Synopsis: Why did Jesus respond so harshly to the Syrophoenician woman seeking healing for her daughter? Perhaps he wanted to put her great faith on display in order to help his disciples learn three hard gospel lessons.
Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-37
How many of you remember a lesson you learned in life – the hard way? Yes, hard lessons are often the ones we are less likely to forget. Allow me to share with you one lesson I learned the hard way.
Years ago, I saw a friend of mine in Kasa’s Pizzeria. I had not seen this friend in years, so it was so good to see her again, and even more joyfully, she was with child! So, I asked her, “When’s the baby due?”
Well … she wasn’t pregnant. I wanted to crawl into a hole. Thankfully, she was gracious enough to just laugh about it. But it was mortifying for me. I learned a lesson: Never ask a woman when the baby is due unless she tells you she’s pregnant.
The hardest thing for us humans to accept is that our assumptions are not always correct. In fact, our assumptions are often incorrect, and that is exactly what the disciples were about to learn in our scripture reading for today. They were about to learn three hard gospel lessons.
We’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark, the most chronological gospel of the four and the most action-packed, focusing primarily on what Jesus does to serve humanity.
Let’s take a quick look at the context around today’s scripture reading. Jesus had been teaching and healing all around the region of Galilee. In chapter six, he performs miracles unrelated to healing, such as calming a storm and walking on water. He performed these miracles in the presence of his disciples.
But the miracle that really got people’s attention was when he fed 5,000 men, which was probably more like 20,000 people when we include the women and children. However, Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand the significance of this event.
We know this because when Jesus walked on the water, Mark reports that the disciples were at first terrified and then astounded by it. Then he comments in verse 52: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
Mark chapter 7 opens with Jesus facing opposition from the religious leaders over his disciples not following the teachings of the elders related to ceremonial hand washing. Here is where Jesus teaches that it is not what goes into the body that is defiling, but what comes out of it – particularly what comes out of the heart, which can hold evil intentions that lead people to say evil words and commit evil deeds.
This scene is significant because Jesus is about to enter into the territory of the gentiles. If there was anything that kept Jews and gentiles separate, it was the Jews’ kosher diet. Jews were not permitted to eat in the homes of gentiles because they would most likely be offered food that would break Torah laws and thus defile them.
You see, the traditions of the elders were created by the Pharisees to separate the Jews from the pagans in the region. It was their way of protecting the Jewish race from pagan influences. The more they kept the Jewish people busy following Jewish traditions, the less chance they would be tempted to go astray. But this separation was an illusion. It was based solely on ideas, not reality.
This is first hard gospel lesson: There is nothing that truly separates us from one another. Ideas can create the illusion of separation, but they can never tear apart the unity that God created.
That brings us to our scripture reading for today. After this incident with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and entered the region of Tyre (TEYE-ur), located about twelve miles north of the border with Israel. He entered a house, but he didn’t want people to know he was there.
Why not? Perhaps he was hiding from the Pharisees, or perhaps he was hiding because he had entered the home of a gentile, or perhaps he just didn’t want to attract a big crowd. Maybe all three.
Anyway, we know how it goes whenever Jesus tries to hide – it never works, and it didn’t work here either. Soon, a woman with a demon-possessed daughter approaches Jesus for help.
Who was this “Syrophoenician” woman? The Phoenicians were an ancient Semitic people related to the biblical Canaanites, who inhabited city-states throughout the Mediterranean. The fact that she was a woman and a gentile was two strikes against her. The third strike was the fact that she was a Canaanite from Tyre. King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, the evil queen of Israel, was a Canaanite woman from Tyre.
Perhaps that’s why in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples beg Jesus to send her away. In both gospels, Jesus responds to the woman in a way that is quite harsh, which I’m sure is bewildering to many of us who don’t think of Jesus as intolerant.
Why does Jesus respond to her so harshly? I’ve heard several points of view. One point of view is that Jesus needed to be taught a lesson by this woman. That’s a bit surprising. After all, it is usually Jesus who teaches the lessons and wins arguments, right?
Another point of view is that Jesus wanted to lose this argument. This makes sense to me because in Matthew’s gospel, this woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” Up to this point, Peter has yet to confess Jesus to be the Son of David, the Messiah, the Lord. So, it’s quite possible that the first person to actually proclaim Jesus to be the Messiah was this gentile woman.
At this point, Jesus’ disciples have not understood many of his teachings. They didn’t understand the significance of the feeding of the 5,000. They didn’t understand his teaching about what really makes a person unclean. Who was more unclean in the heart here? This woman who came to Jesus for help, calling him “Lord, Son of David,” or the disciples who were saying, “Send her away?”
And that is the second hard gospel lesson: It is our belief in separation that corrupts the heart.
It took great humility for this woman to approach Jesus. As a gentile, she knew she had no standing. She had no right. Jesus was a Jew, and his god was the Jewish god. She was most likely a pagan who worshipped many gods, but she had heard that the god of the Jews was healing people miraculously through this man, Jesus, and her daughter needed healing.
Obviously, she had great faith in Jesus and in his god to heal her daughter. Jesus must have recognized this even before he made his statement to her. I believe he wanted this gentile woman to teach his disciples about real faith, so he set her up.
He responded to her with words he knew his disciples were thinking. They were undoubtedly thinking, “How dare you! He has come to serve the nation of Israel. You are a dog. His serving you would be like throwing the children’s food to the dogs.” The word “dogs” was often used to refer to non-Jews back in those days.
Jesus had already offered the Bread of Life to the Jews. Remember Jesus teaching about the Bread of Life in the gospel of John? The body and blood of Christ being the true bread and the true drink that satisfies forever? They didn’t want that bread, did they? They wanted bread that satisfied their stomachs, not their souls.
They rejected the Bread of Life. I believe that’s why Jesus left the area of the Jews at this point and entered into the gentile’s territory. Now, listen to the woman’s response, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
The crumbs of the Bread of Life. She was willing to accept even the crumbs for the sake of her daughter. She accepted that the Jews deserved their portion as the first to be offered the Bread. They were the first, yes, but that didn’t mean the bread was for them exclusively. She barely knew the god of the Jews, yet she had faith that he was a god of inclusion. She had faith in God’s grace. Jesus praised her great faith in front of his disciples and declared her daughter healed.
This is the third hard gospel lesson: God does not turn his face away from anyone who comes to him with faith. Anyone. It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, if any, what church you belong to, what doctrines you believe in, or what you have done in your life. All that matters is that you believe that you are part of something greater than yourself and that this “something greater” cares for you.
You don’t even have to publicly confess Jesus as Lord for God to respond. The Syrophoenician woman did, but the deaf and mute guy obviously didn’t, did he? But that didn’t seem to matter to God.
Jesus moves southeast into the region of Decapolis along the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee. He’s still in gentile territory, and he is approached by some men who bring to him another man who is both deaf and mute. His friends speak for him, asking Jesus to lay his hands on him. We can safely assume these men were all gentiles.
Notice the level of sensitivity Jesus has toward this man suffering from a disability. First, he takes him away from the crowd. Why? Well, it’s like when we enter the doctor’s examination room. We don’t want a crowd of witnesses when the doctor’s poking and prodding us, right?
So, Jesus takes the man away to a more private location. He sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, then spits on his finger and touches the man’s tongue. It’s as if the Lord was doing the sign language version of the healing first followed by the verbal command.
The man was healed, and everyone was astounded at how well Jesus did everything – even making the deaf hear and the mute speak. Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, but you know how well that always went for the Lord. They all blabbed. How could they keep such astounding deeds a secret?
What does this scripture reading have to say to us today? I believe it has much to say to us – not only individually, but collectively in these challenging times. Jesus came to teach us not just how to survive, but how to live and live abundantly. Basically, if the goal is to get out of this mess we’re in and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, these three hard gospels lessons provide three steps toward that goal.
The first step is that we must end the belief in separation. What we are seeing in our world right now are the creations of a humanity that has believed in separation for a very long time. We all create our experiences through thought, word, and deed. First, we think about what we want, then we talk about it, then we create it.
The hardest truth for people to accept is that because we are one, we can’t think, say, or do anything that doesn’t affect everyone else in some way. We don’t experience our creations alone. They come into this world, where everyone else lives, so everyone else experiences them.
The good news is that I believe most people are beginning to let go of the idea of separation; they just don’t know it yet. That’s because thoughts of separation will always be in our minds as part of our human programming, but that doesn’t mean we have to believe those thoughts. We can simply notice them and recognize them as false.
Our thoughts, words, and deeds must be aligned with the truth – that we are one. Every thought, word, and deed must turn away from what’s good only for me to what’s good for all.
The second step is that we must purify our hearts. Let’s talk about worth. That word doesn’t exist in God’s vocabulary. Why? Because all of creation is equally worthy in his sight. Creation is God’s expression of Who He Is. It is God’s Image. How can he reject any of it since it is one and all part of Him?
Just as every wave is an expression of the majestic ocean, every form is an expression of our awesome God. Without each wave, the ocean would not be what it is. Without each form, God would not be who God is. Can we imagine the ocean favoring one wave over another? Of course not! That’s ridiculous! So is the idea of God favoring one form over another.
We made up the word “worth” once we believed in separation. We believed that we could tear apart God’s unity and sort out for ourselves who is worthy and who isn’t as if we were God. If we could really do that, none of us would exist.
It is very difficult for many people to accept the truth that God loves everyone equally. Those who are very religious like to believe that they are God’s favorite. Those who are not very religious like to imagine that they are God’s nemesis. They are both wrong. Both are equally loved by God.
To purify our hearts, we must release the idea that some are more worthy of love – of basic care and concern – than others. We must accept and practice the idea that every time we look into the eyes of another human being, no matter who they are, there is an expression of God looking back at us – an expression that is deeply cherished by God.
So, we must learn to deeply cherish them too. We must drop all judgements because everyone is on a path back to God that cannot fail (say it again). Why?
Because God, our wonderful God, who is so full of love and grace, is not willing to lose a single soul. And if God is not willing to lose a single soul, then we must never give up hope for anyone.
That is the third step: We must never give up hope for any brother or sister. Not the prostitute, not the drug addict, not the felon. These and many others are treated like the “dogs” of our society. We don’t want to extend real love to them, just some niceties and platitudes. When they show up, we just want to say to them, “Bless you! Now go away.”
Because the truth is that they are on a path back to God – a hard one, yes, but they are on a path, and they can’t fail. But we can do whatever we can to make their path a little easier with a little love.
Now, I’m not going to tell you specifically what to say or do to help them. I will simply advise you to stay out of your head, and allow your heart to tell you what to say or do. It will come at just the right moment. And it will be very wise. It will be something that lifts them up, not shames them. It will be something that empowers them, not enables them. It will be the Lord extending his hand, touching them, and healing something broken in them through you.
Trust him, because he does everything well.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to release the idea of separation, purify our hearts, and extend love to all those in need. Help us to live more within our hearts so that as we go about our daily lives, we may hasten the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven by being who we really are: an extension of God’s all-inclusive love. AMEN.
Deffinbaugh, Bob. “13. Does God Ever Like to Lose an Argument? (Mark 7:24-37).” Bible.org, 4 Apr. 2012, bible.org/seriespage/13-does-god-ever-lose-argument-mark-724-37.