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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Mark 7

 

 

Verses 1-37

Chapter 7

CLEAN AND UNCLEAN (Mark 7:1-4)

7:1-4 There gathered together to Jesus the Pharisees, and some of the experts in the law who had come down from Jerusalem. They saw that some of his disciples ate their bread with hands which were ceremonially unclean, that is to say hands which had not undergone the prescribed washings; for the Pharisees, and all the Jews, who hold to the traditions of the ciders, do not eat unless they wash their hands, using the fist as the law prescribes; and when they come in from the market-place they do not eat unless they immerse their whole bodies; and there are many other traditions which they observe which relate to the prescribed washings of cups and pitchers and vessels of bronze.

The difference and the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and the experts in the law, which this chapter relates, are of tremendous importance, for they show us the very essence and core of the divergence between Jesus and the orthodox Jew of his time.

The question asked was, Why do Jesus and his disciples not observe the tradition of the elders? What was this tradition, and what was its moving spirit?

Originally, for the Jew, the Law meant two things; it meant, first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and, second, the first five books of the Old Testament, or, as they are called, the Pentateuch. Now it is true that the Pentateuch contains a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions; but, in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles which a man must interpret and apply for himself. For long the Jews were content with that. But in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts whom we know as the Scribes. They were not content with great moral principles; they had what can only be called a passion for definition. They wanted these great principles amplified, expanded, broken down until they issued in thousands and thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation in life. These rules and regulations were not written down until long after the time of Jesus. They are what is called the Oral Law; it is they which are the tradition of the elders.

The word elders does not mean, in this phrase, the officials of the synagogue; rather it means the ancients, the great legal experts of the old days, like Hillel and Shammai. Much later, in the third century after Christ, a summary of all these rules and regulations was made and written down, and that summary is known as the Mishnah.

There are two aspects of these scribal rules and regulations which emerge in the argument in this passage. One is about the washing of hands. The Scribes and Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus of eating with unclean hands. The Greek word is koinos (Greek #2839). Ordinarily, koinos (Greek #2839) means common; then it comes to describe something which is ordinary in the sense that it is not sacred, something that is profane as opposed to sacred things; and finally it describes something, as it does here, which is ceremonially unclean and unfit for the service and worship of God.

There were definite and rigid rules for the washing of hands. Note that this hand-washing was not in the interests of hygienic purity; it was ceremonial cleanness which was at stake. Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed, and they had to be washed in a certain way. The hands, to begin with, had to be free of any coating of sand or mortar or gravel or any such substance. The water for washing had to be kept in special large stone jars, so that it itself was clean in the ceremonial sense and so that it might be certain that it had been used for no other purpose, and that nothing had fallen into it or had been mixed with it. First, the hands were held with finger tips pointing upwards; water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrist; the minimum amount of water was one quarter of a log, which is equal to one and a half egg-shells full of water. While the hands were still wet each hand had to be cleansed with the fist of the other. That is what the phrase about using the fist means; the fist of one hand was rubbed into the palm and against the surface of the other. This meant that at this stage the hands were wet with water; but that water was now unclean because it had touched unclean hands. So, next, the hands had to be held with finger tips pointing downwards and water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off at the finger tips. After all that had been done the hands were clean.

To fail to do this was in Jewish eyes, not to be guilty of bad manners, not to be dirty in the health sense, but to be unclean in the sight of God. The man who ate with unclean hands was subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta. To omit so to wash the hands was to become liable to poverty and destruction. Bread eaten with unclean hands was not better than excrement. A Rabbi who once omitted the ceremony was buried in excommunication. Another Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, used the water given to him for handwashing rather than for drinking and in the end nearly perished of thirst, because he was determined to observe the rules of cleanliness rather than satisfy his thirst.

That to the Pharisaic and Scribal Jew was religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, and regulations like that which they considered to be essence of the service of God. Ethical religion was buried under a mass of taboos and rules.

The last verses of the passage deal further with this conception of uncleanness. A thing might in the ordinary sense be completely clean and yet in the legal sense be unclean. There is something about this conception of uncleanness in Leviticus 11:1-47; Leviticus 12:1-8; Leviticus 13:1-59; Leviticus 14:1-57; Leviticus 15:1-33, and in Numbers 19:1-22 . Nowadays we would talk rather of things being tabu than of being unclean. Certain animals were unclean (Leviticus 11:1-47 ). A woman after child-birth was unclean; a leper was unclean; anyone who touched a dead body was unclean. And anyone who had so become unclean made unclean anything he in turn touched. A Gentile was unclean; food touched by a Gentile was unclean; any vessel touched by a Gentile was unclean. So, then, when a strict Jew returned from the market place he immersed his whole body in clean water to take away the taint he might have acquired.

Obviously vessels could easily become unclean; they might be touched by an unclean person or by unclean food. This is what our passage means by the washings of cups and pitchers and vessels of bronze. In the Mishnah there are no fewer than twelve treatises on this kind of uncleanness. If we take some actual examples we will see how far this went. A hollow vessel made of pottery could contract uncleanness inside but not outside; that is to say, it did not matter who or what touched it outside, but it did matter what touched it inside. If it became unclean it must be broken; and no unbroken piece must remain which was big enough to hold enough oil to anoint the little toe. A flat plate without a rim could not become unclean at all; but a plate with a rim could. If vessels made with leather, bone or glass were flat they could not contract uncleanness at all; if they were hollow they could become unclean outside and inside. If they were unclean they must be broken; and the break must be a hole at least big enough for a medium-sized pomegranate to pass through. To cure uncleanness earthen vessels must be broken; other vessels must be immersed, boiled, purged with fire--in the case of metal vessels--and polished. A three-legged table could contract uncleanness; if it lost one or two legs it could not; if it lost three legs it could, for then it could be used as a board and a board could become unclean. Things made of metal could become unclean, except a door, a bolt, a lock, a hinge, a knocker and a gutter. Wood used in metal utensils could become unclean; but metal used in wood utensils could not. Thus a wooden key with metal teeth could become unclean; but a metal key with wooden teeth could not.

We have taken some time over these scribal laws, this tradition of the elders, because that is what Jesus was up against. To the scribes and Pharisees these rules and regulations were the essence of religion. To observe them was to please God; to break them was to sin. This was their idea of goodness and of the service of God. In the religious sense Jesus and these people spoke different languages. It was precisely because he had no use for all these regulations that they considered him a bad man. There is a fundamental cleavage here--the cleavage between the man who sees religion as ritual, ceremonial, rules and regulations, and the man who sees in religion loving God and loving his fellow-men.

The next passage will develop this; but it is clear that Jesus' idea of religion and that of the scribes and Pharisees had nothing in common at all.

GOD'S LAWS AND MEN'S RULES (Mark 7:5-8)

7:5-8 So the Pharisees and the experts in the law asked him, "Why do your disciples not conduct themselves as the tradition of the elders prescribes, but eat bread with hands that are unclean?" He said to them, "Isaiah did well when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it stands written, 'This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. This so-called reverence of men is an empty thing, for they teach as doctrine human rules and regulations.' While you hold fast the tradition of men you abandon the command of God."

The scribes and Pharisees saw that the disciples of Jesus did not observe the niceties of the tradition and the code of the oral law in regard to the washing of hands before and during meals, and they asked why. Jesus began by quoting to them a passage from Isaiah 29:13. There Isaiah accused the people of his day of honouring God with their lips while their hearts were really far away. In principle Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of two things.

(i) He accused them of hypocrisy. The word hupokrites (Greek #5273) has an interesting and revealing history. It begins by meaning simply one who answers; it goes on to mean one who answers in a set dialogue or a set conversation, that is to say an actor; and finally it means, not simply an actor on the stage, but one whose whole life is a piece of acting without any sincerity behind it at all. Anyone to whom religion is a legal thing, anyone to whom religion means carrying out certain external rules and regulations, anyone to whom religion is entirely connected with the observation of a certain ritual and the keeping of a certain number of tabus is in the end bound to be, in this sense, a hypocrite. The reason is this--he believes that he is a good man if he carries out the correct acts and practices, no matter what his heart and his thoughts are like.

To take the case of the legalistic Jew in the time of Jesus, he might hate his fellow man with all his heart, he might be full of envy and jealousy and concealed bitterness and pride; that did not matter so long as he carried out the correct handwashings and observed the correct laws about cleanness and uncleanness. Legalism takes account of a man's outward actions; but it takes no account at all of his inward feelings. He may well be meticulously serving God in outward things, and bluntly disobeying God in inward things--and that is hypocrisy.

The devout Mohammedan must pray to God a certain number of times each day. To do so he carries his prayer mat; wherever he is, he will unroll the mat, fall upon his knees, say his prayers and then go on. There is a story of a Mohammedan who was pursuing a man with upraised knife to murder him. Just then the call to prayer rang out. Immediately he stopped, spread out his prayer mat, knelt, said his prayer as fast as he could; then rose and continued his murderous pursuit. The prayer was simply a form and a ritual, an outward observance, merely the correct interlude in the career of murder.

There is no greater religious peril than that of identifying religion with outward observance. There is no commoner religious mistake than to identify goodness with certain so-called religious acts. Church-going, bible-reading, careful financial giving, even time-tabled prayer do not make a man a good man. The fundamental question is, how is a man's heart towards God and towards his fellow-men? And if in his heart there are enmity, bitterness, grudges, pride, not all the outward religious observances in the world will make him anything other than a hypocrite.

(ii) The second accusation that Jesus implicitly levelled against these legalists was that they substituted the efforts of human ingenuity for the laws of God. For their guidance for life they did not depend on listening to God; they depended on listening to the clever arguments and debates, the fine-spun niceties, the ingenious interpretations of the legal experts. Cleverness never can be the basis of true religion. True religion can never be the product of man's mind. It must always come, not from a man's ingenious discoveries, but from the simple listening to and accepting the voice of God.

AN INIQUITOUS REGULATION (Mark 7:9-13)

7:9-13 He said to them, "You make an excellent job of completely nullifying the command of God in order to observe your own tradition. For Moses said, 'Honour your father and your mother.' And, 'He who speaks evil of his father or mother shall certainly die.' But you say, that, if a man says to his father or mother, 'That by which you might have been helped by me is Korban,'--that is to say, God-dedicated--you no longer allow him to do anything for his father and mother, and you thereby render invalid the word of God by your tradition which you hand on. You do many things like that."

The exact meaning of this passage is very difficult to discover. It hinges on the word Korban (Greek #2878) which seems to have undergone two stages of meaning in Jewish usage.

(i) The word meant a gift. It was used to describe something which was specially dedicated to God. A thing which was Korban (Greek #2878) was as if it had already been laid upon the altar. That is to say, it was completely set apart from all ordinary purposes and usages and became the property of God. If a man wished to dedicate some of his money or his property to God, he declared it Korban (Greek #2878), and thereafter it might never again be used for any ordinary or secular purpose.

It does seem that, even at this stage, the word was capable of very shrewd usage. For instance, a creditor might have a debtor who refused or was unwilling to pay. The creditor might then say, "The debt you owe me is Korban (Greek #2878)," that is to say, "The debt you owe me is dedicated to God." From then on the debtor ceased to be in debt to a fellow-man and began to be in debt to God, which was far more serious. It may well be that the creditor could discharge his part of the matter by making a quite small symbolic payment to the Temple, and then keeping the rest for himself. In any event, to introduce the idea of Korban (Greek #2878) into this kind of debt was a kind of religious blackmail transforming a debt owed to man into a debt owed to God.

It does seem that the idea of Korban (Greek #2878) was already capable of misuse. If that be the idea behind this, the passage speaks of a man declaring his property Korban (Greek #2878), sacred to God, and then when his father or mother in dire need comes to him for help, saying, "I am sorry that I cannot give you any help because nothing that I have is available for you because it is dedicated to God." The vow was made an excuse to avoid helping a parent in need. The vow which the scribal legalist insisted upon involved breaking one of the ten commandments which are the very law of God.

(ii) There came a time when Korban (Greek #2878) became a much more generalized oath. When a person declared anything Korban (Greek #2878) he entirely alienated it from the person to whom he was talking. A man might say, "Korban (Greek #2878) that by which I might be profited by you," and, in so doing, he bound himself never to touch, taste, have or handle anything possessed by the person so addressed. Or, he might say, "Korban (Greek #2878) that by which you might be profited by me," and, in so saying, he bound himself never to help or to benefit the person so addressed by anything that belonged to himself. If that be the use here, the passage means that, at some time, perhaps in a fit of anger or rebellion, a man had said to his parents, "Korban (Greek #2878) anything by which you may ever be helped by me," and that afterwards, even if he repented from his rash vow, the scribal legalists declared that it was unbreakable and that he might never again render his parents any assistance.

Whichever be the case--and it is not possible to be certain--this much is sure, that there were cases in which the strict performance of the scribal law made it impossible for a man to carry out the law of the ten commandments.

Jesus was attacking a system which put rules and regulations before the claim of human need. The commandment of God was that the claim of human love should come first; the commandment of the scribes was that the claim of legal rules and regulations should come first. Jesus was quite sure that any regulation which prevented a man from giving help where help was needed was nothing less than a contradiction of the law of God.

We must have a care that we never allow rules to paralyse the claims of love. Nothing that prevents us helping a fellowman can ever be a rule approved by God.

THE REAL DEFILEMENT (Mark 7:14-23)

7:14-23 He called the crowd to him again and said, "Listen to me, all of you and understand. There is nothing which goes into a man from outside which can render him unclean; but it is the things which come out of a man which render the man unclean." When he came into the house, away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about this hard saying. He said to them, "So, then, are you too unable to grasp things? Do you not understand that everything that goes into a man from outside cannot render him unclean, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and it is then evacuated from him by natural bodily processes?" (The effect of this saying is to render all foods clean.) But he went on to say, "What comes out of a man, that is what renders the man unclean. it is from within, from the heart, that there come evil designs, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetous deeds, evil deeds, guile, wanton wickedness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they render a man unclean."

Although it may not seem so now, this passage, when it was first spoken, was well-nigh the most revolutionary passage in the New Testament. Jesus has been arguing with the legal experts about. different aspects of the traditional law. He has shown the irrelevance of the elaborate handwashings. He has shown how rigid adherence to the traditional law can actually mean disobedience to the law of God. But here he says something more startling yet. He declares that nothing that goes into a man can possibly defile him, for it is received only into his body which rids itself of it in the normal, physical way.

No Jew ever believed that and no orthodox Jew believes it yet. Leviticus 11:1-47 has a long list of animals that are unclean and may not be used for food. How very seriously this was taken can be seen from many an incident in Maccabean times. At that time the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, was determined to root out the Jewish faith. One of the things he demanded was that the Jews should eat pork, swine's flesh but they died in their hundreds rather than do so. "Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat any unclean thing. Wherefore they chose rather to die, that they might not be defiled with meats, and that they might not profane the holy covenant; so then they died." (1 Maccabees 1:62-63.) Fourth Maccabees (chapter 7) tells the story of a widow and her seven sons. It was demanded that they should eat swine's flesh. They refused. The first had his tongue cut out, the ends of his limbs cut off; and he was then roasted alive in a pan; the second had his hair and the skin of his skull torn off; one by one they were tortured to death while their aged mother looked on and cheered them on; they died rather than eat meat which to them was unclean.

It is in face of this that Jesus made his revolutionary statement that nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean. He was wiping out at one stroke the laws for which Jews had suffered and died. No wonder the disciples were amazed.

In effect Jesus was saying that things cannot be either unclean or clean in any real religious sense of the term. Only persons can be really defiled; and what defiles a person is his own actions, which are the product of his own heart. This was new doctrine and shatteringly new doctrine. The Jew had, and still has, a whole system of things which are clean and unclean. With one sweeping pronouncement Jesus declared the whole thing irrelevant and that uncleanness has nothing to do with what a man takes into his body but everything to do with what comes out of his heart.

Let us look at the things Jesus lists as coming from the heart and making a man unclean.

He begins with evil designs (dialogismoi, Greek #1261). Every outward act of sin is preceded by an inward act of choice; therefore Jesus begins with the evil thought from which the evil action comes. Next come fornications (porneiai, Greek #4202); later he is to list acts of adultery (moicheiai, Greek #3430); but this first word is a wide word--it means every kind of traffic in sexual vice. There follow thefts (klopai, Greek #2829). In Greek there are two words for a robber--kleptes (Greek #2812) and lestes (Greek #3027). Lestes (Greek #3027) is a brigand; Barabbas was a lestes (Greek #3027) (John 18:40) and a brigand may be a very brave man although an outlaw. Kleptes (Greek #2812) is a thief; Judas was a kleptes (Greek #2812) when he pilfered from the box (John 12:6). A kleptes (Greek #2812) is a mean, deceitful, dishonourable pilferer, without even the redeeming quality of a certain audacious gallantry that a brigand must have. Murders (phonoi, Greek #5408) and adulteries come next in the list and their meaning is clear.

Then comes covetous deeds (pleonexiai, Greek #4124). Pleonexia comes from two Greek words meaning to have more. It has been defined as the accursed love of having. It has been defined as "the spirit which snatches at that which it is not right to take," "the baneful appetite for that which belongs to others." It is the spirit which snatches at things, not to hoard them like a miser, but to spend them in lust and luxury. Cowley defined it as, "Rapacious appetite for gain, not for its own sake, but for the pleasure of refunding it immediately through all the channels of pride and luxury." It is not the desire for money and things; it includes the desire for power, the insatiable lust of the flesh. Plato said, "The desire of man is like a sieve or pierced vessel which he ever tries to, and can never fill." Pleonexia (Greek #4124) is that lust for having which is in the heart of the man who sees happiness in things instead of in God.

There follows evil deeds. In Greek there are two words for evil--kakos (Greek #2560), which describes a thing which in itself is evil, and poneros (Greek #4190), which describes a person or a thing which is actively evil. Poneriai (Greek #4189) is the word used here. The man who is poneros (Greek #4190) is the man in whose heart there is the desire to harm. He is, as Bengel said, "trained in every crime and completely equipped to inflict evil on any man." Jeremy Taylor defined this poneria (Greek #4189) as "aptness to do shrewd turns, to delight in mischiefs and tragedies; loving to trouble our neighbour, and to do him ill offices; crossness, perverseness and peevishness of action in our intercourse." Poneria (Greek #4189) not only corrupts the man who has it; it corrupts others too. Poneros (Greek #4190)--the Evil One--is the title of Satan. The worst of men, the man who is doing Satan's work, is the man who, being bad himself, makes others as bad as himself.

Next comes dolos (Greek #1388); translated guile. It comes from a word which means bait; it is used for trickery and deceit. It is used for instance of a mousetrap. When the Greeks were besieging Troy and could not gain entry, they sent the Trojans the present of a great wooden horse, as if it was a token of good will. The Trojans opened their gates and took it in. But the horse was filled with Greeks who in the night broke out and dealt death and devastation to Troy. That exactly is dolos (Greek #1388). It is crafty, cunning, deceitful, clever treachery.

Next on the list is wanton wickedness (aselgeia, Greek #766). The Greeks defined aselgeia (Greek #766) as "a disposition of soul that resents all discipline," as "a spirit that acknowledges no restraints, dares whatsoever its caprice and wanton insolence may suggest." The great characteristic of the man who is guilty of aselgeia (Greek #766) is that he is lost to decency and to shame. An evil man may hide his sin, but the man who has aselgeia (Greek #766) sins without a qualm and never hesitates to shock his fellow-men. Jezebel was the classic instance of aselgeia (Greek #766) when she build a heathen shrine in Jerusalem the Holy City.

Envy is literally the evil eye, the eye that looks on the success and happiness of another in such a way that it would cast an evil spell upon it if it could. The next word is blasphemia (Greek #988). When this is used of words against man, it means slander; when it is used of words against God, it means blasphemy. It means insulting man or God.

There follows pride (huperephania, Greek #5243). The Greek word literally means "showing oneself above." It describes the attitude of the man "who has a certain contempt for everyone except himself." The interesting thing about this word, as the Greeks used it, is that it describes an attitude that may never become public. It may be that in his heart of hearts a man is always secretly comparing himself with others. He might even ape humility and yet in his heart be proud. Sometimes, of course, the pride is evident. The Greeks had a legend of this pride. They said that the Giants, the sons of Tartarus and Ge, in their pride sought to storm heaven and were cast down by Hercules. That is huperephania (Greek #5243). It is setting oneself up against God; it is "invading God's prerogatives." That is why it has been called "the peak of all the vices," and why "God opposes the proud." (James 4:6.)

Lastly comes folly (aphrosune, Greek #877). This does not mean the foolishness that is due to weakness of intellect and lack of brains; it means moral folly. It describes, not the man who is a brainless fool, but the man who chooses to play the fool.

It is a truly terrible list which Jesus cites of the things that come from the human heart. When we examine it a shudder surely passes over us. Nonetheless it is a summons, not to a fastidious shrinking from such things, but to an honest self-examination of our own hearts.

THE FORECAST OF A WORLD FOR CHRIST (Mark 7:24-30)

7:24-30 He left there and went away into the regions of Tyre and Sidon. He went into a house and he did not wish anyone to know about it, but he could not be there without people knowing about it. When a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, she immediately came and threw herself at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. She asked him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "First of all you must let the children eat their fill; it is not right to take the bread that belongs to the children and to throw it to the dogs." "True, sir," she answered, "but even the dogs below the table eat some of the bits of bread that the children throw away." He said to her, "Because of this word, go your way! The demon has come out of your daughter!" She went away and found the child thrown upon her bed and the demon gone.

When this incident is seen against its background, it becomes one of the most moving and extraordinary in the life of Jesus.

First, let us look at the geography of the incident. Tyre and Sidon were cities of Phoenicia, which was a part of Syria. Phoenicia stretched north from Carmel, right along the coastal plain. It lay between Galilee and the sea coast. Phoenicia indeed, as Josephus puts it, "encompassed Galilee."

Tyre lay 40 miles north-west of Capernaum. Its name means The Rock. It was so called because off the shore lay two great rocks joined by a three-thousand-feet-long ridge. This formed a natural breakwater and Tyre was one of the great natural harbours of the world from the earliest times. Not only did the rocks form a breakwater, they also formed a defence; and Tyre was not only a famous harbour, she was also a famous fortress. It was from Tyre and Sidon that there came the first sailors who steered by the stars. Until men learned to find their way by the stars, ships had to hug the coast and to lay up by night; but the Phoenician sailors circumnavigated the Mediterranean and found their way through the Pillars of Hercules until they came to Britain and the tin mines of Cornwall. It may well be that in their adventuring they had even circumnavigated Africa.

Sidon was 26 miles north-east of Tyre and 60 miles north of Capernaum. Like Tyre it had a natural breakwater, and its origin as a harbour and a city was so ancient that no man knew who had founded it.

Although the Phoenician cities were part of Syria, they were all independent, and they were all rivals. They had their own kings, their own gods and their own coinage. Within a radius of 15 or 20 miles they were supreme. Outwardly they looked to the sea; inland they looked to Damascus; and the ships of the sea and the caravans of many lands flowed into them. In the end Sidon lost her trade and her greatness to Tyre and sank into a demoralised degeneracy. But the Phoenician sailors will always be famous as the men who first found their way by following the stars.

(i) So, then, the first tremendous thing which meets us is that Jesus is in Gentile territory. Is it any accident that this incident comes here? The previous incident shows Jesus wiping out the distinction between clean and unclean foods. Can it be that here, in symbol, we have him wiping out the difference between clean and unclean people? Just as the Jew would never soil his lips with forbidden foods, so he would never soil his life by contact with the unclean Gentile. It may well be that here Jesus is saying by implication that the Gentiles are not unclean but that they, too, have their place within the Kingdom.

Jesus must have come north to this region for temporary escape. In his own country he was under attack from every side. Long ago the scribes and Pharisees had branded him as a sinner because he broke through their rules and regulations. Herod regarded him as a menace. The people of Nazareth treated him with scandalized dislike. The hour would come when he would face his enemies with blazing defiance, but that was not yet. Before it came, he would seek the peace and quiet of seclusion, and in that withdrawal from the enmity of the Jews the foundation of the Kingdom of the Gentiles was laid. It is the forecast of the whole history of Christianity. The rejection of the Jews had become the opportunity of the Gentiles.

(ii) But there is more to it than that. Ideally these Phoenician cities were part of the realm of Israel. When, under Joshua, the land was being partitioned out, the tribe of Asher was allocated the land "as far as Sidon the Great...and to the fortified city of Tyre" (Joshua 19:28-29). They had never been able to subdue their territory and they had never entered into it. Again is it not symbolic? Where the might of arms was helpless, the conquering love of Jesus Christ was victorious. The earthly Israel had failed to gather in the people of Phoenicia; now the true Israel had come upon them. It was not a strange land into which Jesus came; it was a land which long ago God had given him for his own. He was not so much coming amongst strangers as entering into his inheritance.

(iii) The story itself must be read with insight. The woman came asking Jesus' help for her daughter. His answer was that it was not right to take the children's bread and give it to dogs. At first it is an almost shocking saying.

The dog was not the well-loved guardian that it is to-day; more commonly it was a symbol of dishonour. To the Greek, the word dog meant a shameless and audacious woman; it was used exactly with the connotation that we use the word bitch to-day. To the Jew it was equally a term of contempt. "Do not give dogs what is holy." (Matthew 7:6; compare Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15.)

The word dog was in fact sometimes a Jewish term of contempt for the Gentiles. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi had a parable. He saw the blessings of God which the Gentiles enjoy; he asked, "If the Gentiles without the law enjoy blessings like that, how many more blessings will Israel, the people of God, enjoy?" "It is like a king who made a feast and brought in the guests and placed them at the door of his palace. They saw the dogs come out, with pheasants, and heads of fatted birds, and calves in their mouths. Then the guests began to say, 'If it be thus with the dogs, how much more luxurious will the meal itself be.' And the nations of the world are compared to dogs, as it is said (Isaiah 56:11), 'The dogs have a mighty appetite'."

No matter how you look at it, the term dog is an insult. How, then, are we to explain Jesus' use of it here?

(a) He did not use the usual word; he used a diminutive word which described, not the wild dogs of the streets, but the little pet lap-dogs of the house. In Greek, diminutives are characteristically affectionate. Jesus took the sting out of the word.

(b) Without a doubt his tone of voice made all the difference. The same word can be a deadly insult and an affectionate address, according to the tone of voice. We can call a man "an old rascal" in a voice of contempt or a voice of affection. Jesus' tone took all the poison out of the word.

(c) In any event Jesus did not shut the door. First, he said, the children must be fed; but only first; there is meat left for the household pets. True, Israel had the first offer of the gospel, but only the first; there were others still to come. The woman was a Greek, and the Greeks had a gift of repartee; and she saw at once that Jesus was speaking with a smile. She knew that the door was swinging on its hinges. In those days people did not have either knives or forks or table-napkins. They ate with their hands; they wiped the soiled hands on chunks of bread and then flung the bread away and the house-dogs ate it. So the woman said, "I know the children are fed first, but can't I even get the scraps the children throw away?" And Jesus loved it. Here was a sunny faith that would not take no for an answer, here was a woman with the tragedy of an ill daughter at home, and there was still light enough in her heart to reply with a smile. Her faith was tested and her faith was real, and her prayer was answered. Symbolically she stands for the Gentile world which so eagerly seized on the bread of heaven which the Jews rejected and threw away.

DOING ALL THINGS WELL (Mark 7:31-37)

7:31-37 He went away again from the regions of Tyre and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the regions of the Decapolis. They brought to him a man who was deaf and who had an impediment in his speech, and they asked him to lay his hands on him. He took him aside from the crowd all by himself. He thrust his fingers into his ears, and spat, and touched his tongue. Then he looked up into heaven, and sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha!" which means, "Be opened!" And his ears were opened, and the bond which held his tongue was loosed, and he spoke correctly. He enjoined them to tell no one; but the more he enjoined them the more exceedingly they proclaimed the story of what he had done. They were all amazed beyond measure. "He has done all things well," they said. And he made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.

This story begins by describing what is on the face of it an amazing journey. Jesus was going from Tyre to the territory around the Sea of Galilee. He was going from Tyre in the north to Galilee in the south; and he started by going to Sidon. That is to say, he started going due south by going due north! As one scholar has put it, it would be like going from London to Cornwall via Manchester; or like going from Glasgow to Edinburgh via Perth.

Because of that difficulty some have thought that the text is wrong and that Sidon should not enter into it at all. But almost certainly the text is correct as it stands. Another thinks that this journey took no less than eight months, and that, indeed, is far more likely.

It may well be that this long journey is the peace before the storm; a long communion with the disciples before the final tempest breaks. In the very next chapter Peter makes the great discovery that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:27-29), and it may well be that it was in this long, lonely time together that this impression became a certainty in Peter's heart. Jesus needed this long time with his men before the strain and tension of the approaching end.

When Jesus did arrive back in the regions of Galilee, he came into the district of the Decapolis, and there they brought to him a man who was deaf and who had an impediment in his speech. As Tyndale vividly translates it the man was "deffe and stambed in his speech." No doubt the two things went together; it was the man's inability to hear which made his speech so imperfect. There is no miracle which so beautifully shows Jesus' way of treating people.

(i) He took the man aside from the crowd, all by himself. Here is the most tender considerateness. Deaf folk are always a little embarrassed. In some ways it is more embarrassing to be deaf than it is to be blind. A deaf person knows he cannot hear; and when someone in a crowd shouts at him and tries to make him hear, in his excitement he becomes all the more helpless. Jesus showed the most tender consideration for the feelings of a man for whom life was very difficult.

(ii) Throughout the whole miracle Jesus acted what he was going to do in dumb-show. He put his hands in the man's ears and touched his tongue with spittle. In those days people believed that spittle had a curative quality. Suetonius, the Roman historian, tells of an incident in the life of Vespasian, the Emperor. "It fortuned that a certain mean commoner stark-blind, another likewise with a feeble and lame leg, came together unto him as he sat upon his tribunal, craving that help and remedy for their infirmities which had been shown unto them by Serapis in their dreams; that he should restore the one to his sight, if he did but spit into his eyes, and strengthen the other's leg, if he vouchsafed only to touch it with his heel. Now when as he could hardly believe that the thing any way would find success and speed accordingly, and therefore durst not so much as put it to the venture, at the last, through the persuasion of his friends, openly before the assembly he assayed both means, neither missed he of the effect." (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 7. Holland's translation.) Jesus looked up to heaven to show that it was from God that help was to come. Then he spoke the word and the man was healed.

The whole story shows us most vividly that Jesus did not consider the man merely a case; he considered him as an individual the man had a special need and a special problem, and with the most tender considerateness Jesus dealt with him in a way that spared his feelings and in a way that he could understand.

When it was completed the people declared that he had done all things well. That is none other than the verdict of God upon his own creation in the very beginning (Genesis 1:31). When Jesus came, bringing healing to men's bodies and salvation to their souls, he had begun the work of creation all over again. In the beginning everything had been good; man's sin had spoiled it all; and now Jesus was bringing back the beauty of God to the world which man's sin had rendered ugly.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


Copyright Statement
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Mark 7:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/mark-7.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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