The Syro-Phoenician Woman
Sermon Text: Mark 7:24-30
We’re going to continue now with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Mark. In today’s lesson, we are still in chapter 7, and I will be reading the brief passage from verse 24 through verse 30, which is Mark’s record of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman. I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the gospel.
From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden. For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
And she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.”
Then He said to her, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.
Beloved, you have just heard not the opinions of John Mark or Peter or Paul, but the veritable Word of God Himself. If you have ears to hear it, then by all means, hear it. Please be seated. Let’s pray.
Again, O Lord, as we inquire into the person and work of Your dear Son, we thank You for this record, which gives us not only history but divine revelation. We pray that this Word may enter into our hearts that we may receive it, that we may embrace it, and that we may love it. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Entering Pagan Lands
For the last few weeks, we’ve been examining the dispute that took place between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day over issues of ritual purity related to the matter of the washing of hands, and we’ve just looked at Jesus’ discourse where He distinguishes between true defilement that comes from within and that which comes from without. Immediately after this discourse on what is clean and unclean, the narrative continues with Jesus withdrawing from that region and going purposefully into a region that was notoriously unclean.
It’s safe to assume that the purpose of Jesus’ movement into this region was not to go on a missionary journey to the gentiles, because He understood that His vocation was to proclaim the kingdom first to the Jews, and then later on to the gentiles. That He sought a residence in which to stay in hopes that no one could find Him indicates that the purpose of our Lord was to seek some rest from the pressing multitudes and debates that He had been going through. So, He withdrew from Israel. This is the only time in the record of our Lord’s life that He is seen leaving the ancient borders of Israel and going directly into a pagan land.
We are told that Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre was twenty miles to the northwest of Capernaum, where Jesus had been laboring. Tyre was situated in ancient Phoenicia and was under the administration of Roman occupation in Syria. If you would like to know its significance for today, it was located in what is now Lebanon. If you’ve been watching your television for the last several days regarding the conflict that is going on between the Hezbollah and the Israelites, you will see Tyre prominently featured on the map. It’s into that area that Jesus went.
We see the conflict today between the Jews and the Arabs of that region. In the first century, the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, made the remark that Tyre represented the most bitter enemy the Jews had at that time. That was two thousand years ago, and that enmity is exploding every minute, even as we speak this morning. It was from that region that Jezebel came and tormented the prophet Elijah. It was also that region that the rabbis of antiquity assessed as the region most grossly committed to paganism. There is paganism, and then there is paganism. The paganism in and around Tyre and Sidon in this region was notorious for its wholesale activity with respect to idolatry.
So, Jesus went into this hotbed of idolatry, into this den of rank paganism, trying to find respite from the crowds that were pursuing Him. But we read from Mark that He could not be hidden. That observation Mark made then is true today—no matter how much people try to hide Jesus, He cannot be hidden, even in the darkest places of this world.
A Persistent Mother with a Possessed Daughter
There was a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit, and she heard about Jesus. We read that she came and fell at His feet. The fact that she came and went face down into the dirt in front of Him indicates two things. First, she was paying homage to Him. She was showing her profound respect to Him, even though she didn’t know Him except by reputation. Not only was this a sign of homage, but second, it was also a sign of abject pleading. She was falling on the ground in front of Jesus because, from her perspective, her last hope for the redemption of her little girl who had been possessed by a demon was from the touch of this man in front of her.
Now, let’s stop right there for just a second. We’ve just heard this lengthy discourse about the clean and the unclean. We’ve seen the religious authorities of the clean manifest their unbelief and their unwillingness to pay homage to Jesus. In stark contrast to the unbelief and hostility of the Jewish leaders, we have this pagan woman, who is manifestly unclean, prostrating herself before the Lord Jesus Christ and begging Him for His mercy.
The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth. As I mentioned, Phoenicia at this point was under the domination of Syria, and that’s why she’s called “Syro-Phoenician.” The fact that the Bible calls her a Greek means simply that she had been part of that group of people who had been subject to the conquest of Alexander the Great and were Hellenized; that is, she spoke the Greek language, but she was not a native of Greece. Mark makes that clear. She was born in the Syro-Phoenician region.
Notice what this woman did. Mark tells us that she kept asking Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. She didn’t just come and say, “Please, Jesus, heal my daughter.” She was persistent. She was begging. She was asking over and over and over again, recalling to our minds the importunate widow who pestered the unjust judge until he relented and gave relief to her. This woman was so committed to the rescue of her daughter that she simply would not take “no” for an answer.
Jesus was not quick to answer her petition. He allowed her to repeat it over and over again. Finally, when He did give an answer, it seemed to be harsh and insensitive, at least on the surface. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” How’s that for a compassionate response from Jesus to this woman who was beseeching Him for relief and compassion and to save her little girl? Jesus said: “Let the children eat first. You don’t take the food that is meant for the children and give it to the dogs.”
A Charge with Serious Implications
Several years ago, a feminist scholar wrote an essay giving a scathing critique of Jesus’ response to the Syro-Phoenician woman. She argued that His insensitivity and harshness were so severe on this occasion, that He so demeaned this woman in typical chauvinistic fashion, that He so insulted this poor woman that He transgressed all the boundaries of courtesy and crossed the line into slander. In this scholar’s mind, this text is Exhibit A that Jesus was not sinless, because surely, on this occasion, He sinned against this innocent woman whom He so demeaned and insulted by calling her a dog.
I might hasten to add that one of the worst insults you could give to a person in that region in antiquity was to call someone a dog. Dogs, for the most part, were not the fluffy, warm puppies or household pets that we enjoy. Rather, they were at the very best scavengers, and at times feral. They would feast upon garbage and carrion and even devour corpses. They were the filthiest animals in town. The worst insult you could give a person was to call them a dog. Jesus Himself in the Sermon on the Mount said, “We don’t cast our pearls before swine, and neither do we take that which is holy and give it to dogs” (Matt. 7:6). Now, I’m going to try to ameliorate that a bit in just a moment.
In the meantime, this scholar who gave this vehement attack upon Jesus was rebutted by another Christian professor in an academic address that I heard. In his address, this professor went over the attack that this woman scholar had made against Jesus in detail. He kept referring to her as a “renowned female evangelical scholar.” At the end of the address, I went up to him and said: “I really appreciated your response to that woman’s attack on Jesus. You were fighting for the angels as far as I was concerned. But why in the world did you keep referring to her as an ‘evangelical’? Doesn’t that word mean anything anymore? I know that it’s lost almost all of its meaning in our day, but how could a person deny the sinlessness of Jesus and in any remote way be considered an evangelical? An evangelical is one who embraces the evangel, which is the gospel, which is rooted and grounded in the saving work of Christ in His atoning death. If Jesus committed a sin in His treatment of this woman, that’s the end of His sinlessness. And if Jesus had a single sin, then He didn’t have what was necessary to atone for His own sin, let alone to atone for ours.”
What I’m saying here, dear friends, is nothing less is at stake than our own salvation with respect to how Jesus treated that woman. If He sinned against her, then He is no Savior of her, or of you, or of me. So, we have to raise the question: Did He in fact sin against her? There are a couple of things that have to be seen to answer this question.
Rules for Feeding Dogs
Notice that, in the translation I read to you, the word “dogs” was qualified by the adjective “little.” In the Greek here, the word for “dog” is rendered in the diminutive sense, so that what Jesus is talking about here are small dogs that are at the table in somebody’s house. In addition to these scavenging dogs that you find outside eating the carrion and the garbage of the city, there were domesticated dogs in antiquity. These little dogs were brought into the home and functioned as household pets. The principle in the home was that you could feed the animals from the table and give them table scraps, but only after the rest of the family had already eaten.
I like that principle. We have dogs in our house, and we have three ironclad rules with respect to our dogs. You might want to adopt these for your own household if you have pets.
The first rule is this: we don’t feed our dogs human food. They have carefully prepared, nutritious dog chow that we provide for them. So, the first rule is “no human food.” We don’t always obey that rule, however. Since we’re a little bit lax in our obedience to that rule, we have rule number two.
Rule number two is this: if we are to give them human food, it must never, ever be given to them from the table. Once you start giving food to dogs from the table, they will anticipate that and become a nuisance as you’re having your family meal. Now, most of the people in our family have been able to adhere rigidly to rule two. One of us, however, has even found it difficult to maintain the second rule—mea culpa.
There are times when our dogs look at me so longingly that I cannot resist giving them food from the table. Thereupon, she who must be obeyed has issued rule number three. She has said: “If you must feed the dogs from the table, at least wait until dinner is over and everybody else has left the table. Then you can sit there and give them some scraps.” My dogs know very well that they’re not allowed to take anything from the table, and that if they’re going to be fed from the table, they have to wait patiently until everybody’s finished. Those three rules are a nice way to run the household.
There’s another unspoken rule, however, and it was the rule in the Jewish household. While the dogs are dutifully and obediently waiting until the family has eaten, before they are allowed to have any scraps, if some food should inadvertently fall from the table during that time, then it is reasonable to allow the dogs to eat those scraps. We have the same rule. Vesta doesn’t like it if some food falls from my plate onto the ground and I try to pick it up and put it back on the plate. If it falls, it’s okay for the dogs to eat.
So, Jesus was saying to this woman, “The children eat first,” referring to the children of Israel. He was clearly saying: “My ministry has a priority. I didn’t come here for ministry. My ministry is to take care of the children, the children of Israel, not to give the food that is designed for the children to the little dogs.”
Satisfied with Crumbs
Notice how the woman responded to what Jesus said. There was no feministic protest by the Syro-Phoenician woman. When He said, “We feed the children first and not the dogs,” the woman responded, “Yes, Lord.”
Now, how much of the pejorative idea of a “dog” was incorporated in Jesus’ statement we leave for further debate. But whether that pejorative connotation was great or infinitesimal, it didn’t bother that woman. She didn’t stand up in protest and say: “How dare you insult me and speak to me as if I were a dog, even if it’s a household pet. I’m no dog. I’m a woman.” That was not her response. Her response was: “Yes, Lord, I understand. I have no prior claim to your mercy. I am not numbered among the children. I can’t jump up on the table and feast upon the food that you set before your children. I don’t want that. I’m satisfied, Lord, with the crumbs. All I’m asking is that you would just let one crumb that falls from your table come into my mouth, and I’m satisfied. Heal my daughter, please. I know she’s not in your family. I know she’s not numbered among the children. We are the dogs who wait for the crumbs, but one crumb is all I’m asking for.”
Do you see the difference between this woman and the Pharisees? This woman wasn’t fighting for her rights or for her dignity. She knew who she was.
Do you notice how many times in the Bible, when people come before the living God, that they identify themselves with the lowest forms of life or of animals? They say: “I am a worm, O God, and not a man. I have no claim on the sweetness of Your grace because Your grace is just that, gracious. Every crumb that You bestow upon me is one I receive as an unworthy servant.” Yet, dear friends, the true believer savors every crumb that comes from the hand of God.
A Crumb of Great Price
The good news is that, in the overflow of mercy and grace that comes to us from the hands of God, though we should be satisfied with crumbs, He is not satisfied with giving us crumbs. He prepares a table before us. He has appointed us to attend a banquet in heaven. He has established the wedding feast of the Lamb from the foundation of the world. He has given each of us who are in Christ Jesus an invitation to that feast, where we won’t have to wait until dinner is over before we get our portion.
The woman engaged Jesus in a battle of wits in this passage. She said: “Yes, Lord, I understand that the dogs have to wait until after dinner, but during the dinner they can still eat if crumbs fall. Just give me a crumb; that’s all I want.” Jesus hadn’t found faith like that in Capernaum. He hadn’t found faith like that among the Pharisees or among the rabbis. The rabbis had a saying that to eat with an idolater is like eating with a dog. This woman came from a land given to idolatry, but Jesus permitted her to eat.
Dear friends, from that encounter and what happened afterward, I’m convinced that woman never complained about a single word that Jesus spoke to her for the rest of her life. It wasn’t in her heart to describe our Lord as harsh, insensitive, demeaning, or sinful. For the rest of her life, she was on her knees thanking God that she met the living Christ. By the spoken word, by the giving of a command, without even going home with her, He said to her: “You can go home. It’s okay. Your daughter is healed.” What an incredible experience, one in which Jesus gave to the unclean that which is holy and sacred.
Notice that, in the New Testament, we who are gentiles are the wild olive branch that has been grafted into the tree of Israel. In terms of redemptive history, we are the dogs. Those of Israel are the children, but because the children refused the gift of the Father to them, the Father gave that gift to us, who had no claim upon it originally. Would any of you trade in the crumb of your salvation for anything in this world? That crumb is at the same time the pearl of great price. He gave it to the Syro-Phoenician woman, and He gives it to you. Let’s pray.
Thank you, Lord, for this touching narrative of the way Jesus gave the gift of life and rescue to this woman’s daughter. That crumb she received was a feast, the same feast that we enjoy in Christ. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.