Mark 7:24-30

The Crumbs Under the Table

Mark moves immediately from a tense encounter with the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus’ “retreat” into the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon.  This contrast should not be missed.   Jesus has just rebuked the Jews for their false beliefs about unclean things.  The very next event Mark records is Jesus amongst an “unclean” people.  If the shadow of a Gentile was enough to defile a person, how much more will entering an unclean town and going into an unclean house and even conversing with an unclean person, be the cause of defilement?  Jesus is clearly beginning to open the door for non-Jews to enter the kingdom of God.

#1 Jesus cannot be hidden!

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.   Mark 7:24

Tyre and Sidon lie 20 miles apart along the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon.  These cities frequently appear together in the New Testament and were notable amongst the Jews of the day as being a predominantly Gentile region.  Mark does not tell us what Jesus’ intentions are for traveling to this region.  We might suppose since he wanted his presence to remain a secret, that perhaps he was retreating from the crowds that chased him around the mostly Jewish Galilean countryside.  If this was indeed the case, we see that the crowds have foiled Jesus’ plans yet again.  Mark tells us plainly, he could not be hidden.  A  candle burning in a dark room will be noticed!  A city on a hill will be visible for miles.

#2 The woman has no “worldly” claim on Jesus.

25But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  Mark 7:25-26

This woman comes to Jesus in the midst of a crisis.  We might notice many things about her right away: she is bold, she is persistent, she is courageous.  She is all these things but underneath it all we need to see that she is a mother.  There is something about being a parent and having a child in need, that brings a fierceness out of even the most mild-mannered person.  If your child is in need, you will easily find yourself going to extraordinary lengths.  My father, who grew up on a farm in northern Delaware, loved to tell the story from his childhood of having had a tractor he was driving roll over on top of him.  He was pinned between more than a ton of metal and the unforgiving ground.  His father immediately summoned super-human strength and singlehandedly lifted the tractor freeing my father.  He was injured and left with some scars, but was alive.   When a child is in crisis, many parents find strength they did not know they had.

Bold as this mother might be, she has a lot working against her.  There is an old Jewish blessing that was to be recited every day by faithful Jews:  “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, who has made me not a Gentile… a woman…or a slave (Halachah 6).”  To be a Gentile or  slave or a woman in the ancient Jewish world carried with it distinct disadvantages.  Jewish men actually thanked God they were not born a woman!  So we immediately see that this mother has at least two strikes against her: she is a woman and she is Gentile.  There is speculation since her husband isn’t mentioned that perhaps she is a widow as well, but this of course is speculation.

Most important for this passage, this mother has no “worldly” claim on Jesus.  She cannot say to him, “Help me out because I am a fellow Jew.”  She cannot say, “Help me out because I am a fellow man.”  Or “Help me out because we grew up in the same town.”  She has no obvious claim on Jesus.  Now we know there are certain claims that we can have on one another.  Paul expounds on this in his first letter to Timothy: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).”  If someone is in your own household, and they find themselves in need, you are obligated to do something about it.  To fail to act is to reject the faith says Paul.

But this woman has no claim on Jesus.  She comes to him as a beggar.  No rights.  No claims.  Simply a plea for help.

#3 Jesus responds with a puzzling parable.

And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Mark 7:27

As perhaps we might expect by now, Jesus responds by telling a short parable.  What jumps off the pages to us is that Jesus seems to be calling this woman a dog.  Now I know in your high school days this might have been an endearing way to say hello to your friends: “What’s up dogs?” (Or was it “Wuz up dawgs?”).  However, no Jew or Gentile in Jesus’ days would have found this to be an endearing greeting.  True, Jesus uses the Greek word kynarion which could be translated “puppy” or “pet dog” and not the more common word kyon which would have connoted a street dog, but still?  Jesus is clearly insinuating that this woman is a dog.  This was common Jewish terminology for the Gentiles.

What are we to make of this parable?  Most Bible commentators go in one of two directions here.  Some make the case that Jesus is explaining that his priority is first to go to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.  Notice that Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first.” He is not rejecting the dogs, but only insisting that the children be fed first.  This is consistent with many passages in the Bible.  Remember that God made a covenant first with Abraham (the first Jew) so that through him blessing might come to the nations–that is the Gentiles (c.f. Genesis 12). Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham (c.f. Galatians 3:16).   He is the true embodiment of all that the people of God were to do and to be.  And therefore, through him who is true Israel, blessing has come to the world — Jewish and Gentile alike.  As Paul puts it (Romans 1:16) salvation is first for the Jew and then for the Gentile.

Other commentators make the case that Jesus is not necessarily giving assent to this parable, he is simply using it as a test.  It is a test for his disciples to see if they are holding on to any prejudice against Gentiles.  It is a test for the woman to see if she will persist in pursuing Jesus, even if that means coming to him as a dog.

So which is it?  I’ll respond with the words of campus evangelist Cliff Knechtle who when asked an impossible question would frequently respond with these emphatic words: “I-do-not- know.”

I find R.T. France helpful at this point:

“Misunderstandings of the pericope spring largely from the failure to read it as whole.  It is a dialogue within which the individual sayings function only as parts of the whole, and are not intended to carry the weight of independent exegesis on their own (NIGTC, Gospel of Mark, 296).”  

In other words, let’s keep reading.  Don’t get caught up on one verse.  We must look at this verse in light of the rest of the passage.

#4 The woman is willing to come to Jesus on his terms.

28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.  Mark 7:28-30

The woman responds to Jesus by accepting her place in the parable.  Notice she calls him Lord and says in effect “If I must come to the table as a dog, let me come as a dog and allow me to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.”   This Gentile woman who is an outsider by almost all accounts, becomes the first person in the Gospel of Mark to hear and demonstrate that she actually understands a parable of Jesus. The crowds demonstrated no understanding.  Jesus is constantly saying to his own disciples, “Do you still not understand?”  She, the most surprising of all people, demonstrates that she understands this parable.

She is willing to come to Jesus as a dog.  She is not fighting for her rights.  She is not insisting that she is worthy or that she gets what’s coming to her.  She lays no claim on Jesus.  She comes as a lowly dog and says “Let me lick up the crumbs that fall to the ground.  For surely even the crumbs are more than I need.”  She gets it!

Martin Luther found comfort in this passage.  He was struck that this woman was willing to take Jesus at his word.  She was willing to come to Jesus as a dog and in the end he treated her not as a dog but as a child.  Here are Luther’s words on this passage:

“All this is written for our comfort that we should see how deeply God hides his face and how we must not go by our feeling but only by his Word. All Christ’s answers sounded like no, but he did not mean no. He had not said that she was not of the house of Israel. He had not said she was a dog. He had not said no. Yet all his answers were more like no than yes. This shows how our heart feels in despondency. It sees nothing but a plain no. Therefore it must turn to the deep hidden yes under the no and hold with a firm faith to God’s word (quoted in Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton, p. 363).”  

Jesus sends her away with her request granted.  Her daughter is made well.  She walks away more like a child and less like a dog.  To be a dog is to be despised and rejected.  To be a child is to be loved and accepted.  We are reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah who describes the coming Messiah as one who will become “despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3).”  On the cross Jesus became a dog so that you and I might become children.  He takes our shame so that we might receive his honor.

Discussion Questions

  1. Look back at Mark 7:1-23.  Where was Jesus prior to going away to Tyre and Sidon? What are some reasons Jesus might have travelled all the way to Tyre and Sidon?
  2. Why do you think Mark tells us Jesus did not want anyone to know he was in the house?  Why couldn’t Jesus remain hidden?
  3. God can often feel as if he hidden from us.  Why do think this is?  What hope do we have when God feels hidden from us?
  4. If the Pharisees were present when this woman was talking with Jesus, what might they have thought about her?  What might they have thought about Jesus for engaging with her in conversation?
  5. Explain Jesus’ parable in verse 27.  What do you think is the meaning of this parable?
  6. In what ways does this woman display boldness and assertiveness?  In what ways does she display humility and submission?  How can we learn to approach God in the same way?
  7. In the end, does Jesus treat this woman more like a dog or more like a child?
  8. This woman like Jacob in the Old Testament (c.f. Genesis 32) had to “wrestle” with God before receiving a blessing.  Why do think we sometimes have wrestle before we receive blessing?  Is God really reluctant to bless his children?


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