Parents teach their children to have good manners. They teach them that they must be respectful of others and not to say anything that might hurt the feelings of others. And so if our child goes up to a person and says, “You have a really big nose!” we are appalled and embarrassed. We teach our children not to say things that are rude and will hurt others.
So it strikes us as odd to hear Jesus say what he says in this passage. It just doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say to someone, particularly if they have some kind of need. Imagine that someone comes to the door here at church asking for a Kroger card because they are hungry or need gas and I say to them, “Why should I give one to you? All you’re going to do is use it to buy alcohol or drugs!” That is not how we imagine Jesus would want me to respond. And yet here we hear Jesus say something that makes us squirm. Let’s read Mark 7:24-30.
I. We see this Gentile woman’s great need in verses 24-26.
Jesus now goes to the area of Phoenicia, about 20 miles northwest of Capernaum in Galilee. Jesus is likely searching for privacy and so heads north leaving the land of Israel. This was apparently the only excursion beyond the borders of Israel. In fact, Jesus seems to have avoided having much contact with the Gentiles. In this case, verse 24 clearly says that he desired to get away and escape notice. However, others from this region had already come to him as we saw in Mark 3:8 and so he was clearly known in this Gentile community. Jesus goes to Tyre to get the rest which had been recently interrupted twice already. A house there provided a place of retreat for Jesus with his disciples. This says that those involved in the work of the kingdom work also need rest.
While there, Mark notes that a thoroughly non-Jewish woman approached Jesus. She was a Greek citizen in the Phoenician state of Tyre, a Gentile by birth and culture. She is called a Syrophoenecian woman because Phoenicia belonged administratively to the Roman province of Syria. The woman had no previous contact with Jesus but had heard of his ability to cast out demons and her daughter had such an evil spirit. We may have an idea of what this meant for her based on Mark 9 where a demon-possessed boy had convulsions which caused him to fall into fire or water.
The mother’s anguish over her daughter’s condition is thoroughly understandable. As a result she is persistent in begging Jesus to cast the demon out of her child. She falls at Jesus’ feet; a sign of deep respect as well as of profound grief. She is imploring Jesus to help her in her profound need.
Desperate times drive us as well to our knees in front of Jesus. We pray earnestly – almost desperately – when the need is great, don’t we? Cancer enters our lives and we earnestly implore Jesus to help us and heal us. A child wanders away from the Lord and we beg Jesus to bring him or her back. A friend struggles with addiction and we pray earnestly that God will spare him or her. A marriage or a parent-child relationship is teetering at the edge of destruction and we pray that God will restore.
The first funeral I did in my ministry was that of a 3 year old girl who died of a terminal liver disease. These parents earnestly pleaded with God to heal their daughter who was desperately ill. Their faith was unwavering but the prayers were deep and anguished. We can understand the pain and anguish of this woman who is desperate to do anything to help her daughter whose life is being tormented by this evil spirit. And when we pray in this way, we expect Jesus to be kind and compassionate. We pray earnestly for help and we expect kindness, mercy and responsiveness.
II. Yet Jesus gives what seems to us to be a very “rude” response in verse 27.
Jesus says, “First let the children eat all they want for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Ouch! First Jesus seems to refuse her because she is a Gentile, which is understandable. In the Old Testament and later Judaism, the people of Israel were often designated as the children of God. Jesus must first go to his own people with the message of the kingdom and he is saying that the time has not yet come for blessing to be extended to the Gentiles. But what is disturbing is the analogy Jesus uses. He basically appears to compare this woman to a dog begging for scraps of food. And that strikes us as being cold or maybe even downright mean!
What does Jesus mean in using this picture? Many see Jesus’ words reflecting a brutal Jew versus Gentile tension. The Jews did call Gentiles “dogs” and did view them with utter disdain. And so some think Jesus is picking up on that and calling this woman a Gentile dog who must be given the kingdom of God only after all the chosen people are fed. However, this woman would not likely have been familiar with this meaning of the Jews being fed first and most likely not the attitude of the Jews toward her.
Still Jesus’ apparent refusal to help in a situation of clear and urgent need gives the impression of harshness and insensitivity. He was often angry toward the “righteous” Jewish leaders; we understand that. Yet he always showed compassion to those in need and we expect that here.
So there must be something else going on here that helps to explain what Jesus is doing. His reluctance to help this woman immediately may in fact be due to where he was more than anything else. In the Greek world in the first century there were many “miracle workers” who attracted popular followings. In Galilee, Jesus had been regarded as one of these “miracle workers” and the crowds had thronged to him for his miraculous help. Perhaps this woman had heard of him and sought out his miraculous powers.
However, the power of God in Jesus is not given in a setting of superstition and magic but only in response to faith. Jesus therefore may well have been testing this woman’s faith in his statement by placing an obstacle in front of her. Jesus wants to know if she is she willing to place her faith in Jesus and not just receive a healing from a miracle worker.
How do we respond when Jesus tests our faith by placing some kind of obstacle in front of us? This woman responded with perseverance and faith.
III. Let’s look now at the woman’s great faith in verses 28-30.
This woman apparently understood Jesus’ statement as an invitation to her to have faith and she responds appropriately. She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman understood this test and did not hesitate at the obstacle before her. She felt no insult in Jesus’ comparison between children of the household and the pet dogs of the house.
In fact, she turned it to her advantage by saying that the crumbs dropped by the children, after all, are intended for the dogs! Jesus’ comparison is not rejected but carried one step further by this woman. If the dogs eat the crumbs under the table, they are fed at the same time as the children and do not have to wait.
She is saying, “Let the children be fed, but allow the dogs to enjoy the crumbs. There does not have to be an interruption of the meal, for what she asks for is not the whole loaf but a single crumb. She accepts the comparison to the dog and her witty reply and profound respect for Jesus in her address show that her faith in his power has not been shaken.
We see Jesus’ response to her faith in verse 29. The bold and persistent confidence of the woman in Jesus delighted him. Her interpretation of his statement shows Jesus both her humility and her simple trust in his power to confront the evil spirit when all human help fails. This is the faith that Jesus wanted to see from all who came to him. On the ground of her bold but clever response, Jesus tells her to return home. Jesus speaks in this manner each time he sees the strong faith of those who ask for healing from him. No word of healing was spoken, but the woman was given the strong assurance that the evil spirit had been indeed cast out of her daughter. She returned home where she found her child lying on her bed. The demon had likely thrown her there with a final convulsion before leaving. Presumably the child was exhausted, but her state of calmness indicated that the evil spirit was indeed gone and the daughter was healed.
So what do we do with this story? Do we have faith that Jesus can do great and amazing things for us? Do we believe even when God’s answer to us doesn’t seem to be what we want? Do we have faith especially when the answer doesn’t seem to come at all? Do we believe when our faith is tested even more by what seems to be a harsh response from a loving God? Have faith in God and he will ultimately answer us in ways that, while we may not understand, will be best and amazing for us.
Having faith isn’t easy and sometimes it can be profoundly challenging! But be bold; question God and ask boldly for his help in our needs. God wants to see our faith in action as we struggle with whatever we must face in our lives. And when we ask in faith, we can know that our faithful God will indeed help us.