Jesus’ strange behaviour

Jesus’ strange behaviour
Mark 7 : 24 - 37

After Jesus’ confrontation with the Jerusalem hierarchy, he left the country completely. You might say He went on his holidays. He and the disciples travelled north on foot of course and not on an Urquhart Camel Tour. Why did he do this? It seems that he needed a complete break away from the intensity of his public ministry and the growing clamour and expectation which had arisen. Tyre and Sidon were famous sea ports in Phoenicia which was then part of Syria. Both Tyre and Sidon can be found today in Lebanon. They are substantial metropolitan areas of 133,000 and 200,000 inhabitants respectively. Both were amazing natural harbours and natural fortresses. Phoenician sailors were the first to sail by the stars. Before that sailors kept in sight of land at all times. It is possible that Phoenician sailors visited ancient Britain and may have sailed round Africa also. Tyre was forty miles north of Capernaum where Peter lived and Sidon was a further 26 miles north-east.

Tyre and Sidon were city states like the Swiss mediaeval city states of Geneva, Basel, Berne and Lausanne. But in Biblical times Tyre and Sidon had their own kings and coinage and a land jurisdiction of up to twenty miles. They were hubs of ancient commerce and trade and they were wealthy and influential. They were also deeply morally corrupt. Tyre had been the centre of the worship of Moloch and of child sacrifice until Alexander the Great invaded in 332BC and stopped it. Fertility and orgiastic rites took place and lesbianism and homosexuality were rife.

This was a strange place for Jesus to go to. This was Gentile territory for sure but it was a particular kind of place also. Even so, Jesus foretells the missionary expansion of the Church that later bore his name and gave an example to his disciples that Gentiles were among those to receive the Gospel and be saved. Here, perhaps Jesus sought respite from the stresses and tensions his public ministry created and the strength of the growing opposition to him in certain quarters. He sought anonymity. He sought peace. He sought seclusion. That did not actually happen because people followed him and word spread. However, it was still a break for Jesus - particularly from the attentions of his enemies. Verse 24 says He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it yet he could not keep his presence secret. The disciples are not specifically mentioned but it is assumed that they were present and witnessed what happened and recorded it later. It would have been impossible for Jesus to have travelled alone nor would he have deserted his disciples to do so.

So, no sooner had Jesus settled down in his holiday house, when a woman arrived, came inside and fell down at his feet. That was more of a common action than today. We don’t do falling down at feet. Then - it was just a serious way of asking for something. With the whole body as it were - pleading - demonstrating real need and desperation. All she was doing was saying with her posture 'Please help me - no-one else can'. She had a troubled daughter, a little girl, perhaps with epilepsy. The detail is there in the story - she was Greek - that is of Greek parentage - though born locally. We are not told her name. She begged Jesus to heal her stricken daughter. Jesus’ reply is considered controversial. He did not do what she wanted immediately. It seems he toyed with her and it could be said that he even insulted her. His comment could be described as racist. First let the children eat all they want for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.

In that culture and context a dog was not a valued household pet, companion and friend. A dog was a symbol of dishonour. To call a woman ‘a dog’ was to insult her. That is still true today. In March 1998, Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall, directors of Newcastle United Football Club were the target of a News of the World exposé, led by the “Fake Sheikh” Mazher Mahmood. The pair, believing Mahmood to be a wealthy Arab prince trying to set up a business deal, were caught mocking the club's own supporters for spending extortionate amounts of money on merchandise, calling female supporters “dogs”, and mocking star striker Alan Shearer by calling him the "Mary Poppins of football", all the while frequenting a brothel. There is a pop song 'Who let the dogs out' which is used insultingly against both women and men especially at football matches.

In Jesus’ time, Jews sometimes referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs’. When Jesus talked about the children’s bread he meant the children of Israel. He was saying that the Jews come first - they are the priority. It seems as if he was exercising racial superiority. According to William Barclay, the word used for ‘dogs’ here is not the word used to describe the wild dogs that roamed the streets. It is the word used for little pet lapdogs. What he seems to have been saying therefore is It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to their little pets. This then was a bit of affectionate banter - not an abuse. But why did Jesus talk like this to the woman? We know from the Gospels that Jesus liked talking to women and liked the company of women and indeed women were part of his retinue and catered for him and provided for him and the disciples. He was probably enjoying this woman’s company. She may well have been an attractive woman and she had enough courage to go and seek his help. His bit of banter was not demeaning or humiliating at all. It was the opposite. He was treating this woman as a one-to-one equal and lightening her burden and de-stressing the situation for her and for him. It is more likely that Jesus’ tone of voice was kindly and perhaps affectionate.

A little detail illuminates the story further. In those days, people did not use knives and forks. They ate with their fingers. They wiped their fingers on bits of bread and threw the pieces to their house pets. This capable woman replied to Jesus, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. She took Jesus on. She was not in awe of him and not afraid of him. She knew he was not humiliating her and that he intended to help her. He had not implied that non-Jews could never be helped. Indeed, he was affirming that it was the Gentiles’ turn to be helped. The child was not present so this woman had great faith that Jesus only needed to agree and say the word and her daughter would be healed. Which is what happened. For such a reply, you may go, your child is healed of her epilepsy. Her reply was one of faith and perception of Jesus’ true nature and being. She had understood what he would do for her and he did.

Scholars think that Jesus may have remained in the area of Tyre and Sidon for some weeks. He travelled in a northern curve, rather like going to Glasgow via Perth. He arrived back at the east side of the Sea of Galilee at Decapolis, close to where he had healed the demoniac of all his ills and demons. A poor soul apparently completely deaf and hence with a speaking impediment was brought to him. The text says some people brought him, perhaps his close family and friends. They begged Jesus just to touch him and heal him. Jesus did not do so immediately. He managed to get the man away from the large crowds who had gathered. I suppose he got the disciples to hold them back for a few minutes. Notice that Jesus did not say to the man “Hear and speak”. Because he couldn’t. He mimed the healing process as part of the healing. Thus he put his fingers into the man’s ears and he used spittle to anoint his tongue - not that that was where the problem was at all. He looked up to heaven in prayer asking God’s help for this outright miracle and breach of the human condition. The text says he then with a deep sigh said to him 'Ephphatha' which means 'Be opened'. What was the sigh? What did it mean? Maybe simply a signal of the channelling of healing power from heaven. Maybe just a quiet exclamation of the tension in being so close to God. Maybe an acknowledgement that the struggle against pain and suffering continued. To whom or what did he say “Be opened”. We don’t know. To the man’s mind and neurological function? To his deeper soul? To that area of the invisible person or to the faulty chemistry in his physical body? Whatever he did - worked - and much impressed those who saw it. It was no mean thing to heal such a deaf and partially dumb person - no different then as it would be today. The text says his ears were opened and his tongue was loosened. Some exceptional blockage had prevented his hearing and the consequent stress had prevented him making fully audible sounds with his voice. These actual biological conditions can be identified today.

Jesus’ sought anonymity for this man’s healing for both their sake. To give the man privacy and dignity - unlike - some brazen American evangelist-healers who used to attract great attention to supposed healings on TV and in public gatherings. And for his own sake, so that he could manage the expectations such miracles generated. The onlookers concluded He has done everything well. Some recognition and a very rare compliment - a change from the severe confrontational criticism he had received from the Jerusalem spies before he left for his holidays. 'He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak'. The key word is even. Because these were not routine happenings or healings. These were outstanding miracles of God, proof and evidence of who Jesus truly was. Such healings do occur today from time to time but you don’t hear much about them.

We can spiritualise this story and talk about our spiritual deafness being healed and our spiritual speech being liberated. These are real things for Christians. Many Christians cannot pray freely and are unable to confess Jesus as their Lord in public. They are tongue-tied and embarrassed if asked about their personal faith in Jesus Christ. As for spiritual deafness, it abounds. Isaiah said and Jesus repeated it, 'Keep on hearing but do not understand…make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull…otherwise they might hear with their ears…and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed'. Friend and fellow sinner, do not close your ears to Jesus Christ. And seek his freedom to speak up for him. And be liberated. And rejoice.

Robert Anderson 2017

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