What is unclean

JesusHealstheDeafMuteThis coming Sunday, the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year B, we will hear the Gospel of Mark 7:31-37 proclaimed. It is an encounter with “a deaf man who had a speech impediment.” This section of the Gospel of Mark is book-ended by two stories of a miraculous feeding of the crowds (6:34-44 and 8:1-10) – and so when Jesus heals the man, it seems a rather tame and minor miracles by comparison. Closer to this narrative are the accounts of Jesus and the Pharisee encounter over the traditions of religion (last week’s gospel) and the healing of a Canaanite/Syro-Phoneician woman – and then our gospel account. If one pauses for a moment and considers what is unfolding “in between Sundays”… Jesus is nullifying the human traditions we know as taboos. In Mark 7:19 Jesus declares all foods clean. But what about the Canaanite woman account?

Although not part of the Sunday gospels in Year B, Mark’s encounter of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (which precedes our pericope) is worth noting as regards traditions that are being overturned. Joachim Jeremias in Jerusalem in the time of Christ [360] describes the taboos associated with the interaction between men and women: “… a woman was expected to remain unobserved in public. There is a recorded saying of one of the oldest scribes we know, Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem (c. 150 BC): ‘Talk not much with womankind’, to which was added, ‘They said this of a man’s own wife: how much more of his fellow’s wife!’ rules of propriety forbade a man to be alone with a woman, to look at a married woman, or even to give her a greeting. It was disgraceful for a scholar to speak with a woman in the street. A woman who conversed with everyone in the street could, … be divorced without the payment prescribed in the marriage settlement.” An encounter between this woman and a scribe or Pharisee would be hard to imagine in the “tradition of the elders.”

The woman’s request of Jesus is that he drive an unclean spirit out of his daughter (7:25). As Stoffregen notes, while Jesus has just declared all foods clean (v.19), that does not mean that everything is clean. There are still unclear and evil powers in the world – but this Gentile woman is not among them. What is unclean is the demon that is driven out – “what comes out.” Perhaps this narrative is also meant to linguistically point back to Jesus’ declaration, “But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles.” (v.20) even as “what comes out” from Jesus is the healing power of the divine.

When one considers the miracle of the healing of the deaf-mute, one should also note that the healing of the man changed “what came out” of his mouth from “speech impediment” (v.32) to “speaking plainly.” (v.35).  In the Greek the change is from mogilalos (lit. “difficult speaking”) to elalei orthos (lit. “was speaking correctly”).  In both the healing of the man and the woman, Jesus changes what comes out of a person.

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