Proper 18 · Mark 7: (24-30) 31-37 · September 6, 2009
By Andrew Bartelt
1. The pericope continues Mark 7. The near goal of the narrative is Mark 8, skipped in this Markan section of the lectionary, but thematically where the story is headed. So who is this Jesus? Is he the Christ/Messiah? Thus these stories are secondarily about faith and primarily about Jesus.
So the friends of the paralytic (2:4), the woman in 5:34, and the humility of the Syrophoenician woman in 7:29: faith always has an object. It is not as much about faith, but faith in Jesus and with it the recognition of His true identity.
Thus the healing miracles, as well as the nature miracles, are really about the Creator come as Redeemer (“who is this that wind and wave obey him?” 4:41). Further, these are the activities and “signs” (cf John) that in Jesus the Messiah— and the Messianic Age—has come. Our text is almost a Markan version of Matthew 11:4, fulfilling Isaiah 35:5 (the OT lesson for the Sunday): “he even makes the deaf hear and mute speak!”
2. Jesus’ Galilean ministry includes several forays beyond Israelite territory, most notably the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20) in the Decapolis region, and here in the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and with the deaf/mute back in the Decapolis.
The geographical details especially in 31 have left many commentators confused, as Sidon is hardly on the way from Tyre to Decapolis via the Sea of Galilee. Matthew includes the reference to Sidon along with Tyre at the beginning of the itinerary (Matthew 15:21). Attempts to explain the route as avoiding the territory of Herod Antipas (in the wake of 6:14ff) are speculative but possible. No reason is given in the text, but Jesus clearly is spending time and attention among the Gentile “nations.” His mission both to “all Israel” and beyond Israel is anticipated in the list of those who came to him already in 3:8.
3. Jesus had appointed twelve apostles as the core of the New Israel (3:13), but immediately the tension within Israel regarding the identity of Jesus is highlighted (3:20ff). Later, immediately following Jesus’ rejection in his hometown (6:1-6), those same Twelve are sent out to preach repentance, drive out demons, and heal the sick, all signs that the Messianic Kingdom has come near, but now in tension with Jewish leadership.
The immediate context in chapter 7 follows another confrontation with Jewish authorities, regarding clean and unclean ritual eating. Jesus’ refutation of the purely mechanical (ex opere operato) nature of ritual sets the stage for his own encounter with those outside Israel, who will challenge the rigid avoidance of anything “unclean” (cf. Acts 10:9ff).
4. Within this larger framework, our text in 7:24-36 makes two general statements: (1) As Messiah, Jesus brings into human history the eschatological new age of the new creation, and (2) while centered in Israel, as Jesus is the “Jewish Messiah,” the new creation is indeed for all creation, to the Jew first but also to the Greek (Romans 1:16). Indeed, while the “nations” will come to Zion (Isaiah 2:2-4) at Pentecost, the post-Pentecost mission from Jerusalem into all the world is already anticipated, even if Jesus’ entrance was, at this point, quiet and even private.
7:24 The relatively rare use of εκειθεν and δε suggests a clear break in the story line: Jesus is headed out of Israelite territory into Phoenicia. However, there is no strong “missionary” theme; Jesus ουδενα ηθελεν γνωναι. Yet his presence cannot be hidden (verse 25); the Markan ευθυς moves the story onward.
7:25 As with the Jewish leader Jairus, the concern is for a utile daughter (θυγατριον, only here and 5:23, where the story of Jairus’ daughter surrounds a story of Jesus’ care for a grown “daughter” [5:34]).
7:27 The diminutive is used also for the little dogs (κυναριοις), and, if the interpretative explanation is correct about the Jewish tradition of referring to Gentiles as dogs, then the “little dogs” might conflate the concern about both a Gentile and the Gentile woman’s little daughter.
7:28 The woman replies, “κυριε” (the “yes” is likely secondary) which reveals her respect and humility (and the only use of this vocative form in Mark) in affirming Jesus’ metaphor and even extending it to her and her cry for help.
7:29-30 The humble recognition of Jesus’ mission, not just to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew makes this explicit, Mt. 15:24), gives witness to the fact that demons are subject to Jesus, even in Gentile territory.
7:31 The second pericope continues the theme of Isaiah 35 even more explicitly, as the ears of the deaf are unstopped, and the mute shouts for joy (35:5-6).
7:33 Jesus takes the man aside (απολαβομενος) and heals by means and by his personal touch, along with the action of prayer and connection with heaven. The little daughter was healed without Jesus even being present with her; here Jesus uses touch and the medium of his spitde. No explanation is given; the focus is on the result and the witness to Jesus.
7:34 אתפתה (cf. Hebrew פתה, with ears, פתח) is Aramaic Ithpeel (cf Hithpael); the use of a passive/reflexive impv. is awkward (cf. Psalm 24:7, be lifted up!) and implies an external power by which the action is accomplished “extra nos.”
7:37 The testimony of the people that Jesus has done all things “well” (καλως) may also hearken to the new creation, as God pronounced the first creation “good” and everything “very good” (Gn 1:31). The fulfillment of Isaiah 35 is made explicit by an almost direct citation in the final statement.
With Jesus the Christ, the New Creation has begun. It comes by God’s power and grace, not by our actions, and it can come quite quietly. It is universal, for all creation, first to (and through) the house of Israel but for all, even we, who like the dogs, also receive the children’s bread. At this point, Jesus is not seeking out the Gentiles; but wherever he goes, it is as though the new creation cannot not break in, or break out!
Nevertheless, the story is not over. Full recognition and revelation of the Messianic mission is yet to come—with Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection (8:27ff, 31ff), into which we are baptized and receive the “new Adam” of the new creation; saint yet sinner living in the grace of Christ’s redemption and forgiveness.
Examples of the fallen creation abound, including infirmities and disabilities and general “groaning” (Rom 8:22). Yet the central—and simple—summary of the whole Biblical story is this: creation ? fall ? new creation, established in Jesus the Christ, accomplished by atonement and resurrection, and consummated at His Second Coming. Understanding Jesus: who is he is as Creator-Redeemer (and not simply as faith-healer!) is crucial. But even more important is receiving Jesus in the humility of faith, saved by grace, and knowing that our greatest healing, already accomplished and present in our lives, comes through the forgiveness of sins and the first-fruits of the new creation, even as we anticipate the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.