Let’s turn to this rather interesting snippet from the Gospel of Mark found in chapter seven. Here, Jesus encounters a woman; a Greek; a Gentile, and the encounter doesn’t go as we might expect. In fact, some argue that Jesus is taught a lesson by this woman, and His notion of what His ministry is supposed to be about is changed. I don’t think so. Jesus does what He does all throughout Scripture. He challenges and then bestows grace.
The text begins in rather innocuous fashion. After Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and scribes and teaching that it is not what comes from outside that defiles, but what comes from inside, Jesus takes His disciples to Tyre for a period of rest. Jesus’ choice of Tyre is rather interesting. How so? Well, let me read to you this snippet from one of the commentaries I consulted this week. I don’t think I could say this any better:
Tyre (modern Lebanon), which lay directly west and north of Galilee, was a Gentile region with a long history of antagonism to Israel. The region of Tyre (formerly Phoenicia) had been the home of Jezebel, who in Elijah’s day had nearly subverted the Northern Kingdom with her pagan prophets and practices. During the Maccabean Revolt in the second century B.C., Tyre, along with Ptolemais and Sidon, fought on the side of the Seleucids against the Jews. The prophets decried the wealth and terror of Tyre. Josephus concludes opprobriously [scornfully, don’t you love the wordiness of commentaries?] that the inhabitants of Tyre were “notoriously our bitterest enemies.”
Now, this is an important detail that we should not overlook because it has a direct link to what happened right before this and what will happen momentarily. Remember, and again, I stress, Jesus had just taught that it was not anything from outside that defiled a person, but what came out of the heart that defiles. After teaching this, He takes His disciples into Gentile territory–a taboo for the Pharisees and scribes; and not just any Gentile territory–into Tyre where resided some of the Jews’ bitterest enemies.
Why would Jesus do such a thing? Well, we do know that He was purposely trying to get away. We do know He entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know that He was there. Perhaps by heading into “enemy” territory, He knew that all the crowds would not follow Him. He knew they didn’t want to go into enemy territory. He knew He could sit with His disciples and instruct them while recovering from all the work that they had done. But it was not to be so. Word of Jesus’ miracles had even spread into Tyre.
As Jesus is in the house, a woman comes to see Him. This is not just any woman. Verse 26 describes what kind of woman this is: “26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” I’ve got to once again read a quote from one of the commentaries. It’s very enlightening and somewhat entertaining. Verse 26 “reads like a crescendo of demerit.” You may ask how this is so? Read this with first century Jewish eyes instead of our Western Enlightenment eyes. For you see, this was first a woman–a second class citizen in the eyes of the Jews; she was Gentile–unclean and defiled; she was Syrophonenician–an enemy of the Jews. Three strikes, and you are out. This woman is beyond contemptuous to most any Jew. She’s low on the Jewish totem pole–really not even worthy of a spot in it. And she has the audacity to interrupt Jesus’ time of rest because her daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit.
Now, again, because we look at this with Western eyes, we see a desperate mother with great concern for her daughter. We see a mother willing to risk herself to get care for her child. But we need to keep looking with first century eyes. Remember, children in that day were not seen like they are today. Children were basically considered chattel. They were property. They were your insurance policy. They were your elderly care. Sure, people loved their kids, don’t get me wrong. But there was not the same attitude toward children in that day that we have in this day. Don’t let yourself be too carried away by this mother’s desperation. There’s quite possibly other things at work here. Yet, there is no denying this woman’s persistence. She wants to have her daughter healed.
Jesus responds in a way that is quite shocking to most of us. I’m going to re-work His statement just a little bit to add some of the connotations of the original Greek. Jesus says to her, “Let the children first have their fill (or be satisfied), for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little puppies.” It is no coincidence that the same word for be filled or satisfied is the same word that Mark uses to talk about the multitude that was fed on the hillside after Jesus fed them with five loaves and two fish. It is also no coincidence that Jesus refers to this woman, and her people as little puppies. For our ears, it is harsh. For our ears, this seems to contradict what Jesus’ purpose is in redeeming the world. For our ears, this doesn’t seem to loving or grace filled. But, as I said earlier, this isn’t our own personal Jesus, this IS the Jesus of scripture. So why does He say these things to her? Why does He say the children should be fed first and then compare her to a little puppy dog?
I think there are a couple of things going on here. First, Scripture is very clear that salvation comes through the Jews. Jesus’ mission first was to the Jewish people. They were to be the ones who received it first. That doesn’t mean that the Gentiles wouldn’t be included later, but the Jews, as per the covenant with Abraham would first receive the blessings of God, and then they would take that blessing into the Gentile world. These are the children who must first receive their fill.
But why talk to this woman and compare her to a little puppy dog? Why be so condescending? Maybe you have pets. Maybe you have had to deal with puppies. What do they do when they get around food? What do they do when they sense that there is something good to eat at the table? The camp out and wait for a bite. Their puppy minds are solely focused on getting a morsel of food. All they care about is the food. All they want is the food. Do they give a flying flip about you as the owner, as the care-taker? No. Not at all. And if you drop a piece of food, they will go all postal making sure they get to keep it. They will even bite you to keep you from taking the food away from them. They have ceased to care about you as the owner and are totally focused on the food.
Do you get where I am going here? Jesus is confronting this woman with something deep within human nature. Jesus is confronting her with her own selfishness. “Are you coming to me just to get what you can out of me? Are you coming to me for your own benefit? Are you simply like a puppy dog that is consumed with getting food instead of caring about the master’s provision?”
You see, embodied in Jesus’ confrontation is a confrontation of all of our selfishness. How many times do you know of people who are suddenly confronted with a tough situation in life? They haven’t gone to church in forever or maybe ever. Suddenly, they show up to worship hoping that God will somehow intervene and make everything in their lives better. Are they there for God, or are they there to receive the things God can provide. Which is more important to them? Or, how often do we cease to find time to pray, and then suddenly something about ourselves or our property comes in danger. Oh how our knees get worn out during the crisis. But once the crisis is gone, do we continue in fervent prayer? Or if the crisis consumes our property or our being, how do we think of God then? We get angry because we didn’t want God. We wanted the things God could give us. Were not interested in pleasing our master. We’re more interested in the things our master can give us. We’re like little puppies waiting for crumbs. Jesus will have none of it. He is not interested in a heart that is consumed by our wants and our desires. He is interested in a heart that thirsts for Him.
And the Syrophonecian woman gets it. She does not argue with Jesus. She accepts His condemnation of her state. And she submits to His will with her response. Again, I need to do a bit of work with the translation here because it’s important. For, in the Greek, the woman does not say, “Sir.” In the Greek, the woman says, “Lord.” This is the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark who calls Jesus Lord. She is the only person who is willing to give this title to Him. She realizes that she is completely and totally at His mercy. She realizes He is to be the object of her attention. She realizes He is the only one who can save not only her daughter but her as well. And she furthermore shows her understanding of His mission to Israel. It’s rather amazing. “Lord, even the puppies under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Lord, even we who are consumed with other things, other wants, other desires, are meant to receive blessing from the children.
Remember last week when I said that the Pharisees and scribes had nullified the commands of God through their insistence on being pure? Remember how I said they had nullified God’s original intent of the covenant–that they were blessed to be a blessing? The Pharisees and scribes forgot they were blessed to be a blessing. This woman–this Gentile–this enemy of the Jews understood that she was meant to be blessed through them. She got it. She understood. She grasped God’s intent. She could only be blessed through the promise of the covenant. She knew she didn’t deserve it. She knew she didn’t warrant it. She knew she was solely at Jesus’ mercy.
And Jesus says, “For saying this word, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”
So many times, we are unwilling to be as humble as this woman. So many times we are so convinced of our righteousness. So many times we are convinced that we don’t need to change a thing about ourselves. We are okay just the way we are. God made us this way and we don’t need to change a blasted thing about ourselves. And we simply cannot see that we try to get things out of God without having a humble heart and a humble spirit.
Then we encounter Jesus who, instead of giving us what we want, confronts us with our sin. He confronts us with our selfishness. He confronts us with our desire to grasp the things of God instead of wanting to grasp God Himself. And we get mad at Jesus. We get mad that He won’t give us what we want or do what we want Him to do.
We get mad because we lack humility–a humility that comes from submitting to Jesus and calling Him, Lord.
But here is the kicker. You can’t just say, “I’m going to be humble. I’m going to submit to Jesus.” Here you are trying to do it all on your own again. You are trying to seize control of your own life. It doesn’t work that way. The true submission of a heart only comes in response to someone giving you something you don’t deserve. True humility comes when you receive something you don’t deserve. True humility comes when you realize you are unworthy of any sort of gift, but it is given to you anyway.
And that’s exactly what Jesus does for each and every one of us on the cross. That’s exactly what Jesus does when He takes our sin upon Himself and dies in our place. That’s exactly what Jesus does by reconciling us unto God when we were far from Him. He confronts us with our brokenness and refuses to be the Jesus we want Him to be, and then He loves us with a love that surpasses our wildest imaginations.
Do you know how broken you are?
Do you know how unworthy you are?
Do you know how undeserving you are?
And do you know how loved you are?
Do you know how accepted you are?
Do you know the healing that is already there for you?
When your heart comes to know the Gospel; when your heart gets captured by what Jesus accomplished for you; you grow in true humility; you submit to Him as Lord; and you find more than crumbs–you find satisfaction. This is God’s desire for you. This is why He sent Jesus:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be save through Him. Amen.