Text: Mark 7.24–30
From there he (that is, Jesus) set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I like a good insult. I confess it. Take, for example,
the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to
have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr
Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Yes,
Madam, and you are ugly. But in the morning, I will be sober." Priceless,
We all know, though, don't we, that even playful
insults can easily cross the line into hurt and offence. Which is why it is quite surprising that in
today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him
as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross
insult. And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician
woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is
'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'. The clear implication of his words is that he
considers his ministry to be first and foremost for Jewish people.
The Jews are
the children. Other nations are ‘dogs’. What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in
question, it would have been like me saying that only white English people can
be Christians. But when we read the Bible, we have to be very careful. Only a
few pages earlier, especially in chapters 3 and 5, we find that Jesus quite
happily and regularly preached his message to non-Jews, all around Tyre and
Sidon, casting out demons into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs.
So - we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus
was anything but a racist. Then, we've
also got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus
pretty much hated each other – Jews against Samaritans, Canaanites against
Philistines. And the Romans against
everyone! So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus
statement about children and dogs?
Mark tells us that after some intense theological
arguments with Jewish religious leaders, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre -
some distance from Galilee. And,
according to Mark, he "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents
us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to get away from the pressures of his
ministry for a while...I know how that feels.
Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks
Jesus for another miracle`. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, worn-out,
it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap. We can imagine him, frustrated that he is not
getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I need to get the Jews to understand my
message, before we can take it any farther". He gropes for a metaphor.
Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all
Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus'
reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as a Jew, from a
nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world -
Jesus feels the need, strategically, to focus on the Jews first. But was he right? Does it mean that if he came to Britain,
Jesus would have joined ‘Britain First’?
But the woman is more than a match for the tired,
worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to
get Jesus to change his mind. She
persists - she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting
for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes
Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".
You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You
can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help
immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned his own
metaphor against him. Mark tells us that
then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your
daughter". Jesus praises the woman
for her faith, and he rewards her persistence by healing her daughter.
So what do we learned from this story - and from this
bit of bible-study we've been doing together?
First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We
sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt cold,
hunger and fatigue just like we do. For
those of us who are struggling with what feels like a never-ending cost of
living crisis, we can be sure that Jesus feels our tiredness, and our
And, just like us, when he was tired and stressed, he
was capable of getting things a little out of balance. The same goes for us. It is not sinful in
itself to hold a wrong opinion. But when strong science, or the Holy Spirit,
reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong (a fake truth, perhaps!)
we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face
in the new direction of truth.
Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some
patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong. We know that Jesus could frequently get
exhausted by his ministry. He took
frequent naps in boats just to keep going.
It’s good to recognise that we are all human… that we can all mis-speak
from time to time. We need to be always
ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.
Thirdly, we need to recognise that it was the woman’s
faith and persistence which ultimately gained her what she sought form
Jesus. That doesn’t mean, of course,
that if I keep on pleading with Jesus to give me a Rolls Royce that my
persistence will pay off. Persistence
and faith need to be aligned with God’s purposes for my life, and the life of
And finally, we learn that we follow a Lord who know
what it is like to be us – to be tired, fed-up, and in need of getting away
from it all. He stands with us,
alongside us, sustaining us and encouraging us – knowing completely what we are
going through. He is with us today, just
as he was with the Syro-Phoenician woman.