Breaking Human Traditions, 1-13

7:1 Now the Pharisees and some of the experts in the law who came from Jerusalem gathered around him. 7:2 And they saw that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their bread with unclean hands, that is, unwashed.

Mk 7:1–23 = Mt 15:1–20

Here is another fact-finding (or, rather fault-finding) investigation (see Mk 3:22) of what Jesus was getting up to.  It is an indication both of his increasing fame and the Jews’ increasing concerns.  This enquiry is biased and fault-finding from the start.

On fault-finding

It was said of certain Scottish Christians, that they went to church not to hear the Gospel being preached, but to hear if the Gospel was being preached.

Misplaced zeal.  ‘These Pharisees and scribes with whom he had this argument, are said to come from Jerusalem down to Galilee – fourscore or a hundred miles, to pick quarrels with our Saviour there, where they supposed him to have the greatest interest and reputation. Had they come so far to be taught by him, their zeal had been commendable; but to come so far to oppose him, and to check the progress of his gospel, was great wickedness.’ (MHC)

Teachers of the law = scribes.

Hendriksen summarises the contrasts between these Jewish leaders and Jesus:- ‘His humility (Lk 22:27) contrasted sharply with their pomposity (Mt 23:5-7); his sincerity (Jn 8:46), with their hypocrisy (Mk 7:6); his sympathy (Mk 6:34), with their cruelty (Mt 23:14). To a considerable extent their “religion” was activity in the interest of self (Mt 6:2, 5, 16); his ministry was a sacrifice in the interest of others (Mk 10:45) and to the glory of the Father (Jn 17:1, 4).’

This is not the only time that Jesus is criticised indirectly, because of the behaviour of his disciples.  See Mk 2:18, 24.

The hand-washing referred to here has nothing to do with hygiene, nor was it required by the Law of Moses.  It was ritual washing prescribed by the oral traditions of which the scribes and Pharisees were the custodians.  Such rituals may well have functioned as ‘boundary-markers’ distinguishing Jews from the Gentiles.  But they hardly fit into E.P. Sanders’ category of ‘covenantal nomism’, for they do not derive from the Mosaic Law.

Ryle remarks that we have here evidence of the decay into which the Jewish religion had fallen, at the time of Jesus.  ‘From the religion of the books of Deuteronomy and Psalms, to the religion of washing hands, and pots, and cups, how great was the fall!’  Ryle adds, ‘There are branches of the Church of Christ at this day in which the Scriptures are never read, and the Gospel never preached, – branches in which the only religion now remaining consists in using a few unmeaning forms and keeping certain man-made fasts and feasts, – branches which began well, like the Jewish Church, and like the Jewish Church have now fallen into utter barrenness and decay.’

7:3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they perform a ritual washing, holding fast to the tradition of the elders. 7:4 And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. They hold fast to many other traditions: the washing of cups, pots, kettles, and dining couches.)

The Pharisees and all the Jews – Mark is explaining for the benefit of his Gentile readers what was general Jewish practice.  The common people – the so-called ‘sinners’ were not careful about ritual cleanness.  Mark is referring to ‘the Jews generally’.

The tradition of the elders – What was being questioned was a matter of ritual not drawn from the Torah, but from the traditions that had grown up around the law.  Ex 30:19; 40:13 required priests to wash their hands and feet before entering the Tabernacle.  But this was vastly expanded over time so that ordinary Jews applied the purity laws to their own daily routines of praying and eating.  As Lane remarks, there was something potentially noble about this – an attempt to recognise ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and a desire to sanctify all aspects of daily life.

We could say many positive things about the scribes and Pharisees – not only their zeal and singlemindedness, but also their determination to live out their religion in everyday life.

7:5 The Pharisees and the experts in the law asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with unwashed hands?”

“The tradition of the elders” was a vast system of interpretation and application of the law.  It had developed in order to cover virtually every aspect of personal and corporate life, and was safeguarded, in oral form, by the scribes.

7:6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me.
7:7 They worship me in vain,
teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’
7:8 Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition.”

‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ – The quote is from Isaiah 29:13.  We do well to remember this in both our public worship.  We must not, as Ryle puts it, take our bodies to church but leave our hearts at home.  Our bowed heads, serious expressions, and dutiful responses may impress other people, but they do not impress God, who looks upon the heart.  And in our private devotions, too, let us remember that God does not regard the length or fluency of our prayers, but their heartfelt sincerity.

All of this is a long way from true, heartfelt worship.  Archbishop William Temple  defined such worship as follows:-

‘To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.’

‘We need to listen again to the biblical criticism of religion.  No book not even by Marx and his followers, is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible.  The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries BC were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of Israelite worship.  Jesus then applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day…And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to us and our churches today.  Too much of our worship is ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear, religion without God.’ (Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 228)

‘God wants us to give him our hearts, and not just our lip service. We believe in the heart, (Rom 10:9-10) love from the heart, (Mt 22:37) sing from the heart, (Col 3:16) obey from the heart, (Rom 6:17; Eph 6:6) and give from the heart.’ (2 Cor 9:7) (Wiersbe)

“You hypocrites” – This is the only place in Mark where this term is used.  It is used three times in Luke and yet more times in Matthew.  ‘The hypocrite is the man who hides or tries to hide his real intentions under (hypo) a mask of simulated virtue.’ (Hendriksen)

Why does Jesus react so strongly?  ‘It is because he sees, in their attitude, a fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and a vindication of the authority of the very Scripture upon which they should have leaned.’ (Cole)  The same writer adds that ‘we may perhaps compare the prophetic attack on much of the meaningless and hollow religious ritual of the days of the kings.’

And, after all, this was not an isolated and innocent enquiry on the part of the Jewish teachers, but a deliberate inquisition, v1.  Moreover, behind what they had presented as an infraction of a divine commandments lie, in fact, an intention to destroy the Son of Man.  (Cf. Hendriksen)

v7 The Jewish leaders were not only insincere; they were also mistaken.

v8 ‘The rabbis had divided the Mosaic law or Torah into 613 separate decrees, 365 of these being considered prohibitions and 248 positive directives. Then, in connection with each decree, by drawing arbitrary distinctions between what they considered “permitted” and “not permitted,” they had attempted to regulate every detail of the conduct of the Jews: their sabbaths, travel, meals, fasts, ablutions, trade, relation toward outsiders, etc., etc. One finds an example of their hair-splitting, casuistic reasoning in Mt 23:16-18…Thus, having an eye only for the multiplicity of the decrees and of their myriad applications to concrete life situations, they had piled up precept upon precept (cf. Isa 28:10, Isa 28:13) until at last, by most of these scribes and Pharisees, the unity and purpose of God’s holy law—see Deut 6:4; then Lev 19:18; Mic 6:8; cf. Mar 12:28-34—had suffered a total eclipse.’ (Hendriksen)

‘Theoretically, the oral law was a fence which safeguarded the people from infringing the Law.  In actuality, it represented a tampering with the Law which resulted inevitably in distortion and ossification of the living word of God.’ (Lane)

Scripture and tradition

‘The Pharisees came to Jesus and said: ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?’ [In reply] he had something to say about their views on purification, and … then went on to say something about their view of tradition… In opposition to the opinions of the Pharisees he enunciated three important principles.

First, that Scripture is divine, while tradition is human.

Secondly, that Scripture is obligatory, while tradition is optional.

Thirdly, that Scripture is supreme, while tradition is subordinate.’ (John Stott, reformatted)

7:9 He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. 7:10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ 7:11 But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is corban’ (that is, a gift for God), 7:12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother. 7:13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.”

There is some evidence that some of the Pharisees and scribes did elevate the status of the oral tradition above that of the Torah itself.

Jesus distinguished sharply between the Scripture as the Word of God and tradition as the teaching of men, and insisted that all the traditions of the elders must be subordinated to the supreme authority of Scripture, Mk 7:1 ff. This means ‘that we always have the duty and the right to appeal back from the tradition to the Scripture which it claims to be interpreting.’

“For Moses said…” – Note how Jesus regards the law of Moses as the very word of God.

Jesus now goes on to give an example of how possible it is for tradition to violate God’s law, instead of merely clarifying or applying it.

The quotations are from Ex 20:12 (= Deut 5:16) and Ex 21:16 respectively.

‘Honour your father and your mother’ – ‘To honor father and mother means more than to obey them, especially if this obedience is interpreted in a merely outward sense. It is the inner attitude of the child toward his parents that comes to the fore in the requirement that he honor them. All selfish obedience or reluctant obedience or obedience under terror is immediately ruled out. To honor implies to love, to regard highly, to show the spirit of respect and consideration. This honor is to be shown to both of the parents, for as far as the child is concerned they are equal in authority.’ (Hendriksen)

‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death’ – See Deut 21:18-21.  Jesus does hesitate to offer this stern warning from Deut 21:18-21.  So much for the modern tendency to draw a sharp contrast between the teaching of the Old Testament and that of our Lord in such matters!

In his commentary on Leviticus, Gordon Wenham notes that the NT endorses the moral principles enshrined in Lev 18 – adultery, incest, homosexual practices and the like.  He notes that Lev 20 goes further in laying down the death penalty for such sins.  Wenham comments that ‘the position of the NT on these penalties is not clear-cut. On the one hand Christ appears to endorse the death penalty for dishonoring parents (Matt. 15:4; Mark 7:10). Paul sums up the list of grievous sins in Rom 1:18–32 with the words “those who do such things deserve to die” (v. 32). On the other hand Christ did not insist on the death penalty for the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1ff.).’  This could be because, as Calvin remarks, Jesus came to save, not to condemn.  But this does not lessen the main import of the law, which applies now as it did then: such conduct merit’s God’s grave displeasure.

“Corban” (that is, a gift to God) – Money or other property could be designated as an offering to God, thus banning other uses.  Lane mentions a recently-discovered Jewish ossuary inscription: ‘All that a man may find-to-his-profit in this ossuary (is) an offering to God from him who is within it.’

‘In the hypothetical situation proposed by Jesus, if the son declared his property qorban to his parents, he neither promised it to the Temple nor prohibited its use to himself, but he legally excluded his parents from the right of benefit.’ (Lane)

If the son regretted his decision, and brought the case to the scribes for arbitration, they would tell him him that his vow must be honoured.

Commenting on vv9-13, Cole says, ‘this is a wise warning that the passage about hating parents for Christ’s sake (Lk 14:26) is to be seen in the context of genuine filial piety as a Christian duty.’

v13 The scribes would have argued that a vow made to God takes precedence over responsibilities towards one’s parents.  But Jesus will not allow human tradition to pitch one commandments against another.  ‘This interpretation of Num 30:1f seized upon the letter of the passage in such as way as to miss the meaning of the Law as a whole.’ (Lane)

Lane suggests that in this context the quotation from Isa 29:13 is particularly relevant.  ‘The quotation indicates that Jesus is not so much attacking a particular scribal practice as he is showing that the scribes cannot properly honour God.  In their concern for the fulfilment of the letter of Scripture they forget that the Law was provided not for its own sake but to benefit men.  It is an expression of God’s covenant faithfulness as well as of his righteousness and in no circumstance was obedience to one commandment intended to nullify another.’

‘Jesus did not think of himself as setting aside the Mosaic Torah; it was not the Torah but the scribal evasions of it (“the traditions of the elders”) which he attacked. He calls the Torah “the word of God.” His own “new teaching” was designed to correct the accommodations which had had to be made in the Torah because of the hardness of men’s hearts; (Mk 10:5) he was concerned to restore its original intention and to fulfil it.’ (Mt 5:17) (Alan Richardson, Introduction to New Testament Theology, p166)

You nullify the word of God – ‘God’s statutes shall not only lie forgotten, as antiquated obsolete laws, but they shall, in effect, stand repealed, that their traditions may take place. They were entrusted to expound the law, and to enforce it; and, under pretence of using that power, they violated the law, and dissolved the bonds of it; destroying the text with the comment.’ (MHC)

And you do many things like that – Jesus declares that this was not an isolated example, but one of many.

‘We are all ready enough to condemn these Scribes and Pharisees for “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” and “making void the commandment of God by their traditions.”  But let us remember that this pestilent spirit is by not means extinct, and let us guard against its influences.  In every country and age, men have discovered a disposition to mould the doctrines and worship of God according to their own fancy.  Whence but from this came the mummeries of opish superstition – its masses and penances and fasts and festivals and pilgrimages?  and whence come the unauthorised rites, and ceremonies, and office-bearers, that are to be found in churches calling themselves reformed?  Whence came the unholy connection between church and state, and all its diversified and innumerable fatal results?  whence have come those terms of communion, unsanctioned by the authority of Jesus Christ, that are to be found in so many societies which profess to be his churches?  All these spring from one “root of bitterness”, the substituting tradition in the room of revelation – the authority of man in the room of the authority of God.’ (John Brown, Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, Vol 1, p499)

Scripture is above tradition

‘Protestants do not deny the importance of tradition, and some of us should have more respect for it, since the Holy Spirit has taught past generations of Christians and did not begin his instruction only with us!  Nevertheless, when Scripture and tradition are in collision, we must allow Scripture to reform tradition, just as Jesus insisted with the “traditions of the elders” (cf. Mk 7:1-13).  If the Church of Rome were to have the courage to renounce unbiblical traditions (e.g. its dogmas about the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary), immediate progress would be made towards agreement under the Word of God.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 115)

7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand. 7:15 There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.”

Having exposed the Jewish leaders’ general attitude towards God law and human traditions, he now turns, as he addresses the crowd, to the particular point that had been raised about ‘uncleanness’.

Everything in this verse underscores the importance and seriousness of what Jesus is about to say.

‘In endeavouring thus to fix the attention, and to engage in active operation the mental faculties, of his hearers, our Lord sets an example which should be followed by every religious teacher.  There is no pouring christian truth passively into the minds of men.  If men will not listen, and reflect, and examine the meaning of statements, the validity of arguments, and force of motives, the best possible teaching will not make them wiser and better.  It is anything but a recommendation to a sermon, that is saves the audience the trouble of thinking.’ (Brown)

‘Corrupt customs are best cured by rectifying corrupt notions.’ (MHC)

v15 This is a thorough contradiction of rabbinic teaching.  The rabbis assumed an initially pure state, that was then corrupted by something external.  Jesus has a much more profound and unsettling view of human impurity: it comes from within, from the heart.  The problem is not one of ceremonial impurity, but of moral impurity.

‘What, then, are we to make of the apparent identification of ritual and moral in, say, Leviticus?  Perhaps it is rather akin to the wise mother’s insistence that he child be scrubbed and in clean clothes on Sunday, that by outward things the child’s mind may appreciate at least something of the nature of God.  Paul is clear that the ritual law – though not the moral law – belonged to God’s kindergarten for his people, Gal 4:9.’ (Cole)

Our human depravity

  1. universal extent – Jesus was speaking of people generally
  2. self-centred nature – the examples given, vv21-23, are all to do with the assertion of self against others or against God
  3. inward origin – from the heart, v21
  4. defiling effect – these evils make a person ‘unclean’, v23

(See Stott, The Contemporary Christian, v41f)

“It is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean'” – That is to say, it is what comes up from a person’s inmost being, and is then expressed in word and action, that defines a person’s purity.  This is, of course, frequently stress in the OT.

‘As a corrupt fountain sends forth corrupt streams, so doth a corrupt heart send forth corrupt reasonings, corrupt appetites and passions, and all those wicked words and actions which are produced by them.’ (MHC)

Mark 7:16

The best manuscripts omit this verse.

7:17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 7:18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 7:19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” (This means all foods are clean.) 7:20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 7:21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 7:22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 7:23 All these evils come from within and defile a person.”

As is the case with the parable of the sower, Mk 4, the disciples themselves claim not to understand and so receive an explanation from Jesus.

“Are you so dull?” – The disciples repeatedly failed to understand Jesus’ teaching (cf. Mk 8:16), and the same dullness characterises the mind of the unbeliever, 2 Cor 3:14.  A change of heart will go along with a change of mind, and this will be a key part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Jn 14:26.

Jesus has no intention of denying the validity of the Law of Moses.  He is, rather, stressing that outward observance is useless without the appropriate inward attitude.

(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean”) – Literally, ‘declaring all foods clean’.  ‘If we see this interpretative comment as emanating from the preaching of Peter, then it takes a new meaning in view of Peter’s vision before the visit to Cornelius, Acts 11:5ff.’ (Cole)

The early church had difficulty in resolving issues around the Jewish food laws (Gal 2:11-17; Rom 14:14; Col 2:20-22).  It took some time to see that the old rituals were intended as outward signs of inward purity.

All of this feeds into the wider teaching of the New Testament on who are the ‘true’ people of God.  A person is a member of the Israel of God not through human descent, nor because of outward observance of the Law of Moses.  Rather, the true Israelite is the person – Jew or Gentile – who loves and serves God from the heart.

From within, out of men’s hearts – ‘The source of true defilement in men is the human heart, and the tragedy of men’s having to sin reaches its demonic fulfilment in man’s wanting to sin.  There is no heart in which this radical evil has failed to take root.’ (Lane)

‘This explanation places the question of defilement and purity on a fundamentally different plane than that presupposed by the scribes and Pharisees.  By this interpretation Jesus does not alleviate the demand for purity but sharpens it…The capacity for fellowship with God is not destroyed by material uncleanness of food or hands; it is destroyed by personal sin.’ (Lane)

It is difficult, in the light of this teaching, to accept the assertion by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann (The Lost Message of Jesus, p67) that ‘Jesus believed in original goodness’ (i.e. not ‘original sin’).  Subsequently, Chalke defended this contention by reference to Gen 1:31, but this, of course, comes before the Fall, a fact inexplicably ignored by him.

Other lists of vices are found in Rom 1:18-32; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 4:19; 5:3-5; Col 3:5-9; 1 Thess 2:3; 4:3-7; 1 Tim 1:9-10; 6:4-5; 2 Tim 3:2-5; Tit 3:3, 9-10; 1 Pet 4:3; Rev 21:8, 22:15.

Evil thoughts – ‘Our hearts are of that colour which our most constant thoughts dye into it. Transient fleeting thoughts, whether of one kind or another, do not alter the temper of the soul. Neither poison kills nor food nourishes, unless they stay in the body; nor does good or evil benefit or harm the mind unless they abide in it.’ (Gurnall)

Sexual immorality – ‘porneia‘, a broad term used for all sexual activity outside marriage.  ‘None of Jesus’ hearers would have doubted that his reference to porneia included homosexual behaviour.’  (Allberry, Sam. Is God anti-gay?)

“Adultery” – ‘This is the violation of the marriage bond: a married man’s voluntary sexual intercourse with someone other than his wife; or a married woman’s voluntary sexual intercourse with someone other than her husband.  It should be made clear, however, that Jesus sharpened the edge of every commandment. He taught that hatred is murder (Mt 5:21-22), and that a married man’s lustful look at another woman is adultery (Mt 5:28).’ (Hendriksen)

“Lewdness” – ‘The term stresses the lack of self-control that characterizes the person who gives free play to his perverse impulses.’ (Hendriksen)

“Envy” – ‘One of the most soul-destroying vices is envy…Our English word envy comes from the Latin in-video, meaning “to look against,” that is, to look with ill-will at another person because of what he is or has. It is interesting to note that the Greek original which is found here in Mar 7:22 expresses this idea literally, for its basic meaning is “a sinister eye,” an eye that views another person with fierce and grudging displeasure.’ (Hendriksen)

…and make a man ‘unclean’ – ‘they render a man unfit for communion with God, they bring a stain upon the conscience; and, if not mortified and rooted out, will shut men out of the new Jerusalem, into which no unclean thing shall enter.’ (MHC)

A Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith, 24-30

7:24 After Jesus left there, he went to the region of Tyre. When he went into a house, he did not want anyone to know, but he was not able to escape notice. 7:25 Instead, a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him and came and fell at his feet. 7:26 The woman was a Greek, of Syrophoenician origin. She asked him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 7:27 He said to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.” 7:28 She answered, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 7:29 Then he said to her, “Because you said this, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” 7:30 She went home and found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Mk 7:24–30 = Mt 15:21–28

Tyre was situated on the Mediterranean coast.

There are Old Testament precedents (notably the Sidonian woman and Elijah, 1 Kings 17:18–19) and the Shunammite woman with Elisha (2 Kings 4:28) for Gentile women pleading for help from a prophet, and refusing to take no for an answer.

According to Mt 15:22, this woman is a Canaanite.  Peter Enns (The Bible Tells Me So, p42) thinks that the woman isn’t really a Canaanite – Matthew just calls her that, as if to make the point that the only mention in the NT of Israel’s ancient enemies is in the context of our Lord’s favour towards them.  (Enns adds that if there were any ‘Canaanites’ living in the land in Jesus’ day, it was the Romans – and Jesus made perfectly clear that these ‘enemies’ were to be ‘loved’ by his followers.)

Actually, this woman’s ethnic and cultural background would seem a little more complex than Enns allows.  Mark describes her as ‘Greek’, suggesting that she was Hellenised to some degree.  Her conversation with Jesus was presumably carried out in Greek.  Then her opening words are in Jewish idiom, with ‘Son of David’ being a Jewish title for the Messiah.  And, as France points out, her subsequent dialogue with Jesus ‘suggests a more sophisticated awareness of the significance of Jesus’ role as the Jewish Messiah.’

An atrocious saying?

15:21-28 Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!”  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Mk 7:27 records Jesus’ response to this woman’s request in the following words: “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.”

Was Jesus a racist?

According to Austin Steelman,

‘this isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about.  This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.’

Steelman argues that Jesus, being truly human, was a product of his own culture, along with its embedded prejudices.  But he is able to listen, to learn, and to change his mind.  The takeaway for us is that ‘inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.’

As Ian Paul notes, one of the ironies of this interpretation is that the real hero of the story is Mark, who could see clearly what he Master could not.  Another irony is that Steelman is, in effect saying, ‘Don’t be like Jesus; be like me!’  Or, at least, ‘Don’t be like the benighted Jesus at the beginning of this story, but like the enlightened Jesus at the end of it.’

Ian Paul quotes David Henson:

Jesus uttered an ethnic slur. To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child…Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism…
Rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.
This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.
So don’t tell me you aren’t prejudice or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice. Even Jesus did that.

Racial slurs are one thing: accusing anyone (not least the Lord Jesus) of racial slur without good evidence is no better.  To infer from Jesus’ humanity that he was sinfully prejudiced runs against the consistent witness of the entire New Testament (see Heb 4:15, for example).

Certain ‘progressive’ people who think that Jesus has to unlearn his racial prejudice from this woman seem to have forgotten (or perhaps they think that Jesus himself had forgotten, as had Mark), that he had already crossed ethnic boundaries, as in his dealings with the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5).

Indeed, ‘progressive’ readings of this text abound.  The following comes from a law (not theology) undergraduate at Harvard:

It’s one of the most unsettling passages in the New Testament. This isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about.  This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.
This story calls us to confront Jesus’ humanity. Being human means being embedded in a culture. It means growing up with a certain worldview. It means inheriting traditions and language and biases—biases that can be wrongheaded and hurtful and alienating. Biases like the exclusion of Gentiles from the community of faith and the circle of those deserving compassion…
You see, Jesus doesn’t cling to his prejudice. He listens…Jesus listens. And he changes his mind…The hero of this story is not Jesus, but the Syrophoenician woman…Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere. Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.

As Ian Paul shrewdly remarks:

It is not too difficult to read the agenda of this commentator: conservative Christians are like the ignorant, prejudiced Jesus at the beginning of the story, but progressive Christians like me are like the enlightened Jesus at the end of the story. The goal here is less for us to be like Jesus and more to be like the commentator.

Writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon does not suggest that Jesus has forgotten his previous encounters with Gentiles.  Nevertheless, she presses on:

‘Their conversation is stunning. Even though Jesus has already exorcized demons from a Gentile and raised someone’s daughter from the dead, he refuses her request harshly: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). But the woman is dogged on behalf of her daughter: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28). Jesus commends her “word” (Gk. logos), her clever and pointed—and effective—saying, and the demon leaves her daughter. Mark seems to go out of the way to present Jesus learning from a Gentile woman in a Gentile place about the inclusivity of God’s realm.’

Also writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Amy-Jill Levine says that

‘the claim that Jesus’ response, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” was expressed with a smile on his lips is apologetic.’

Not necessarily: we know enough about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to know that he would not be needlessly and hurtfully rude.  It is interesting that the woman herself clearly did not take offence in the way that some Jesus’ modern ‘followers’ do.

A ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ is also offered by Love L. Sechrest in the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (art. ‘Prejudice’):

‘Jesus’ caustic and stereotypic attitude toward the Canaanite woman in Matt. 15:22–29 // Mark 7:25–29 generates no little interpretive uneasiness, though the episode may represent a critical moment in which Jesus learns about the broader scope of his mission from “the least of these” (cf. Matt. 7:5).’

Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, tweeted that

‘It’s fear of Jesus’ humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man who changes his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person.’

Evan’s remark suffers from undue psychologising.  Better to accept that Matthew’s Gospel, and the others too, is more interested in theology than psychology.  The critics cited above fail to see an acceptance of Jesus’ humanity does not imply an acceptance of his sinfulness, which, in fact, is something that Scripture explicitly denies (see Heb 4:14, for example).

France recognises that this has been described as ‘an atrocious saying’, expressing ‘incredible insolence’ and based on ‘the worst kind of chauvinism’.  It is certainly true that in referring to Gentiles as ‘dogs’ Jesus was employing a current Jewish term of abuse.  But there is nothing in what we know otherwise about Jesus to suggest that he would resort to personal insults of this kind.  But, says, France,

‘written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react.’

The truth is that the progressive readings, note above, are entirely blind to the sophistication of Jesus’ (and Mark’s) teaching method.  As France (NICNT) notes:

‘Misunderstandings of the pericope spring largely from the failure to read it as a whole. It is a dialogue within which the individual sayings function only as part of the whole, and are not intended to carry the weight of independent exegesis on their own. The whole encounter builds up to the totally positive conclusion of verses 29 to 30, while the preceding dialogue serves to underline the radical nature of this new stage in Jesus’s ministry into which he has allowed himself to be ‘persuaded’ by the woman’s realism and wit. He appears like a wise teacher who allows, and indeed incites, his pupil to mount a victorious argument against the foil of his own reluctance. He functions as what in a different context might be called a ‘devil’s advocate’, and is not ‘disappointed’ to be defeated in argument. As a result the reader is left more vividly aware of the reality of the problem of Jew-gentile relations, and of the importance of the step Jesus here takes to overcome it.’

NBC similarly:

‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’

Ian Paul adds that the pattern which is apparent here:

‘”‘to the Jew first, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1.16) might have been critically important if Mark’s gospel was written in the context of Rome, where relations between Jew and gentile Christian might have been tense.’

Here, as in many other places, we would love to have been able to hear our Lord’s tone of voice (teasing?) and see his facial expression (a twinkle in his eye?).  But even though that is impossible, we can nevertheless infer these things from the context, and particularly from the fact that the women showed no signs of having felt offended.


‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’

Michael Bird‘s comment is worth quoting in full:-

‘Jesus’ ironic remark towards the woman concerns the focus of Israel in his mission and deliberately attempts to elicit a shrewd comeback. He acknowledges the validity of the woman’s reply that Israel’s blessings can, even in limited ways, extend to Gentiles, a theme found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition (e.g. Lk. 4.25-27).  But the key issue is that such a blessing is available for Gentiles in the present.  Rhoads paraphrases the woman’s response: ‘Even now I and my daughter at the margins (should) benefit from just one exorcism from among the many benefits for the Jews.’  This aspect has a direct bearing upon the argument that I am constructing.  Whereas the salvation of the Gentiles was ordinarily programmed to occur at the eschaton, here the in-breaking of the kingdom and the gradual restoring of Israel was already bringing immediate results for Gentiles. Jesus’ ironic aside is met with recognition from the woman not merely of the priority of Israel, but the significance that Israel’s salvation holds for Gentiles in the present. As the children of Israel are being fed, crumbs are now falling for the dogs. As Israel’s restoration becomes more and more of a reality, it becomes more and more possible for Gentiles to experience the blessing of its fulfillment. In this sense, interpreting the pericope in terms of ‘Jew first and then Gentile’ fails to grapple with the significance that a partially realized restoration has for Gentiles.  That is not to collapse the entire eschatological hope for the Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry since the full inclusion of Gentiles can only begin when Israel’s restoration is complete.  What is important is that the restoration of Israel, in nascent form, carries with it incipient eschatological benefits for the Gentiles who find themselves confronted with God’s anointed prophet. As the children of Israel are fed, it is possible for the dogs (i.e. Gentiles) to be fed as a consequence of Israel’s dawning restoration.’

Ian Paul quotes a commenter:

‘To me it seems that in this passage Jesus uses a similar pedagogical method to Jahweh allowing/challenging Abraham (Gen 18:22-33) and Moses (Ex 32:7-14; Num 14:5-20) to be “obnoxious” and persistent intercessors. It seems at first reading that their patience and mercy is greater than God’s, and yet it is God stretching and shaping them to stand in the gap between himself and his people.’

France summarises:

‘A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!’

To summarise: Jesus’ comment is designed to draw the woman out and to explore what kind of faith she has in him as ‘Son of David’.

‘Every accepted prayer is not immediately an answered prayer. Sometimes God seems not to regard his people’s prayers, like a man asleep or astonished; (Ps 44:23; Jer 14:9; Ps 22:1,2) nay, to be angry at them; (Ps 80:4; Lam 3:8,44) but it is to prove, and so to improve, their faith, and to make his after-appearances for them the more glorious to himself, and the more welcome to them; for the vision, at the end, shall speak, and shall not lie, Heb 2:3. See Job 35:14.’ (MHC)

v28 Consistent with the interpretation given of the previous verse, the woman’s reply gives no indication that she feels insulted.  Her reply, however, does suggest remarkable perception ‘in recognising both the primary scope of Jesus’ mission to Israel and also the fact that that was not to be its ultimate limit.  She thus, like the centurion, foreshadows the time when the true Israel will transcend the boundaries of culture and nationality.’ (France)

‘The woman’s answer is masterly. Those two words “but even” reveal immense wisdom and faith. She does not argue that her needs make her an exception, or that she has a right to Israel’s covenanted mercies, or that the mysterious ways of divine election and justice are unfair. She simply asks for help, hopeful that she may be allowed to receive a crumb from the kindness of the Lord.’ (EBC)

Healing a Deaf Mute, 31-37

7:31 Then Jesus went out again from the region of Tyre and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis. 7:32 They brought to him a deaf man who had difficulty speaking, and they asked him to place his hands on him. 7:33 After Jesus took him aside privately, away from the crowd, he put his fingers in the man’s ears, and after spitting, he touched his tongue. 7:34 Then he looked up to heaven and said with a sigh, “Ephphatha” (that is, “Be opened”). 7:35 And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his tongue loosened, and he spoke plainly. 7:36 Jesus ordered them not to tell anything. But as much as he ordered them not to do this, they proclaimed it all the more. 7:37 People were completely astounded and said, “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Mk 7:31–37 = Mt 15:29–31

v31 This would have been a horseshoe-shaped journey of around 120 miles.  For some commentators, it is evidence of the Evangelist’s lack of knowledge of the geography of Palestine.  H. Anderson, for example, says that this ‘is like travelling from Cornwall to London via Manchester.’

Edwards does not share the scepticism of some scholars: ‘Contrary to the judgments of some scholars, I find Mark’s geographical designations to be both defensible and accurate in every instance where they can be checked. That includes the present description.’  He points out that such a circuitous route is not unknown: two examples of ‘hairpin’ journeys can be found in 2 Kings 2.  ‘This journey,’ he writes, ‘can be plausibly explained by a desire on Jesus’ part to escape the growing opposition of the Pharisees and Antipas. Jesus is not simply evading opposition or buying time, however. The journey deep into Gentile territory—indeed notorious Gentile territory—indicates his willful inclusion of the non-Jewish world in his ministry.’

v32 ‘One man whom Jesus healed was deaf and had ‘an impediment in his speech’ (mogilalos, ‘speaking with difficulty’, Mk 7:32) which was probably caused by his deafness (but obviously might have been due to a separate mechanical defect, as AV ‘the string’, lit. bond, ‘of his tongue was loosed’ might suggest). It is surely significant that his hearing was healed first. Some authorities consider that the man was deaf and dumb but the Greek does not suggest this. It is more likely that he could make noises but, because he could not hear them (or other people’s words), they did not form normal speech.’ (NBD)

“He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” – According to Hurtado, Mark, in recording this, may have intended his readers to think of Isaiah 35, with its reference to the same geographical area (Lebanon, Isa. 35:1–2/Tyre and Sidon), its promise of miracles of healing, Isa 35:5–6, and its expectation that God’s people will be gathered and follow him in holiness, Isa 35:8-10.  The linkage with Isaiah 35 is made even stronger by the fact that Mark does not describe the man as having actually been mute, whereas Isa 35:5f does refer to ‘the ears of the deaf’ and ‘the mute tongue’.