The essential element of Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus. Last week I participated in a study of Mark 7, and was reminded just how personal Jesus’ interactions with people were during his ministry on Earth.
There are three major segments to Mark 7, and at first glance they don’t seem to have too much in common (at least, they didn’t to me). I strongly encourage you to read the whole chapter yourself (use BibleGateway if you don’t have a Bible handy), but I’ll give a brief overview of each section:
In the first section (verses 1-23), some Pharisees arrive to see Jesus and complain that his disciples aren’t doing the full ritual washing that would usually precede dinner, and Jesus responds by teaching them that holiness is more about what’s in your heart than what’s in your stomach. He also rebukes them for elevating the mechanics of ritual above the intent.
The second part (verses 24-30) takes place in Tyre, a predominantly Gentile town, where a Gentile woman comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus responds with what, at face value, seems like a pretty offensive remark, but the woman is undeterred and Jesus responds to her faith by healing her daughter.
Finally, we have the account of Jesus healing a deaf mute (verses 31-37). He takes the man away from the crowd, and heals him by touching his ears and tongue… with his spit.
Clean hands and dirty hearts (Mark 7:1-23)
There are a few things to note about this passage. The first is that the Pharisees don’t seem to be concerned on hygiene grounds, this is all about performing the appropriate rituals for cleanliness. Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter, criticising their concern with appearance before people over seeking to do God’s will. He quotes Isaiah 29:
“These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” (Mark 7:6-7, NLT)
He follows this with detailed teaching on holiness, specifically that our sinful nature is really about what is in our hearts: “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness”. And equally importantly, true holiness is in having a heart that is right with God, and not about whether we perform the “right” rituals, or use the “right” words in prayer.
Afterwards, when instructing his disciples in private, he gives the first indications here that he, the promised Messiah of the Jewish people, has actually come to redeem the whole world. His comments on the acceptability of food are a presage of Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-22), in which concept of “clean” and “unclean” food is used to tell Peter to go and preach to Gospel to the Gentiles.
Of Dogs and Children (Mark 7:24-30)
After the encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus heads off to Tyre, a coastal city in the predominantly Gentile province of Phoenicia. He’s probably gone there for a bit of a rest, as he’s specifically avoided attracting attention. But a woman comes to the house where he’s staying, and begs him to heal her daughter, who is possessed by evil spirits. This itself isn’t too unusual (in the context of Jesus ministry, anyway!); in Mark 5 he casts a number of demons out of a possessed man. Based on previous encounters, we might expect Jesus to immediately go out and heal the daughter, but instead he says to this woman, “First I should feed the children — my own family, the Jews. It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27, NLT).
The implication seems to be that Jesus, as the Messiah, is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, and should primarily minister to the Jews. But the striking thing for me is that the woman is not offended. Instead, she turns his challenge straight back to him, and points out that dogs can eat the children’s leftovers. Jesus responds to her expression of faith by healing her daughter.
There are two things to note here: one is the suggestion in the metaphorical word-play that there is an excess of food: there is more than enough for both “children” and “dogs” to eat. But also, Jesus challenges the woman in a way that allows her to express her faith and humility. Although we may see the text as offensive, she didn’t think of it that way: Jesus spoke to her with personal knowledge of how she would understand what he said.
Also, following on from the teaching about clean and unclean foods, Jesus confirms that he has come as a saviour to all people, not just the Jews.
Healing … with spit? (Mark 7:31-37)
The final part of the chapter is an account of healing which is superficially similar to many healing accounts, but subtly different in important ways. A deaf-mute man is brought to Jesus, and he leads the man away from the crowd and then heals him in private. (This is important, we’ll come back to it). Specifically, he touches the man’s ears, and then spits on his fingers and touches them to the man’s tongue.
Now in other cases, Jesus simply speaks to people whom he heals. “Take up your mat and walk.” (Mark 2:11) “Your faith has made you well.” (Mk. 5:34) But this time he’s a lot more hands-on, because the man is deaf! How would he understand what was happening if Jesus just spoke to him? The poor guy is probably already pretty confused, it’s not clear how much he understood about what was going on. So Jesus takes him away from the bustle and mess of the crowd, and makes it clear: “I’m doing something to your ears and your tongue”. So when the man was then able to hear and speak, he could also understand what had just happened. Jesus healed him in a way that was very personally tailored to his specific needs.
There’s another element at work in this story: Jesus leads the man away from the crowd to do all of this, and then uses spit in the healing process. Remember the teaching back in the first section? Well, this is basically the reverse. Under the same ritual laws that describe the appropriate hand-washing procedure, we also see that if a man spits on another man, he is unclean for the rest of the day. But here, the holiness that is the very essence of Jesus leads to blessing and holiness in the man who is healed. The crowd would probably not understand this distinction, but Jesus has deliberately done this away from the crowd. As with the Gentile woman, what could seem offensive is instead intended – and understood – to bring healing and blessing. Both the Gentile woman and the deaf-mute understand completely what Jesus is doing, and respond with faith and rejoicing to his personally-designed ministry.
Jesus understands us and interacts with us at a deeply personal level. He knows the depths of our hearts, and desires an intimate relationship with each of us.