We’re back in the gospel of Mark, looking at the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in chapter 7:24-31.
Last week Jesus discussed with the Pharisees and his disciples the topic of what truly defiles someone – not extra Scriptural rules of ritual impurity, but the moral impurity of our hearts. In this story Jesus is in a land that’s unclean, dealing with a woman who was considered unclean and he casts out an unclean spirit from her daughter.
Let’s first look at –
24And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
Jesus leaves where he has been in Galilee and goes north into new territory, somewhere around the cities of Tyre and Sidon.
This would have been the southern part of the Roman province of Syria or what we call today Lebanon (ancient Syrophoenicia).
And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know . . .
It looks like Jesus is once again looking for some solitude and rest. He’s been involved in heavy ministry for a time now – healing, teaching and having to argue with opponents. So perhaps he thought that in this Gentile area he could take a break. He wouldn’t be known here. There wouldn’t be mobs of people clamoring after him.
. . . yet he could not be hidden.25But immediately a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet.
Jesus was found out!
Some from this area had traveled to Galilee to receive ministry from Jesus, as we saw in chapter 3 (v. 8), including casting out demons (v. 11). Perhaps they spread the word when they went home and now it has gotten out that Jesus is in their area.
In any case, this unnamed woman finds Jesus and falls down at his feet. Her daughter is demon possessed. We aren’t given any more details about how this manifested itself, physically or mentally. The focus of the story isn’t really the daughter, it’s on the mother and Jesus.
26Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.
According to the way things were at this time, she had three strikes against her:
- She was a woman and social contact with a man who was not a part of her family could be seen as scandalous
- She was a Gentile, not a Jew; not a part of God’s people
- She was a Syrophoenician, from a people who were bitter enemies of the Jews.
But none of these obstacles stopped her.
And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
“She begged” can also be translated as “she kept begging.”
And according to Matthew’s version of this story it was so persistent and thus annoying that the disciples ended up begging Jesus to send her away (Matthew 15:23). This is quite the scene with everybody begging Jesus. Not very restful!
Jesus responds to the woman with a parable.
27And 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.”
Jesus is drawing on common sense experience. Everyone knows that the children are fed first, and then the dogs are fed. The application is that Jesus is focused on the Jews, God’s chosen ones who have waited for God’s promises to be fulfilled. This is what his ministry is about (Matthew 15:24). Focused ministry to the Gentiles will come later.
Now, this parable has been taken in the wrong way and it has upset some people. But Jesus is not saying that Gentiles are dogs. There’s little or no evidence that this was a common way that Jews spoke of Gentiles (Mark Nanos – Paul’s Reversal, 2008). And besides, Jesus uses the word for “dog” that means pets or puppies (and this is how the woman takes it, house pets – v. 28).
The point is not a difference in kind – Jews are children and Gentiles are dogs. The point is a difference in timing, first the Jews, then others. This is made clear by the word “first,” a chronological marker. This is what Paul meant, when he said in Romans 1:16 that he preaches the gospel “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
[Jesus has ministered to Gentiles already. But this is the only recorded story of Jesus helping someone outside the boundaries of traditional Israel. Perhaps this is why he raises this issue. There are some parallels with Elijah’s healing of a Gentile woman’s son (1 Kings 17:8-24)]
28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
First, notice that she addresses him as “Lord.” This is the only time someone does this in Mark’s gospel and it shows her understanding of who Jesus is.
And then she shows her intelligence and wit. She gets his parable, which the disciples usually do not. And then she goes on to make her own point. Even though the dogs eat later, sometimes the children drop crumbs and thus the dogs eat at the same time as the children. So based on Jesus’ own parable – it should be alright for her not to have to wait, but to receive some bread even now.
This woman reframed the discussion is such a way that allowed Jesus’ concerns to be acknowledged, but also allowed her to receive her request.
- She isn’t asking for Jesus to neglect Israel, or to take anything away from them.
- She’s just saying, “Since you’re already here in Gentile territory, why not a crumb?”
29And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus, the one who always bests his opponents in argument, is here bested by her.
Her statement shows her humility. She accepted her place as not-yet one of the elect; and not-yet the focus of Jesus’ ministry. And her statement demonstrates her bold and persistent faith. She did not allow Jesus’ “no” to stop her. But continued to make the case for her daughter.
In response to this humility and faith, Jesus readily healed her daughter, and that from a distance. (Perhaps having to do with concern about purity with entering a Gentile home).
v. 30 confirms the miracle –
30And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
Our story ends with v. 31 –
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.
What do we learn from this story?
What about us?
1 . Be open to opportunities to minister to others. It wasn’t Jesus’ timing to minister to her. He was trying to get away from people and crowds, so he could rest. What does he do when he’s found out? He allowed his privacy to be invaded; he gave up some of his time of rest.
And we need to be open to this as well. You have one thing scheduled, and it’s a good thing. But someone comes along who needs help. Be open to this.
Also, it wasn’t Jesus’ focus to help her. God sent him to minister to the people of Israel (Matthew 15:24). She’s not a part of Israel. What does Jesus do? He raised the issue with her, but then he responded when he saw her humility and faith.
Things don’t always work according to our plans. In my church in Portland we worked at setting up a weekly meal for neighbors so that we could get to know them. We wanted all kinds of people to come. But it turned out that only the homeless came. We had not really planned on this; it wasn’t our focus. And I had no skills in this (although one of our workers did). But it opened up a season of ministry to this population in our area.
The same happened with immigrant Congolese Africans. We never sat down and said, “Hey, let’s begin this ministry.” It wasn’t our focus. But God gave it to us.
We need to be open to the opportunities that God brings across our path even if it’s not our focus or timing.
2. Approach God like this woman did.When you pray, learn from her. She was successful. What did she do?
She approached Jesus with humility:
- she fell down at his feet
- she accepted that she’s not-yet part of the elect and has no claim on him
- she calls him “Lord,” an expression of submission.
Also, she approached Jesus with bold, persistent faith
- she searched Jesus out while he was in hiding
- she kept begging
- she called him “Lord,” also an expression of faith
- after Jesus said no, she responded boldly
- and she knew that for him, casting out a demon was only a crumb – a small thing for him to do.
In your prayers, approach God with humility and faith.
3. Know that Jesus is able to help. As we saw in the story, he wasn’t able to stay hidden, but he was able to help.
He’s the Messiah and Savior. And he can take care of us. He can come through for us.
He overcame the power of the evil one in this mom’s daughter – as if it were nothing! From a distance. Without even saying a word. And he’s more than able to deliver us from all the powers of evil and sin that confront us.