Tuesday, August 6, 2019

According to Mark: Universal Soul Care

For this entry in our study of the second gospel, we will be looking at Mark 7:1–8:21. We saw last time that Jesus calls His followers to look to Him for provision. As Mark moves forward with his narrative, he builds on this by developing the theme that Jesus provides for all people, not just for the Jewish nation of which He was a part.

Traditions vs. Truth

The stage is set for this by what we find in vv. 1–23, another conflict with the religious authorities of Judaism. The Pharisees notice that Jesus’ disciples do not engage in ritual hand washing before eating. It’s worth pointing out this is not a hygiene issue, which is more our modern view of things. Rather, it was a matter of religious purity. The washing was meant to symbolize the removal of sin and the defiling elements of the world. It is important to recognize, as the Pharisees say themselves, that this was not a matter of the Mosaic law. Hand washing before eating was not a commandment of God. It was a rabbinic regulation aimed at making the law of God easier to follow.

As far as Jesus is concerned, though, they have elevated the former over the latter. Not just over it, but in fact replacing it. He denounces them with the words of the prophet Isaiah (Is. 29:13) and then illustrates their wrongdoing with reference to the 5th Commandment (Ex. 20:12). The rabbinical tradition had developed this concept of corban, an oath of dedication in which a person offered some or all of his belongings to the service of the Temple.

As an oath sworn to the Lord, it had to be kept (Num. 30:2). However, this was ripe for abuse, especially because the oath was similar to a will. You did not have to turn everything over immediately, and could use it however you saw fit until you died. That meant you could apply the oath selectively. A grown child could have needy parents who turned to him for support, but he could claim to have dedicated his belongings to God as a way to skirt God’s commandment to honor his parents. This is not what the law on oaths was intended to do. It was a human invention for making evil out of good. Religion has a tendency to do that when we place traditions over truth.

A New Way

Jesus says all of this in an essentially private setting, but then he gathers a crowd in order to make a final point. It is here that He really takes things in a new direction. Rather than merely challenging a tradition on which not even all Pharisees agreed (some argued like Jesus that corban could not be used as an excuse to set aside other commandments), Jesus makes a statement in v. 15 that seems to challenge the law itself.

Leviticus 11 has a long list of what animals the Israelites could and could not eat. To eat any of the forbidden animals would make one ceremonially unclean. These were not merely the teachings of a religious authority figure. They are the direct commandments of God. But here in Mark 7, Jesus says that they are no longer controlling. How can that be?

First of all, because of His larger point. We all have to watch what we eat. Jesus was not instructing us to be careless. He is not saying we can eat as much unhealthy food as we want, let alone that we can eat anything rotten or poisonous. Rather, He is pointing out the dangers of legalism. Holiness does not come from following the rules and forcing others to follow them. It comes from desiring to know God and to be like Him. Our goal should be to have His heart, not play a part.

Even so, it is unavoidable to see this as Jesus abrogating the law. He is setting it aside because He has the authority to do so. It served its purpose as a model for holiness. Now, however, He has come to fulfill true holiness and offer it to all those who have faith in Him. The old is passing away. New wine is being poured into new wineskins (Mark 2:22).

More Than Table Scraps 

That is what Mark goes on to describe in the rest of this passage. Jesus’ conflict with Judaism has reached an impasse, so He begins to move among the Gentiles. First, He performs an exorcism in Tyre (which is in modern-day Lebanon). It is another miracle that Jesus performs at a distance with no effort, so the most striking part is the exchange that occurs. A poor woman comes looking for help, and Jesus does not seem to respond with His trademark compassion. Instead, He makes a fairly insulting comment about her Gentile—and therefore pagan—heritage. Calling her a dog is literally and metaphorically dehumanizing.

The woman does not take offense, however. Instead, she owns the epithet and uses it to her advantage. Should we take this to mean that she bested Jesus in a debate? Then it would not make sense for Mark to include it, because Mark’s whole point is to show Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Jesus was not being cruel, and He was not outsmarted. He was soliciting a response. This woman came to Him to release her daughter from demonic oppression because she had nowhere else to turn. Jesus wanted her to acknowledge that there could not be anywhere else to turn.

He was not just one among many choices. His gospel was the only one for all people. It went to the Jews first because they were the chosen people of God (Rom. 1:16). But it also belonged to everyone. By admitting this, the Gentile woman showed more faith and spiritual sensitivity than the religious authorities of Judaism. That was why Jesus fulfilled her request. It proved the universality of His mission.

Healing for Anyone

This continues into the next story. Jesus travels to the Decapolis, a Gentile region on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The deaf and mute man He heals here is another non-Jew to whom the kingdom of God has come. It happens in an odd way, though, I’ll admit. Your guess is as good as mine as to why Jesus performed the miracle this way, or why Mark recorded it all. Maybe it had something to do with making it clear to the man that Jesus had come to help, since there was no way to tell him. I don’t know. What I do know is that Jesus had the power to make “the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37).

That statement is far more stunning than would have been realized by the Gentile people who made it. It reflects two passages out of the Old Testament. The first is Ex. 4:10–12. When Moses was afraid to be the Lord’s prophet and attempted to excuse himself on the basis of his poor speaking voice, God responded,

Who placed a mouth on humans? Who makes a person mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say.

It is the Lord who makes all of us, and who has the power to heal us in accordance with His purposes. The power of Christ identifies Him with God. Furthermore, this is related to Is. 35:5–6, which says,

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then the lame will leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy.

This passage is part of a prophecy promising the restoration of creation in God’s kingdom at the end of time. With His miracles, Jesus is foreshadowing that moment and announcing the inauguration of that kingdom in Himself. The healing is miraculous, but even more marvelous is the fact that the spiritually deaf can hear from God when they offer their attention to the salvation Christ brings. And again, this is the grace offered to everyone. It is not exclusively for Jewish people, or religious people, or wealthy people. It is for all people.

Provision for All

Mark completes this thought with the second miraculous meal of the book. Some scholars believe the feeding of the 4,000 is simply a restatement of the feeding of the 5,000, but there is more than enough evidence to conclude otherwise. It occurs in a different context (Gentile instead of Jewish), after a longer period of time away from the market (three days instead of one afternoon), for a smaller group (4,000 individuals rather than the roughly 15,000 the first time) and with a different amount of leftovers (7 basketfuls instead of 12). The only real grounds for challenging its validity is the response of the disciples. How, after seeing the first miracle, could they question the possibility of this one?

We will look at that in a bit, but let’s first take a moment to once again appreciate the all-encompassing nature of what Jesus is doing. He has compassion on a Gentile crowd and includes them in His provision. And these were people who had previously rejected Him. If the Decapolis sounds familiar, it is because that was the region in which Jesus drove out the Legion (Mark. 5:1–20). At their fear resulting from the exorcism, the people had begged Jesus to leave. The only person on his side was the man he had rescued. Jesus had told him to proclaim what the Lord had done for him. Obviously, his mission was successful, considering how many people now came to be healed and taught by the Lord. Jesus gave them this second chance, and they took it after being able to reflect on the magnitude of His compassion. It was not too late.

Refusing to See

For some, however, it is too late. They take their stand against the Lord and are unwilling to be shaken from it no matter what they see. That is what happens in Mark 8:10–13. After this great success among the Gentiles, Jesus returns to Jewish regions by traveling to the western side of the Sea of Galilee. Mark presents it as though Jesus barely gets one foot out of the boat before the Pharisees come running to the shore to demand a sign from Him. Apparently, the constant miracles verifying His deity were not enough. But He has had enough. He “nopes” out of there and immediately heads back to the other side of the sea, only stopping long enough to tell His adversaries that they are not getting any more out of Him.

There’s a great detail here that’s too good not to share, too. We’re separated by a vast gap of time and language from the days of Jesus, so some things get lost in translation. In v. 12, the English says, “no sign will be given to this generation.” But if the Greek is translated more literally, it says, “If a sign is given to this generation…” Ancient Greek did not have an ellipsis, but the syntax makes it clear that we have been given an incomplete thought. It is an unfinished curse. Jesus is essentially saying, “If you people get the sign you want, then may God strike me dead.” His frustration with their deafness is palpable.

The Poison of Pride

And it carries over into our last section for today. While on their way to get away, Jesus and His disciples were obviously in a hurry. So much of one, in fact, that they forgot to take any food. The Lord, still thinking back to His confrontation with the Pharisees, warns his friends not to be like them. The disciples, still thinking about not having a chance to get to the market, are focused on their stomachs.

It really is stunning. They’ve seen Jesus feed 15,000 people at one time and 4,000 at another, so it is not like scarcity of food is an issue in that moment. More importantly, they have heard Him explain how food pales in comparison to godliness. Coupled with that, they have watched Him calm the very waters they are riding over, twice, and after having walked on it on one of those occasions. They should take His authority seriously, but still they do not understand.

Their deafness almost matches the Pharisees. That was how they did not know what Jesus was going to do for the 4,000. They were not willing to believe that it could happen again, especially for Gentiles. Over and over they miss the point. The leaven of the Pharisees and Herod has nothing to do with bread. It has to do with willful refusal. It is an infection, and one that quickly spreads. If the disciples harden their hearts, they will join them.

How different are we? Do we really understand what God is doing? Do we even understand the things He has shown us? I know I don’t always. It is so easy to lose sight and to be overcome by life’s mundane concerns, or by its desires. But even though Jesus was perturbed with the disciples, He did not give up on them. That was why He asked the questions He did, giving them the chance to move forward rather than falling away. And it is what He still does for us. We have to listen to Him.

Looking back at the entirety of Mark 7:1–8:21, we see the ways that Jesus is turning the world on its head. The old is giving way to the new. True holiness supplants laws and traditions. Insiders are being shut out as they ignore promises being fulfilled, and outsiders are being let in as they respond to grace. Things are not always clear, but they are sounding clearer to those who want to hear. And at every step, Jesus is preeminent. He still is. When we see Him for who He is, experiencing His welcome and His goodness, we have all we need.

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