The gospel for September 5th (Mark 7:24-37) is by turns disturbing and confusing, at least initially. Ultimately, it describes Jesus as a compassionate human, who also held divine powers.
It opens, Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre (now part of Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.) He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. It seems Jesus was tired from his travels. He wanted some rest.
Despite his efforts he was discovered. Yet he could not escape notice. 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. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. There were centuries of bad blood between Jews and these Gentiles. She was a woman and he a man. He was exhausted but she was desperate on behalf of her daughter. (It was as though a person living in a Toronto encampment had pushed their way into a private dinner of bishop Asbil and his staff to beg for a favour.) Tension was in the air.
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.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She was not put off. Her response indicated that she knew Jesus had great power and wanted only the smallest part, a crumb, for her daughter believing that even a token gesture from Jesus would be sufficient. The episode recalls the woman who simply wanted to touch the hem of Jesus' garment as he passed by, knowing that even a minor contact with him would have saving power. (Matt 9:20)
Her words also show that she knew that Jesus saw his mission as focused on ‘feeding’ the Jews but she felt that he was so powerful that there would be enough ‘leftovers’ that her daughter could benefit.
By saying that the children (of Israel) should be fed first, Jesus opened the possibility of salvation to non-Jews, after them. In Mark’s gospel, this was the first time that Jesus had been asked to share the wealth of his saving power with the Gentiles. Acceding to her request opened a new dimension of his mission.
Jesus seems to reject and insult the woman, despite her respectful approach. While some have suggested that a more accurate translation of the Greek word should be puppies, instead of dogs, thereby softening the tone of Jesus’ comments, Jesus’ rejection still seems inconsistent with the person who had compassion for the hungry multitudes and who cured many others.
Perhaps Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. He wanted to know if she would abandon her belief in him at the first hint of rejection.
Regardless, his words are disturbing, at odds with the kindness we have come to expect from Jesus. He sounds impatient.
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
In a quick turnaround, Jesus acceded to the woman’s request. He suggested that his change of mind came about because of the woman’s persistence in arguing with him on behalf of her daughter. Her faith that he would do the loving thing, seemed to have moved him.
The exorcism also shows for the first time in Mark that Jesus could work miracles at a distance and that he had supernatural knowledge that the demon had left.
This passage shows that the good news is available to people of faith, regardless of whether they are Jews or Gentiles, and in spite of social status.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon (further north along the Mediterranean coast) towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.
Decapolis is a region east and southeast of the Sea of Galilee, so Jesus’ journey from Tyre to Sidon then back to Decapolis would have described a large clockwise arc of roughly 90 km…on foot! Regardless of how fast or slow Jesus and his disciples had walked it would have been a tiring journey.
The next episode suggests that Jesus and his disciples paused in their travels and when they did, bystanders asked for his help. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. The Decapolis was a region where Gentiles made up most of the population, so it is possible that the people who brought the deaf man to Jesus were not Jews but had heard of his cures. That they begged him suggests also that Jesus was resting, but that the people were interrupting to request his help.
He took the deaf man aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
At first glance, this seems like a strange and even offensive technique for healing. Yet, it fits in a context of Jesus having told the people in the gospel we read on August 22nd, those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6:56). He wanted an intimate relationship with each person, in which he merged with them, body and soul. Putting his fingers in the man’s ears and his spit on his tongue was more than a way of healing: it was a way of intimacy with his whole person
When Jesus cured the man, he not only cured his physical afflictions but in a very real, human, sense, he transformed the man’s life by giving him the power to participate fully in community.
Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Jesus was probably tired from his travels. As compassionate as he was, he may have wanted to rest so he ordered them to tell no one. This acknowledgement of the need for rest is consistent with taking him aside in private because, while he was willing to help the man but did not want to attract more attention. His recognition of the need for rest corresponds with another account in Mark’s gospel where he invited his disciples, after their “training mission” when he had sent them out two-by-two, to drive out demons, to “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. (Mark 6:31)
By becoming incarnate in Jesus, God committed himself, not only to the suffering of the cross, but to the pain and discomfort of daily life. This story presents Jesus as someone who could be both compassionate but also so exhausted that he was initially reluctant to rouse himself to help the woman and then, after helping the deaf mute, virtually begging to be left alone so he could rest.
At the same time, his compassion for both the daughter, who was possessed by a demon, and for the socially marginalized deaf and mute man, indicated that the incarnate God cared about even those whom society did not value and that he was willing to sacrifice his rest to help them. He not only healed them but transformed their lives by giving them community.