Mark’s Gospel, Social Outcasts, and Modern Slavery

[1] Poverty entraps people by ensnaring and entangling them in intricate and inescapable webs of slavery. I use “slavery” not as a metaphor, but as an apt description of what life is like for between twelve and twenty-seven million people today.1 That there are more slaves today than at any other time in history should give us pause, even if it is only to acknowledge realities too often hidden from those of us in the One-Third World.

Mark’s Gospel, Social Outcasts, and Modern Slavery by Matthew S. Rindge

[2] Sex slavery is an insidious form of our modern “peculiar institution.”2 I first became aware of this practice while teaching in Thailand, where one of my students, a Lutheran pastor, worked with girls trapped in the sex trade. The stories of most girls in the brothels, she explained, were fairly similar. Men from Bangkok visit poor rural families, paying money to parents who would provide their daughter for work such as washing dishes in a restaurant or sewing clothes in a factory. Once in Bangkok, however, the girls were introduced to a much different kind of “work.” Men initiate the girls into their new life by raping them repeatedly; this in order to instill in them submission and obedience. They are subsequently put to work in brothels, bars, massage parlors, and the like, where they service between a few and dozens of men each day.

[3] I was stunned to hear that many parents sell their daughters knowing what awaits them. But they can either sell their daughters and help feed their remaining children, or keep them home and watch all their children succumb to hunger. Such is the “choice” facing many of the desperate poor in the Two-Thirds World.3

[4] Of the 600,000–800,000 people trafficked internationally each year, about seventy-five percent are for sex purposes. Half of those trafficked are children. Seventy-five percent are female. Forty-three percent are from East Asia/the Pacific.4 Many are enslaved within the borders of their own countries. While some put the number of sex slaves in the world today at 1.39 million,5 UNICEF estimates there are close to two million children in forced prostitution.6 At least one in every forty girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery.7 This is a world where the Kingdom does not come. Where God’s will is not done. It is a world in which I do not want to live.

[5] Can biblical texts speak meaningfully to such a world? This article aims to show that Mark’s Gospel can be a useful resource for responding to sex slavery. I will argue that Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and social outcasts provides three models that help those interested in combating sex slavery.

[6] It is well known that Jesus is presented as a healer in the first half of Mark’s gospel. Less known are two dominant patterns common to most of these healings. The first pattern concerns the types of people Jesus healed: a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, a bleeding woman, a dead girl, and two blind men.8

[7] The Torah classifies such people, due to their respective conditions, as ritually unclean. Because such impurity was deemed contagious, various rules served to isolate the person socially. Lepers are to wear torn clothes, sport disheveled hair, and cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” so as to warn people of their proximity. The leper “shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev 13:45–46). During her menstrual period a woman is likewise considered to be in a state of “impurity,” and anyone who touches such a woman becomes unclean. A woman who bleeds beyond seven days is in a perpetual state of “uncleanness,” and whatever she sits upon during this time becomes unclean, as does anyone who touches these things (Leviticus 15:19–28).

[8] Those with physical “blemishes” were forbidden from giving offerings to God. Such people included the “blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles” (Leviticus 21:16–20). Corpses are apparently unclean, for anyone who touches them becomes unclean, and any who fail to purify themselves after such contact shall be “cut off from Israel” (Numbers 19:11, 13a).

[9] Nine of the twelve specific individuals Jesus heals in Mark have conditions that are cause for social exclusion. Seven people have a condition that the Torah specifically labels as unclean or impure, and which can infect others. These include the leper, paralytic, man with a withered hand, Jairus’s daughter, bleeding woman, and the two blind men.9 Two others, the demoniac and the man with a hearing and speech impediment, are good candidates for social exclusion. The former is associated with three “unclean” elements: an unclean spirit, tombs, and a great herd of swine (5:2, 3, 8, 11). The man’s hearing and speech problems might classify him with the physically disabled that Leviticus prohibits from giving offerings to God (Leviticus 21:16–20).

[10] When Jesus heals these people he removes the cause of their social exclusion, thereby enabling them to participate in the community. His healings do not merely make individuals “well”; they rather integrate and restore the socially marginalized into society. The leper need no longer dwell “outside the camp.” The bleeding woman is now able to touch and be touched. The primary effect of Jesus’ healings is thus not personal but social. He restores the outcasts to the community, and, in doing so, perhaps restores the community as well. Jesus’ words to the healed demoniac (“Go home to your friends…”) reflects this interest in reintegrating the marginalized (Mark 5:18–19).

[11] Embodying Jesus’ healing practices must likewise involve restoring social outcasts to community. A current example of such embodiment is the work of people such as Somaly Mam in Cambodia and Sarah Lance in Calcutta. Both women have spent years not only removing women and girls from sex slavery but also inviting them into a community of nurture. Sarah (through Sari Bari/Word Made Flesh) and Somaly (through AFESIP) provide women and girls with a home, relational nurture, and vocational skills. Such holistic care is the vehicle in and through which women and girls can experience the second part of Somaly Mam’s mission: “ending sexual slavery and giving victims a chance at a new life.”10 Such a chance is crucial in places like Cambodia and India where multiple factors conspire to ensnare girls and women in sex slavery.

[12] A second pattern in many of Jesus’ healings in Mark is physical contact:

“A leper came to him… Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…” (Mark 1:40a, 41a).

“Then [Jesus]… went in where the child was. He took her by the hand…” (Mark 5:40b–41a).

“But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand” (Mark 9:27).

“He took the blind man by the hand… and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him…. Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again” (Mark 8:23, 25a).

These descriptions of touching are not coincidental. Mark’s emphasis through repetition is evident both in the latter example and in the healing of the bleeding woman:

“She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well….’ Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'” (Mark 5:27–31).

[13] Mark highlights the physical contact between Jesus and those he heals. Jesus touches six of the twelve people he heals in Mark: the leper, Jairus’s daughter, the bleeding woman, the man who is deaf and has a speech impediment, one of the blind men, and the child with an unclean spirit.11 On two other occasions, Mark notes that touching occurs between Jesus and large groups of people he heals (Mark 3:10; 6:56). Such touching is significant given the Torah’s insistence (noted in the excerpts above from Leviticus and Numbers) regarding the contagious nature of impurity and uncleanness. The implications of such touching would be clear to Mark’s readers/hearers familiar with Torah: Jesus is willing to become impure and unclean in order to restore outcasts to community. Although he demonstrates an ability to heal from a distance (cf. Mark 7:29–30), he tends to touch, even if this means becoming unclean or impure. Jesus was willing to get dirty as is evidenced by putting his fingers into the ears of a deaf man, and touching the man’s tongue (Mark 7:32–37).

[14] Sex slavery thrives partly because it lurks in a world of lurid darkness where many fear to tread. Most men who go there do so in order to use and abuse. We need men and women willing to enter this ugly world in order to befriend, be present with, rescue, rehabilitate, and nurture. Touching the women trapped as slaves requires entering an impure and unclean world.

[15] A second model of Jesus’ contact with the marginalized is his habit of eating and drinking with them, a practice which elicits the suspicion and scorn of the religious leaders (Mark 2:15–17). Luke’s gospel highlights, to a greater degree than Mark’s, Jesus’ penchant for dining with outcasts. Jesus’ meals with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:29–32; 15:1–2) is significant since, in the Jewish world of the first century, meals were a primary way of expressing acceptance of another person. The Pharisees, it has been argued, would probably not have objected to Jesus’ dining companions if he had been trying to convert them.12

[16] Bill Moyers has said, “Charity provides crumbs from the table; justice offers a place at the table.” Jesus provides this type of justice through his meals with the marginalized. Healings and meals both seek to restore outcasts to community, but they employ disparate strategies. With healings, Jesus removes the barrier that causes people to be marginalized; with meals he welcomes outcasts into his social circle as they are. When read in its literary context (Luke 15:1–2), the primary rhetorical aim of Jesus’ parable of the Father and Two Sons (Luke 15:11–32) is to invite the Pharisees to sit down and eat with the tax collectors and sinners.

[17] Jesus’ practice of touching and eating with marginalized people underscores the personal nature of his relationship with them. Jesus spends far more time with the marginalized than he does talking about them. They function for him not as a concept or an issue but as actual persons. Similarly, Jesus never speaks about poverty as an issue; he speaks instead of people who are poor. We do damage against the personhood of the poor and marginalized when we reduce their humanity to a mere issue or slogan.

[18] Efforts at eradicating sex slavery must be rooted in relationships with women and girls trapped in the sex trade. Raising money, signing petitions, reading books, sporting bumper stickers, and calling elected officials, although potentially valuable, is no substitute for time spent with these women. Mother Teresa wrote that the worst thing about poverty is the message it sends its victims about being worthless and alone. Relationships counteract this message by reminding women and girls in the sex trade that they are not alone and that they do matter.

[19] A third model regarding social outcasts appears in Jesus’ outburst in the Temple (Mark 11:15–17). Noteworthy for three reasons, this episode is one of the few stories recorded in all four canonical gospels; it is likely the proximate catalyst for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion;13 and, apart perhaps from cursing the fig tree, it is the only time (in the canonical gospels) Jesus is physically violent. He is violent in three specific ways: (1) he “began to throw out” those selling and buying;14 (2) he “destroyed the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of the ones selling doves,” and (3) he “wasn’t allowing anyone to carry goods through the temple.”

[20] Discomfort about Jesus’ violence is evident in Matthew and Luke’s versions of the story. In Luke, the only thing Jesus does is drive out those who sold. He does not drive out those who bought, nor destroy tables and seats, nor prevent people from carrying things.15 Luke likely omits the “overturning” of tables since the word Mark uses (katastrefō) for this action often means “destroy.” The word is used eleven times in the Greek Bible (LXX) to describe God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, indicating the destructive kind of force it could connote.16

[21] Jesus’ citation of Isaiah 56:7b (“My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples/nations”) after his actions illumines why he may have been so violent.17 In its Isaianic context, this line concludes an insistence that yhwh will welcome foreigners into the temple and accept their offerings (Isaiah 56:3–8). The temple in Jesus’ day, however, consisted of concentric circles of holiness. The system of segregation excluded people based on office, gender, and ethnicity. The court of Gentiles was the most exterior, and it was marked by two inscriptions warning Gentiles that capital punishment was the consequence for crossing further into the temple interior. The temple in Jesus’ day was not a house of prayer for all peoples.

[22] Read in light of the citation of Isaiah 56:7, Jesus’ violent acts constitute a direct challenge to an institution whose very architecture is exclusive. Jesus indicts the center of religious, political, and economic power of first-century Judaism for betraying God’s inclusive vision. He does not target individuals or try to change peoples’ “hearts” or “minds.” He targets, with violence, a systemic marginalization of outcasts.

[23] Jesus’ use of violence against an oppressive system echoes the conflict in Exodus 1–15. In his first act as an adult, Moses kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew (Exodus 2:11–12).18 Shortly thereafter Moses protects and delivers a group of women from male shepherds (Exodus 2:15b–19). Moses enters conflicts, and sides with the weaker against the stronger party. It is likely for this reason that yhwh enlists Moses to side with the Hebrews against Pharaoh. Neither Moses nor Jesus remains neutral in a conflict. Both embody a preferential option for the oppressed or marginalized, and a willingness to use violence against the powerful.

[24] Jesus’ actions in the Temple remind us of the need to augment rescuing, rehabilitating, and reintegrating enslaved women and girls with more direct attacks on the powerful structures and systems that enable sex slavery to thrive. We need to challenge the Pharaohs of our world to let God’s people go. We need people to pressure and destabilize the Temples of today that are complicit in the dehumanization of so many women and girls.

[25] I conclude by commending four organizations that make a concrete difference in the lives of women and girls harmed by sex slavery:

Sari Bari and Word Made Flesh
Free the Slaves
International Justice Mission
AIDS Free World


1. For the 12 million figure, see United States State Department, Trafficking in Persons Report (June 2009), 7; for the 27 million figure, see Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) 8. The figure in the United States State Department report is based on the estimates of the United Nation’s International Labor Organization.

2. By “sex slavery” I mean to include sex trafficking, bride trafficking, child sex tourism, and coercive prostitution and pornography. Other forms of modern slavery include bonded labor, forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, human trafficking, child soldiers, and organ selling.

3. I use “desperate poverty” to refer to the one-half of the world’s population that lives on less than two dollars per day. My definition differs from the World Bank which classifies “extreme poverty” as earning less than $1.25 per day. For the complex issues regarding definitions of “moderate” and “extreme” poverty, see Ann Harrison, Globalization and Poverty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) 43f.

4. Trafficking in Persons Report (2007).

5. Trafficking in Persons Report (2009) 8.

6. Trafficking in Persons Report (2009) 22.

7. Report by Future Group, a Canadian NGO (2005). Cited in Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008) i.

8. See Mark 1:40–45; 2:1–12; 3:1–6; 5:24b–34; 5:22–24, 35–43; 8:22–26; 10:46–52.

9. See Mark 1:40–45; 2:1–12; 3:1–6; 5:22–24, 35–43; 5:25–34; 7:32–37; 8:22–26; 10:46–52.

10. The Road of Lost Innocence, appendix.

11. Mark 1:40–45; 5:22–24, 35–43; 5:25–34; 7:32–37; 8:22–26; 9:17–29.

12. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 1993) 225–37.

13. See Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.

14. Of the eighteen uses of ekballō (“throw/cast out”) in Mark, fifteen refer to casting out demons; one refers to plucking out one’s eye (9:47); one refers to throwing a dead person outside of a vineyard (12:8); and one is used here in the temple episode (11:15). The last two uses occur in the “long ending” that was most likely appended to Mark’s original text at a later date.

15. Cf. Luke 19:45. In Matthew, Jesus “drove out” rather than in Mark where he “began to drive out….” Like Luke, Matthew omits the account of Jesus preventing people from carrying anything.

16. Genesis 13:10; 19:21, 25, 29; Deuteronomy 29:22 [Eng 29:23] (twice); Amos 4:11; Isaiah 13:19; Jeremiah 27:40 (LXX); 30:12 (LXX); Lamentations 4:6.

17. The MT reads “all peoples.” The LXX has “nations.”

18. It is unclear if Moses tried to kill the Egyptian. It is clear that he was willing to injure him in order to protect a Hebrew slave, that his attack was premeditated, and that he tried to conceal it—both before and after the fact. He conceals it both by looking this way and that (and seeing no one), and by hiding the body in the sand.

Matthew Rindge

Matthew Rindge is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. Currently he is revising Illustrating Wisdom: Luke 12:13-34 and the Interplay of Death and Possessions for the Society of Biblical Literature's series Early Christianity and Its Literature and co-writing The History of Biblical Interpretation to 1835: A Reader (Westminster John Knox Press).