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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 7

Verses 1-23

False Shepherds (7:1-23)

When Jesus had compared the crowds who came to hear him to sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34), he had implied that Israel as God’s flock needed shepherds and that those who had been thus appointed had been derelict in their duty. It was but a short step to think of the scribes and Pharisees as shepherds who had become hirelings, or even thieves (John 10:1-13). This sharp contrast is implied in this scene, when immediately after Jesus has fed the sheep in green pastures the pseudo-shepherds attack him on the basis of the food laws of the Pentateuch. Their devotion to their traditions had induced them to ignore the needs of the flock.

The explanation of these traditions (vss. 3-4) is rightly placed in parentheses, for this is obviously an editorial comment which would not have been needed in Galilee by a Jewish audience. It is a footnote which shows that Mark was writing for many Gentile readers who would not otherwise have understood the Jewish customs. To help such readers Mark gave comments of this sort, making him one of the earliest commentators on the gospel. He was of course preceded by many commentators on the Jewish Scriptures. "The tradition of the elders" was in fact the result of efforts by sincere, devoted scholars to interpret the Law (Leviticus 22:1-16) in such a way as to guide laymen into obedience to it. God himself had said, "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). The Pharisees sought to define this holiness and then to teach men how to become holy.

The first point at issue stemmed from the complaint that Jesus’ disciples ate with hands that had not been cleaned from the impurities of Gentile market places. (Mark was more concerned about Roman disciples than about Galileans.) Jesus defended his disciples by a stinging charge against their defamers. They were double-talkers, honoring God verbally, worshiping him in gesture, but far from understanding his will. They had not, in fact, defended God’s commandment but had replaced it. This commandment is not something that can be read and then obeyed mechanically, but a living will which can be understood only when the heart is animated by the same purpose (vss. 6-8).

The second point grew out of this critique, and had no direct bearing on the washing of hands. Jesus gave one of many possible examples of how particular scribal rulings had become means of evading explicit written commandments. Take such a commandment as the honoring of parents by their children (vs. 10; Exodus 20:12; Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 19:3; Leviticus 20:9). The scribal ruling seems to have been this: If a son had made a vow to offer to God, or to the Temple, property which was later needed to support his parents, he should give to this vow priority over his family obligation. The scribes were aware of the conflict of duties, but their decision seemed to Jesus to stultify the weightier duty, and to determine the issue not by the desires of a heart close to God’s purpose but by an impersonal and legalistic appraisal of obligations.

A third point, far more inclusive and radical, dealt with the question of the source of uncleanness (vss. 14-23). Here Jesus discussed not the problem of the washing of hands or pots but the problem of how to determine what is clean and what is unclean. No longer is the basis for judgment to be found in the written Law but in Jesus’ new law. Like Moses from Sinai, he "called the people to him." This edict was intended for all of them, and he uttered it with great authority: "Hear me." It was an edict, and yet it was a parable (vs. 17). It was a parable because it required a special understanding, which he expected only from disciples but failed to get: "The things which come out of a man are what defile him."

The new law thus promulgated was not a written law, to be sure, for the point of reference was the heart. Nothing which does not enter the heart can defile a person. Food does not enter the heart, therefore it cannot make one unclean. But what comes from the heart, this and this alone is decisive. And by this gauge many things are evil — such obvious things as theft and murder, and such less obvious things as evil thoughts, pride, and deceit. Here the principle is exactly the same as in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48), where a harsh word is as sinful as murder and lustful desire as adultery, and where desire for revenge cuts one off from God even more certainly than the more easily recognized sins. Thoughts and desires, motives and emotions — these are the first forms which defilement takes. Mark was more interested in the negative implication, for he adds the note: "Thus he declared all foods clean" (vs. 19). The Jewish food laws are to be rejected. This was what the Roman Christians needed to recognize, for many of their deepest animosities had to do with clean and unclean foods (see the Introduction). But Jesus seems to have been far more concerned with the positive implication. A man defiles himself by what he thinks in his heart. This means that God judges him even by the little careless words he utters (Matthew 12:33-37).

If "understanding" this parable included understanding and obeying all the implications of this revolutionary principle, it is quite clear that the disciples had not understood (vs. 18). It is also quite doubtful if the Church has ever understood. And, to come closer home, which of us has fully understood, if we define understanding by obedience? Yet the teaching remains clear and firm. God knows and judges men according to their hearts (Luke 16:15). As the Good Shepherd he seeks to cleanse them. As a shepherd sent to God’s people, Jesus sought to free their hearts from all fears and hatreds. His penetration into God’s will for men enabled him to pronounce the pure in heart blessed, and to discern the double-mindedness of those scribes whose heart was far from God (Mark 7:6). It was such duplicity which Jesus recognized as deafness and blindness.

Verses 24-37

Sheep from Other Folds (7:24-37)

After he had thus defined the source of purity and impurity, Jesus turned away from his home province and went into Gentile country, "the region of Tyre and Sidon," This is the first certain reference in Mark to a ministry beyond the bounds of Jesus’ own people. In this Gentile area he traveled quietly and without openly announcing the good news. He understood his vocation in terms of God’s redemption of Israel. Nevertheless, contrary to his intention, "he could not be hid." The works which he had done among his kinsmen were now to be paralleled among the Gentiles — exorcism, healings, and feedings. God made him their shepherd also.

Jesus’ hesitation to extend his work to Gentiles is strongly accented by the sharp saying about throwing children’s bread to dogs. To the Israelites, Gentiles were dogs by comparison to God’s Chosen People. The food of Jesus’ teaching, which here is clearly identified with power to heal, was primarily intended for that people. The response on the part of this Greek mother was surprising indeed. In her emergency she did not resent the slur, but humbly accepted it. She wanted only a crumb for her daughter. In the face of such lowliness Jesus could not reject her plea.

There is much that is puzzling in this episode. Gentile Christians have always been offended by the harsh tone of Jesus’ reference to Gentiles. We cannot recover with certainty his motives. But the main thing is the combination of facts: the demons did not respect lines between one people and another; humility, hope, faith in Jesus as Lord, were from the first demonstrated by Gentiles; the power of God to release men from Satan’s clutches was destined to be felt throughout the territory of Satan’s control, even though men might not intend it; the Gentile mission had its beginning during Jesus’ own ministry. Each of these facts was important for members of the Roman congregations. They naturally saw connections between this trip to Sidonian country and the trip made by Elijah, between this miraculous cure and that wrought by Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-24). They also considered this spread of salvation to the Gentiles as a sign of God’s reaction to Jewish rejection (Luke 4:25-26).

The next cure (Mark 7:31-37) appears at first sight to add little to previous stories. It certainly proves nothing new about Jesus. Yet we have already seen that the major motive for including these marvels did not lie in proving the Messiah’s power; early Christians believed in Jesus as Deliverer before these stories had much attraction for them. About this story we may note that Jesus was still moving through Gentile lands. This being so, the help offered to a Gentile man combined with that given to a Gentile woman suggests that help is now available to all Gentiles. The exorcism of an unclean spirit is balanced by this case of healing. The twin stories thus lead to a Gentile hallelujah: "He has done all things well." Until now the Gentiles (the deaf) had not heard the good news, now they can; they had not been able to proclaim it (the dumb), now they do. Therein lies the mystery, for this is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the glory of Lebanon should be given to God when the ears of the deaf are unstopped and the tongue of the dumb sings for joy (Isaiah 35:1-6). It is by means of such images that, ever since the Psalms, God’s people have sung his praises.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 7". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/mark-7.html.