Quite suddenly, we find Jesus surrounded by Jerusalem authorities. Once again, they are looking for a fight, this time over ritual purity. Like the Sabbath confrontations, the practices at issue are vitally important to the Jews as markers of their difference from those not in covenant with God (Gentiles). While the “traditions” they advocate are not the Levitical purity laws, those laws are their origin and impetus. We must not allow our own advocacy of “biblical Christianity” over against “traditions” to confuse us into thinking that the problem here is that they are practicing traditions rather than Torah alone. Tradition is not the problem per se, and we will do well to recognize that these traditions developed out of an earnest desire to to practice the principles of Levitical purity in a fuller way--to follow the trajectory of ritual purity into other areas of life and in new circumstances (Gentile occupation).
Rather, the primary theme of this entire section is the heart. While the quotation from Isaiah makes the connection between their traditions and the “human commands” condemned by the prophet, the force of the argument is found in the phrase “their hearts are extremely far from me.” By calling them “hypocrites,” Jesus speaks to the pretext of their interrogation and probably of their ritual practices as a whole. They pretend to be concerned with holiness, but their hearts are full of other motives.
The example he uses to demonstrate the problem interrupts the discussion of ritual purity and may confuse some readers as to the flow of the conversation. Jesus is staying on topic, though, which is far more apparent if we are tuned in to the issue of heart. Thus, when Jesus exclaims that they reject the command to honor father and mother in favor of dedicating money or belongings to God, he is not saying that the tradition of dedicating wealth to God is illegitimate because it is not a command found in the Torah. He is saying, instead, that the use of the tradition to avoid a responsibility implied (not commanded, let it be noted!) by the biblical mandate of “respect” is duplicitous and evil. He is accusing them of doing this intentionally, of neglecting parents’ actual needs in favor of religious notoriety (for they would have made their vow publicly). The veneer of religious dedication covers the rot of lovelessness and unrighteousness. This is the meaning of hypocrisy.
The following declaration signifies a monumental shift, though it will need explaining for the disciples (and many other after them) precisely because it is a rejection of the law in the most obvious sense. Jesus is not saying, “Obey the law, not the traditions.” As with the Sabbath, he is saying, “Obey the meaning of the law”--we might even say, the heart of the law. To that end, he overtly rejects the biblical prescriptions against certain foods, because it is actually “from the human heart” that impurity comes. Mark is keen to highlight the outcome, adding a sort of parenthetical comment: “Thus he declared all food clean” (NRSV). The repercussions of this shift will be massive, as one of the primary barriers between the covenant people and the Gentiles is torn down.
The following two stories are expressions of this new reality, as both miracles take place among Gentiles. Thus, they can be explained quickly in those terms, though the peculiarities of the encounters may raise questions for some readers. That of the Syrophoenician woman in particular has an interesting dynamic. There is no softening the harshness of Jesus’ words. He called her a dog, and she would have been familiar with the phrase as a Jewish slur for Gentiles. While Jesus has just leveled the playing field from the Jewish side of things, here we see him address the question from the other side. This woman knows Jesus is a healer, but in all likelihood she is a pagan--she has nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She has no claim to the benefits of the Jewish Messiah and his kingdom. Jesus makes this point in very sharp terms, and the woman passes the test. Rather than argue for the right to a blessing from a god she does not even worship, she humbly concedes and asks only the mercy of mere crumbs. The fact that the door is open does not mean that the Gentiles are now “in.” They-- we--will have to come humbly.
The repetition of the feeding miracle is a very intentional device that Mark uses to highlight the disciples’ problem. While it may be true that the setting of the second feeding is Gentile territory, adding another layer of meaning, there is otherwise little added in the telling of the feeding itself. It is rather the ensuing dialogues to which the event is attuned. The timing of the Pharisee’s request for a sign is everything. Jesus having just done an astounding miracle for the second time, their demand is absurd.
To this point, the reader has witnessed more than enough to understand the stubbornness of the request. What more could they ask for?! But the point is precisely that there is no sign that will convince them. It is not that there will be no more miracles, for it is easy to affirm that the resurrection itself will be the biggest possible sign from heaven. Yet, there is no sign that they will receive, and Jesus will not make them believe. That is not the way it works. They are there to test him, not to seek God, and therefore they will be unable to see.
This episode leads Jesus to caution the disciples against that which limits the Pharisees perception: hardness of heart. Mark has already explained in 6:52 that the disciples did not understand the first feeding because their hearts were hardened. Now, as they fail to understand what Jesus means in the wake of the second feeding, and as the Pharisees exemplify perfectly hardened hearts, Jesus tells them directly to guard against it. They are, in a very real sense, struggling with the very same prejudices and assumptions that control the Pharisees and lead them to reject and kill Jesus. The exasperated end to this phase of the story is, “You still don’t get it?!”
The next story can be considered the end of a major section of the book or the beginning of one. Either way, it is the first part of an inclusio, a sort of literary bookend that will make more sense in light of its complementary second part. For now, it is important to grasp that a miracle can itself be a kind of parable. That is, Jesus does this miracle, and Mark presents it, in order to communicate something as well as heal. The simple question the reader must ask herself is whether the story has indicated that Jesus has enough power to heal the blind man on the first try. The answer is, of course. Instead of a challenge too big for Jesus, the man is a living parable of the disciples, who “having eyes do not see” (8:18). They have received the first touch (the first half of the story), but still they cannot really see. They have believed enough to risk following Jesus, but in fact they have yet to understand what he is about and where it will lead them. They still need the second touch in order to see completely. The reader may feel similarly, and the second half of the book is, for the disciples and the reader who journeys with them, the second touch.