony” (from peiradzein—“to put to the test”). Along these lines, since Jesus is here demonstrating his commitment to Gentiles, Mark would have left out this insult altogether if he thought the irony would have been missed. A second reason to see this as an ironical statement meant to provoke a reaction is the wit evident in the construction of the episode itself. In this exchange, the woman gets the better of Jesus. So, did Jesus fall into this short end of the dialogue because he’s stupid or morally obtuse or spiritually stunted? Or did Jesus set it up this way? One view is that Jesus “was caught with his compassion down” (Sharon Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Letty Russell, ed. (1984), 69. The other view, is that Jesus set it up, he knew what he was doing.
In this story Jesus is crossing a variety of boundaries—geographical, ethnic, gender, theological, and cultural. This is the only passage I Mark where the healed person is definitely a Gentile (pagan). Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite, which seems to be a focus on her religious affiliation (Mt. 15.21-28). Mark’s emphasis seems to be that she is not a Jew and is someone situated on the western edge of the Roman empire. This woman addresses Jesus as “Lord”—
the first and only person to address Jesus with this word.
This unit (7.31-37) is the last of a sequence of miracle stories concerned with the question of Jesus’ identity. It leads up to the christological affirmation of Peter in 8.29. The man has a speech impediment, he’s not entirely mute (mogilalon, .32). In order to get to this location—“the region of the Decapolis”—Jesus took a very indirect route (.31)! Jesus returns to his home province by such an extensive detour that the only objective can be deeper penetration into Gentile territory. “Jews first”—but not at the expense or negligence of the Gentiles.
Spit was thought in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world to have healing properties. And when Jesus applies saliva to the tongue and puts his fingers in the ears of this man, he may have been acting like a physician utilizing the technique of healing that was common at the time among the “lower classes.” He sighs or groans (the Greek can mean either) as he “looks up to heaven” and proclaims, “Be opened!” and this can be a signification of anguish or concentration or passion of a positive kind—or some mix of all these emotions. We see here a Jesus who is deeply, totally engaged in the act of healing.
After the healing the narrator employs an adverb of a superlative degree, “He has done all things well… .” The word, hyperperissos, means “beyond all measure” or “superabundantly.” This is the Gentile response to Jesus’ work: “they were astounded beyond measure” (.37). His healing work among the Gentiles is a reminder and extension of the work of Elijah and Elisha who extended the benefits of salvation, liberation, of God’s healing love— to outsiders.
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.
The clean/unclean theme begun earlier, is continued in this passage. It is hard to overstate how important this conception and question is. Think of connotations (worthy/unworthy, set apart/not set apart, ordained/subordinate, etc.) very much at work in Israel, Gaza and West Bank, in the US, and elsewhere at this very moment.
Mark wants to insist on two things: Jesus does not want to be known in respect to his true identity until and unless it is clear that suffering rather than sheer power lies at the core of that identity. Yet, Jesus’ charismatic accomplishments are so great that they cannot be hidden. There is an inevitable tension between these. Mark is not unaware of the tension, rather he lays it out and thinks that there is something valuable in it (rather than trying to hide or resolve it). This tension is good spirituality as well. As we think of the “clean”/”unclean” distinction—in all its connotations—and all the ways it lies hidden (when not explicit) in our narratives, identities, politics, and religions—let us keep the value of the tension found in Jesus close to our hearts. How can I be a vessel of God’s accomplishments? For what am I willing to suffer?
These questions are not unrelated.
Thanks for reading,