After the aborted attempt to give his disciples some rest (Mark 6:30-34), Jesus now withdraws from the popularity and press of the crowds in Galilee to the regions of Tyre and Sidon on the Phoenician coast (modern Lebanon). This is not a far journey–only 30-50 miles or so—but Jesus takes his disciples into a Gentile region of northern Palestine. He had done this previously when he crossed the lake of Galilee into the Decapolis (Mark 5:1-20). He was not able to stay there long. This time Jesus goes in the opposite direction toward the Mediterranean Sea.
Importantly, Mark places this story next to the previous discussion of what is “unclean” (7:1-24). Jesus goes to what many would regard as an “unclean region.” The categories of clean/unclean are not boundary markers for Jesus. His entrance into a Gentile region of Palestine reflects his willingness to cross boundaries that restrained others.
Mark uses a formula which indicates that Jesus’ interests are privacy and rest: Jesus “left that place” (cf. 9:30-31) and found a house in which he could spend some private time with his disciples. Perhaps in the predominantly Gentile coastal region Jesus will find some rest and escape the crowds that relentlessly press him in Galilee. Tyre and Sidon are part of the Syrian province of Rome and thus Jesus has crossed political lines (moving from the region of the Herodians who want to kill him [3:6] to a region where, presumably, he would be relatively unknown to the political leaders). But Jesus was not unknown in this region. Mark has already noted that some had already travelled from “Tyre and Sidon” to Galilee for healing (Mark 3:8).
As a result, Jesus’ presence in the “vicinity of Tyre” does not go unnoticed. Desperate people can go to great lengths to find the help they need—especially a parent for a child. A Greek-speaking, Syro-Phonecian mother finds Jesus to beg for the healing of her daughter. Jesus encounters a Gentile mother who intercedes for her daughter.
What does Jesus do with this request? He responds that the children must first eat at the table before the scraps are tossed to the dogs. Does that seem a bit harsh? It is important to recognize the proverbial character of the language. The word “dog” here is not the common derogatory term that represents some kind of hostility. Rather, it is a diminutive, that is, “little dogs” like house dogs or domesticated pets (perhaps functionally equivalent to “puppy”). The proverb refers to the relations within a household; and it is not name calling. Allen Black in his College Press commentary on Mark (p. 137; n. 16) suggests it is like Joe asking Bill whether he should bring up an issue with his wife and Bill responds with the proverb, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Bill is not calling Joe’s wife a “dog” but is answering the question with a proverb. Jesus does something similar here.
The woman has a quick, spunky, and clever reply which may reflect the Markan intent that we read this story in the light of Jesus’ interest in testing or probing the faith of this mother. The mother is persistent and pushes back for the sake of her daughter. Perhaps he responds with the proverb to see how she will respond. Will her faith persist in her request or will she turn away?
Her response assumes the world that Jesus has pictured. Indeed, she is a house (“little”) dog and does not presume to be one of the children. But even house dogs wander around table waiting for the crumbs that the children may drop. She is asking Jesus for the overflow—the crumbs from the disciple’s rest. Her response touches Jesus and her daughter is healed. Jesus exoricizes the demon from a distance but in response to the faith of this Gentile mother.
Who are the children and who are the dogs in this proverb? William Lane, in his commentary on Mark, suggests that the “children” are the disciples who need rest and the “dogs” are those to whom they minister. The children (disciples) need to eat, that is, they need their rest. There will be a time for others to receive what the need but that time is not now. This may be the primary referent in Mark.
However, most others see a Jewish-Gentile theme here. This is certainly how Matthew interprets this incident (cf. Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus is sent to the Jews first (the children), but ultimately the Gentiles (dogs) will be fed as well. This is not explicit in Mark but it fits a canonical reading of the Christian story as we see the followers of Jesus include the Gentiles in the coming years and Mark’s narrative does anticipate the inclusion of the Gentiles at several points.
After a period of rest, Jesus returns to the sea of Galilee through the Decapolis, presumably on the eastern side of the lake. Jesus took a circuitous route back through Gentile lands to the lake in order to avoid the crowds in Galilee. Even in the Decapolis, however, the needy await him and his healing ministry resumes. Mark singles out the story of a deaf-mute (or possibly a deaf man who had a speech impediment).
Jesus takes him aside privately—separate from the crowds—to focus his attention on this man. Jesus, perhaps to communicate with this man, uses unique means for healing. He plugs his fingers into the man’s ears and puts his saliva on the man’s tongue. These are powerful symbolic gestures that communicate his intent to heal.
When Jesus prays, he “sighs” (from the verb stenazo) which means to groan in the sense of grieving. Paul uses both the verb and noun (stenagmos) for the painful groanings which the Spirit interprets but we ourselves find it difficult to utter (Romans 8:23, 26). Jesus grieves over the brokenness of the world as he prays for this deaf mute. Jesus feels the pain of the world in which he participates. He sighs with humanity.
Mark highlights this healing with the detail description, using the Aramaic word (ephphatha) for the healing command just as he did with the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:41), and the resultant command to not tell anyone. This is the “Messianic secret” theme once again and it is pronounced here as the Markan text moves closer to the announcement that Jesus is the Christ (8:29). But the people cannot keep quiet. They are seeing what Isaiah anticipated (Isaiah 35:5-6). Mark expresses the amazement of the people—“he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
The final saying is functionally a praise chorus with three lines. It is the joy of the redeemed and the wonder of those who bear witness.
He has done well,
he makes the deaf to hear,
he makes the mute to speak.
The healing of a ear and mouth was anticipated in Isaiah’s picture of redemption in Isaiah. Moreover, and most significantly, such healings bear witness to a coming time when there will be no more sorrow or sighing (stenagmos in the LXX; Isaiah 35:10). Symbolically—and theologically—the Markan narration has reached a threshold. Jesus’ miracles have mounted in number and scope. He has raised the dead, calmed the chaos of the sea, exercised authority over hostile powers (demons), and restored human dignity to a leper and now to a deaf-mute. He is dispelling the darkeness and renewing joy. He is recreating the world; he is “doing good.”
The miracles are not mere displays of power or simply expressions of compassion. They are divine acts of reversal. They reverse the brokenness of the world—the deaf can hear, the mute can speak, the dead live, chaos is conquered, and the demons are defanged. A new world—the kingdom of God, the reign of God—is emerging. Jesus is the presence of the reign of God in the world which brings healing, peace, justice and righteousness.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to participate in that mission, to participate in reign of God by healing the brokenness of the world and reversing the curse. Disciples of Jesus sigh over the brokenness, pray for the broken and act for their sake.