Mark 7 presents us with three distinctive scenes, each of which leaves us with questions to reflect on and lessons about the way God works with us. First, we have the account of Jesus’ “discussion” with the Pharisees about what defiles a person (7:1-24). Next, we have a confusing conversation between Jesus and a Syrophroenician woman, a Gentile from Greece, where she comes to Him for healing and He tells her it wouldn’t be fair to give to “dogs” what is intended for the children (7:24-30). Finally, Jesus cures a man who is deaf and dumb by putting His fingers in the man’s ears, then spitting and touching the man on his tongue (7:31-37).
Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees surrounds their disagreement about what makes a person clean, to which Jesus replies:
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” -Mark 7:6-7
This is a temptation for any religious person – particularly those of us from a Church with a rich history, there may seem to be many rituals and traditions that seem to be human in nature. But what is very important is that you realize the Church makes a distinction regarding traditions: there are small ‘t’ traditions, practices that are human in nature, things that can change: things like the music we sing at Mass or the artwork we surround ourselves with; and there are other things that we don’t change because we believe they are inspired by God. Our insights grow, but we see these not as human traditions but as divine commands. The content of the Bible, for example (what’s called the “Canon” of Scripture”), the Sacraments, or our moral duties to love are things that will never change with the times. Our understandings may deepen, but the essence of all of these find their origin a long time ago under the action of God – either in the Old or New Testaments, or the communities from which these writings came.
That being said – what is also key to know is that it is incumbent upon us not to simply “act religiously” without the conversion of our hearts- it is here that Jesus was very hard on the Pharisees: recognizing that they got the “rules” of their faith, but didn’t get the heart of it. We must not only act like other Christ’s (that’s what it means to be a Christian), but our hearts need to be changing to become more like Him, in order that “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) rather than “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, [and] folly” (Mark 7:21-22) would come from within our hearts.
Next, Jesus interaction with the Syrophroenician woman seems to be a bit confusing. She asks him to heal her daughter – to cast out a demon – and Jesus’ answer seems to be one of the more confusing lines in all of scripture:
“Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” -Mark 7:27
Yes, you read that right. Jesus just referred to the Greek woman asking for his help as a “dog.” This is usually a derogatory term in the Bible (1 Samuel 17:43, Philippians 3:2, Revelation 22:5), and was used scornfully by the Jews to refer to some of the Gentiles. Jesus uses a softer version of the phrase – which still seems harsh, but it would seem that His purpose was twofold. First, it affirmed Jesus’ deliberate plan to instill the Gospel into His Jewish hearers first – they being the chosen people to whom God had first promised this Good News – and then to the Gentiles. Second, it allowed the woman to show great faith, humility, and perseverance, acquiring for her daughter the healing she sought.
Finally, Jesus uses tactile means (touch and spittle) to heal a man who is deaf and dumb. That Jesus often heals in this way ought to serve as a reminder for us of the fact that He wishes to make contact with us in a real manner. That is the beauty of our Sacraments: they offer us a substantial way to encounter Him by water, oil, bread, wine, etc. In addition, Jesus’ choice to heal the man’s hearing before his voice is an example for us: first of all, Christ must open our ears (and hearts) to hear His Good News, then He inspires our tongues to proclaim it to others. It is a glorious commission, but one we must remain always mindful of, so that our preaching may not lose its heart but be centered by hearts which remain close to God. In this way we can ensure that our religious practice and our sharing of the Gospel remain inspired by Him and not simply from “human tradition.”
Just as a reminder: I’m using two commentaries to help me explain this Gospel: the Navarre Bible and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. A good commentary like these is good to help understand translation issues, to look at a passage from a different direction, and to integrate it into the whole of our faith. There is no reason any of us should ever feel like we are interpreting scripture on our own – we have 2000 YEARS of scholars, theologians, teachers, priests, and saints who have all met and shared Christ through the pages of the Bible. Just make sure whatever commentary you’re reading is a good Catholic one… I certainly recommend either of the above as they have been very easy to work with.