This being the case, I sometimes wonder why the gospel writers chose to include certain miracles and not others. What was it that they were trying to communicate to us? Such is the case with me when I read seventh chapter of Mark.
Opposition at Every Turn
Previous to the miracles in that the gospel writer Mark talks about in his seventh chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem. During most of his time in that city, he faced almost constant opposition and challenges by the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Jesus was very often required to defend his own actions, even his actions of helping people.
The writer Mark tells about one instance where Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. It happened on the Sabbath day, a day when the Pharisees taught that such things as healings were forbidden. They said that to heal someone would be considered work, and work was prohibited on the Sabbath.
Jesus knew that if he helped the man, it would get him into trouble with the established religious leaders of the day. Of course he healed the man anyway, even though from that point on the Pharisees began to plot how to best put Jesus to death (Mark 3:1-6).
These types of experiences often required Jesus to confront the Pharisees with their own hypocrisy. He later said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; they teach as doctrine the precepts of men.’”
Applying those words to the Pharisees, Jesus told them, “You have disregarded the commandment of God to keep the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8 BSB).
These confrontations between Jesus and those who opposed him was not an uncommon experience for him. Make no mistake, this type of atmosphere drains a person of energy. I think it drained Jesus of energy.
Come Apart and Rest
Of the four Gospel writers, Mark, more than any of the others, talks about the grueling pace that Jesus and the disciples often had. Twice he mentions times when Jesus and the disciples were so busy with the crowds that followed them that they did not even have time to eat a meal (Mark 3:20; 6:31). There were several times when Jesus wanted nothing more than to be alone, or at least alone with only his twelve disciples.
So it was at this time after these disputes with the Pharisees in Jerusalem. After his confrontation in the synagogue with the religious leaders, Jesus left the city to go to the region of Tyre. Tyre was on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and a place populated mostly by the Canaanite people, a people who did not believe in the God of the Jews. They had their own pagan deities and were predominantly polytheistic and animistic.
I think that Jesus went there because he wanted to get away from controversy with the Pharisees. He was looking for rest. In that city, away from Jerusalem and the Jewish homeland, Jesus would not be followed by thousands of people wherever he went. He entered a house in the city and tried to do so undetected. I think that Jesus just wanted a little quiet time. He was not so much unlike us in that way. At least I sometimes just want to get away and have a time of quiet, and I do not think that I am so unusual in that way.
The Syro-phoenician Woman of Tyre
The efforts of Jesus to enter the house without anyone noticing were not completely successful. Not only had he been seen, but even in this Gentile city, people recognized him. Word spread that he was in town and even told of the house in which he was staying.
In that town was a woman with a little daughter with an unclean spirit. The girl is described to us as having a demon. This brings up to us all sorts of questions about the nature of the daughter’s condition, whether physical, psychological, or truly spiritual. Actually, we have very little information about the daughter, so perhaps it is best to leave it as described to us.
The subject, after all, is not really the daughter, but it is the mother. As soon as the woman heard that Jesus was in the city, she came and fell at his feet. She kept imploring Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. After previous stories of Jesus healing anyone who came to him, it might surprise you that he repeatedly refused her request.
The Infamous Remark about the Dogs
Jesus is quoted as saying, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).
We might think that this sounds very rude. It is as if Jesus were calling this woman and her daughter “dogs.”
I myself do not look at it in this way. Anyone who has learned another language and has lived in other cultures understands that sometimes expression and idioms do not transfer well from one language or culture to another.
If you are an American, at least one of my generation, you very likely know what I mean if I should say, “You’re pulling my leg!”
But to a person from overseas and perhaps even to a younger person in our own country, that expression is ludicrous. It may serve well with certain people, but not with others.
I think that this expression throwing the children’s bread to the dogs was simply an expression of that day. It perhaps made reference to the fact that actions intended for one purpose should not be used for another.
The “Attesting Miracles”
I tend to think that Jesus was simply saying that his purpose in coming into the world was to bring the message of the Messiah to the Jewish people. That was one of the major reasons also for his miracles. One of the important purposes for which Jesus healed people and performed other miracles was that these actions were to be “signs” to the people that Jesus was the Promised One spoken of in the Old Testament prophecies. The Apostle John especially emphasizes the prophetic fulfillment aspect of the miracles of Jesus.
By making reference to the children, Jesus was telling the woman that the aspect of signs was an important purpose in healing people. What the woman was asking was for Jesus to perform a miracle that would not necessarily act as a sign that pointed to him as the Messiah, since the people in that Gentile city would not recognize the connection to the Hebrew Scriptures.
In telling the woman what he did, Jesus was saying to her that at this time, his efforts were to be concentrated on the Jewish people, not the Gentiles.
Although Jesus did not make reference to it here, the part of God’s plan to bring the gospel to the Gentiles was to come later. The message was mainly brought to the Gentiles through the ministry of the first apostles and continues to this day.
The Persistence of the Woman
But the woman would not be deterred. “Yes, Lord,” she agreed. “But even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.”
Even if you do not accept my explanation that the expression that Jesus used concerning the “dogs” was an idiom, and that the reference was actually a mild offense to her, the woman was in a desperate situation. She knew that her only help could come from Jesus.
Her answer was actually one of great faith. She recognized that the “children,” that is the Jewish people, were not utilizing the full power of Jesus as he walked among them. Why should not she receive some benefit that they were not using? She was appealing to another motive in Jesus for the healing—one that did not have anything to do with fulfillment of prophecy. She simply had nowhere else to turn. She was appealing to his compassion.
Jesus answered her, “O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish. Because of this answer go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter” (Matthew 15:28; Mark 7:29).
At that moment, her daughter was healed.
We do not know how long Jesus stayed in Tyre, but some time after that he returned to the area around the Sea of Galilee. There again he was involved with healing people.
After returning, a “great multitude” (Matthew 15:30) came to Jesus, bringing those in need of healing. Jesus healed them, and the multitude marveled. The healings were signs for the people.
But Mark does not mention all of these healings as did Matthew when he wrote about the same occasion. Mark instead chooses to tell of only one, and it is one that Jesus tried to keep private.
Some people brought to Jesus a man who was deaf, and could speak only with great difficulty. We do not know if his speech impediment was because, being deaf, he could never hear how the words sounded that he tried to form, or if it was something that was physically wrong. Whatever was the case, the peope brought the man to Jesus to be healed. Like the woman of Tyre, they had nowhere else to turn. They wanted Jesus to lay his hands upon the man.
Instead of healing the man on the spot, Jesus took him aside from the multitude so that they would not witness this healing. There, in private, Jesus healed the man. Then, after the man was healed, Jesus gave him and his friends “orders” not to tell anyone about this. He did not want this one to be publicly known.
This was not to be an “attesting miracle,” but one that was only for the benefit of the man in need. Jesus had been motivated by something other than fulfilling prophecy.
But of course, even with this attempt to keep the event silent, the people spread the news widely. They could not help themselves. They said, “He has done all things well; he makes even the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak” (Mark 7:37).
Feeding of Four Thousand
And there were many people to tell about this healing, for the large crowd that had gathered was still there. There were more than four thousand people. In our own day, it might be difficult to imagine the situation, but this large crowd was there without any accommodations, and it was not only a one-day event. When night came, the people simply found a place to lie down on the ground to try to get some sleep. When the morning again came, they stayed. And so they did the next night and the next day.
On the third day, Jesus called his disciples to him. “I feel compassion for this multitude,” he told them. “They have remained here with me three days and have had nothing to eat. If I send them away to their homes now, they will faint on the way. Some of these have come great distances” (Mark 8:2-3)
To his disciples, this seemed like an insurmountable problem. “Where will anyone be able to find enough food for these people in this desolate place?” they asked Jesus.
It could not have been too many weeks before this that Jesus had put a similar need before the disciples. At that time, the congregation numbered more than five thousand, and similarly, the disciples could not see how it was possible to find food to feed such a multitude of people.
That was the time that we know of as the feeding of the five thousand. You may know the story well. There was a small boy there who had with him a lunch of five fish and two small barely loaves. Jesus took that meagre meal, gave thanks for it, and began dividing it into pieces to be distributed to the multitude. His dividing it did not diminish the quantity in his hands. Rather than that, the amount of the bread and the fish was multiplied so that the entire mass of people ate as much as they could hold.
Give Them Something to Eat
Now, back to this present instance with the four thousand, Jesus again told the disciples that they should give the people something to eat. The disciples only saw the difficulties in this. How could they possibly find enough food for these people?
Are you surprised at that—after they had seen Jesus supply in this manner just weeks before? I am. But then again, perhaps I should not be surprised.
In all honesty, I also see the same short-term memory in myself. In my life, I have seen God do wonderful things to supply a seemingly insurmountable need that I was facing. It had been to my great relief to see this need fulfilled by some working of God.
However, later, when faced with another need, whether financial, physical or even emotional, I somehow forgot what God had done before. Again, I began fretting over what I should do. How shall I handle this? Where will I ever find the strength and the resources?
Perhaps I should not be so critical of the disciples.
At this point, similar to the way that Jesus fed the five thousand, some bread was found. Seven loaves this time. Mark does not mention it, but in Matthew’s account of the incident, he says that they also found a few fish. Again, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, and began to divide the loaves and handing the pieces to the disciples to be distributed to the crowd.
The four thousand ate until they were satisfied. When the meal was over, Jesus sent the people home on the strength of the food that they had eaten.
Seven Baskets Full
Again, as before in the feeding of the five thousand, after the crowd had left, Jesus sent the disciples around the area to pick up the morsels of bread still found lying around. They recovered seven baskets full. This time the baskets were larger ones than at the feeding of the five thousand, or so I have been told, but the actual quantity does not matter so much. What does matter was that the provision of Jesus was more than sufficient for the need. There had been an overabundance of provision.
It does not say in any of the accounts of the feeding of the five thousand or the four thousand what they did with this overabundance of bread and fish. I do not know what actually happened to the food that was gathered, whether the disciples distributed it in the villages or perhaps even brought it with them for their own consumption as they traveled around.
However, I would like to point out something about these bread morsels that to me is interesting.
Baskets Full of Compassion
Think again of the conversation that Jesus had with the Syro-phoenician woman in the Gentile city of Tyre. Jesus had told her that his ministry was to the Jewish people. He said to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Whereupon the woman answered, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.”
To this, Jesus replied, “O woman, your faith is great. Because of this answer go your way. It is done for you as you wish.”
Jesus helped this woman not because it would be a demonstration of fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. That was not his reason. These prophecies meant nothing to this woman. Jesus healed her daughter simply on the basis of her faith. He had been moved by the fact that she came to him with her need because she had nowhere else to turn.
Likewise in the healing of the deaf-mute, Jesus did this in private. This healing was simply a response to a need. It was not a sign. It was not an attesting miracle. It was a crumb left over from the children’s table.
Mark precedes the telling of the feeding of the four thousand by these two miracles that show Jesus healing out of pure compassion. In these miracles, Jesus was not fulfilling prophecies concerning the Messiah. He was moved from within to do it. They were healings of compassion
Then, notice that when Jesus was with the crowd of the four thousand, most of whom had not eaten for three days, he said that he felt compassion for the people. Again, this feeding was not one done to fulfill prophecy; Jesus simply did it out of compassion.
You know what compassion is. It is when you feel a desire to help. It is a feeling than originates from deep within yourself—even from the very center of your being. This is not the same as doing something out of a sense of commitment or honor; it is not that you do something based on a work ethic or a duty.
Compassion is a motivation to help that arises from your very depths. In fact, the Greek word for compassion actually alludes to something deep within. Compassion is not an incentive of the mind. Compassion a deep-seated motivation. It is one that we cannot reason away. Compassion moves us to act.
I believe Mark included these two miracles before the miracle of the compassionate feeding of the four thousand to show that God is a compassionate God. When we come to God out of desperation, pleading with him as did the woman from Tyre or the friends of the deaf-mute, God is moved by compassion.
Our difficulty is that we often pray to God, but then we instead expect people to do something. That is not desperation. We are looking to other people. But when our situation is hopeless and when there is no one else to help, that is when we are desperate. That is when we turn only to God and hope that he will act out of compassion.
Mark wrote these stories to show us that God can be moved by compassion.
“I have compassion for this crowd, because they have already been with Me three days and have nothing to eat,” Jesus said of the four thousand.
At another time, seeing the multitudes of people distressed and downcast, he told his disciples, “I feel compassion for them, for they are like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
Jesus Hears Your Cries of Desperation
If you are looking for your insurance plan to help you in your situation, you are not yet desperate.
If you are looking for a government bail-out or some other government aid to help you, you are not yet desperate.
If you hope that you can get a bank loan, or a loan from a friend, you are not yet desperate.
If you are hoping that the doctors can perform a “miracle” cure, you are not yet desperate.
But if none of these are options for you, if you are alone in the world with no one to help, then like the Syro-phoenician woman, cry to God for some crumbs. Like the friends of the deaf-mute man, beg Jesus to help.
Then you will touch the heart of your compassionate God.
The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.
It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the LORD.(Lamentations 3:22-26 NAS)