August 7, 2016
Have you ever been reading the Bible and come across a passage you didn’t understand – a really tough one that caused you to say, “Nu-uh! That doesn’t sound right”? The passage before us today is such a text for me.
In fact, I have a book in my library entitled, Difficult Passages in the Gospels. Among other things, the author seeks to reconcile some of the difficulties in harmonizing, or fitting together, the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It also has a section which deals with some very difficult verses in the gospels. Our text today in Mark is in the book. There’s another book entitled the Hard Sayings of Jesus. Mark 7 is in that book, too. This is a very challenging text. So read it with me – I think you’ll see what I mean. Mark 7:24-30.
Does that cause a problem for anyone? At first glance, it seems like this woman got the best of Jesus – like she outsmarted Him – out-debated Him – backed Him into a corner and forced Him to do something He didn’t really want to do. And what’s with not wanting to do it? I mean, three things bother me about Jesus here – first, He seems to ignore this lady. Matthew’s account says He didn’t even answer her. Then, He seems to say, “Sorry, I didn’t come for you – I only came for the Jews” – kind of a “Jews are us” attitude. He didn’t even want these Gentiles to know He was there. Then, thirdly, He called her a name. Right? He called her a dog. As much as you might like Fluffy, calling someone a dog isn’t a good thing. This doesn’t seem very nice to me – kind of bugs me – this is inconsistent with the Jesus I know, or, at least, the one I thought I knew. Why is Jesus being so mean? One critic of the Bible describes this as an “atrocious saying, expressing incredible insolence,” and based on “the worst kind of chauvinism.”
In fact, one commentary I have quotes another so-called scholar who wrote an essay giving a scathing critique of Jesus’ response to this woman, saying that “His insensitivity and harshness were so severe on this occasion…He so demeaned this woman in typical chauvinistic fashion… He so transgressed all boundaries of courtesy and crossed the line into slander. This text, the author charged, is Exhibit A that Jesus was not sinless, because He wronged this innocent woman by calling her a dog.”
Whoa. If that’s true, not only is this passage troubling, it destroys the Christian faith. Because, if Jesus is not sinless – if He indeed committed a sin in dealing with this woman, He couldn’t have atoned for His own sin, let alone ours. If Jesus sinned against her, we’re in big trouble – we might as well go home. We’ve got to deal with this troubling text.
So, that Jesus wronged this woman is unacceptable. Then what do we have? I believe Jesus never did anything that wasn’t motivated by love – meaning, this was a loving thing to do. I also believe He was teaching all the time, and calling out or strengthening faith. On this particular day, the crowds were gone – it was only Jesus, the disciples and this woman. I believe He was calling out and strengthening her faith, I believe He was teaching the disciples something about the nature and extent of faith, and I believe He’s teaching us – Gentiles – about great faith.
The Bible has much to say about faith. The walk of the Christian life is begun and sustained through faith. Think about it – we can give all the rational explanations for believing the gospel, believing in Jesus – we can read all the books that give a defense of the faith, which I have in my library. But at the end of the day, following Jesus requires faith. Yes, it is rational, yes, it makes sense. Yes, the evidence is overwhelming. But all that is foolishness to the natural man – it requires faith.
So, the Bible speaks of things like weak faith, strong faith, bold faith, abiding faith, steadfast faith, dead faith, precious faith, common faith, working faith, obedient faith. It speaks of little and great faith. That last one – great faith, Jesus says of this woman in Matthew’s account. Interestingly, the only other time in that book He speaks of great faith is in Matthew 8, where a Centurion – a Gentile, came to Jesus on behalf of his servant. You remember the story – Jesus said to the guy, take me to your servant and I’ll heal him. And the Centurion answers – you don’t have to come – just say the word, that’s all it’ll take, and he’ll be healed. And Jesus responded, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.”
In Matthew’s account, Jesus says of this woman, “O woman, your faith is great;…” The Greek word is mega – this woman had mega faith. I don’t about you, but I want mega faith. I want to hear Jesus say to me, O man, you have great faith. We need to examine this passage to find out what mega faith is. So these are the questions we need to answer today. First, why does Jesus appear to be so mean? If He’s always loving, if He’s always teaching, what’s really going on? And second: why is this great faith? That is, why does He ultimately respond to her? We’ll follow this outline:
- The Setting (24)
- The Exchange (25-27)
- The Characteristics of Great Faith (28-30)
Let’s start by setting up the story in verse 24. And one of the things we’ll immediately see is the importance of context – it’s why we do verse-by-verse studies through books. Context is incredibly important – especially for this story.
You see, at the beginning of chapter 7, a delegation of scribes and Pharisees came from Jerusalem to discredit Jesus – we looked at that the past couple of weeks. They accused His disciples of breaking the tradition of the elders. So, Jesus turns the tables on them, you violate the commandment of God with your tradition. Then, He calls together the crowds to teach them, and later His disciples. His message was very important – it forms the context for this story. What was the message? It’s not what enters into the mouth that defiles a man – it’s what proceeds out of the mouth that defiles him.
That’s so important – the Pharisees, the tradition of the elders taught that by touching an unclean person, you could become unclean. Especially if you touched a Gentile. Jesus said, that has nothing to do with defilement – true religion, true purity is about the heart. You don’t become defiled by eating unclean food – you don’t’ become defiled by touching unclean people.
With that as context, at this point, Jesus and His disciples went away. They’d been trying to do that for the past couple of chapters to get a break from the crowds – but every time they get somewhere, the crowds are there to meet them. So this time, they go to Gentile territory. In fact, in context, the next three stories are in predominantly Gentile areas. Why? Because by doing so, Jesus is living out what He just taught – rubbing shoulders with Gentiles doesn’t make you unclean. In fact, the gospel He came to bring is for Gentiles, too. Just tuck this thought away: the Pharisees were calling everyone else defiled, but by their attacks on Jesus, were demonstrating they were actually the defiled ones. And this supposedly unclean Gentile woman, showed by her words of faith, that she was actually the clean one.
Well, Jesus and His disciples went away to the region of Tyre, usually mentioned with Sidon. We’ve heard of those cities before. They were the spiritual equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. Josephus, an early Jewish historian says these cities are “notoriously, our bitterest enemies.” These people were considered altogether vile. Any self-respecting, righteous Jew would never go to Tyre and Sidon. Jesus chooses the place for a retreat – a little mini-vacation. He can’t get relief in Galilee – the Pharisees are after Him, likely Herod Antipas is. So, He leaves Jewish territory for a terribly unclean place for a little respite.
Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician cities located on the Mediterranean coast in modern day Lebanon. Tyre was located about 20 miles from Capernaum, Sidon was another 25 miles beyond that. Once they got to the area, Mark tells us Jesus went into a house and wanted no one to know. It seems He didn’t want to be bothered – certainly by Gentiles. But notice the end of verse 24 – but He could not escape notice.
Which brings us to our second point, the Exchange in verses 25-27. Now, while Jesus was in this territory, He was not unknown there. Mark 3, says specifically people came to be healed from the region of Tyre. So here He is, finally on a retreat for some much needed rest with His disciples. And a lady hears He’s come, so she goes to the house, falls at His feet, and begins to cry out for help. Now, you have to understand this woman had several strikes against her.
First, she was a woman. In that culture, women were not highly valued. Second, Matthew calls her a Canaanite. That’s an interesting word choice – in fact, this is the only time the word Canaanite is used in the entire NT. You may remember from your OT history the Canaanites were the ones the Israelites were to destroy when they came into the land of promise. So this lady was historically an enemy of the Jews. Mark calls her a Gentile – literally, a Greek – which means she’s a Greek-speaking Gentile – a non-Jew. And, she’s of the Syrophoenician race – she’s from that area. The point is, if there was anyone unclean, it was she.
So, she shows up and begins destroying a perfectly good day of vacation. And she wasn’t being very polite about it – she was obnoxious. Not only was she bothering them, she was doing it loudly and incessantly. She began to cry out – it’s in the imperfect in the Greek, which meant she started crying and kept on. It was a constant, incessant appeal. In short, she was annoying, asking Jesus to heal her little daughter of an unclean spirit. Unclean territory, unclean woman, unclean spirit. We don’t know exactly how this demon manifested itself, but we know from other passages demon possession could result in blindness, deafness, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, throwing yourself in a fire, screaming, cutting, nudity – all kinds of problems. This particular daughter, Matthew says, was cruelly possessed. This demon was manifesting itself in some violent, terrible, cruel way. Of course the mom was being incessant.
Which brings us to the first thing that bothers me about this passage. She kept asking, because Jesus didn’t answer. Matthew says He did not answer her a word. He didn’t even give her the time of day. What’s that about? He usually responds to people in need. Isn’t that what we expect? I’ve prayed – now answer me, right now. Here’s this woman, crying out for help, and Jesus completely ignores here. Apparently it goes on for some time, because in Matthew, the disciples say, “Send her away because she keeps shouting at us.” Jesus, will you please do something about this lady?
Which leads us to Jesus’ second troubling response, “Let the children be satisfied first.” What? Who’s that referring to? Jews. What a politically incorrect statement. Jesus would never make it in 21st Century America. What’s that about? Let the children be satisfied first. Talk about racism. You’re not a Jew – I didn’t come for you. Actually, not yet.
You see, Paul would later say, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes – to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” It is a fact the gospel would be preached and found among the OT people of God first – the Jews. They had been the recipients of the promises. Through them had come the word of God, and the Son of God. There is a functional and chronological priority here. They would receive the good news first. Even when Paul visited various Gentile cities, he would go to the local Jewish synagogue first.
But, he didn’t stay there. The gospel and all its benefits would not stay just with Jews. In fact, throughout His ministry, Jesus came into contact with Gentiles and Samaritans – unclean people – all the time. He was worshipped at His birth by magi – Gentiles from the east. When He began His ministry, He revealed Himself to a sordid woman at the well – a Samaritan. When He talks about fulfilling the law, He gives the parable of the good Samaritan, and paints him in a favorable light. He heals the Centurion’s servant. And when He ascends, He says to His disciples – now, it’s time – you shall be my witness – yes, in Jerusalem, in Judea. But not only that, to Samaria and to the very ends of the world. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” The gospel started with the Jews – but didn’t stay there.
Let the children eat first. A simple parable of chronological truth. And don’t miss something else. Mark is weaving together a sub-theme here. Jesus fed the 5,000 outside Bethsaida – Jews – with bread. The Pharisees accused His disciples of eating bread with unclean hands. After His teaching on what true uncleanness was, Jesus moves into Gentile territory. And the stories are tied together with this bread. You see, now Jesus says, let the children eat bread first. And the woman says, yes, but even dogs get crumbs. And Jesus says, that’s right. Then, He leaves from here, and goes to feed the 4,000 with bread – by the way, in the Decapolis. Four thousand Gentiles. Don’t miss it. You see, we miss it when we don’t take verses in their context.
Sprinkled throughout His ministry, Jesus gives us glimpses of the glorious truth of the worldwide nature of His kingdom. The truth that Gentiles – that’s you, that’s me – will be called into His church. One commentator said this, “The supreme significance of this passage is that it foreshadows the going out of the gospel to the whole world; it shows us the beginning of the end of all barriers.” By His silence, by His seeming harsh words, He was highlighting what He was about to do – He was going to answer a Gentile’s prayer. All of a sudden, this isn’t a troubling text – it’s a hope-filled, glorious text.
So first, Jesus ignores her. The bread isn’t for you – yet. Was He unaware of how she would then respond, that she would best Him? Or, was He drawing out her faith. Some have pointed out she’s the first to understand a parable – and then, she enters into it. Because next, Jesus says this, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” I believe He was affirming to her the priority of the message. It is true, as Ephesians 2:12 says, she was “at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and [a] stranger[s] to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” He wasn’t saying anything that was untrue. By His words, He was drawing attention to the fact she was without hope, and in so doing, drawing out and perfecting faith. I believe He was testing and strengthening her faith.
You see, you have to understand something about what He said to this lady. In the Greek, there are two words for dogs. The first refers to mangy, vicious wild dogs that roamed the streets and lived on garbage and dead carcasses. That’s not the word Jesus uses. He uses the second one, which referred to house pets, much like our pets today. They’re not children, but part of the household. They don’t get fed from the table – bread belongs to the children. But notice, they do get fed. These words would not have been nearly as offensive to this woman as we make them out to be.
And something else, we have no idea the tone with which He said these things. Many speculate it was with a gentle, compassionate, inviting tone, which is why she responds the way she does: “That’s true, Lord,” and then she furthers the analogy that Jesus used, “That’s true, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” All I’m asking for is a crumb, Lord. Please give it to me. Jesus had succeeded in drawing out her faith, perfecting it through this conversation.
It is possible He may do that to us? That is, is it possible He might “ignore us,” or not give us what we ask for right away, to teach us, to test, strengthen and perfect our faith? Remember, this woman had great faith. Which brings us to the third point, the characteristics of great faith.
You can’t help but be impressed with this lady when you read this story – Jesus was. In Matthew, He says, “O woman, your faith is great – it’s mega faith; it shall be done for you as you wish.” Mark records Jesus saying, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” And she left, and arriving home, she found her little girl, lying on the bed, healed. The demon had left – at the moment Jesus said so.
So, what was so impressive about this lady’s faith, that caused Jesus to call it great? I want you to notice four things – four characteristics that I want to sink into our hearts:
- First, her faith was in Jesus. As simple as that sounds, it’s very important. As a Gentile of Tyre, a Syrophoenician, she was probably a worshiper of Astarte and other pagan deities popular in that region. Oh, I’m sure those deities were fine when everything was going okay. But when she had a need, a real need, she found those gods incapable of meeting her desperate cry for help. So she turned to the only one who could. And her cry is the cry of true faith – Jesus, my only hope is you. The gods of this life, all that this world has to offer will not do – Jesus, I need you.
- Second, her faith was on the basis of mercy. In Matthew, she said, Lord, have mercy on me. Don’t miss that. What is mercy? Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Notice, she didn’t come to Jesus and argue with Him about whether or not it was fair her daughter was demon-possessed. She didn’t argue whether or not her daughter deserved to be demon-possessed. She didn’t argue about whether she felt slighted as a Gentile dog. She didn’t argue about whether Jews were better than Gentiles, or whether Gentiles were as good as Jews. She didn’t argue she deserved as much attention from Him as anyone else. Her cry was very simple. Lord, I know I don’t deserve it – have mercy on me. Relieve me from the consequences of sin. Show me mercy – I need it desperately – and you are the only source of my help. That’s the cry of great faith.
- Third, hers was a persistent faith. She kept asking. Now, I want to say, her great faith was persistent, not because she was disciplined. You don’t need to go from here saying, okay, I need to be more persistent in my faith – I need to try a little harder. Her faith was persistent because she was desperate – she had a great need, and she would not be turned away. Her faith was real, she would not be discouraged. She would not be deterred by obstacles, setbacks, or disappointments. Some even suggest Jesus intentionally placed these barriers to see her work through them to strengthen faith. He’d had enough of superficiality and shallowness from the crowds in Galilee – He was looking for deep, genuine, persistent faith – He found it in the great faith of this woman. It was a faith that would not give up.
- Fourth, great faith is appropriately humble and passionately reverent. A passionate reverence that is expressed – oh Lord – notice, she calls Him Lord, have mercy on me – oh Lord, help me. While she was persistent, she didn’t come demanding. She came pleading, recognizing He was her only source of help.
If we want to have great faith – it’s got to be a faith resting solely on Jesus Christ – no one else will do. It’s got to be a faith resting solely on His mercy – not feeling like we deserve anything, because we don’t. It’s got to be a persistent faith, not a weak faith. And it’s got to be a humble, reverent faith – not like the flippant, self-absorbed faith we see in so many today. It is a faith that cries out incessantly to one person, and one person alone, for mercy. And that kind of faith Jesus likes, and notice, that is the kind of faith to which Jesus responds.