Jesus’ popularity had garnered so many admirers that the pharisees in Jerusalem simply could not ignore Him anymore. The scribes and the teachers of the law were sent to the region to keep a close watch on this new man of God that seemingly had the whole northern country of Galilee buzzing with excitement. They started following Jesus and His disciples everywhere and constantly questioned him on His teachings, His understanding of the laws and His adherence to their customs. Seeing that the disciples were not following one of their traditions of ceremonial washing of the hands and feet before supper, presented them with an opportunity to test the man of God.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”Mark 7:5
Jesus calls them hypocrites and quotes a passage from the book of Isaiah that they should have been familiar with.
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.Mark 7:6-7
They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’
Traditions that Defile
The pharisees were happy to let go of all of God’s Commandments but religiously held on to the traditions of their elders. More than the teachers of the word of God they became the upholders of human traditions. It is a shame that rather than learning from Israel’s past mistakes, they had started policing the people into following these rituals passed down by their ancestors. But they were hypocrites even in honouring their elders as they only used the emotional and sentimental attachment that people had towards their ancestors to control them.
They offered loopholes to people to get away from taking care of their parents in lieu of their donation to the Temple. For them, every law given by God or a tradition of their ancestors can be used to extract their own benefit from the masses. Do we use God’s words in a similar way for our benefit, to keep control of our flock or maybe our family, our children? Do we pay more attention to the traditions of our elders rather than the teachings of Jesus?
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”Mark 7:14-15
Jesus denounced the idea that something outwardly could defile as evil resided inwardly in people’s hearts. We are not defiled by what we eat or which traditions we follow but by our acts of betrayal towards God through evil acts that originate from our hearts. In saying this He deemed all the rituals and traditions null and void and asked us to pay attention to what is in our hearts.
Honoring the Defiled
Leaving that place, Jesus went to the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon where He wanted to lay low but could not keep his presence a secret. No sooner than the word got out about Jesus’ arrival in the region, was He crowded by a barrage of desperate people who needed His healing touch. One of these was a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed by an impure spirit. Falling at Jesus’ feet, she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ response though seemed quite shocking but ultimately revealed the heart of the woman to all of us.
“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 the dogs.”Mark 7:27
Remember that Jesus is not in the Jewish territory anymore but in a gentle region. Even though He had come to the Jews first but it was His interactions with the gentile population that were the teachable moments. While the pharisees constantly challenged Jesus on every little thing He said, the non-Jewish crowds were delighted to have been graced by the Saviour of the world. So naturally, when he compared this mother, who was seeking the redemption of her daughter to a dog, it would have raised more than a few eyebrows, especially among Jesus’ very own. But as noted earlier, all his interactions with the people living outside the Jewish community were a teachable moment and so was this one. What happened next showed us the humility and the sheer desperation of this Syrophoenician woman.
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”Mark 7:28
When it comes to our earthly bosses we have no problems in eating our humble pie if it helps us get the next promotion. No matter what our colleagues think or even talk behind our backs about us, we would brush that off and be focused on our goal to climb up the corporate ladder. If the end justifies the means then we have no problem with even degrading ourselves in order to get what we want. How much more then does the Creator of the world warrant from us. We give our utmost respect to the person who is seemingly in charge of our five-year plan but have contempt for the one in charge of our eternity.
This woman had only one goal when she fell at the feet of Jesus, it was the deliverance of her demon-possessed daughter. She would have heard about this man of God and He had been healing people with all kinds of diseases. Her humility combined with her persistence gives all of us a lesson in how to truly ask God from our hearts.
Jesus commended the response of this woman and also granted her request as the demon immediately left her daughter. What is our barrier in getting our prayers answered by God? Is it our ego that stops us from bringing our honest hearts to Him or is it our self-help attitude that fools us into wasting time by finding our own solutions? According to the Pharisees, this woman would have been labelled as defiled but as Jesus said it is what comes out of our hearts that causes us to be labelled as impure. And what came of her heart were the words of utmost humility when speaking to the creator of the world.
Healing the Defiled
Still remaining in the gentile region Jesus headed for the region of Decapolis, where previously He had been driven out by the natives because of their fear of His works (Mark 5). This was the place where Jesus had healed legion the man possessed by multiple spirits and left him there as a witness to all. When Jesus returned to this region, they would have surely remembered the miraculous healing that He had done the last time. This time they brought a man to Him who was both deaf and mute. Jesus took this man away from the crowds and put His fingers into his ears and touched his tongue.
He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.Mark 7:34-35
Just like last time the people were again overwhelmed at the sight of the wondrous works of Jesus as they would not have imagined this man receiving the ability to speak or hear ever in his lifetime. Although Jesus told them not to tell anyone about this Miracle, in their amazement they kept talking about it even more. We need to learn how to obey Jesus’ instructions to the letter. There is a time for testimony but there is also a time to remain silent. But often in our overwhelmed state, we are not able to control our words when we receive something unimaginable from God.
Jesus started His journey in a Jewish region which did not want to accept Him but when he entered the so-called defiled region which acknowledged Him as their saviour. The Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man would never have gotten to within an earshot of Jesus had they approached Him in the region of Galilee. But Jesus made the journey all the way to their respective regions and entered their defiled territory to save them.
Similarly, He made the journey to our defiled earth to save us from the clutches of the prince of this world. A person is not defiled because of the religion that they follow or their place of residence or even their reluctance to follow an age-old tradition. The only thing that defiles us is the evil that comes from our hearts which separates us from God. The defiled are welcomed in the Kingdom of God as only by falling at his feet can we ever be made clean.
Why did the Pharisses give so much importance to their traditions?
Why did Jesus compare the mother seeking redemption for her daughter with a dog?
What actually defiles us?