Last time, we talked about the episode of Jesus calming the storm and how it was a polemic against the failure of rehearsing the gospel story as seen through the redemption of Israel through the waters. I now want to turn your attention to Mark 7:24-30:
24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
This passage is one of my favorites from the life of Jesus and it highlights wonderfully the polemic nature of Jesus’s ministry. When preaching this passage, my pastor used the metaphor of Jesus holding his cards close to his chest until he folds, He mentioned that this is one of the only times Jesus lets someone win a verbal match. This metaphor helps as you read along because this passage confuses people. Jesus seems gruff with this women. He seems to affirm some of the racial and gender prejudices common among first century Jews. Just remember he’s holding his cards close to his chest. We can’t see them right off. Thankfully we’ll get to peek at his hand in a bit.
First, Jesus meets this woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.
Tyre and Sidon has a mixed history. It’s the region Jezebel is from and so as you might expect Jews might not be fond of it, but also it’s the region where the widow fed and cared for Elijah. It’s an interesting detour in this narrative. It’s a polemic against the racial pride of the Jews. By the time Jesus arrives the animosity has escalated between Jews and Gentiles in this region. The Gentiles are known as dogs. They have rejected God and are outside of the covenant, and, therefore, beyond His grace—by Jewish standards of the day.
It’s interesting as well that this incident falls right on the heels of a discussion about ceremonial laws. Jesus reminds the multitudes that what goes into your mouth doesn’t defile you, but what comes from your heart. Jesus is very clear that “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20). If this is so for food, how much more for people? So we see right off one of Jesus’s cards. You can’t be unclean just because you come from a certain region.
Second, Jesus rehearses the racial and gender stigma of the day then subverts them.
This is a common technique of Jesus. He rehearses a common expectation and then turns it on its head. He does this in the passage from Matthew 15 mentioned. He repeats some of the common ceremonial expectations of the Pharisees and shows how they are wrong. They’ve missed the point.
In the same way, Jesus rehearses the common racial lines to this woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) and “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). He’s holding his cards close. His words grate on the ear. If you read these words against the rest of the Gospels, they sting even more. This isn’t the way Jesus usually speaks to those who genuinely need and know they need His help. So why does he speak to her this way?
He’s purpose is to subvert the beliefs of His Jewish listeners. They’ve made their election about themsleves and missed that God said he didn’t chose them because they were special, but because He is God and He can show mercy on whoever He wants. He set them apart for himself. The redemptive arc always was meant to include the adoption of Gentiles into the family of faith. He’s also subverting common devaluing of women in that culture. It’s often repeated that women’s witness in court was worth less than men. Yet here she is petitioning the Jewish rabbi. Her request is being granted. Her faith is lifted up as an example.
Third, Jesus will have her as an adopted child of God or nothing at all.
Jesus’s answer is a polemic against those missed arcs. My imagination really works when reading this story. I can almost see Jesus’s standing aloof eyes up and away. Arms crossed. Almost nodding to the Pharisees as those piercing words leave His lips. Right as he delivers the last line. He quickly peeks at the woman. A momentary glance of compassion.
You might expect her to run away devastated, but no she responds in humility. “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs” (Mark 7:28). Jesus goes from arms crossed and aloof to exuberant. To the shock of those same Pharisees around Him, he says, “O woman, great is your faith!”
At that moment, I can see the jaws of the crowd loosed. Jesus then says, “Be it done for you as you desire.” This reminds me of the many passages in Scripture where a King might reward a faithful servant, “Anything you want up to half my kingdom.” Jesus doesn’t even limit her in this way. He just says, “Be it done for you as you desire.” Instantly her daughter is healed.
As my pastor said, all she wanted were crumbs of grace. She approached Jesus like all sinners must in faith acknowledging their sinfulness, but expecting extravagant grace and forgiveness. It’s interesting to remember as well Jesus says (even if it is in polemic) “it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” yet he seemingly does just this. If I may, the other card we see when he says this is she’s not a dog. She’s a child at the table. He’s the father receiving the prodigal. He will not have this woman as a dog in His house. She will be an adopted child of God or nothing at all. She is in covenant. She is in the family of faith.
One last thing to tie things up. An application heard from the aforementioned sermon. The only other episode where someone falls to the ground and begs is found in Mark 14. Except it’s not a Gentile asking for healing or a Jew or a disciple. It’s Jesus. He’s begging and pleading with his Father. “Is there another way? Must I drink of this cup?” Frighteningly there is silence. We hear nothing from the Father. The unwritten answer is “There is no other way.” In that moment, Jesus takes all of our unanswered petitions and carries them on his shoulders and in return we always receive loaves of grace. Unmerited. Food without price. The body and blood of Jesus. So today receive not the crumbs from the table, but the bounty from the feast.
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and writes for CBMW Manual, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and other publications. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and offers freelance editing and book formatting services. He blogs at Grace for Sinners and Marginalia: On the Margins of the Writing Life. His family is covenanted at Downtown Presbyterian Church.