Who is this man?

24Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. 26The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

27″First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

28″Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

30She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man.

33After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!” ). 35At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

36Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.

37People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Mark 7:24-37

It’s funny how our perceptions of people can change as we get to know them better.  Jane Austen was only too aware of this, and her characters often have a bit of a change of heart towards others as they get to know them.  The most famous example of this can be found in “Pride and Prejudice.”  In the novel, the central character of Elizabeth is initially repulsed by the character of Mr. Darcy (played in the BBC TV adaptation by Colin Firth), as she perceives him to be rude, uncaring and a complete snob.  However, as she gets to know him, she comes to realise that all is not what it seems, and after making a more careful study of the circumstances behind Mr. Darcy’s actions, realises that she may have been wrong.  She discovers that he is actually caring and considerate.  And then they get married and live happily ever after…

By the time we get to Mark chapter 7, we have already started to form an impression of Jesus, as have those people who have encountered him.  Yet on first reading of these verses, the depiction of Jesus jars slightly with the image we have built of him as caring and gentle towards those in need, despite his harsh words for the Pharisees earlier in this chapter.  Jesus appears to be denying the woman the healing she desires for her daughter because she is a gentile.  This type of situation is not reported anywhere else in the gospels.  He has healed gentiles before, and even revealed his true identity to the gentile woman at the well.  So why does he respond this way now?

Rather than simply agreeing to drive the demon out of the woman’s daughter, Jesus responds in a rather cryptic way.  This was a challenge to the woman, not a flat refusal to help her.  Jesus often spoke in parables, and did not make everything he said explicitly clear to those listening.  Like any good teacher he encouraged them to think for themselves, to question the established beliefs and whether they were true.  The same is true in this case.  Just as he knows all of us intimately, he also knew that this woman was what we might refer to as ‘a tough cookie’, and would be sharp enough to reply in kind.  He could see she had faith.  Sure enough, her faith is rewarded.  She does not meekly accept what Jesus says, but challenges him.  As a consequence, Jesus ensures that the demon is driven out from the woman’s daughter, despite the fact that she is a gentile.  Jesus appears to be willing to minister not just to Jews, but to gentiles too.

Jesus ministers to a gentile in the second half of this passage too.  Throughout this passage, Jesus is trying to lie low by avoiding Galilee and the Jewish authorities.   This may have been for rest and prayer, to avoid the authorities, or to avoid the crowds trying to make him king by force.  The region of the Decapolis is where he previously healed the demon-possessed man and ordered the demons into the lake.  The people there would have heard of him and his miracles and brought their sick to him.  The healing recounted here is of a man who is deaf and unable to speak properly.

Interestingly, if the man was deaf, it may well be that he did not know about Jesus at all prior to meeting him.  Certainly, he would not have heard nearly as much about Jesus as many other people would have done.  Perhaps he had grasped some of what his family and friends had said about Jesus, but he certainly would not have had a full comprehension, and would not have been able to have the faith that his friends have in bringing him to Jesus.

We know that Jesus has the ability to heal just by announcing that a person has been healed.  He can cure people without touching them, and even without necessarily being with them.  On this occasion, however, he chooses to make his healing very visual for the benefit of this deaf man.  He puts his fingers into the man’s ears and touches his tongue, which must have been a bit disconcerting if the poor guy did not know what was going on!  To help him to understand, Jesus says, “ephphatha,” a word that is very difficult to say, and which the man may well have been able to lip-read.  Jesus still gives him the opportunity to have faith that he can be healed.  So it is, therefore, that the deaf and mute man is healed not just as a consequence of the faith his friends had in Jesus’ ability to heal, but also his own faith.

The reaction of those who witnessed this miracle is particularly noteworthy.  The last time that Jesus was in this region, people were scared by Jesus and his power, and asked him to leave them alone.  Jesus responds by urging the formerly demon possessed man to tell all his friends and family what the Lord has done for him.  This time, however, they are not scared, but amazed and in awe at what Jesus has done, and rather than urging him to leave, they begin to wonder if he is, in fact, the Jewish messiah.  Mark records them saying that he has done everything well, and has even made the deaf hear and the mute speak.  This could be a reference to the prophesy in Isaiah 35 that the promised Messiah will open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, and make the tongue of the mute sing for joy.  So it is, then, that the first people to recognise that Jesus may well in fact be divine is a group of gentiles, perhaps foreshadowing the apostles’ mission to non-Jews.  Jesus responds with caution.  He is aware of the consequences of people discovering Jesus’ true identity, and asks the people there not to tell anyone.  He has a lot more he wants to achieve before too many people discover his identity.

This passage is a fascinating insight into the way in which Jesus’ ministry was changing, both in terms of who he was ministering to, but also with regards the reaction of the people towards him.  We see Jesus heal two gentiles, having previously focused predominantly on witnessing to the Jewish people, which suggests that God’s salvation plan is open to all, not just the Jews.  We too, therefore can be accepted by God, regardless of our background.  We also see people start to comprehend that perhaps Jesus is not just an amazing teacher, but could well be the promised messiah.  Not for the first time, we find ourselves encouraged to think about Jesus’ true identity.  Just who is this man?

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