Are there Bible passages that absolutely stump you? Do you read stories in scripture that not only make you scratch your head in wonder, they make you look away in avoidance?
Today’s reading is one of those passages for me. I am confused, saddened, and honestly, a little repulsed. But scripture itself assures us that all scripture is beneficial for teaching, so let’s jump in together and see what we can learn.
Mark described a moment in Jesus’ ministry when Jesus was traveling throughout Israel, teaching, ministering, and healing people. The word of his miracle-making had preceded him and in a futile attempt at some rest, he tried to stay away from the crowds. But people knew he was in Tyre when a persistent mother sought him out:
Mark 7 (Common English Bible)
24 Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
I’m sure you can anticipate my objections to this passage. I don’t understand how the Messiah, who came because “God so loved the WORLD, he sent his only son,” would reject a mother’s plea for her child to be released from demonic possession. I know that his reference to “the children needing to be fed first” refers to the fact that he was sent to the Jews for their salvation. He was their long-awaited Messiah, whom prophets had foretold for centuries leading up to this moment. But how can Jesus say this to the woman? Is he rejecting her because she is a Syrophoenician? What the heck?
Let’s unpack this.
First, verse 24 tells us that Jesus traveled (over 50 miles) to the region of Tyre, which was where the Gentile cities were located. When he entered a house there, he entered a Gentile house. This was against Jewish law that said that Jews and Gentiles shouldn’t mix, but Jesus overcame this to be present in this moment with this Gentile mother. He chose to be there.
Next, we need to consider the “pericope” of this story. The pericope includes the stories that come before and after the text you are studying, and thus sets the passage into context. Jesus had just had a lengthy conversation with the Pharisees where he had basically undone the “clean or unclean” laws in regard to food. Is he now undoing the idea of “clean or unclean” people in this Gentile community where he has been received?
Finally, consider the woman. She is clearly not a Hebrew. Her background and her current residence in a Gentile city suggest that she is a pagan. In any case, she is not part of the “lost sheep of Israel” and thus has no concept or context for Jesus’ messiahship. Why has she come before him, then? Might she be hoping that his magician’s parlor tricks would work on her daughter? Surely she has no idea that she is standing before the incarnate Son of God, so who does she think she is asking for help?
Yet, she asks, and Jesus referenced the children needing to be fed before the “little dogs.” Don’t miss the fact that he didn’t refuse her. He didn’t say that he won’t heal her daughter…what he said was “yes, but not quite yet.” Perhaps he wanted a moment to rest…or perhaps he had already healed the daughter and was teaching the mother about persistence in faith.
28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
You do have to admire her persistence! She is like a dog with a bone, nipping at Jesus’ heels and letting him know that “not yet” was NOT the answer she had come for. Perhaps at this moment she has a Holy Spirit awareness of who Jesus was, and she is now able to stand before the Savior and ask for her daughter’s salvation. She may realize that the power of God within him is more than enough to save both Jews and the Gentiles alike. Or perhaps she still thinks he is a magic man, but at least he’s a good one. We’ll never know, but it is obvious that to Jesus, it doesn’t matter in the end who she thinks he is. He knows who he is, and he knows who sent him to save the world.
29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” 30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
This event made it clear to all who observed it that the Jewish Messiah had a ministry beyond Israel. As the disciples, the Pharisees, the Gentiles, and the nations watched, he announced the full inclusion of everyone he came to save.
I think this passage gives us all permission to persist. Persist in prayer. Persist in asking for healing even if you feel unworthy. Persist in gaining an understanding of who Jesus is. Persist in interceding on someone else’s behalf. Persist in your faith.
When the timing is right, Jesus will answer your persistence just as he did the Syrophoenician woman. Just don’t give up!