Mark 7: 24 – 30 Jesus honours a Syro-Phoenician woman’s faith
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
‘First let the children eat all they want,’ he told her, ‘for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’
‘Lord,’ she replied, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’
Then he told her, ‘For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’
She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
* * *
What a harsh rebuff for the woman! Jesus initially refuses to heal the woman’s child, and refers to her and her child as dogs. It looks as though Jesus is discriminating against her because she is not Jewish.
But is this actually the case?
Let’s put the passage in context. Mark 7: 1 – 23 is all about what makes a person pure. It is not what they eat or whether they wash their hands after visiting the market-place that matters; it is whether their heart is right with God. It is whether they have faith in him and try to do his will.
The disciples fail to understand properly what Jesus is saying, so he spells it out. Nothing that enters a man from outside can defile him in God’s eyes. The things that defile a man come from inside, out of the heart, and they are sins like sexual immorality, theft, murder, etc.
This is an authoritative ruling as to what makes a person unclean in God’s eyes.
However, there is still more for people – especially the disciples – to learn about purity, and it’s to do with the way the Jews treated the Gentiles. Jews of the period had as little to do with Gentiles as they could. To enter the house of a Gentile made you unclean, and it was quite a big deal. They often referred to Gentiles as dogs.
So, what does Mark tell us immediately after Jesus’ teaching about being clean in God’s eyes? He says that Jesus went to Gentile territory. He went into a house – quite possibly a Gentile house. As it turned out, a Gentile house in a Gentile region made the perfect setting for the acting out of a parable about whether God viewed the Gentiles as unclean.
Jesus has no sooner arrived than a woman throws herself at his feet.
“The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.”
Jesus answers, ‘First let the children eat all they want, … for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,’. This is a typical parable, using an analogy to illustrate an ethical question. In this case, the children were the Jews, and the dogs were Gentiles.
In saying, “First let the children eat all they want,” Jesus is just saying out loud what he has been doing in practice – taking the good news first to the Jews.
The woman makes a wonderful reply. She accepts her status as a dog, but she points out that ‘Lord, … even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’
She can’t have enjoyed being called a dog, but she doesn’t argue. However, she points out that she and her daughter are family dogs; they have a place in the home, and a place under the table. They’re not feral dogs, or dogs belonging to someone else; they belong to the family. They are allowed to pick up and eat the scraps that fall from the children’s plates.
This reply says two things. Firstly, the woman has faith in Jesus; not just faith that he can heal her daughter, but a faith that makes him her Lord. Secondly, the woman shows that she has understood what Jesus is talking about. She recognises herself as a ‘dog’, i.e. a Gentile, and she recognises the Jews as the children of the household.
She addresses Jesus as “Lord,” and shows complete humility towards him, even accepting the derogatory title of dog without protest.
She shows that her heart is right with God – and Jesus shows us the truth of that by healing her daughter.
Jesus is declaring that Gentiles are not unclean.
All that matters for any of us is how we stand with God.
Thank you for the teaching of Jesus. Please help me to be humble, trusting and obedient.
In Jesus’ name, Amen