I am a bit puzzled by the editing of the Lectionary, which assigns next Sunday’s Gospel reading as Mark 7:31-37. The Lectionary passes over one of the most engaging and theologically rich encounters of Jesus’ healing mission, Mark 7:24-30, and this text deserves some comment. The absent episode describes the beginning of Jesus’ trip out of Jewish territory to the District of Tyre. All of my commentaries agree that one of the prime purposes of this excursion was peace and relaxation, probably a good thing after last Sunday’s stormy encounter about hand washing and the Spirit of the Law. However, it is also true that the next several episodes continue to occur in Gentile territory, and the reader can hardly miss the contrast between the popularity of Jesus in pagan regions and the animosity he was encountering among his own people.
Mark’s primary audience, of course, is not Jewish, and Chapter 7 also represents something of an explanation of how a Jewish Savior would be interested in the welfare of Gentiles. In the first leg of the trip, not proclaimed in the Sunday cycle, Jesus is attempting to rest, apparently, in a private home when he is “discovered,” and among his admirers is a woman with a daughter who is possessed by a demon. Mark reports that she is a Greek Syrophoenician, which certainly puts her outside the pale of the children of Abraham, religiously and geographically. She is about as pagan as one can be, and Mark trumpets this fact. Jesus is rather to the point, refusing the miracle on the grounds that the children should be fed first, and that it is wrong to take their food and throw it to the dogs. It is helpful here to remember that among Jews of the time the word “dog” was a pejorative term for pagans. So the phrase should read, essentially, that it is wrong to assist pagans before the Children of Israel have been tended to.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary (p. 612) does raise an interesting translation point. The word for “dog” used in Mark is best translated as “puppies.” I had never read that before, but in the overall story this “softening” makes sense, since Mark’s readers, after all, are Gentiles. (Francis Moloney, p. 147 n151, stoutly disagrees with this interpretation, however.) Whatever the terminology, this woman, whose faith equals that of her counterpart with the uterine hemorrhaging a few chapters back, delivers one of the great comeback lines in all of literature: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” The healing, undertaken at long distance, is actually something of an afterthought, as Mark may have very well intended.
Interestingly, there are several Gospel narratives where Gentiles make remarkable professions of faith. The Roman Centurion, for example, states to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel that he need “but say the word and my servant shall be healed,” a phrase which of course has passed into the very text of the Communion rite of the Mass. Equally striking is Mark’s crucifixion scene, where only a Roman soldier is moved to say that “this is indeed the Son of God.” The Gospel narrative that is proclaimed next Sunday continues in this vein in that another pagan seeks healing through surrogates, but here we have another baffling, one might say almost scandalous twist.
In Sunday’s reading Jesus has continued his sojourn through pagan territory into the district of the Decapolis or “ten cities.” A group of people bring to Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment. Jesus then proceeds with what seems to the western eye as a very peculiar style of healing, involving a lot of touching and spitting and groaning. It may help to recall that this is not the only miracle healing involving spit; Mark has another in 8:23, and John in 9:6. Moloney cites Roman authors Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius as mentioning the use of spittle among healers of the day. What is disconcerting to some readers today is the thought that Jesus would use a standard pagan healing ritual.
The fact is that Jesus performed many of his miracles in absentia or without much fanfare at all. Of the three episodes where Jesus uses a spitting “ritual,” one occurs in pagan territory. Commentators generally explain the use of spittle as a common component among healers, but it is clearly quite rare for Jesus. The better question is why here, in the region of the Ten Cities? There may be something of a “when in Rome…” element here, but our attention is better directed to the response of the witnesses. Jesus orders them to say nothing of this miracle to anyone, lest people look upon him as just another magician/healer. Instead, they proclaimed it all the more. Mark goes to the trouble of recording what they were proclaiming: “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” This is a direct quote from Isaiah 35: 5-6, an apocalyptic tract which looks forward to the coming of the Messiah. That a Gentile crowd should be saluting Jesus in the language of a Jewish prophet as the one who is to come is quite stunning, when you get down to it.
That this miracle was performed in part for the disciples cannot be doubted. The Apostles have a hard time of it in Mark, and commentators agree that Jesus was worried about them. That this miracle and the spontaneous messianic calls from the Decapolis citizenry had an impact is not in doubt. For in the very next chapter of Mark we have Peter’s famous confession of faith: “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) One wonders if the entire sojourn out of Israel had a twin motivation: to strengthen the resolve of the Twelve, and later in the retelling to assure the Gentiles that they indeed belong among the children of the promise. The “puppies” had indeed found a worthy home and a good master.