Of circuitous routes and cleansing sighs

Sometimes the most direct path is not a straight line


Mark 7:31-37

Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Mark organized his gospel in part by geographical regions: Capernaum and the Galilee (Mark 1-6); Northern travels (Mark 6-9); and Jerusalem (Mark 9-11). Secular scholars have complained that Mark, of all the gospel writers either had little understanding of geography or that he invented the geography to accompany his various miracles. On further analysis, the same scholars agree that the first six chapters of Mark make geographic sense and the last is also consistent. It’s only the middle section that these scholars say “shows decided poverty of material or confusion of thought” (McCown, 1941). McCown says this particular passage from Tyre through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis would be “like going from Chicago to New York by way of Minneapolis and Toronto”(Anderson, 1976). 

However, if the first and last sections are considered reasonably accurate, there is no reason to think that the middle chapters are not. So, the question remains, why such a circuitous route? The disciples had to wonder, too, why Jesus went north instead of south and west instead of east. One possibility is that the teachings and miracles Jesus offered along that route were similar to things Mark had already recorded. John noted, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did, were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Another might be that Mark, in all his enthusiasm to talk about everything Jesus did, had to backtrack, like a ten year old recounting a day at a theme park.  This route also excludes any Jewish territory; it is Gentile land (Ligoner). Manning (2020) offers a theory about topography and fresh water. The bottom line: we don’t know why Jesus took that route, but it’s entirely probable that he did. 

So what?

Timing. Jesus knew when He needed to arrive to meet the people who would bring to him a deaf and mute man once he was in the region of the Decapolis. Jesus had sent a demon out of a Syrophoenician girl at the pleading of her Gentile mother and he had a divine appointment in another Gentile territory on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He traveled throughout the territory and arrived on the eastern shore of the lake where he met a man who was deaf and unable to speak. It was no coincidence that Jesus arrived when he did. He knew exactly when the man and his friends would seek him out, and he purposefully set out to be there. People always crowded around Jesus, sometimes limiting his movements. Jesus wanted this moment to be unique for the man, his friends, and Jesus’s own disciples.

The people knew this man. They watched to see what would happen, but Jesus pulled him aside for privacy. Mark saw what happened next, and maybe a few other disciples. But the crowd only saw the contrast between before and after. The healing itself was an intimate moment, just between the man and Jesus. The disciples saw Jesus use physical gestures to communicate to the man how healing would occur. And they saw him look to heaven and sigh. Anderson wrote of that sigh,

“The upward look indicates the transcendent source of the healer’s power. Jesus’ ‘sighing’ could be a ‘groaning of the Spirit’ (Romans 8) in an inarticulate prayer, but is more likely a groan of lament that such suffering as this is contrary to God’s will for his creation” (p. 193).

 Or, as Pastor Jason Cook remarked, “Sometimes a sigh is a cleansing breath after you’ve held it for so long, sometimes a sigh connotes that you can’t hold it any longer; sometimes a sigh connotes, I don’t know what else to do.” In this case, Jesus sighs because things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. Jesus feels this man’s pain and meets him there. Jesus doesn’t put him on display, and in fact tells him not to tell anyone. 

Sometimes in life it feels like the Lord is leading us on a meandering path to an unknown destination. We may even think we know what the destination might be. Point A to point B winds around points G and P and T without clear direction. As we go along the path, we get tired or discouraged. We wonder, “why this path?” or “was I wrong about the destination?” Certainly the disciples had an idea that they were going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, so I can imagine they wondered what Jesus was doing by taking this wilderness path when a direct route was obvious. But Jesus knew. He knew the man who needed him would be ready for a miracle when Jesus met him. He knows where we are going, too. He takes us on paths through deserted valleys and around mountains too treacherous to climb. A direct route might be more efficient, but efficiency leaves no room for taking in the scenery or learning to accept any movement as a positive step. What lessons can be learned along the way? The key is to focus less on the destination and what may happen there and to focus only on Jesus, even when the route is circuitous and doesn’t make sense. 

We focus on Jesus because He empathizes with us. He sighs deeply when we are hurt or tired or discouraged, not in frustration with out lack of faith, but because the journey is only necessary because we live in a fallen world. We are a long way from Eden with a long way to go. Over time, we can become deaf to the the encouragement of others and it becomes increasingly difficult to express what we know in the light of our experiences through foreign places that were never meant for us. Like the disciples, we must follow even when the way doesn’t make sense. Like the deaf-mute man, we have to look Jesus in the face when he touches our tongues and ears so we fully understand that his intention for us is blessing. He directs us with a sigh to the One to whom we belong, even as we linger in a place where we don’t belong. It’s uncomfortable, but he suffered so much more. He truly knows sorrow, disappointment, and the weight of not belonging. He sighs for us because things are not as they should be. He signs with us because he feels our longing for something meaningful and real. 

Jesus meets us where we are and then moves us toward divine appointments where we may experience his healing power, a place he can use us for his glory. Wandering is an opportunity to look at Jesus and follow his lead. The time will come when our ears are fully opened to his plan for us and our tongues can proclaim his glory because he brought us safely to the place of miracle. 


Anderson, Hugh (1976).  The Gospel of Mark. Marshall, Morgan, and Scott. https://archive.org/details/gospelofmark0000ande/page/n5/mode/2up

Cook, Jason. (2022, October 9). Mark Part Five [sermon] Fellowship Roswell Church.

Kent, Charles Foster. Palestine in the time of Jesus, 4 B.C. – 30 A.D.: including the period of Herod, 40 – 4 B.C. [S.l.: s.n, 1912] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2009579463/.

Ligoner Ministries. Reformation Study Bible on Bible Gateway.com.

Manning, Erik (2020, January 21). Were the gospel writers really geographically inept? Is Jesus Alive [blog].

McCown, C.C. (1941, March). Gospel geography fiction, fact, and truth. The Society of Biblical Literature, 60 (1). 1-25.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/3262559 .
Thurston, Bonnie Bowman (2008). The Spiritual Landscape of Mark. [sample].Liturgical Press.

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