This is day thirteen in our ninety-day reading of the New Testament. The reading today comes from Mark 7 through Mark 9.
Widely held by many scholars is the fact that Mark’s gospel was the written testimony of Peter, and written to a group of Gentile Christians not overly familiar with Jewish laws or customs. That’s the view I hold, too. It makes so much sense, especially in the reading today.
Because Mark now begins a section exclusively for those Gentiles. It’s kinda cool where he takes us.
Begin, first, in Mark 7, with the large discussion of traditions and dietary restrictions with the Pharisees. In this passage, Jesus ends this discussion with a broad charge: that you can’t be declared unclean by what you eat.
Which makes little sense to us, because that is almost an elementary thought. But the Pharisees, with their grand oral tradition, had added their own independent ideals to how someone was made clean before God. And dietary laws and practices and customs, in their world, helped make that happen.
In our world, today, we seem to find other ways to make people clean. And, mostly, they are formed from our own traditions. So hear Jesus’ charge to us. We can’t declare people unacceptable in the kingdom with any of our own traditions, opinions, or closely held structures. Period. If we extend fellowship based upon what we prefer, then we have obviously become quite Pharisaical in our own right.
But Mark isn’t quite finished with his defense of Jesus’ blessing to the Gentiles.
Jesus enters a house in the area of Tyre. The region is not heavily populated, or controlled, by Jewish people, and it is an area filled with people who had an intense hatred for the Jews. The ancient historian Josephus writes that they imprisoned and killed many Jewish people during the first Jewish War in AD 66.
Jesus is in hostile territory. Hostile, Gentile territory. And he, of course, is a Jew.
If we keep to the hero theme Mark seems to be using, then we find Jesus as fearless.
There, Jesus finds a Greek, Gentile woman.
She wants Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus then says calls her a “dog,” and that she has no right to what was acceptable only to those sitting “at the table.” In other words, Gentiles shouldn’t be allowed to have the blessings of Israel. I think he probably says this with a sarcastic smile, waiting for her reply. So before we see Jesus’ words as too rough, remember that Jesus decided to visit this area. It was his decision.
She gives him a pretty smart, witty reply. He praises her for her faith, and heals her daughter, without even seeing the little girl.
Here, then, are a few different boundaries crossed in the story. They are pretty powerful, for an otherwise simple passage in the shortest gospel:
- Jesus leaves Jerusalem, and crosses a boundary into Tyre – hostile territory, populated by bitter Gentile enemies of the Jews.
- The Greek woman crosses the boundary of ethnicity, and actually speaks to a Jewish man.
- She is a wealthy, educated woman (her language, and her reply, has the same Greek wording as found coming from the lips of Pilate), and yet crosses a boundary to speak to a traveling preacher and rabbi.
- She also crosses the boundary of gender, and doesn’t assume that females must always be submissive to males.
This story, then, is the startling fulcrum in the midst of various passages of eating in this section. Here they are, in order:
- Herod’s banquet in 6:14ff,
- The feeding of the 5,000 in 6:30ff,
- The debate with the Pharisees over Jewish eating laws in 7:1ff,
- The debate about table food with the Syrophoenician lady in 7:27ff,
- The feeding of the 4,000 in 8:1ff,
- The conversation about the “yeast of the Pharisees” in 8:14ff,
This Greek lady challenges the Son of God. This outsider, this woman, gives Jesus the opportunity to open the gates of God for everyone.
And the very things, such as diets and foods, that separated the early Jewish and Gentile Christians were not acceptable. Access to God is for everyone, and we have no right to limit that access with any such tradition or restriction or ethnicity.
And Mark isn’t done proving this point. Jesus again feeds a large multitude in Gentile territory. And there are numbers all over this story. 4,000 people are fed. Seven loaves are used. Twelve baskets are filled with leftovers.
There are four directions on a compass. There were seven Gentile nations in Canaan before the Jews arrived from Egypt. And there are twelve tribes of Israel.
Mark uses this feeding to blow wide-open the mission of Jesus to the entire world.
Which is nicely said, until we realize the implication.
We do not have the right to say who gets to be a part of the kingdom of God.
We do not have the right of restriction in this kingdom.
We don’t even have the right to interpret the scripture in our own forming, with the intent of dictating who has access in this kingdom.
The Pharisees in 7:1 thought they had the interpretations of the scripture all figured out. And Jesus sliced up their argument with amazing sharpness.
And once this is settled in Mark’s gospel, he gives us the pinnacle of his telling, which is Peter identifying Jesus as being, indeed, the Messiah. And his is the way of suffering. More on that tomorrow.
Thanks for reading with me! You can find all the posts through these ninety days here.