Chapter 6 closed with throngs of sick people being healed by Jesus, many of whom being healed by touching him. Now, the Pharisees and scribes have come down from Jerusalem for a second time (the other time being in chapter 3 when they accused him of being under the influence of Beelzebub) and they think they’ve found a way to discredit him. Because he has allowed unclean people to touch him and allowed some of his disciples to eat without ceremonially washing beforehand.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is sharp. To these men from Jerusalem, Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 29, a prophetic judgement that city.
“And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” – Isaiah 29:13-14
We must remember, just like the issues they had with Jesus’ Sabbath keeping, their issue is not with Him breaking God’s law, the Law of Moses (because he didn’t), but rather, with breaking their extra biblical, rabbinical traditions. The commands of men. Because we are far more familiar with the Gospels than we are with Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy we have to constantly remind ourselves that what we see the Pharisees practicing is actually a perversion of God’s law, not what it was intended to be. There is not one single instance in the Hebrew Scriptures that says an Israelite could become unclean by entering the home of a Gentile or by eating with a foreigner. This Rabbinic tradition was so widely accepted though, that even Peter in Acts 10 says that it is unlawful for him to visit a foreigner. So, after Peter’s vision of the animals and the sheet, he makes this statement, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome.” This is not some new arrangement that God has made with people. This is Peter being set straight about what the Law of God actually teaches. Their man-made traditions had become so important that they had added them to the law, but not only that, for they had actually raised them above the law. Jesus picks one specific instance of this to display their wickedness: That is the sinful use of Corban against one’s parents. In their attempt to discredit Jesus for his imaginary law-breaking Jesus shows that for all their outward appearances and speech, it is they who have no love for God nor his law.
The practice of Corban was a fine and godly practice in and of itself as the purpose was to devote certain possessions to the Lord. However, the sin of the Pharisees was in using Corban as a loophole for sin. They were encouraging people to use Corban as a means to not have to use their wealth to care for their aging parents who were in need. “There’s nothing I can do, it’s been devoted to the Lord!” Under the guise of religious faithfulness, they were encouraging people to disobey one of the 10 commandments. Jesus then quotes the 5th commandment, about honoring one’s parents, but then he drops the promise of long life that is normally attached to it. Instead he adds a different quote from Exodus 21:17 which says, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother shall be put to death.” This was a capital offence and Jesus was pronouncing judgement on the scribes and Pharisees and by extension the entire nation for engaging in it. We see this again when Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple and the city, one of the reasons he gives is that the scribes “devour widow’s houses.”
This section concludes by Jesus telling us how it is what comes from within (man’s sinful heart) that makes him unclean, not the things outside of him. That’s why Jesus didn’t require his disciples to practice the man-made traditions of cleansing and washing that were not required in God’s Law. Then Mark gives us a little editorial note saying, “thus he declared all foods clean.”
Though it took until Peter’s vision in Acts 10 for the church to realize this, it was Jesus’ teaching here that laid the groundwork for it. The ceremonial dietary laws in the law of Moses were never meant to be permanent. They were a visual aid to show that the people were spiritually and morally unclean and unfit to worship God without some kind of purification, often in the form of a blood sacrifice. As we mentioned earlier, Jesus kept every iota of the law and he himself observed the dietary laws throughout his life. But his death was the end of all such restrictions. His blood sacrifice cleansed and purified the whole creation as far as the cleanliness laws are concerned because unlike sinful man, what flows from him is a cleansing flood.
Children and Dogs
Now after this incident we see for the very first time in the gospel of Mark, Jesus addressing the issue of the status of Gentiles. This may come as somewhat of a surprise, but we must remember that for all the criticism Jesus has faced for eating and fellowshipping with “sinners” and “publicans” and “unclean” people of all shapes and sizes, they were still Jewish sinners and Jewish publicans and unclean Jews, not Gentiles. So now Jesus meets the Syro-Phonecian Gentile woman requesting an exorcism and he interprets it as a request for food. But in contrast to everything we’ve seen Jesus do thus far he denies table fellowship with this woman because she is a Gentile.
The first thing that becomes immediately clear is that even though Jesus’ plan was to eventually, as Paul says in Ephesians, “make both groups into one, breaking down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in himself he might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by having put to death the enmity” (Eph.2:14-16). Until the cross, this God ordained distinction, just like the distinction between clean and unclean foods, remains and therefore Jesus honours it.
That being said, we must remember that the distinction between Jew and Gentile was never identical to the distinction between believer and unbeliever. A cursory reading of the Old Testament tells us that there were many Hebrews who died in unbelief and were eternally lost. On the other hand, we also notice that there were many Gentiles who believed the gospel and died to eternal life: Melchizedek, Jethro, Naaman, and Nebuchadnezzar, just to name a few. These men were never circumcised to become Israelites, yet they believed in the God of Abraham and lived.
So why does Jesus deny this “food” to the woman? The children need to be satisfied first. It’s not right to take their bread and throw it to the “dogs”. Commentators are essentially unanimous in pointing out that the children in this mini-parable are the Jews and the dogs are the Gentiles. Jesus declares that the priority of His ministry is first to make sure the children are satisfied. The woman does not try to argue with Jesus, rather she recognizes the overflowing character of God’s grace and says that the crumbs that fall from where the children sit are more than enough for her. Because of the wisdom of her response Jesus grants her request and casts the demon from her daughter.
The woman here recognized what the nation of Israel had for generations long forgotten. That Israel’s priority in God’s plan of salvation was never intended to exclude the nations. In fact, after God judged the nations at Babel God immediately raises up Abraham, the forefather of Israel, to be his instrument that will bless the nations. It is through Israel that God raises up the Messiah to fulfill the promises made to Abraham. Jesus is “the seed” (singular) of Abraham who will bless all nations.
With all this in mind, Jesus’ answer to the woman should not be looked at as a rejection of the Gentiles but simply a reflection of the priorities that we see in God’s redemptive plans: to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. And we should note also, that Jesus says that the Gentiles will not be given bread until the Jews have been “satisfied”. We just saw last chapter Jesus feeding 5,000 (plus) Jews and the text says, “they all ate and were satisfied” and there was an abundant overflow of leftovers, crumbs spilling onto the floor.
Lastly, at the close of the chapter, we see Jesus’ encounter with the deaf-mute. The first number of chapters in Mark showed us, as the Son of God, how powerful Jesus was. With mere words he calmed storms, cast out demons and raised people from the dead. Now we see him performing what seems to be a relatively minor miracle but expending what seems to be much more effort. Jesus could have easily healed the man with a word but chose to do it this way, so we should ask why?
Jesus heals the man by poking him in the ear and by spitting on his tongue. The poking of the man’s ear could be an allusion to the Old Covenant practice of piercing the ear of a slave. In this case it is Jesus’ finger that represents the awl. In Exodus 21, we’re told how, if after the normal time of release for a slave is up but the slave declares, “I love my master” and chooses to remain with his master, he shall pierce the slave’s ear and the slave shall serve him permanently in his household. For the Israelites, the time to declare love for their master and remain in His household was now or else be cast out.
Then Jesus spits on the man’s tongue. We have already seen how the Law of Moses taught that uncleanness flowed from within because of man’s sinful heart. However, as the Second Adam, the sinless Son of God, Jesus demonstrates that from within him flows streams of living water that cleanses the unclean.
Jesus restores the man to hear and to speak and immediately we find the people in the region hearing what Jesus has done and speaking well of him. Jesus is restoring the world so that it can hear the Gospel and speak to the Glory of the Almighty.
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