READ : Mark 7:25-30
But immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 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.”
Mark 7:25-30 rsv
We aren’t told why Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, but it must have been to rest. He never seemed to hold public meetings in such non-Jewish areas. He usually passed through them only on the way to another place. But on this occasion, He went to a home to stay for a while – and didn’t want anyone to know where He was. Perhaps He was exhausted from the utter self-spending of His work. Perhaps He wanted some undisturbed time to better teach His disciples or to reflect on the scope and direction of His ministry. Maybe He just needed time to unwind.
It’s good to be reminded that Jesus sought such retreats and that He urged His followers to take them, to go apart and rest a while. In our well- intentioned zeal to do His will and accomplish His work, we may sometimes forget that, and find ourselves frazzled and fretful. All of us need to unstring the bow at times, to get away, to take a break. And we shouldn’t despise or be ashamed of that universal human need.
AN URGENT NEED
In this case, however, privacy proved impossible. Jesus’ fame had crossed the borders of Israel. No sooner had He settled in the retreat house when people came looking for Him. First in line was a Gentile mother from the Phoenicia which belonged to Syria. She had never seen Jesus but had heard somehow of His power to cast out demons – and her own daughter was terribly possessed. We can imagine what this could have meant if we remember the afflicted young boy whose father later brought him to Jesus. That child was suffering from acute convulsions. He would fall uncontrollably, now into the fire, now into the water. Whatever this daughter’s symptoms, her mother was frantic. She had found no help of any kind for this girl, and had probably cried herself to sleep over her on many a night.
Mark describes the action now as fast-paced. The moment she heard Jesus was in the area, she made her way to the house where He was. As soon as she saw Him, she fell down at His feet, imploring Him to free her daughter from this dreadful affliction.
This woman was like many others who came to Jesus under the felt pressure of a great need. She was so concerned for the daughter she loved that she was ready to go anywhere, do anything, if only she could see her well again. And she somehow had become convinced that Jesus would help. That’s faith, isn’t it, when you sense a deep need, when you come with it to Jesus, when you humble yourself before Him and appeal for His help? And when you do it for others, you’re not only a believer, you’re also an intercessor. You’re pleading on behalf of another.
A PUZZLING RESPONSE
Jesus’ response to that has a jarring sound to it. It’s not what we would have expected. “Let the children first be fed,” He said, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Who are “the children” here who must first be fed and to whom the bread belongs? It seems clear that Jesus meant by “the children,” Israel, God’s chosen people. Though every human being has been created by God, though all peoples are His handiwork, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are in a special sense His covenant children. In the mystery of His electing love, He chose them to be a special people to Himself. God’s loving plans took in the whole world, but they began with little Israel. The message was always for the “Jew first.”
Why Israel? That’s a question for which no one has an answer. God’s people learned well that it was not because of any virtue or worthiness on their part, not because they were more numerous or more attractive than others. If anything, the opposite was often true. Israel at its best always viewed this choice with a kind of adoring wonder.
Evangelist Billy Graham was asked once why God had chosen to use him to bring the Good News to so many people in our generation. Dr. Graham had no idea. “When we are finally with the Lord,” he replied, “that’s one of the first things I’m going to ask Him.”
Well, if by children the Lord means Israel, who are “the dogs”? They must be the rest of mankind, the Gentiles, the nations. Sometimes Jewish zealots were known to describe Gentiles as dogs, the kind that prowl in the streets, the wild and ravenous sort. That usage was decidedly uncomplimentary.
Jesus doesn’t use the word in that sense. The dogs to which He refers are more like household pets who sit under the table waiting for morsels to drop. It’s still not a flattering designation but there’s nothing of hostility or contempt in it. There may even be a hint of affection, the feeling that almost everyone has for “puppies.”
Still, in response to this woman’s impassioned appeal, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first.” He’s pointing to Israel’s priority in God’s plans. Jesus as Messiah is ever obedient to the Father’s will. He is not a free-lancer but a servant. His mission is to Israel. To Israel, Jesus dedicates His entire ministry – right up to His death. The needs of His own people are, therefore, always paramount in His mind. They have to be fed first.
He carries the image further. “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” To Jesus, conducting a mission for Gentiles at this point would have been to swerve from the path of obedience. It was not fitting that He should, for the sake of Gentiles, curtail His appointed ministry to Israel. Jesus had all He could do in His preaching, teaching, healing ministry among the chosen people.
That’s instructive for us, isn’t it? No one of us can do everything or be everywhere. We have to labor at a certain task, among a particular group of people. Spreading ourselves too widely can imperil our primary calling in life. We have to establish clear priorities as to where we will invest our time and energies and whose needs we will concentrate on fulfilling. For Jesus, during His earthly ministry, that issue was crystal clear. The focus was Israel, and especially that little band within Israel whom He had chosen as His disciples. I wonder about myself, about you. Who are the persons who in God’s plan come first for you? Your family? Your neighbors? Your fellow workers perhaps? A special circle of friends? Whatever else you do, don’t neglect them.
But it’s striking to notice that Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first.” He doesn’t rule out a ministry to Gentiles. That apparently will come later. Others are to be included in God’s gracious plans. So, along with a response that otherwise seems a bit harsh and insensitive, Jesus adds a glimmer of hope.
A FAITH THAT WON’T GIVE UP
But how will this woman respond? How will she react when her impassioned plea is denied in this way? How will she feel about being compared to the little dogs beneath the table? Will there be anger, a flash of resentment against this One who is supposed to be a healer and yet so heartlessly turns her down? Will there be despair, uncontrollable weeping? Or will she simply turn away silently, crushed in spirit?
Surprisingly, it’s none of the above. Listen to this mother’s words again, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
A number of things impress me here. She begins by saying, “Yes, Lord.” She’s not sad. She’s not angry, certainly not bitter. She agrees with Jesus and speaks to Him with the utmost respect.
Further, she shows that she has been listening carefully. She takes the Lord’s own words and makes use of them. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This woman recognizes Jesus’ priorities. She agrees with them. She’s not asking for primary consideration. She doesn’t want to interrupt anything. All she wants is a crumb. “Don’t give me the children’s bread,” she says in effect, “just let me have what’s left over. Whatever the children don’t eat, don’t need, don’t even want, whatever falls unnoticed off the table, let that be for me.”
How could she, in a more beautiful way, have affirmed the truth of the Lord’s words or renewed her own appeal? She’s content with the humble role assigned to her. Let her be one of the puppies, looking up eagerly for some tiny morsel from the feast. This woman believes that the Lord’s bounty is abundant and overflowing. Even a crumb from His banquet table will be more than enough, so great is His sufficiency, so marvelous His power. She’s like that other woman who felt that she could be healed just by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. There is measureless abundance in Him – she knows that, too. Even the smallest crumb from His table will satisfy her need.
And what a faith emerges here in the Lord’s grace! This mother believes His mercy to be vast. Even though He has priorities to be observed which are right and good, He will still help her, for His compassion knows no bounds.
This woman is a true suppliant, a model seeker. She has no plea but her need. She has nothing to commend her to Jesus, nothing to offer in response to His gift. All she presents is a heartbreaking concern. Her appeal is simply and only to His loving will. She looks to His largeheartedness, the overflow of His kindness. How great her faith! She seems to realize with a joyful heart who Jesus is. She ascribes to Him power without limit. She keeps on appealing to Him in spite of opposition and discouragement. She will not swerve from the conviction that in Jesus she will find help. She is sure that behind His seeming indifference and seeming rejection He really does care and He really will help. And she is right!
A HAPPY ENDING
Listen to the Lord’s response: “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” For this saying, yes, and for the remarkable faith it expressed. Jesus made a promise that her daughter would be healed. No, not a promise, because the thing had already happened. It was really a pronouncement of what had come to pass, by His sheer, sovereign will. The demon had been banished. The girl was released and restored.
Believing what had been told her (and, I think, celebrating all the way), the mother went home. She was not at all surprised to find that her daughter was herself again, free at last. Joy! Joy! Joy!
What had happened here? Had Jesus abandoned His priorities for the sake of this nameless woman? Had He turned aside from His primary mission simply because of her cleverness and persistence? I don’t think so. I think what Jesus said here was not meant to exclude or discourage her but rather to stir her heart, to awaken faith. She saw the Lord’s intention. She sensed the invitation hidden in His words. She knew that the deepest reality about Jesus was grace, that stronger than anything else in Him was a passion to heal and to save. And that faith, it seems, was what Jesus wanted to see in people more than anything else.
I hope we can learn from that. Oh, believe it, friends: the heart of God can be touched by your appeals of love, your prayers of faith. If you are burdened with the needs of someone you love and are praying earnestly and urgently for the Lord’s help, don’t lose heart. There may be delays. There may be times when He seems stern, insensitive. You may be tempted to doubt if He really cares at all. But don’t give up. Keep doing what the Tzeltal Indians translate as believing, “holding on to God with your heart.” When you hold fast to His love and faithfulness, when you come to God through Jesus and appeal to Him, you won’t be finally disappointed. Listen to Paul’s logic, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Rom. 8:32). In other words, if He cared enough to give His own Son, will He withhold from us any good gift? So keep on asking, seeking, knocking, however unpromising it seems. It won’t be for nothing. Sometime, somewhere, you’ll discover as this woman did that the love of God is “broader than the measure of man’s mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.”
PRAYER: Father, we praise You that in Jesus we know that You’re open to our appeals of need. Help us to call upon You in real faith. In the name of Jesus. Amen.