Jesus in Mark's Gospel, Chapter 7
When the Israelites returned from Babylonian Exile, they were so committed to refraining from the idolatry their ancestors had committed by not keeping the Law of Moses, that they put a "fence" around the Law; that is they formulated rules more strictly than what came from the Law itself. They reasoned quite logically that if someone did not climb over the "fence" of stricter regulations, she or he would certainly not violate the Law. The problem was that over time that "fence" had come to be viewed as a violation of the Law itself.
Time and time again in his ministry, Jesus shows that he is quite unconcerned with adherence to that "fence," what he will refer to as the Pharisees' "traditions." The Pharisees question Jesus on this in reference to the disciples' lack of scruples in eating with "unwashed hands," that is hands that are ceremonially unclean. It is interesting to note that they do not implicate Jesus in this practice. It could be they are not-so-subtly suggesting that Jesus, as his followers' rabbi, is leading his disciples astray, which is indeed a serious charge. It may explain, at least in part, why Jesus responds to the Pharisees in anger.
The purpose of the "fence" around the Law was originally to preserve the Law, but over time it had taken its place as equal to the Law. Thus, in the eyes of Jesus, it nullified the Law given to Moses. The "fence" around the Law had come to be used to neglect the weightier matters of the Law, such as care of the orphan and the widow, the protection of the powerless and elderly parents. The "fence" that was designed to safeguard the people from idolatry, in actuality, led them into it. If the Pharisees were accusing Jesus of leading his disciples astray, Jesus countered that they, the religious leadership, were guilty of sending the entire nation of Israel over a cliff.
In majoring in the minors, the Pharisees had forgotten the true purpose of the Law of Moses; they had neglected what truly matters. The Pharisees were more concerned with ritual washings before meals and exactly what kinds of food were consumed. But for Jesus, cleanliness before God consisted not in these things, but in what came from the human heart. While human beings tend to lose their focus on what is significant, Jesus always gets to the heart of the matter. Perhaps, human beings try to avoid what is central because focusing on the peripheral is less disarming and calls for less change and less accountability.
Having declared that the heart is the heart of the matter, Jesus now demonstrates this in his ministry to a woman not of Jewish lineage. It was common in Judaism to refer to Gentiles as "dogs." In a time before canines were domesticated, dogs ran in packs; they were wild and created trouble, and searched only to fulfill their own hungers. For many Jews in Jesus' day, this was an apt description of those not descended from Abraham.
So, Jesus' response to the Syro-Phoenician woman, when she asks for healing for her daughter is not surprising in that context; what is unexpected is her response. "OK," she says, "what you say may be true, that the promises of the God of Israel are reserved first for Israel's children, but just as dogs manage to get some scraps of food reserved for the children, perhaps my daughter might receive some benefit from what is not reserved for her."
Time and time again, we find examples of persons in the Gospels, who display the kind of profound faith that surpasses those who have been entrusted with the oracles of God. Such faith from the supposed "dogs" always impressed Jesus.
News about Jesus continues to spread. Even when he heals a man with hearing and speech impediments and ordering that no one be told, the good news of what is happening cannot be reserved for just a few. How does one unable to talk, and who can now speak, keep silent about what has happened to him?
Jesus continues, as the people say, to do everything well.
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