I have never been able to decipher the meaning of the story in Mark 7:24-30 when Jesus talks to a Gentile woman about her demon-possessed daughter and something else about not giving food to dogs–all until yesterday when Tim Keller provided the significant context and metaphorical language Jesus and the lady were using in their conversation.
The following blog will simply feature an entire 6-page excerpt from Keller’s book, Jesus The King, and then I’ll add some thoughts about several implications of this story as well. I hope Keller’s excerpt gives you as much clarity as it gave me.
Check it out:
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 evil 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.
The story begins with the mysterious statement that Jesus went to the vicinity of Tyre and did not want anyone to know it. What was going on? Well, Jesus had been spending all of his time ministering in Jewish provinces, and that ministry was drawing overwhelming crowds, and he was exhausted. So Jesus left the Jewish provinces and went into a Gentile territory, Tyre, in order to get some rest.
But it doesn’t work. A woman hears of his arrival and makes her way boldly to Jesus. Though she’s a Syrophoenician, because of Tyre’s proximity to Judea she would have known the Jewish customs. She knows that she has none of the religious, moral, and cultural credentials necessary to approach a Jewish rabbi—she is a Phoenician, a Gentile, a pagan, a woman, and her daughter has an unclean spirit. She knows that in every way, according to the standards of the day, she is unclean and therefore disqualified to approach any devout Jew, let alone a rabbi. But she doesn’t care. She enters the house without an invitation, falls down and begins begging Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. The verb beg here is a present progressive—she keeps on begging. Nothing and no one can stop her. In Matthew’s Gospel chapter 15, the parallel account, the disciples urge Jesus to send her away. But she’s pleading with Jesus—she won’t take no for an answer.
You know why she has this burst of boldness, don’t you? There are cowards, there are regular people, there are heroes, and then there are parents. Parents are not really on the spectrum from cowardice to courage, because if your child is in jeopardy, you simply do what it takes to save her. It doesn’t matter whether you’re normally timid or brazen—your personality is irrelevant. You don’t think twice; you do what it takes. So it’s not all that surprising that this desperate mother is willing to push past all the barriers.
So what is Jesus’ response to this woman as she is down on the floor begging? The story continues:
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 their dogs.”
On the surface, this appears to be an insult. We are a canine-loving society, but in New Testament times most dogs were scavengers—wild, dirty, uncouth in every way. Their society was not canine-loving, and to call someone a dog was a terrible insult. In Jesus’ day the Jews often called the Gentiles dogs because they were “unclean.” Is what Jesus says to her just an insult, then? No, it’s a parable. The word parable means “metaphor” or “likeness,” and that’s what this is. One key to understanding it is the very unusual word Jesus uses for “dogs” here. He uses a diminutive form, a word that really means “puppies.” Remember, the woman is a mother. Jesus is saying to her, “You know how families eat: First the children eat at the table, and afterward their pets eat too. It is not right to violate that order. The puppies must not eat food from the table before the children do.” If we go to Matthew’s account of this incident, he gives us a slightly longer version of Jesus’s answer in which Jesus explains his meaning: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus concentrated his ministry on Israel, for all sorts of reasons. He was sent to show Israel that he was the fulfillment of all Scripture’s promises, the fulfillment of all the prophets, priests, and kings, the fulfillment of the temple. But after he was resurrected, he immediately said to the disciples, “Go to all the nations.” His words, then, are not the insult they appear to be. What he’s saying to the Syrophoenician woman is, “Please understand, there’s an order here. I’m going to Israel first, then the Gentiles (the other nations) later.” However, this mother comes back at him with an astounding reply:
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but 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.
In other words, she says, Yes, Lord, but the puppies eat from that table too, and I’m here for mine. Jesus has told her a parable in which he has given her a combination of challenge and offer, and she gets it. She responds to the challenge: “Okay, I understand. I am not from Israel, I do not worship the God that the Israelites worship. Therefore, I don’t have a place at the table. I accept that.”
Isn’t this amazing? She doesn’t take offense; she doesn’t stand on her rights. She says, “All right. I may not have a place at the table—but there’s more than enough on that table for everyone in the world, and I need mine now.” She is wrestling with Jesus in the most respectful way and she will not take no for an answer. I love what this woman is doing.
In Western cultures we don’t have anything like this kind of assertiveness. We only have assertion of our rights. We do not know how to contend unless we’re standing up for our rights, standing on our dignity and our goodness and saying, “This is what I’m owed.” But this woman is not doing that at all. This is rightless assertiveness, something we know little about. She’s not saying, “Lord, give me what I deserve on the basis of my goodness.” She’s saying, “Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of your goodness—and I need it now.”†
* * * * *
I love it. Of course, the meaning of the passage can only be unlocked with knowledge of the context and the figurative language being used. However, while the storyline is certainly meaningful, there exist several significant truths that are implicated more deeply beyond the surface of the narrative as well.
For example, the fact that Jesus reached out to this Gentile lady has massive implications about the distinctive nature of Christian salvation. In Jewish religious culture, it was understood that one’s standing with God was predicated foremost upon their Jewish ethnicity and, secondarily, upon their degree of religious practice. Therefore, to be ethnically Gentile (not Jewish) was to be inherently outside of right standing with God. Ethnicity, then, was an important factor for your status before God.‡
In addition, in Jesus’ day, women were also regarded as social outsiders–in society and also in the religious spheres. Back then, 3 women’s testimonies collectively held as much weight in court as 1 man’s testimony. To be a woman meant social inferiority, religious marginality, and political inequality. Indeed, his individual has two strikes against her–being a Gentile and a woman. Yet, this woman is the first one to hear and understand Jesus’ parables in the entire gospel of Mark. This account, in and of itself, shows a great deal about the nature of the salvation Jesus welcomes into the world: a salvation for all people groups and all people statuses, completely independent of people’s religious merit, and totally dependent on His grace.
The fact that Jesus reached out to this Gentile woman fundamentally shows that Jesus comes for the broken, the sick, the outsider, the sinner. Of course, all people–because of their inherent sin–are positionally alienated from God, and are therefore spiritually broken, sick, outside, and condemned. This is an important truth that can be gleaned from the story.
And if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Gentile woman, I think we will find another truth that is very practical to our own lives. Here’s what I mean: quite likely, it’s only until you realize that you have no leverage in your position before God that you will finally begin to hear and understand His voice and call on your life–just like the Gentile woman who had nothing to offer Jesus–to lean on His grace alone.
Additionally, this story can also serve as a defense for the honesty of the Bible’s authorship as well. Many scholars argue that the historical validity and honest authorship of the Bible is compromised due to the presupposition that it was fundamentally written out of political motivations.
However, if you–as an author–are trying to ignite a political scheme, you would not have included this story in your texts–unless, of course, it actually happened, and that the purpose of the gospel account was not politically motivated after all. Regardless, the story would have no power or resonance among the sociopolitical structures of the day anyways. A Gentile? A woman? And also, why include that Jesus’ closest, Jewish, male disciples did not understand Jesus’ profound parables, but the Gentile woman did? Hypothetically, the inclusion of this story into an inherently political text would prove completely insignificant and even counterproductive. If the gospel of Mark was intended as a political document, then the inclusion of the story’s pagan woman and buffoon-ish disciples would be like shooting yourself in the foot as an author. Therefore, this account in Mark serves as an apologetic proof against the notion that the gospel of Mark was written out of political motivation, and instead argues that the text was recorded for another purpose.
Then, what is the purpose? Well, if Jesus’ ministry was fundamentally a political effort, it would make more sense to think he would have leveraged his already well-established, authoritative connections in the religious circles as leverage against the Roman empire. But his purpose was not about leading a political movement like everyone wanted him to (even his own disciples); instead, his purpose was to reconcile people to God by taking away their sin. Jesus understood the blockage of sin between humanity and God as the root cause behind all personal, political, ethical, religious, social, and familial strife. Therefore, this story is proof that Jesus’ mission was not about fixing the apparent problems of human culture so much as it was about redeeming the inherent problem of human hearts.
Overall, this story–while encrypted with context and metaphor–provides meaningful exposition about the nature of Christian salvation, and also inherently defends itself from accusations of a politically motivated author and a politically motivated King.
† Keller, Timothy. Jesus The King. p. 183-189. Penguin Group, USA.
‡ However, ethnicity was not an exclusive or foundational requisite for right standing with God, as there were countless Gentiles from the Old Testament who were saved because of their dependent faith in God and His grace. Several examples include Rahab, Ruth, and the city of Nineveh.