Please read Mark 7:24-37
On 3rd November 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s second artificial satellite, Sputnik 2. Strapped into a tiny capsule on board was Laika, the world’s first space traveller. She had trained with two companions for the demands of the mission: to bear high acceleration, to endure confinement in small spaces for many days and to cope with the special food which would be needed in the weightless conditions of the spacecraft. Life support was rudimentary. There was a fan which was supposed to operate when it got too hot and a basic system for producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. Instruments measured the passenger’s heartbeat, breathing, blood pressure and movement. As the rocket blasted off, the effects of noise and the harsh acceleration were found to quadruple her breathing rate and sent her heartbeat (literally) sky high, before returning to normal once the craft reached orbit. Unfortunately, as the satellite reached its final altitude, part of its heat shield was torn away; and about six hours into the mission, Laika breathed her last, killed probably by a combination of heat stress and exhaustion. It was over forty years later, long after the demise of the Soviet Union, that this unfortunate mission failure was finally admitted. Now that sounds pretty callous. How could people show such gross disregard for Laika’s life and welfare? Even if everything had run perfectly, she would never have lasted more than a week. There was never any plan for Sputnik 2 to be recovered so that Laika could return safely to the earth. How could they be so callous? The answer, as you probably realise, is that Laika was not a woman; she was a dog. The world’s first space traveller was a dog who started life as a stray on the streets of Moscow.
The fact is that outside the sentimental Anglo-Saxon world – countries like Britain and the USA – that is mostly how dogs are regarded. They are working animals; they are there to do a job for us. They are at the disposal of their masters: they are obviously not our equals and they are unlikely to be our friends, let alone ‘man’s best friend’. To call someone a dog would be among the harshest of insults, because dogs are largely dirty, disease-ridden scavengers. Yet in Mark 7:27, Jesus looks at a woman who has approached him in a state of utter desperation and calls her a dog – Jesus, the gentlest and kindest man who ever walked the earth. How can Jesus insult someone like this? ‘Dog’ was a traditional Jewish insult for Gentiles; so perhaps Jesus is simply displaying the standard racial prejudice of his time, showing that he’s just as much bound by his own culture as any of us are? Or is something else going on?
We follow Jesus as he now travels north, out of Galilee where he has been operating for some time, to the region of Tyre. This is Phoenician territory, Gentile territory, about twenty miles northwest of Capernaum. This is a place where almost everyone will be, in Jewish terms, unclean – Gentiles, dogs. Jesus probably comes here to get some rest and to give his disciples a break as well. The last time they tried this was not exactly a success (6:31ff): they go out to the wilds and are quickly surrounded by a crowd of thousands who want to hear Jesus speak and then need to be fed. When they return to civilised territory (6:53-56), the demands are just as remorseless as before! So now Jesus goes off in a different direction (v.24). It’s likely this house belongs to some Jewish follower of his. But even here, it seems it’s impossible to escape people’s notice (vv.25-26). On one level, this is nothing new. Mark records several such incidents; and often the plea is made in absolute desperation. Demonic activity is quite capable of ruining someone’s life – and if the victim is your son, as in 9:14-29, or your daughter, as in this story, of course you feel desperate: any parent would. So this woman, as soon as she gets wind of Jesus’ presence in the area, tracks him down and begs him for help. Even here they have heard some of the amazing stories of miracles and transformed lives that surround his person.
But there is a problem: not a problem about dealing with demons, but a problem with this woman who has burst into the house and now lies at Jesus’ feet pleading for help. She is a Gentile. Mark emphasises this, explaining in detail that she is a Greek-speaker, culturally alien to Israel. She is from Phoenicia, the coastal strip of what is now Lebanon – administratively it is part of Syria, but what counts is her: she has nothing to do with the Jews. To understand what this means we must remember how the Jews thought of the Gentiles. One of the daily prayers used by Jewish men of the time went like this: ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a woman; who has not created me a Gentile; who has not created me a slave, or an ignoramus.’ But here is a Gentile woman, the lowest of the low for a devout Jewish man. So how will Jesus, a devout Jewish man, respond to her? Perhaps given that background, his response is not quite so unexpected, but it still shocks us (v.27). His meaning is plain enough: he is here to feed the children, not the dogs. The children, safe inside the family home, are the Jews, who think of themselves collectively as the children of God, his adopted race. The dogs, running around in the yard, are the Gentiles, outsiders, unclean, with no claim whatsoever on God’s care or protection.
So is Jesus no different from other Jewish men of his time, grateful that God has spared them from the appalling fate of being born a Gentile or a woman or – perish the thought – both? More than one explanation has been offered for this very blunt reply. Jesus must be speaking with a smile on his face; or Jesus is joking. Well, we can’t say if he is smiling or not, and Mark doesn’t tell us. There is certainly no suggestion that he is joking. There are two reasons why he speaks as he does. One is that he is simply telling the truth. Jesus’ mission at this point is focused on the Jews. Two thousand years of history, beginning with Abraham and running down through the centuries since, have not quite finished yet. Everything about Jesus is Jewish. His royal ancestry through the line of David; his birth in Bethlehem, ‘royal David’s city’; his religious upbringing; his visits to the Temple; the language he speaks – all are Jewish; and all reflect the fact that for two thousand years God has been dealing with the world through the nation of Israel and the Jewish race. If the rest of the world want to encounter the one, true living God, they need to go up to Jerusalem and become Jews. Up to this point, they are the children and we Gentiles are the dogs. Jesus’ mission continues that story. His ministry of teaching, healing and driving out demons is for the Jews. The children must be fed: he cannot take their bread and fling it to the dogs. The Jews come first in the purposes of God.
But there is a second reason for Jesus’ response. We know that by the way the story concludes. In the end, Jesus will not reject this woman. This verdict about the children and the dogs is not the final word. Jesus is testing her to see how she herself will respond to such a blunt judgement. If Jesus’ response shocks us, the woman’s reply to him is breathtaking (v.28). She makes just a small change to the picture he has painted. In her picture, the dogs are under the table, where they can pick up the crumbs that fall from the master’s table – but they are still dogs! She is willing to take the lowly position he has assigned her. In effect she is saying, I understand that the Jews are your first love and they demand all your attention. But surely there are some small leftovers for me – surely you can drop me a few crumbs – and that is all I am asking! Almost unique in the gospel story, this Gentile woman, this outsider, holds her own in a conversation with the Lord Jesus. She puts his own dull, male disciples to shame! She does so, not by being proud and laying down the Law, as the Pharisees have done; not by trying to outwit him with smart arguments, as the Sadducees would do; but wonderfully, by listening to his words; looking into his face; and asking him for mercy.
Wonderfully too, in response she receives what she is pleading for (vv.29-30). Jesus recognises her faith and her confidence, not only in his power but also in his loving willingness to heal. He sends her home; and always in the gospel that command is associated with faith that the healing work is done. The paralysed man who was healed (2:11); the woman who was bleeding (5:34); blind Bartimaeus by the Jericho road (10:52) – three Jews; and one Gentile woman. Jesus has simply told her: Don’t worry, the demon has gone. He hasn’t been near her house. He has intoned no incantations such as their pagan priests might have done. There has been no noise, no fuss, just ‘The demon has left’. That is enough: she goes home and finds her daughter is well (v.30). Literally, the girl is found ‘thrown’ or ‘flung’ on the bed, no doubt exhausted after the final convulsion of the departing spirit. Jesus’ words were true. He has given her dignity; and he has given her what she asked.
Most of us reading this story now are Gentiles. Can we see ourselves here? Can we see ourselves as Gentile dogs? The truth is that for all those thousands of years, we Gentiles truly were the outsiders. Paul describes the situation of the Gentiles in Ephesians 2:11-12. He might just as well have used the word ‘dog’ to add to his list, describing how outcast we were, how far from hope of ever knowing God. We were Gentile dogs, consigned to running around in the yard while the children were fed in the family home. At the time of this story that is still the case. The story of salvation is moving on, and the time is coming when the barriers are going to come down; but at this point we haven’t quite reached that part of the film. This picture gives us a freeze frame shot of the movie; and it shows us just where we have come from.
This woman has only the sketchiest notion of who Jesus man is. What can she understand, as a Gentile of Syro-Phoenicia, of the prophecies and hopes of the Jewish people? Even his own race don’t recognise his true identity – what chance does she have? She has heard the stories and a name, that is all. But in her desperation, she comes to Jesus. She is prepared to take the humblest position; she is content to receive the insulting name the Jews give to Gentiles. Astonishingly, from her utterly outcast position she is better off than the insiders, better off than the Jewish religious experts with their centuries of tradition, their calm sense of superiority and their certainty that they alone know best. Her encounter with Jesus is even more striking because it anticipates what Jesus is about to do. It’s as if she can somehow glimpse the fact that Jesus is here on earth to do something for the dogs as well as for the children, as if she can see a tiny chink of light appearing in the towering wall that has separated the peoples for so long. If so, she is absolutely right. Very soon Jesus will head back south, eventually to Jerusalem to face judgement and a death that will change everything. Paul describes the transformation in Ephesians 2:13-18: in the cross of Christ, the world’s greatest dividing wall is broken down as free salvation is offered equally to Gentiles as well as Jews. People who were far away – people like us – are brought near to God through the blood of Christ that was poured out on that day. People who were outsiders are brought inside, into the warmth and the light of the family. So there are no more children and dogs; instead there is a single new humanity born anew in Christ. We who were ‘dogs’ are given a new status, because the wall of hostility has been broken down; and the love of Jesus has crossed every barrier. As we grasp that astounding grace poured into our lives through Jesus’ death, we must resolve never to re-erect the barriers which he has demolished – to divide one race from another, one true Christian from another. We are dogs no longer: we are children, sons and daughters: one family.
Our politicians frequently tell us that global warming is the most important issue facing our planet, but they are wrong. Far more vital than the healing of the planet is the healing of humanity. Restoring the Creation around us and healing its wounds is important, but re-creating broken men and women is the supreme task. That is the subject of the final story in Mark 7 (vv.31-37). At first sight, as we read it, we might think ‘this is just another healing story’ – though that is amazing enough in itself, perhaps there does not seem much to mark it out from a score of other stories in the New Testament. But as we look at this story more closely, we find there is more to it. All the accounts of Jesus’ miracles point us to something deeper than restoring a single human body. This one in particular takes us to the very heart of Jesus’ mission. Mark selects and arranges the material in his gospel with great care and deliberate skill; the four major episodes in ch 7 are no exception.
In vv.31-37 we come to the story of the man who is deaf and can barely speak. This is not just a healing story tacked on the end of the chapter – if possible, the message of this story is even more radical than those which precede it. In v.31, Jesus leaves the Gentile area of Tyre, moves up through Sidon and then travels south-east to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and into the area called Decapolis, which is simply the Greek for ‘the Ten Cities’. He may well be taking this roundabout route to avoid the crowds which would meet him instantly in the territory of places like Capernaum and Bethsaida around the western shore of the lake. Not too far from here, as we saw in ch 5, is where Jesus healed the man called Legion. v.32 tells us what happens next. Whereas the previous story was about a Gentile, a ‘dog’, this one probably involves Jews. The Decapolis is a mixed area, mostly Gentile but with large Jewish colonies; and if these people are Gentiles Mark would probably tell us. Here is a man who can’t hear at all and who has a serious speech impediment. Most likely, from the way Jesus deals with him, some disease has robbed him of hearing and speech – he knows what he is missing. But he is blessed with friends who care about him enough to bring him to Jesus. Here, too, they have heard of him – possibly even from ‘Legion’. We don’t know if they expect him to heal, but they are certainly amazed when he does!
We note first in vv.33-35 the way that Jesus treats the man as an individual. He takes him away privately – Mark stresses that point in v.33. He gives the man his dignity; and he wants his full attention for what he is about to do. Next Jesus performs a thoroughly bizarre series of actions. Of course, he does not need to do all this. We know by now that the Lord Jesus can heal with just a quiet word, or even at a distance, without setting eyes on the patient; and his power is such that even death or a whole horde of demons cannot thwart him. This elaborate drama is solely for the benefit of the man he is about to heal. Picture it: the man cannot hear; he relies on what he can see and feel to connect with the world. So Jesus holds up his own fingers and places them firmly in the man’s ears to show that he is going to deal with his deafness. Then he spits, to mime expelling something from his mouth; and to reinforce the point he touches his tongue. Very deliberately he looks up to heaven (v.34), not because he needs to but in order to show the man where his power originates: it comes from above. He gives an exaggerated sigh to convey that healing power is about to flow from himself to the man. Then he speaks the word: Ephphatha. It’s one of those words that Mark has preserved in its original language – this may in fact be a Hebrew word, rather than the usual Aramaic. Perhaps Mark records this to make the story more vivid; but it occurs to me also that ephphatha would be a very easy word for the man to lip-read; perhaps Mark is underlining that the point of this little drama is for the man’s understanding. He explains to us that the word means ‘be opened’; what our own, limited English language cannot convey is that Jesus is not addressing this command to the man’s ears. The command is singular: it is addressed to the man himself. His whole person is to open up to Jesus’ healing power.
So, of course, it happens (v.35). The word is spoken and the healing is done. A man’s life is restored – a man who must have struggled to support himself, who could not connect with the outside world – and now suddenly he can. Restoration! Suddenly he has a great deal to say for himself. From ‘can’t talk’ to ‘won’t shut up’ (v.36)! As 1:38 and 4:35 have already shown us, Jesus’ mission is not simply to boost his name recognition index; anyway, he knows they will simply tell people there is an amazing healer at work in the Decapolis – and all that news will generate is more crowds of excited spectators. But in spite of Jesus’ strict instructions, once again the news goes out. Not just the man who has been so wonderfully healed, but the friends who brought him and everyone in the vicinity want to spread the news far and wide. A man has been healed, a hopeless case restored. But in fact there is more to it than that. Mark is the only one of the gospel writers to include this story. Matthew, whose account runs closely parallel to Mark’s throughout this section, talks generally about healings at this point (Matthew 15:29-31) but he doesn’t mention this man.
The reason Mark decides to use this story is that he is writing with a specific purpose in mind. The first half of the gospel – up to the end of ch 8 – is all about answering the question: Who is Jesus? We have already seen that Mark deliberately echoes Old Testament language as he talks about Jesus. We find this again here. In v.32 Mark uses a very rare word to describe this man’s condition. You wouldn’t expect a word meaning ‘almost unable to speak’ to be very common, but in fact this is the only time it comes up in the whole New Testament. It is almost as rare in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Almost the only place it appears is in the prophecy of Isaiah, in a passage where he looks forward to the day when God will intervene in human history and bring about a restored humanity in a restored Creation (Isaiah 35:3-10). What a vision – God coming to judge his enemies and to save his people; and the ones he has redeemed, ransomed, saved, coming home to the renewed city of God; and all around them, the world of nature being restored to perfection and beauty. This is God’s climate change programme! And one of the signs of that happening is in Isaiah 35:5-6: the ears of the deaf will be unstopped and the mute tongue – there is that same unusual word – will shout for joy.
Mark is telling us, This is what is happening in the ministry of Jesus. The ministry of Jesus is the beginning of the new age breaking in – the new age that will ultimately involve the re-creation of the whole earth. It doesn’t happen all at once. That is what the prophets of old couldn’t see. But with Jesus, the new creation is beginning. God’s great project is a new humanity who live to enjoy a new heavens and a new earth, Creation perfected once again. It is a place where there is no disease or disability of movement or speech, no blindness or deafness, where deserts flow with clean water; a place perfectly fit for God’s clean and renewed people. What a vision of the future – no dream, but reality. Jesus came to begin the new Creation – and it begins with creating new people. The Bible makes it clear that the work of new Creation is now well under way – not in the physical world, for our bodies are still growing old and dying; and for that matter the ice caps are still melting. But the new creation is under way inside us (2 Corinthians 5:17). Finally, did you notice how Mark summarises the people’s response to Jesus in v.37? ‘He has done everything well’. It seems a strange way to describe a healing miracle, but it echoes another verdict that was given right at the start of the Bible (Genesis 1:31). When he sees what he is doing in you and me now, the new Creation beginning in us, he says just the same. It’s good!