Read, Mark and Learn – Day 19

Tyre and Sidon are port cities in present day Lebanon. They are situated Northwest of Galilee and they were non Jewish areas. It is important to understand how the Jews regarded Gentiles. Not to put a fine point on it, they considered Gentiles to be demon possessed dogs. They were worshippers of pagan gods and therefore considered to be scum.

That Jesus went into their territory at all was to defile himself, but to spend time with them made is enemies suspect him even more of being a renegade traitor to his country and to the law of Moses. When Jesus calls the Syro Phoenician woman a dog he is playing a witty game with her and with those who were watching him. His statement that “it is not right to take  the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” is full of wit an irony. I think he said this with the Jews watching and listening. They really did think she was a dog, so Jesus says this to test them and her. He must have been speaking ironically and as a joke because she replies with a witty comeback. In doing so she expresses her faith and we see that Jesus now begins to heal people at a distance simply be speaking the word. He has not done this before in the gospel, and his authority to do so is an affirmation of the natural and strong faith of the Syro Phoenician woman.

Mark’s intent is to contrast the nit picky legalism, suspicion and lack of faith of the hyper religious scribes and Pharisees with the natural, open hearted and human faith exhibited by the Syro Phoenician woman. She was an ordinary mother who simple believed in Jesus and opened her heart and soul to the Lord. They were self righteous, suspicious, negative and jugemental. Remember, Mark is also writing to the Christians at Rome–most of them Gentile converts. He is emphasizing the Lord’s mission to the Gentiles in this passage and highlighting the natural and simple faith they have in contrast to the Jews. Remember too that in the early church the conflict between Jews and Gentiles continued. The Acts of the Apostles spends a fair bit of time on this issue.  Some of the Christian Jews were trying to impose their laws on the Gentile Christians. Mark is clearly  taking the side against the legalistic Jews in favor of the Gentiles.

This echoes the line in the earlier part of the chapter where Mark inserts the instruction “By this he declared all foods clean.” One of the conflicts between the Jews and Gentiles concerned the Jewish dietary laws. Mark shows that these laws are now done away with and Gentiles do not need to observe the Jewish dietary rules. When Jesus comments ironically about the children’s food being given to the dogs he is also clearly favoring the Gentile woman and acknowledging her right to eat at the table once reserved only for Jews.

The next story take us past another Gentile port city of Tyre the the region of the Decapolis–which means ‘ten cities’. This was the area to the East of the Sea of Galilee and was also Gentile territory. Mark tells the story of a deaf and dumb man being healed, and therefore hammers home his point. In his frustration with the Jews and his own disciples Jesus, in the earlier part of this chapter had said, “Are you even without understanding?” It is as if the disciples and the scribes and Pharisees are deaf and dumb. Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus compares them to a blind man he heals. They cannot see even though they think they can. Likewise here, the Gentile man is healed of his deafness, but it is implied that the Jews remain in their mute deafness–not being able to truly hear the gospel of the Lord or to speak his word of freedom and forgiveness.

Jesus’ use of spittle in the healing is a pointer to baptism and touching the child’s ears and lips is part of the baptismal rite. At that point the minister says, “May your ears be opened to hear the gospel and your lips be freed to speak the gospel”. The use of his fingers in the healing is a reminder that he says elsewhere that what he does is by the “finger of God.” This is another parable revealing who Jesus is–he is the “finger of God.” The linking of this healing story with an exorcism combines to give an overall reference to the sacrament of Baptism because in the baptismal rite not only is there a  symbolic opening of the ears and lips, but there is also a prayer for deliverance or exorcism. Through the rites of the church, therefore we participate spiritually in these same healing miracles of Jesus. Our lips and ears are opened and we too have Satan expelled from our lives.

Finally, the passage ends with Jesus once more telling them not to speak about what has happened. He wants to remain hidden and he is also aware of the growing tension with the Jews. That he went into Gentile territory was bad enough. That he was able to heal people there–especially after stating clearly that he was not able to heal many in his home territory because of their lack of faith was pouring salt into open wounds.

What becomes clear as we work our way through the gospel is the astounding courage of Jesus. He really does not care one bit what people think of him. He is on a mission from God and he is not going to be daunted. He goes bravely into Gentile territory. He stays in the homes of people there and engages with them in witty dialogue. He is fully alive, fully active and fully a man. He’s not messing around. He’s not sentimental and weak. He’s not wishy washy or spineless. Mark shows Jesus as a man of extreme courage, action and dynamic power.