In the lectionary Gospel reading for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary time (Mark 7:24-37), we have two very different healing stories. What unites them is that they both happen as Jesus and his friends are on the same travel itinerary through Tyre, Sidon, and the Decapolis.
Mysteries in Mark 7:24-37
There are a number of things I find intriguing in this passage. There are mysteries here, if you will, of very different kinds.
Mystery 1: Jesus doesn’t explain his travel plans
It is a strange itinerary. Tyre is on the Mediterranean coast, north of Galilee. So it is no surprise he met a Syrophoenecian woman there — maps intending to portray the first century landscape show it to be in the province of “Phoenecia” or “Phoenecia Syria.”
Mark notes his route from there was
by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis” (Mark 7:31 NRSV)
But that is weird: Sidon is further North on the coast, while Galilee is to Tyre’s Southeast, with the Decapolis on the far Eastern side of the lake. That route meant miles and river crossings in the wrong direction.
So Jesus is doing the grand tour, without any explanation by Mark of what he was doing.
I’d say that’s the real mystery here. Why was Jesus there? What was Jesus thinking? It looks like he was reaching out to the Gentiles, spending time in their territories on the sly. But that sort of adds to the other mysteries in the passage.
Mystery 2: Jesus tried hard to fly under the radar
In verses 24 and 36 Jesus makes a point of trying to stay out of the public eye — which seems odd if he was in Tyre and the Decapolis to reach the Gentiles.
- When he went to Tyre, he actually tried to hide in someone’s house.
- Then in the Decapolis, after healing the man who could neither hear nor speak, he told him not to tell anybody about it.
You’ll find scholarly discussions of this kind of thing under the category “The Messianic Secret”: Jesus, in Mark, made a big secret of his identity as the Messiah. It isn’t my field, but two fairly straightforward motivations explain at least most of the relevant passages.
(A) In some passages (not this one) he’s trying to keep the demons from praising him as Messiah.
- That’s like back in Middle School, when you didn’t want attention from the uncool kids.
- Or if you get hauled into court you don’t want a convicted criminal to testify to your character.
Jesus wants believable witnesses and he doesn’t need bad press. Everybody knows the demons are trouble, so it’s best to keep them quiet.
(B) In many passages (this one included), he’s trying to avoid getting worked to a nubbin by the demands of the crowd.
Every time he goes someplace there is a crowd of people who rush ahead to wait for him. He heals “all their diseases” but they just never stop. So sometimes he asks people, begs them, not to tell what he has done for them.
This is like being that woman who won the Lotto and wanted to stay anonymous.
Sure, she wanted to do generous things for some people. But she definitely didn’t want the word to get out. Even if she did nothing to help anybody with the money, she was going to have a lot of random calls, emails, and visits from long lost friends and relatives hoping for a hand out.
Jesus plays down his identity and his gifts so that he doesn’t get trampled to death by a needy crowd.
Mystery 3: Jesus was kind of rude to a woman in Tyre
But here, outside of Gentile territory, maybe another explanation is worth considering: Jesus didn’t come, first of all, to be their Messiah. He was the Messiah promised to the Jews. Later, with that work done, the Good News would be that he is the savior of all.
He’s not there to gain followers. He’s just scoping out the territory.
That seems to be Jesus’ reasoning when he replies to the Syrophoenecian woman. In Tyre, a local woman hears rumors of Jesus’ healing ability. She seeks him out asking for help. Jesus puts her off, comparing her to a dog begging for the children’s food.
Yikes! That’s just rude.
Now before we think this is totally out of character, remember that Jesus called other people names from time to time. The Pharisees, for instance, were “white-washed tombs” (Matt. 23:27).
Maybe what we need to do is revise our preconceptions about what Jesus is like. If you really comb the Gospels, you can find all kinds of times where Jesus did not seem to strive for niceness. He strove to be clear and honest, on the way to loving people into the kingdom.
But what does the insult mean? He’s saying he came to Israel, not to the Gentiles.
The story takes a surprising turn though: As they say,
…but she persisted.”
The woman takes Jesus’ rebuff and turn it into an argument for him to help her anyway:
Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28 NRSV)
And Jesus LOVES it!
I picture a big grin sneaking onto his face, and a twinkle in his eye.
For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29 NRSV)
It is definitely hard to understand Jesus’ rudeness.
And this is certainly not what I’ll recommend to my kids when I suggest they imitate Jesus.
But it helps me to think of the emotions that make sense of the dialogue.
Scripture is almost always very lean in its story telling. It is often more like an outline to a story, notes to the preacher, who will tell the story in a fuller way.
Mystery 4: Jesus heals a deaf man
There is a fourth, more modern mystery as well. In the second story Jesus heals a man who cannot hear or speak.
Surely in New Testament times this would be unquestionably wonderful. In our times it is not so clear cut.
Today, since the rise of American Sign Language, the Deaf community is a culture of its own.
- Even if the Deaf do not hear words with their ears or speak words with their mouths, they have a language.
- And they have a vast amount in common with each other.
- Deafness creates many shared struggles and much shared experience.
- And Deafness created the language with which the members of the community share those experiences and support each other.
- There are Deaf social clubs and Deaf churches (though not everywhere by any means).
Here’s the thing: If Jesus were to come to a Deaf person today and offer to give them hearing, they might not take it.
They might hold back because to lose their Deafness would estrange them from their community — even from their church.
That often doesn’t make sense to a hearing person.
But if you know a Deaf person, someone whose primary communication is in American Sign Language, ask them: would they want to be healed of their inability to hear? Would this be “healing” or “crippling”?
This modern situation is worth pondering. What needs healing from Jesus depends on who you are, where you are, when you are.
I suspect if we are to be Jesus’ hands and feet, doing Jesus’ will in the world, we will need to think hard — and maybe listen hard — for what people want to be healed.
My Monday Meditations are my personal explorations of the Gospel text assigned for the coming Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. I don’t claim to reach the bottom of the text, or to have the final word. But I offer them to you, whether for devotional reflection or to spark thoughts in your sermon preparation.
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