[Commentary on Mark 7:25-37] Here, Mark answers a turning point question: is Jesus the Messiah for the Jews only, or for all people? And as Jesus quite clearly expands His ministry, we observe the reaction from the upset religious leaders, the amazed crowds, and the bewildered disciples. We learn that our job as churches is to reach out to the most humble and isolated classes of our society. What will we do to make that happen?
They were extremely astonished and said, “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark 7:37
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Dogs Under the Table
In our passage this week, a woman mentions that dogs eat the food that falls from the master’s table. That hasn’t changed in 2000 years! I’m going to guess that your class members have stories about their dogs eating food that fell from their table (and who knows what else they ate). I remember “spilling” the vegetables I didn’t want to eat at Grandma’s house so their dog would get it. I also remember a Thanksgiving meal when the chairs didn’t get pushed all the way against the table . . . and wow that dog could be quick. What’s the maddest you have ever been at your dog? What weird precautions do you have to take to make sure that your dog doesn’t eat your dinner?
[Note: this is a serious lesson. The use of the word “dog” in the passage has a serious and inflammatory cultural context (that Jesus uses in order to turn it on its head!) that we will investigate carefully. But the image of dogs eating people food is pretty universal and might be one way to kick off your discussion without being too serious.]
Your Experiences with the Blind and Deaf
There are about 1,000,000 Americans who are legally blind. This includes many elderly with macular degeneration or cataracts. Only 1 in 1,000 babies is born deaf, but at least 20% of all Americans report some amount of hearing loss (chronic ear infections, head injuries, exposure to excessive noise). Many of you have had to care for loved ones who have become hard of seeing or hearing, and you know the changes you had to make in your lifestyle to account for that. It’s not easy!
But it’s even harder for people who are born blind or deaf. I saw a statistic that said deaf children are significantly more likely to be bullied, abused, or neglected than hearing children. But this stat is astounding: 93% of the deaf in America have no contact with a church. Less than 5% of churches have a form of deaf ministry. Less than 2% of deaf people have an active relationship with Jesus. If those numbers are just close, they paint a dramatic picture of the need for blind and deaf ministry, and they highlight just how powerful it is that Luke chose to include Jesus healing a deaf man. I grew up with a number of deaf friends. We only got together a few times a year, and I only had rudimentary command of American Sign Language. I can attest that those friends felt very isolated. I didn’t appreciate my role as a “hearing” friend until much later, long after we had drifted apart. Yes, Jesus healed this man, but Jesus going out of His way to care about the man meant a lot.
This Week's Big Idea: So Much Context for Mark 6-8!
Because it’s super-interesting what Mark does in the these chapters, and because it will help your class understand the impact of our passage this week better, I would recommend taking the time to explain what we “skip” in Mark’s Gospel.
This is the only lesson we will cover in the fourth major section of Mark (what I call “Leaving Galilee”—Mark 6:14-8:30). Mark packs these chapters with dense, rapid-fire stories designed to help the reader discover (in real time, just as the disciples) exactly who Jesus is. Jesus’ focus is here on the Twelve, and He teaches them His identity, particularly in contrast to what others expect of Him. The section starts (Mark 6:14-16) with the people wondering if Jesus is Elijah or a prophet, and Herod concludes that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. It ends (Mark 8:27-30) with the disciples repeating the exact same thing, except Peter rejects that and declares that Jesus is the Christ. See the bottom of this page for even more about how much Mark accomplished in these chapters.
Mark’s comment about Herod leads him to tell the story of how Herod had John the Baptist killed (6:17-29), and that leads directly to the story of feeding the 5,000. In last week’s lesson (which we didn’t cover at FBC), Jesus sent out the Twelve to preach and perform miracles. Now, the Twelve return and tell Jesus all of the things that had happened. But they were so distracted by the multitudes of people that Jesus tried to pull them aside to a solitary place. But the people found them! Rather than be upset, Jesus had compassion on them, setting the stage for a very famous miracle (feeding the 5,000). Mark has a very specific purpose for putting this story here, right after describing Herod’s fancy banquet which resulted in John’s ignoble death: Herod, a king, entertained his powerful guests with fine food and debauchery. Jesus, the King of kings, taught His crowd of commoners and fed them with a miraculous provision of a peasant’s diet. In other words, Mark wanted to make it clear that Jesus was a king nothing at all like Herod.
Mark continues with the story of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm (6:45-52), making the point that even after what they had seen and heard, the Twelve still didn’t really understand who Jesus was. This is highlighted by the next two stories: the contrast between the common Jews who believed Jesus was a miracle man sent from God (6:53-56), and the Jewish leaders who believed that Jesus was a rabble-rouser who didn’t respect their traditions (7:1-13). The Pharisees had specifically fussed about traditions of ritual cleanliness, so Mark immediately follows with Jesus explaining that what makes a man “unclean” is what is on the inside, not what is on the outside (7:14-23). No matter how well you wash, if your heart is full of evil, you are unclean.
Mark demonstrates that with the two stories in our passage this week. First, the Syrophoenician woman in the Gentile region of Tyre. Pharisee law said that any association with a Gentile (the woman was a Gentile) made a Jew unclean. Second, the deaf man in the Gentile region of Decapolis. In other words, here is another “unclean” Gentile that Jesus made physical contact with. How does the story end? With the common people telling everybody about how amazing Jesus is.
Mark then hammers this home with another story of a miraculous feeding (of 4,000; 8:1-10)). (Note that some skeptics have tried to say that there was only one such feeding, and Mark mistakenly wrote it twice; just know that there are many reasons—including Jesus’ own words—to believe that these were two separate events.) This is followed by another conflict with Pharisees (8:11-13). This time the focus is on “bread” as a symbol of spiritual understanding. Jesus has been performing miracles of “opening eyes” and “opening ears” and He has been “feeding bread”, but now the disciples must decide if they will truly eat of His bread, or if they will be corrupted by the “yeast” of the false teachings of the Jewish leaders (8:14-21). The Mark gives one last story of Jesus healing a blind man (8:22-26), followed by the critical transition story of Peter finally declaring that Jesus is the Christ.
The Specific Context in Mark
All of that said, here is what you would want to clarify to your class about the context. In this section, we focus on three groups of people: the Jewish leaders (who do not trust or believe in Jesus), the common people (who are amazed by Jesus and love His miracles), and the Twelve (who are supposed to be learning what it means to follow Jesus). For the most part, the leaders and the commoners are on the outside—they primarily worry about how Jesus’ actions affect them (for good or ill). As readers, we are supposed to put ourselves in the place of the Twelve—what are we going to do with the information we are learning? What are we going to believe? Who are we going to be influenced by? Whose teachings are we going to keep?
Will we be stuck on the past and tradition? Will we be absorbed by what we can get out of Jesus? Or will we choose to follow Jesus and serve Him as Lord and God?
See how awesome this section is?
Brief Aside: Jesus' Travels
This map might help your class see how these events fit together. Jews lived in the shaded region labeled Galilee. Along the coast, and in the Decapolis, was where Gentiles lived. (Even then, there were more Gentiles in Israel than we might think.) In our section of Mark, Jesus leaves the area of the Sea of Galilee and travels to Tyre and Sidon (Sidon would be close to Tyre on the map). Then He crosses all the way back south through Galilee to Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon were famous for their sinfulness, but Jesus made a point to say that those people were more likely to repent than the Jews in a place like Bethsaida (Luke 10), proving it through His ministry there. The very circuitous route from Sidon to Decapolis has left skeptics complaining that Mark didn’t know what he was talking about. Well, Mark didn’t say how long it took for Jesus to make the trip, or if Jesus did a number of other things on the way. Mark was simply emphasizing Jesus’ ministry in Gentile areas; at no point did he imply that Jesus somehow “snuck” through Galilee without talking to anyone. It just wasn’t a part of Mark’s tight narrative to describe anything in between.
Part 1: The Humble (Mark 7:25-30)
Instead, immediately after hearing about him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she was asking him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, because it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she replied to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “Because of this reply, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” When she went back to her home, she found her child lying on the bed, and the demon was gone.
Lifeway skips the verse that says that Jesus was apparently trying to be anonymous in Tyre. He went to Tyre to escape the crowds and either rest or spend time with His disciples
(or both). But Jesus’ reputation had spread even here, and so there would be no rest.
I know that the word “Syrophoenician” is daunting. Phoenicia is modern Lebanon; it was a Gentile country that sat between Galilee and the Mediterranean (Tyre was in Phoenicia). But Phoenicia was a part of the larger Roman province of Syria. So all the term means is that the woman was a native of the region. Matthew called her a “Canaanite”, which just called attention to the fact that her people had been anti-Jewish idolaters (would Jesus minister to a Canaanite??). The woman’s daughter had an “unclean spirit”, which Mark explains (to his Roman audience) meant she was possessed by a demon. I don’t think you have time to go into the phenomenon of demon possession this week, so suffice it to say that when Jesus
walked on the earth, Satan tested His power at every turn, maybe even trying to over-
whelm Him and exhaust Him with encounters like this one.
Anyway, this woman begged Jesus to cast out the demon, and this leads to the major question at this turning point in Mark: is Jesus the Messiah for the Jews only, or for all people? Jesus Himself plays up this question with His strange reaction—”it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. If you’re like me, that took you aback. It even sounds like an insult, doesn’t it? Of course, we know that Jesus would insult anyone in that way, so how do we understand this line?
First, note that Jesus didn’t use the completely pejorative form of the word (see below). Second, note that it was common knowledge that Jews thought of Gentiles as “dogs”. Jesus was prodding her with a word she probably expected from a Jew. Third, note that Jesus said a common proverb, something that everyone knew and believed. In other words, we shouldn’t think of this as an insult. Rather, Jesus was simply testing the woman’s resolve—and the reader’s—by forcing us to take the question seriously: would the Messiah serve Jews only? Jewish readers may have reacted with “You tell her, Jesus!” while Roman readers probably joined the woman in her plea “Please help her!”
Do you see how the tension is ratcheted so cleanly in this passage? And the woman cuts through it. The long and short of her response is “I’m not asking you to neglect the Jews; I simply know that You have more than enough power and authority to go around, even to the Gentiles”. Note that she calls Jesus “Lord”. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that anyone calls Jesus “Lord”! It was the correct answer—one that underscored the woman’s faith in God and her understanding of the special role the Jews played in God’s kingdom. She just wanted her daughter healed. And by granting it (at this point in Mark’s Gospel), Jesus made it clear to everyone that He came for Jews first, but not for Jews only. Here’s an easy way you can connect this with Steve Parr’s message from last Sunday: our first priority as a church will be to share the gospel with and disciple our own children in our church, but
they are not our only priority. We will also leave room and time and energy for the children who are not a part of our church (yet).
Aside: Dogs in the New Testament
Modern readers seem to have one of two extreme images of “dogs”: the wonderful, domestic dog that many of us share our homes with, or the wild pack dogs like jackals or hyenas. You might be surprised to learn that there is truth in both when it comes to ancient Israel. Dogs were considered “unclean” (could not be eaten or used in sacrifices), and many were wild scavengers (Ps 22). However, dogs were used as watchdogs, both for herds (Isa 56:10) and houses (Ex 11:7). Egyptians kept them as pets. Some were trained to hunt (Ps 22:16). But throughout the Bible, Jews used the term “dog” as an insult for Gentiles or wicked people in general (Isa 56:10). Paul would turn the tables and call his Judaizing opponents “dogs” (Phil 3:2) as the ultimate insult.
However, Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman would have been in Greek, not Hebrew (or Aramaic). Greeks did not despise dogs; their word for “hunter” was literally “leader of dogs”. Jews used the usual term for a dog “kuon” to describe the despised critter. But the Greeks had a diminutive form of the word, “kunarion”, which referred to a puppy or a house dog. That’s the word Jesus used with the woman, and there’s no reason to believe that Jesus wasn’t fluent in Greek as well as Hebrew and Aramaic, so He would have been quite careful in His choice of words.
Part 2: The Outsider (Mark 7:31-35)
Again, leaving the region of Tyre, he went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had difficulty speaking and begged Jesus to lay his hand on him. So he took him away from the crowd in private. After putting his fingers in the man’s ears and spitting, he touched his tongue. Looking up to heaven, he sighed deeply and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”). Immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was loosened, and he began to speak clearly.
Of course there’s more you could say about the previous event, but there’s a lot left to cover! Jesus travels from one Gentile region to another. “Decapolis” means “ten cities”; it was a confederation of Gentile cities/towns that bordered Galilee (plenty of Jews lived there, but the region was predominantly Gentile). Here, just as in Tyre, the Gentiles came to Him with their own needs. One man was deaf, which (if you know anyone who is deaf) hindered his ability to communicate verbally clearly (because he could not hear what “proper pronunciation” was). Your leader guide highlights the fact that this isolated him, making him an outsider. Yes, but I don’t think that’s really the point here. After all, he had friends who brought him to Jesus! Rather, it’s the nature of the miracle that makes Mark’s point. Following this event, Mark records another feeding miracle (which makes the Pharisee’s request for a miraculous sign look ridiculous) followed by a warning about the Pharisees. After that, Jesus gives a blind man sight. Catch that? Before Jesus’ encounter with the unbelieving Pharisees, Jesus helps a deaf man hear. After, Jesus helps a blind man see. Jesus is literally opening eyes and ears, and yet the Pharisees refuse to see or hear.
Mark is the only Gospel to record this particular miracle. The details are odd. Jesus put His fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue (it reminds us of how He healed the blind man in John 9) Why? He clearly didn’t need to in order to heal the man. It seems most likely that Jesus was simply demonstrating His empathy for the man (personal touch goes a long way). Mark clarifies that with the comment about “sighed deeply”, a Greek word that refers to an intense, personal reaction. And then Jesus speaks in Aramaic, the language of the region (which Mark translated for his Roman audience). In the previous miracle, Jesus “healed” in Greek; here He does so in Aramaic. The picture is becoming clear: Jesus came for all people of all languages. The miracle was not only that Jesus opened the man’s ears, but He also gave the man complete faculty of speech. We don’t know how long the man had been deaf, but we do know that a person does not simply start speaking clearly. Jesus gave the man’s brain the ability to process his thoughts and turn them into intelligible language.
Aside on Aramaic Words
We’ve already encountered the Aramaic language in Mark: “Talitha koum”/”little girl, get up”, and “Boanerges”/”Sons of thunder”. There are a few other such words in the Bible: “raca”/”you fool”, “rabboni”/”teacher”, “hosanna”/”Lord, save”, and “maranatha”/”Lord, come”. Some Aramaic words sound similar to Hebrew: “Abba”, and “Eloi, eloi lema sabachthani”. What would be the point of quoting Jesus in Aramaic? I’ve mentioned how huge an impact some of the events left on the disciples, making them want to record certain details precisely. But more than that, it simply proves that Jesus really, truly lived in a specific cultural context.
Part 3: Exuberant (Mark 7:36-37)
He ordered them to tell no one, but the more he ordered them, the more they proclaimed it. They were extremely astonished and said, “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
And then then passage ends with another example of this “Messianic secret” I’ve mentioned a few times. Jesus didn’t want people proclaiming Him as the Messiah—yet. Of course, the more He told people not to say anything, the more they said things (have you had an experience like that as a parent?). On the one hand, He did want to “control the narrative”, as it were, of Him just being a miracle worker. On the other hand, His disciples weren’t ready for a full-blown conflict with the Jewish and Roman authorities. All in good time.
On the part of the people, though, how could you not tell everybody about the amazing things Jesus had done in your region? They weren’t trying to be disobedient; they were unable to stay silent. Isn’t that how our own evangelism should work? Jesus has done greater things in and through us than we could ever have hoped; how could we not “testify”? So here’s a discussion topic you could close with: what parts of your salvation testimony (or your ongoing walk with Jesus) do you get most excited about? What parts of your testimony have been the most encouraging to the people who have heard them? Help one another in your class “workshop” explaining those parts of your testimony until you can say them quickly and confidently.
Your leader guide also recommends a discussion about community outsiders, particularly those with some kind of disability that isolates them (like blindness or deafness). If someone from your class has experience with those communities, it would be great for church members to become aware of how churches can be more welcoming and hospitable to people with different physical needs. And of course, there are many different kinds of “outsiders” in a community, and each one of them needs to be reached with the gospel. What can your Sunday School class do to make a difference in one of those groups? What changes might you have to make in how you do things to better connect with those far from Jesus?
A Glimpse into Mark: 6:31-7:37 vs. 8:1-8:30
The structure of Mark is amazing when you get a chance to look at it carefully. This fourth section of Mark (“Leaving Galilee” 6:14-8:30) is carefully doubled:
The setting: Who is Jesus? (6:14-29)
What the people think; what Herod thinks
Jesus feeds a multitude 1st: 6:31-44 2nd: 8:1-9
Crossing the sea 1st: 6:45-56 2nd: 8:10
The first time, Jesus calms the storm; also, more healings reported
Conflict with Pharisees 1st: 7:1-23 2nd: 8:11-13
The first time, it’s about “unclean”; Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and tells the people that “unclean” is about what’s inside;
The second time, it’s about “signs”; Jesus rebukes them again
Conversation about bread 1st: 7:24-30 2nd: 8:13-21
The first time, it’s the woman asking for “crumbs” for her daughter;
The second time, it’s Jesus warning the Twelve about bad yeast
Healing 1st: 7:31-36 2nd: 8:22-26
The first time, it’s a deaf man; the second time, it’s a blind man
Confession of faith 1st: 7:37 2nd: 8:27-30
The first time, it’s “He has done everything well”;
The second time, it’s “You are the Christ”
Both sections together tell a compelling story of who Jesus is and is not, the second section amplifying and completing the first.