Revelation at Mealtime: The Son of Man and His Disciples
Mark 6:53-56; Mark 8; Mark 9:1
In our session four discussion, we said that after Jesus had sent his disciples on a mission trip, Mark introduced a “flashback” (chapter six): Herod Antipas used the venue of a royal feast to promise his daughter the head of John the Baptist on a platter. When the disciples returned, Jesus fed five thousand people in a different kind of feast with five loaves and two fish. Mark somehow linked a second “storm on the lake” episode to the disciples’ inability to understand about the loaves. In session five, we concluded this food section Dr. Black has labeled, “Revelation at Mealtime” (Mark 6:6b-8:21).
After the “storm-on-the-lake” episode, Jesus and the disciples land their boat near Gennesaret, south of Capernaum (Mark 6:53-56). (Mark had told his readers [6:45] that the boat was headed toward Bethsaida, northeast of Capernaum, yet he now tells them it ended up south of Capernaum. This is another often-cited example suggesting that Mark was perhaps not all that familiar with the geography of Galilee.) At Gennesaret and in the villages and cities in the region, Jesus taught and healed people.
The Pharisees came and challenged Jesus because his disciples were eating without ritually washing their hands – another food narrative (Mark 7:1-15). After lambasting the Pharisees as hypocrites, Jesus proclaimed that “nothing outside a person can enter and contaminate … rather the things that come out of a person contaminate a person.” Later, in a closed meeting with his disciples, (Mark 7:17-23) Jesus elaborated, “Don’t you know either? … Nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate … because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer.”
By redefining defilement, Jesus appears to have re-written the Old Testament Holiness code (Leviticus 17-26). Mark’s suggestion that all Jews washed their hands before eating was a gross exaggeration – perhaps the Pharisees did, but most Jews did not, even if it was included in the Scriptures. But Jesus has directly repudiated Jewish dietary laws, perhaps reflecting a time (around the time of Mark’s writing – 70 c.e.) when a majority of Christians were gentiles and did not observe Jewish dietary laws. Some commentators suggest there may be some Pauline influence in this passage. It is Israel’s Holiness code and laws, like the dietary laws that separate Jews from the pagan gentiles. There is no evidence that Jesus did not regard Mosaic law as binding, yet here is a passage where he seems to be arguing for gentile inclusion.
From here, Jesus moved more deeply into gentile territory, into Tyre, on the Mediterranean coast in Syria, about 35 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 7:24-30). A Syrophoenician woman found him and begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (The children he referred to are probably the children of Israel, and the dogs are the gentiles.) The woman challenged him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Jesus affirmed her answer and sent her home where she found the demon had left her child.
We found a similar story (I Kings 17:17-24) where Elijah brought back to life the child of another Syrophoenician woman from up the coast in Sidon. Like the woman of Tyre, the Sidon woman challenged Elijah before he responded by healing her son. This, after Elijah had turned a little flour and oil into enough food to last the woman and her son through a long drought. The coming sessions will include additional parallels between the Mark narrative and that of Elijah / Elisha.
The Jesus of Mark gives us all something to be surprised about. Liberal Christians may be concerned that a progressive Jesus would call gentiles “dogs”. Conservatives may be as concerned about Jesus’s claim that all defilement comes from within, or Jesus’s laxity in the matter of Sabbath observance. Jesus confuses everyone who places him into a conventional box of expectations.
The text tells us that “On his return journey … (Jesus went) by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee through the region of the Ten Towns (Decapolis).” That is, to return 35 miles southeast, Jesus started by going 20 miles north, then east about 40-50 miles, then south another 50-60 miles, then west, and perhaps north again, another 20 miles to get back to the Sea of Galilee. Again, either Mark was not familiar with the geography of Galilee, or his understanding of “return” is something different than how it is normally used today.
Mark provided a detailed description of Jesus healing a deaf man with a speech impediment in Sidon (Mark 7:31-37). This was nearly a mirror image of the “casting out a demon” story in Tyre. Both patients had conditions that isolated them from society. Both had advocates – mother/friends. The first story began with Jesus trying to hide from the crowds; the second ended when Jesus, unsuccessfully told them to not tell anyone.
Then, perhaps somewhere in the region of the Decapolis, Jesus fed a crowd of four thousand people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes (Mark 8:1-10). The story was a near duplicate of the feast in chapter six, but shorter, lacking many of the details. The disciples, however, remained just as clueless as with the feeding of the five thousand. Why would Mark repeat a story he had just told two chapters earlier?
Perhaps the crowd was composed of gentiles this time, and the story relates back to the Syrophoenician woman. After the children (Israel) have eaten, it is proper for the dogs (Gentiles) to eat the leftover scraps in their own wilderness feast. Perhaps, the evangelist wanted to reinforce just how mystified the disciples were.
The Pharisees show up again, just as after the feeding of the five thousand, and ask for a sign. Frustrated, Jesus tells them there will be no sign. He can do nothing for those whose only goal seems to be to entrap him. For the last time, Jesus and the disciples get in the boat to cross the lake. We are near the turning point of Jesus’s ministry. Things are about to change (Mark 8:11-21).
Once in the boat the disciples discover that they only have one loaf of bread with them. Jesus tells them to beware the “yeast” of the Pharisees, where yeast symbolizes corruption. Misunderstanding once more, they say, “It is because we have no bread.” Both Jesus and the disciples talk past each other. “You have eyes. Can you not see? You have ears. Can you not hear?” Jesus seems frustrated that his disciples are like the “outsiders” of Mark 4:10-12 who listen to the parables but do not understand.
The next major section (Mark 8:22-Mark 10:52) begins and ends with Jesus healing blind men. Between these bookends, are three episodes in which (a) Jesus makes a prediction of the Son of Man’s destiny, followed by (b) the disciples’ misunderstanding (as they just did in the boat), followed by (c) a moment of Jesus teaching about discipleship. An interlude separates the first and second prediction sequence. A second interlude separates the second and third sequence.
Jesus and his disciples landed their boat near Bethsaida where people brought a blind man to Jesus (Mark 8:22-28). The procedure Jesus uses is much like healing the deaf man with a speech impediment in Sidon, but here it took Jesus two attempts. Like teaching the “blind” disciples it didn’t seem to take the first time.
As they head north to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-9:1), Jesus asks the disciples who people think he is. A second question “Who do you say I am?” elicits the response “the Messiah (Christ)” from Peter. Jesus then tells the disciples that the Son of Man will be rejected, put to death and resurrected three days afterward. Peter rebuked him. Jesus rebuked Peter and began teaching the disciples about servanthood, taking up a cross, and the coming kingdom of God.
Primary Text: Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), by C. Clifton Black
Coming in Session 6: Mark 9:2-50; Mark 10. Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative.