Proper 18: Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2.1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7.24-end
Almighty God, whose only Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence: give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
JESUS’s confrontation with some Pharisees and Scribes over ritual cleanliness in last week’s Gospel reading (Mark 7.1-23) makes an important transition in Mark’s narrative. The teaching and ministry that Jesus has exercised among his own people is to be extended to the Gentile regions. Questions of cleanliness, the law, and the special relationships of the Jewish people to God will underpin the next series of encounters.
In the first of these, a Syro-Phoenician woman hears that Jesus is in the district of Tyre, and comes to find him in the house where he is seeking anonymity (Mark 7.24-25). The Greek text describes her as “Greek” rather than “Gentile”, and the lively repartee that follows suggests that she and Jesus may have conversed in Greek.
Commentary on the exchange, in which she exhorts Jesus to heal her daughter of an “unclean spirit” (Mark 7.25), often commends both parties for their wit. It is less direct about the overtones of ethnic discrimination in Jesus’s references to “children” and “dogs” (Mark 7.27).
On closer inspection, this analogy has some odd features. The word that Jesus uses for “feeding” the children (the Jews) is normally associated with feeding stalled animals. He goes on to use the diminutive form of “dogs”, suggesting small dogs or puppies. The woman picks this up; for she seems to take Jesus to be referring to household pets, and not outside or feral dogs.
Perhaps first-century children were as adept as their modern counterparts at scattering food on the floor in their early attempts at feeding themselves. It was not that the dogs were going to miss out: only that their needs would not receive first consideration. The Gentiles were not Jesus’s immediate priority, but their turn would come.
Does Jesus respond to the woman’s verbal dexterity, or to the deeper intelligence that moves her to address him as “Kyrie”, ambiguously serving as a polite form of address and a greater title (Mark 7.28)? Even the dogs may eventually eat from the table. Even the Gentiles can recognise the Lord.
The boundaries of what is externally clean, acceptable, and holy are being redefined not only for devout Jews, but also, we may dare to imagine, in the mind of Jesus, as he lives the vocation of God incarnate. What is not ambiguous, however, is his intolerance for the corrosive uncleanness of evil which threatens human wholeness. The demon leaves the child (Mark 7.30).
The return journey describes a further act of healing and liberation, emphasised, as Christopher Tuckett shows, by the use of a rare word for speech impediment that is found only once in the Septuagint, in Isaiah’s lyrical foretelling of the return of the redeemed to Jerusalem (Isaiah 35.6; The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, OUP, 2001).
Jesus does not wish for an audience while he deals with the deaf man, but a few of the disciples must have witnessed him touching the man’s ears and his tongue with spittle. Unhygienic as this appears, it is a moment of new creation (Genesis 2.7), a sign that the coming Kingdom will require a new humanity. That Jesus sighs and looks upwards as he opens the man’s senses reminds us that the whole Godhead is involved, and that the doors of heaven are opening, too.
The people are properly astonished, and commend Jesus for doing what Isaiah said that the Messiah would do (Isaiah 35.5), although it is doubtful that they have drawn the conclusion that the Gospel-writer invites readers to make — that God’s Kingdom is arriving among them (Mark 7.34-37).
It will be later, in the light of the resurrection, that Jews and Gentiles who have given their allegiance to this new way of life will be challenged to reassess their own patterns of religious and practical behaviour. To see Christ as “our glorious Lord” (James 2.1) is to see his insistence on loving one’s neighbour (Matthew 22.39; Leviticus 19.18), not just as the law, but as a “royal law” (James 2.8).
Jesus, who embodies the fulfilment of the law (Matthew 5.17; Luke 22.37; Luke 24.44), cannot be followed piecemeal. Only by keeping the whole law — particularly in respect of the poor — can its adherents find the liberty and dignity it offers to them, and to those “others” whom they embrace as neighbours (James 2.12; Proverbs 22.22).