At this point in the story, Jesus has been continually travelling, teaching, and healing as he has gone about proclaiming the Gospel. When we read “Gospel” in this particular book of the Bible, we are to understand it as Jesus’ message that the promised Time is fulfilled and God’s Kingdom has come close enough to experience. And since chapter 1, we seen that the response we are to have to this message is belief and repentance. Proclaiming this Gospel and calling for this response has been the purpose of Jesus’ ministry. As we began to see in chapter 6, his schedule is wearing on him, and he has tried to take time to get away for rest and refreshment, but people keep showing up. So he leaves town again, but this time he heads out-of-town and goes to a neighboring non-Jewish territory.
First, read Mark 7:24-30.
Verse 24 shows that Jesus retreated to a place to hide, but he couldn’t. Even in the non-Jewish region near the cities of Tyre and Sidon which were along the Mediterranean coast, Jesus’ fame has spread so that he cannot hide. He wasn’t even in the city, but in the vicinity, he was out in the country and his reputation was known there. In verses 25-26 A woman, who was a Gentile (not Jewish), and had a daughter with a demon, which was the mark of uncleanness, comes to Jesus begging for help. These are three strikes against her, yet Jesus hears her.
The fact that he even had a conversation with her went against multiple acceptable norms of his day. Yet, she was in need, so he pauses to hear her. Each time Jesus has addressed the crowds in Israel, or even his disciples, he is met with astonishment. They see what he is doing, and they hear what he is saying, but they have no clue what it means. Yet, here, in a non-Jewish land, Jesus is met by a non-Jewish woman who has understood what he is saying and doing. Verse 26 says that she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And Jesus responds to her in a way that when we hear it we think, “man, that’s harsh”. Partly, this is conducive of the Jew/Gentile relationship in which there is a mutual disregard on racial grounds. The other part is this is a parable. He speaks to her in what may be derogatory, but he doesn’t outright call her a dog, although he uses the example of a dog in the parable.
When we come to Jesus, part of believing and following him is understanding what he says about us. The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A lot of people take offense when they are told that in their hearts and with their actions they have offended God. Our pride often causes us to try to justify ourselves rather than agreeing that our hearts are turned away from God. We say things like, well I’m not as bad as other people, or as bad as I could be. Or “I try to do the right thing” or “I’m nice to people and I help people and do good things”. Just because we are not hateful or as bad as we could be doesn’t mean we haven’t offended God. Our pride causes us to declare that God must accept us, but even this is an affront to God’s holiness. When Jesus says, believe and repent, this is included in what he is talking about. If we are going to follow Jesus, we have to believe what he says about the condition of our lives, and we have to repent from our pride and our attempts at self-justification.
This woman reacts humbly when Jesus compares her with a dog in his parable. She lived in close enough proximity to Jewish people and culture that she would have known that even speaking to Jesus was violating multiple different social and religious customs of the day. (By way of clarification, I’m not saying that women are inferior, but in the culture of 1st century Palestine, women were not treated with equality, to say the least.) She, no doubt, knew well who she was, a woman, a Gentile, and unclean by association with her demon-possessed daughter. This women comes to Jesus because she didn’t allow her inferiority to prevent her from coming to him. She didn’t say to herself, “I’m just not the kind of person that follows Jesus.” She had no thought that he might not accept her. Many people refuse to come to Jesus because they refuse to recognize who they are in light of who he is because of their pride. Other people refuse to come to Jesus because they fully understand who they are and don’t believe that they can be forgiven. They think they are just too sinful, or too messed up for God to love them. This refusal is no different from the refusal of the prideful person. If you don’t believe that God can love you, if you don’t believe that God’s mercy extends to even you, then you have refused it. We are invited to put ourselves in this woman’s shoes. Unclean and unworthy as we may be, we can come boldly to Jesus because his love and mercy are far greater than our estimation of them. We are more wicked than we like to admit, but we are far more loved and have received far more mercy than we would ever hope to believe (Keller).
This is the double-edged sword of responding in belief and repentance to the Gospel of Jesus. We have to agree with what he says about us, but in responding properly we also experience love and mercy like we could never have expected. This woman approaches Jesus with no pride, nor doubting his mercy for a person like her.
About this, Tim Keller writes:
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.
A mother will do what it takes to do whatever needs done for her children. So, Jesus responds to her in this harsh way, because he has come as Israel’s Messiah and she is not Jewish. But this is a sign pointing forward that even though he is Israel’s Messiah, he is not ONLY Israel’s Messiah. In verse 28, she speaks to him about the dogs being able to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. The Bread is clearly meant to point to the blessings of the Messiah’s ministry. It is first offered to the Jews, then the Gentiles. But, Jesus’ affection is won by this Gentile or non-Jewish woman. This, along with the healing of the man possessed by an army of demons, and the teaching on the dietary laws (here and here) are all pointing together toward including non-Jews in God’s plan. Those who are not children will eat the Bread as well. The disciples are continually cast in the light of not understanding Jesus’ teachings or actions, but here this woman who is not even Jewish understands Jesus well enough to convince him to help her. It would have been unacceptable for Jesus to enter a gentile house so he pronounces this exorcism even though he is nowhere near the demon-possessed girl. This further shows how Jesus’ word has authority even where he himself is not present.
Verse 28 is the only time in Mark’s Gospel when someone calls Jesus “Lord”. Although this would be a normal way to address a stranger, the fact that this is the only example should call more to our mind. This woman understands Jesus’ authority even better than the men who are his Jewish disciples. This passage is a subversive one to say the least. The woman is a model of humility and faith. She is not Jewish, but she believes in Israel’s Messiah. So this passage seems negative, reads negative, but it’s actually not. She is a sign that the Gentiles will soon have access to the redemption, rescue, and restoration that comes through Israel’s Messiah Jesus.