Jesus and the Woman from Tyre (Mark 7:24-30)

syrophonecianMark’s a guy who appreciates irony, and the best part is that he never has to go looking for it – Jesus supplies it. He’s just had a very sharp disagreement about ritual, ceremonial purity with the scribes and Pharisees who’d come from Jerusalem (Mk 7:1-23). They held to a racist interpretation of ritual defilement and believed any primary or secondary contact with a Gentile made them “unclean” before Yahweh. They even believed the very air itself could contaminate them, and proscribed bizarre and arcane rituals for cleansing pots, cooking utensils, and their hands before any meal.

In dramatic fashion, Jesus rebukes this heretical invention (“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites!”) then heads straight out of Galilee “to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Mk 7:24), which is Gentile territory. Every Christian’s heart should be warmed as he reads this swift denunciation of legalistic foolishness. The Jewish leaders are blind as bats to Jesus and His message, whereas a Gentile woman in Tyre understands everything, and displays a mature and earnest faith. Jesus knew this would happen (cf. Lk 4:22-30). The trip to Gentile country deliberately emphasizes Jesus’ lesson against the heretical ceremonial rules of the day, and it makes the point to anyone who has eyes to see.[1]

He’s preached to people from this region before (see Mk 3:8), and even though Jesus seeks some degree of solitude, “yet he could not be hid,” (Mk 7:24). This isn’t an example of the “Messianic secret” theme that’s so common in Mark; it simply proves Jesus is so popular He’s unable to remain anonymous for long.[2] In an age before Twitter updates, “humble-brag” social media posts and Facebook Live, Jesus’ popularity is indeed startling. It’s here, at this anonymous little house far from home, where Mark shows us more evidence for Christ’s deity and the doctrine of the Trinity.

A woman shows up. Mark’s account is sparse. She “immediately” appears and falls down at His feet. But, there’s more. Matthew tells us she said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon,” (Mt 15:22). When you consider Matthew’s addition, it’s clear this woman understood exactly who Jesus was. Skeptical commentators seem to forget Jesus went about, preaching and teaching the same message over, and over, and over, and over … and then over again. His last audience with a crowd from Tyre was as dramatic as they get. Jesus preached from a boat to untold hundreds (perhaps thousands), healed many, and the demons He cast out each screamed, “You are the Son of God!” as they bowed in homage to Him (Mk 3:7-12).

It’s difficult to think of a more memorable afternoon at the lake. We’ve no idea if this woman was there that day, but she’s obviously heard of this man from Galilee. She calls Him “Lord, Son of David,” which makes it clear her knowledge has some content. To her, this isn’t some carnival, miracle-maker; He’s the Lord of glory, the descendent par excellence from David. She knows she doesn’t deserve mercy, but she begs for it anyway. She “fell down at His feet” (Mk 7:25) in worship.

In the Tanakh, believers used the title “Lord” to refer to Yahweh Himself. When people of faith refer to Jesus as “Lord,” our mental eyebrows should raise an inch or two … or three. If Jesus is also Lord, then Scripture is showing us a distinction between Jesus and Yahweh. The woman’s second title for Jesus, “Son of David,” makes this even more explicit. Yahweh, in the triune sense, is Lord. Yet, Jesus, the Son of David and the promised Messiah, is also “Lord.” This is the same subtle distinction we see, for example, in Zechariah’s prophesies (e.g. Zech 2:9-11) where Jesus and Yahweh often switch speaking roles in the very same sentence. They, quite literally, complete each other’s sentences and thoughts. While they’re One, they’re also distinct, too.

Jesus responds in a deliberately callous manner. “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” (Mk 7:28). It’s possible Jesus seized on this convenient analogy from the scene inside the home, with a meal either in process or just finished.[3] Commentators often engage in hand-wringing at this point; either desperately trying to salvage the “meek and mild” Jesus of fairy-tale lore or suggesting the woman’s “clever reply” changed His mind. Nonsense.

The “children” are the Israelites. The “food” is the Gospel, and the blessings the new and better covenant will bring to all God’s people. The “dogs” are the Gentiles. It’s unnecessary to re-imagine the “dog” reference as being a term of endearment (e.g. “little doggy”),[4] or to invent a twinkle in Jesus’ eye to soften this blow; this is exegesis of desperation. It’s also folly to believe the woman is stupid or ignorant, and doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying.[5] No, the woman understands very well what the issue is. She was either present that day at the lake (Mk 3:8ff), or heard a detailed, content-rich explanation of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God, and His role as the “Son of David” who would rule and reign over the world. Her words, and Jesus’ response, prove this.

But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone (Mk 7:28-30)

She responds by calling Him “Lord” yet again, and this is also not an accident.[6] She understands who He is. He’s the Son of David, the promised Messiah, the Lord of glory, the One who has power over the forces of darkness and can heal her little daughter. She also understands Israel’s primary role as the vehicle of blessing and salvation for the Kingdom of God. The Israelites will be the divine conduit, the priests who will mediate the message of salvation to the world (see Zech 8:20-23) during Jesus’ millennial reign. His blessings are for them first. She can’t, as it were, skip ahead in line.

The woman understands this. The Tanakh never excludes Gentiles from covenant blessings, but makes it clear these blessings will be brokered by Israelites. She has no problem with this, and we must assume she’d received a very accurate briefing indeed from that afternoon on the lake (cf. Mk 3:8ff). Jesus tells her, “for this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter,” (Mk 7:29). Another account tells us He also said, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Mt 15:28). She “got it.” Jesus knew she got it, so we should be sure she got it, too.

The woman goes on her way, and Jesus heals her little daughter from afar. The eternal Son of God incarnate, in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17), has the power to expel the forces of darkness from the girl from far, far away. “And her daughter was healed instantly,” (Mt 15:28).

The Bible suggests several important things about the Trinity from this little account:

  1. The woman knew who Jesus was; the Lord, the Son of David. This implies a clear distinction between Jesus and the Father above.
  2. She bowed before Jesus in worship. This indicates she knew He was divine, and acknowledged it.
  3. She trusted Him to have power over fallen angels, which means she understood something substantial about His identity.
  4. This understanding shows she was either present that day on the lake with others from Tyre (Mk 3:8), when Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God, conducted mass exorcisms, and the demons bowed in homage and screamed His identity as the eternal Son of God … or she had some very good intel, indeed.
  5. She confessed Jesus as “Lord” yet again, and understood the “Son of David’s” role as the leader of Israel and the mediator of blessings to the Gentiles.
  6. Jesus miraculously healed her “little daughter” from afar, demonstrating His deity.

The irony, of course, is that Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for their legalism, then high-tails it for Gentile country where he immediately meets a desperate woman with a profound theological grasp of the big picture. This woman, whom the Jerusalem clique would likely dismiss as an ignorant heathen, knows who Jesus is, and understands His role in the redemptive story. She had ears to hear, and eyes to see. I like to think she was there that day on the lake, somewhere in the crowd. I look forward to asking her one day.

Notes

[1] See especially William Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: 1974), 259.  Robert Guelich remarked, “Therefore, this story about Jesus’ ministry that crosses the social boundaries of the day remains both consistent to what the tradition indicates about Jesus’ primary concern for Israel and makes clear how that ministry provided the impetus for the early Church to transcend these boundaries based on one’s response to Jesus,” (Mark 1-8:26, in WBC, vol. 34A (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1989), 389.

William Hendriksen remarked that, if Jesus had followed the Jewish leader’s racist and prejudiced policies, this woman would have been beyond all help; “was not the door of hope closed for this mother because of her race?” (The Gospel of Mark, in NTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 298).

[2] See Guelich (Mark, 389).

[3] Richard H. Lenski, An Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1946), 302.

[4] You’ll find this suggestion discussed (if not endorsed) in most of the major exegetical commentaries, which are often incestuous in their observations. Morna Hooker observed, “There is no reason to suppose that a Gentile would consider it any less offensive to be called a ‘little dog’ rather than a ‘dog’, and descriptions of Jesus’ manner and tone of speech are, of course, sheer imagination. In its present context, the term is a challenge to the woman to justify her request,” (The Gospel According to Saint Mark, in BNTC [London, UK: Continuum, 1991], 183).

[5] Lane suggests this (Mark, 261 – 263).

[6] Guelich (Mark, 388), Hooker (Mark, 183) and Mark Strauss (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 313) all agree this term is deliberate, here. Context also agrees!

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