March 7, 2010
Jesus’ earthly ministry was largely devoted to the Jewish people. In Mark 7, however, we read the unusual story of a gentile woman who bravely came to Jesus seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter. Alistair Begg helps us make sense of this interesting encounter and reminds us that we must come to Jesus just as the gentile woman came: confident that anyone who draws near to Him will not be turned away.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take a Bible and turn with me to the Gospel of Mark and to chapter 7. We’re going to read from verse 24 to verse 30:
“Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“‘First let the children eat all they want,’ he told her, ‘for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.’
“‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’
“Then he told her, ‘For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’
“She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”
Now we’ll pray together:
Father, we come to ask for your help as we study the Bible now. We don’t do so as a matter of routine but as a matter of great concern and deep-seated need, so that you will take my words and speak through them, take our minds and help us to think with them, and take our hearts and set them ablaze with love for Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
You may want to put your finger in Matthew chapter 15 as well this morning, which is where we have Matthew’s record of this same incident that we have just read here in Mark chapter 7. I’ll be moving back and forth between them, and I don’t want to mention it every time I do. So when you find something’s missing in Mark, if you look over, it should be in Matthew. If you find that it’s missing in Matthew, then we’ll have to talk about it later on.
It wouldn’t do to just have any kind of babysitter for a child, a daughter, in this peculiar and devastating predicament. It may be that this lady had heard of Jesus as a result of a statement made by one of her neighbors, or perhaps in the marketplace, some who had been in the crowds that had swelled in the throngs of Jesus’ disciples, who had come from Tyre and Sidon, had been speaking concerning this miracle worker from Galilee. Whatever it was, this lady, who Mark tells us was “Greek”; she was “born in Syrian Phoenicia”; she was a Canaanite woman. In other words, her roots went back to 3000 BC, to a very cultured environment. The first alphabets we have come from the Canaanites. The Canaanites were opponents of the people of God. And Mark and Matthew are telling us that this lady was an alien lady in terms of the covenant purposes of God. She was in every sense an outsider, and she was a lady with a significant problem, insofar as her daughter, whom she clearly loved and cared for, was possessed by a demon.
Now, given her background, we might have expected that she would have been heading for a temple—not just any temple, but the Temple of Eshmun, who was the pagan god of healing. And it would be expected that somebody who was Greek in background and from the area of Tyre and Sidon would have gone to such a location in order to seek help. But here we discover that instead of heading for a temple, she’s heading for a house. And not just any house—this house in which Jesus has taken up residence.
In verse 24, Mark tells us that Jesus had left where the previous encounter had taken place, and he’s moved now into “the vicinity of Tyre.” He’s moved from the area in which the Jewish people lived into a very gentile area. It’s perhaps understandable. I like to think, actually, that Jesus eventually said to his disciples, “You know, I can only take the Pharisees for so long, and the best thing we can do is get out of here completely. And why don’t we slip out of the region here of the Jews, of Judea and Galilee? And let’s go somewhere where these folks won’t be jumping out from behind hedges at us the way they’ve been doing for some time.” And he has made his way to “the vicinity of Tyre,” and, verse 24, he has “entered a house” with a desire for privacy—presumably, a desire for rest and refreshment. Understandable. But Mark tells us that whatever longings for privacy he may have cherished, they were unmet. It was impossible for him to “keep his presence” a “secret.” And as the word gets out, so the word reaches this particular lady, and this lady makes her way to find Jesus.
And so we have the record of her arrival: “A woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet.” The cries of the needy are at their apex, surely, in the cries of a mother for her child. If you were able to walk past anybody asking you for anything, surely the hardest person to disregard and to dismiss would be a mother who was peculiarly concerned for her child. And in Matthew’s record—and Mark gives it to us in the third person here, doesn’t he? He says that a woman came, and “she begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.” If you have your finger in Matthew 15, he puts it here in the first person. He gives us, actually, the dialogue in verse 22: “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.’”
Now, what is most striking and problematic, of course, is the response of Jesus. Indeed, if you read this passage and you don’t find that it is immediately a problem, then I suggest you’re not really reading it. Because we have already identified the fact that Jesus has looked on the crowds and he has seen them as “sheep without a shepherd,” and he has been moved with compassion for them. Indeed, we’ve sung this morning about the compassion of Christ. We’ve read of God as the one who reaches out and views those who are sheep in need of a shepherd. “He gently leads those [who] have young.” Well then, in light of that, how do we make sense of this encounter? How do we make sense of somebody coming as such an expression, as it were, out of the crowd, with such deep-seated need represented in the life of her daughter, and yet for Jesus to respond in the way that he does?
Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph (which is a British newspaper) carried an article about a doctor in the North of England who had failed to diagnose a postnatal condition in a twenty-seven-year-old mother. He had treated her for the absolutely wrong thing, and tragically, within a very short period of time the young lady died. The coroner’s report, which I read in part, found that the doctor had given “‘insufficient regard’ to his patient’s [complaint] and [to] the [rules] provided by her GP.” I’m sure there was nothing malevolent in the man’s approach. It really was a very sad story. And as I read it yesterday, I said to myself, “Well, it’s very, very important in diagnosis of any kind, I imagine, for a physician, that he takes and pays very careful attention not only to what he initially presumes to be the case but also to the other factors surrounding the case. And so, if the GP provides good notes, it would do well to read those notes. After all, they were part and parcel of the team necessary.”
I mention that because if we’re not careful, we may also pay insufficient regard to the material that is before us in seeking to determine what the Bible is saying. And if we do so, then we can find ourselves treating the condition absolutely incorrectly. And so, when we come to a passage like this, which is immediately problematic—and if you don’t realize how problematic it is, then you haven’t fully woken up this morning—then you have to say to yourself, “What am I going to do with this?” And I’ve gone round and round and round on this for at least the past week. So I look at this, I look at the response of Jesus, and I ask myself the question, “Does this description and conclusion fit with what I know about Jesus elsewhere?” In other words, is this an anomalous situation? Does this stand out as significant because it is so unlikely?
For example, Jesus stops the procession to the grave of the widow of Nain. She’s about to bury her only son. He arrests that, and he raises the young man to life, and he restores him to his mother—an amazing act of his power and of his compassion. Well, at first blush, when we read this, it would appear that is the very reverse of such an intervention. Indeed, it appears to be largely dismissive of this woman’s deep-seated concern. So what do we have to do?
Well, we have to stand back, in the same way that we talk about standing back from a picture in a gallery, in order that we might see the totality of the landscape of what is provided. And if we’re not careful, because of the way we’re studying the Bible, finishing last time at verse 23 and beginning now at verse 24, it would be possible for us to forget that verse 24 follows verse 23—not because we don’t see it there, but we do, but simply because of the way we study it.
And therefore, the connection here is an important connection. And that’s the first thing you need to notice. What has Jesus been dealing with? He’s been dealing with issues about purity and defilement. He’s been dealing with the religious formalist, who is so concerned that he won’t touch anything that would make him unclean. That religious formalist in Judaism knew that the one thing you shouldn’t touch is a gentile, that the one person that you shouldn’t be engaged with is someone who is not part of the covenant family of God. And so, having just directly intervened in the lives of these Pharisees and sought to bring instruction to his own followers, Mark now records for us an incident which casts the very issue in its starkest relief.
So the context is clear: it is that of confrontation with the Pharisees. They had come to him concerned, remember, about purity and defilement. And the Pharisees wouldn’t teach the law to a woman. The Pharisees would not allow a woman to sit at the feet of a rabbi—that is, a Jewish woman. And the possibility of a gentile woman having any association with them at all is absolutely unthinkable. It fitted directly in with the important factor that they observed in terms of making sure that everything was externally put to rights.
That was the context, wasn’t it? Confrontation with them, and then confusion on the part of the disciples themselves. Remember, they had said to Jesus, “We’re not sure that we understand what you’ve said in this parable about inside and outside.” And Jesus has taken his disciples aside, and he has given them the instruction which then ends in verse 23.
And now, in striking contrast to the confrontational approach of the Pharisees and the confusion of the disciples, we discover confidence in the most unlikely place. We discover somebody—the most unlikely person to get to grips with the nature of who Jesus is and why he has come. And it is apparent that this lady presumably recognizes what the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus had failed to grasp. And again, in verse 22, she came crying, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now, I don’t know whether she did that out of respect or whether she did it out of faith. I have a sneaking suspicion it was the latter rather than the former. But I find it very helpful to follow the dialogue here in Matthew 15. This is one of the situations, I think—one of the incidents—in which Mark’s fast pace, Mark’s action, Mark’s movement, Mark’s commitment to the “immediately” and to the moving on needs to be clarified and qualified by the slightly better-paced account of Matthew. Because you will notice that it is only Matthew that tells us of the silence of Jesus.
You see, Mark moves directly to Jesus’ statement in verse 27: the woman begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter, and Jesus said, “Well, we’ve got to take care of the children; we’re not really interested in the dogs.” If you go to Matthew, what do you discover? You discover that there is a progression here before Jesus makes that statement: “Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” And then notice, verse 23, Matthew tells us of the silence of Jesus. The silence of Jesus: “Jesus did not answer a word.” He didn’t say anything. In The Message, Peterson says, “Jesus ignored her.” I think that’s wrong. That’s why, incidentally—people always ask me about paraphrases of the Bible, and they know I like J. B. Phillips and so on—you mustn’t ever study from those things. Because that is inferential. That’s not what it says. It says that Jesus didn’t speak a word. That’s not the same as ignoring somebody. It may be, but it isn’t—not here. And the silence of Jesus, as we will see, is not punitive, but it is purposeful. He doesn’t speak—purposefully.
The silence of Jesus is then followed by the suggestion of the disciples. Again, you only have this in Matthew’s account: “Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’” You can just see how it happens. Jesus is going along, he encounters the lady, she comes to him with this request, he doesn’t respond to her—verbally, at least—and now she’s coming behind. The disciples are behind him, and they are perplexed by the fact that now she’s speaking to them.
J. B. Phillips—characteristically, as an Englishman—paraphrases the response of the disciples: “Do send her away—she’s still following us and calling out.” You can’t say that except with an English accent, can you? “Do send her away—she’s still following us and calling out.” You know, “Jesus, get rid of her! She’s driving us nuts! I mean, if you’re not going to do anything with her—we can’t do anything with her—why don’t you either give her what she wants or get rid of her? Let her go.”
The silence of Jesus, the suggestion of the disciples, and then the statement made by Jesus in verse 24—which again you don’t have in Mark’s record. And it is an important cross-reference, isn’t it? Jesus “answered”—not the woman but the disciples—“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Now, this is a very, very important statement. Jesus says, “This is what I came to do. My life and ministry is circumscribed not only by my humanity and my ability only to be in one place at one time, but it is also circumscribed by what God the Father has entrusted to me as my responsibility. And I am here in order to speak and reveal to the covenant people of God, the Jewish people, the fact of my kingdom and the mystery and wonder of who I am and what I’ve come to do.”
Tasker says since he was sent to the people of Israel, “He could not be at the beck and call of everyone, however deserving their requests might be.” That makes perfect sense. Jesus just couldn’t be chasing down every lead. He couldn’t be following everything. He had an express purpose. He had come to do the will of God. And what is very interesting, when you ponder it, is the fact that apart from a few exceptions—and this is one of them—Jesus spent virtually his entire earthly ministry in Judea and in Galilee. He went out very rarely, but his whole ministry was within that geographical context and within the framework of the Jewish people. He didn’t go to Alexandria. He didn’t go to the seats of civilization. He didn’t go to Rome. He didn’t go to Athens. I wonder: Have you ever thought about that—that God invades time and places himself in largely a backwater province of a tiny little place in the Middle East? If you were going to do it, if you had conceived of a strategy for reaching the world, you might have, or I might have, determined that we must hit the high spots. But he doesn’t!
I was greatly helped, as I struggled with this this week, to come on just a phrase from Leon Morris, when he writes, “There are mysteries here … we cannot solve.” “There are mysteries here … we cannot solve.” I love a commentator who’s prepared to admit that—makes me feel so much better, because I said to myself, “I don’t buy most of what I’m reading in these books. I’m not sure that anybody has got this right.”
Listen to Leon Morris again, in just a sentence: “While Jesus came to make that atonement for sin[s] which would mean salvation for people in any place throughout this whole wide world, he did not come to engage in a worldwide mission of healing or the like.” He didn’t. Even when he comes on the people, remember, when the waters are being stirred up… They’re there for the healing waters at the pool. You can say, “Well, it’s quite remarkable that he introduces that one fellow, and he is wonderfully cured.” But we have to be honest and recognize that he didn’t introduce any of the other fellows or the girls that were sitting around there. Why not? “There are mysteries here … we cannot solve.” But clearly, he was not on a worldwide healing mission, so that everybody who came in his wake or came with a request would inevitably be the recipient of his generosity.
Now, it is in light of that that this lady’s encounter with Jesus must be understood. And she comes, and she kneels down before Jesus, and she ups the ante, if we might say so. Again, I’m still in Matthew 15. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he says to the disciples, and “the woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said.” She’s reduced it just to a phrase now. She’s come and asked that the Son of David would be merciful to her. Her daughter is in a dreadful predicament, and now she comes, and she kneels before Jesus, and she says, “Lord, help me.” In other words, this is what she says: “I know you apparently have a mission to Israel, but I’ve got a daughter at home, and I need your help. I’m asking you to make an exception, Jesus. I need your help.”
Well, what does Jesus say? We’ll go back to Mark, shall we? “First,” he says, “let the children eat all they want, … for it[’s] not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” What in the world is this about? Where did this come from? Doesn’t it just appear immediately harsh and dismissive? Doesn’t it seem completely contrary to the compassion of Jesus that we find elsewhere in the New Testament? Are some of the commentators right when they describe the brutality of Jesus here and the insolence of his response? I read all of this stuff this week. Well, no, I think they’re absolutely wrong, and I want to tell you why.
What Jesus is doing here is he’s taking material—proverbial material, cultural awareness—and putting it in a pithy way in order to make a point, in order to substantiate that which he has just said to his followers: “I am here to look after the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Those are the children that I have come to feed. It’s not right for me to neglect feeding the children that God has asked me to feed by giving bread to those who are not the children.” It wouldn’t be right, in a house, to have a puppy or two underneath the table and, when your children sat down for their breakfast, immediately take their breakfast from them and serve it to the dog under the table. That wouldn’t be a right thing to do, would it? Because the children are helpless; they are dependent upon the provision that you as parents make for them.
And gentile people knew that the Jews referred to gentiles as dogs. As dogs. Scavengers! Not nice dogs. Mangy dogs. Not the kind of dogs that are all around us here, that we find walking in the street and in the park. No, the kind of dogs that you’ve seen in certain parts of the world—in South Africa I’ve seen them, and in other places, too—where, frankly, if you meet them on the street, you’re afraid for your life, because they are unsavory little creatures. They’re outcasts.
And what Jesus is doing here, in light of the fact that he knows that she knows… And incidentally, he uses a diminutive word for “dog” here. He doesn’t use the scavenger dog word; he uses the household pet word. And some of the commentators say, “You see, he was just trying to be nice, and that’s why it’s not as bad as it seems.” Listen, if you get called a dog, it doesn’t matter if you get called a poodle or a rottweiler; you still got called a dog. So we can’t clean it up that way, I don’t think. “It’s not right to take the bread for the children and offer it to dogs, no matter what kind of dog you might think I think you are.”
Jesus is actually testing this woman here to see how sincere her appeal is, to see how deep-seated her faith is, to see just whether she has a casual interest in him or whether she has determined for a solution that only he can provide. And frankly, I think that any of us who are in sales would want to have this lady on our sales team—or if you are a lawyer, you would want to hire her as part of your force. Because this lady is good.
“It[’s] not right,” says Jesus, “to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “I agree,” she says, verse 28, “the children’s needs must be met. But the little dogs have their place, too, you know? We don’t want to miss the little dogs under the table, do we?” You say, “Well, you haven’t helped me at all.” It’s all right. I haven’t finished. I’m close, but not there.
From time to time after a Sunday, I go through an exercise—it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen—where I go to the folks who produce the radio program and I suggest to them that we ought to take out statement one, statement five, statement nine, or whatever else it is—something that I have said from the pulpit here. Often it gets into a fairly lively debate, because they say, “Well, it was a right statement and a good statement.” And I say, “I know it was right. Whether it was good or not we can debate. But the fact is, I’d like it to be removed.” “Why do you want it to be removed?” And the answer that I give is: because without my body language and without somebody being able to see my eyes, they may actually completely misinterpret the inference and the purpose of what I just said in that context. That’s why I don’t regard radio or tapes or CDs as a significant enough substitute for the actual existential preaching encounter, which is what we do here. And so I say, “Let’s take it out,” because without it, it may be misinterpreted.
I think—and this is the best I can do with this—but I think this is the missing element in this encounter here. I think the answer to this dialogue has to do with Jesus’ eyes, and we can’t see his eyes; has to do with the tone of Jesus’ voice, and we can’t detect the tone of his voice. I think that if we could have seen this, if we had this on a video, this encounter would be a dialogue that was quite fascinating.
Jesus says to her, “Well, you know, it wouldn’t be right to take the food from our children and give it to the dogs, would it?” She knows what he means. He’s not being disparaging towards her as an individual. He’s simply taking the proverbial language of the time, and they know what the story is. It’s like the Scots and the English or the Irish and the Welsh. We all know what it’s about. You can say certain things in a way that draws the sting of them. So, for example, I can tell you that the men, the folks, who got stuck on a desert island—there were two Scots, two Welsh, two Irish, and two English. And after a month, the two Scots had started a bank. After a month, the Irish had started a fight, the Welsh had started a choir, and the two English guys hadn’t introduced themselves to each other.
“It wouldn’t be right to take the cereal from the kids and put the bowl under the table.”
“No, I agree with that. But I’ll tell you what: even the little dogs under the table can lap up the end of the Rice Krispies. Jesus, I’m not saying for a minute that I am at the table. Jesus, I’m not suggesting for a nanosecond that my background makes me part of your covenant family in terms of the house of Israel. But I need your help, because my daughter is overwhelmed, and I think you’re the only one that can fix this.”
William Barclay says, “We can be … sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness.”
And so, what do we have? Well, in the encounter we have a glimpse of what Jesus was going to do when he dispatched his disciples to go “to the ends of the earth” with the good news. It’s a little indication of what is going to take place. The Pharisees are very concerned that it would be all exclusive and related only to them, and Jesus steps outwith the boundaries of that, goes into the vicinity of Tyre, and of all things, of all people that he encounters, he encounters one of these Greek, gentile, Canaanite women. And he says to her, “You know what? That was a pretty good response! And for that response, you can go home now. And when you get home, you’ll find the demon has left your daughter.”
And in this encounter, we actually have an illustration of what it means to come to Christ. She doesn’t come to Jesus and argue her claims as being just as good as anyone else’s. She doesn’t come to Jesus and debate the Jew-versus-gentile story. She doesn’t come and dispute the mysterious ways of God. She simply comes confident that Jesus, the Son of David, is the only one to whom she may turn, and to him she turns. And that is the only way that any of us may ever come to Jesus: “Lord, help me.” Have you ever said that to Christ?
Let us pray:
Gracious God, we thank you that the Lord Jesus Christ is rich in mercy, is wiser than all of our wisdom. And even when we seek to scratch the surface of this little encounter, we find ourselves feeling that we’ve left so much behind us. And so we pray that you will help us. Save us from our parochialism—the “us four, no more, shut the door” syndrome, a form of externalism and pharisaism. Give us skill in dealing with people. Help us to respond to the cries that come our way.
No wonder the disciples said, “Lord, why don’t you just get rid of her?” What did they have to say? They were so confused. What did the Pharisees have to offer? Kettle washing. That wouldn’t help her daughter. No, “Christ for the world, for the world needs Christ.” And one day, Lord Jesus Christ, you will reign over a company that no one can number, made up of every tribe and nation and people and tongue. And we anticipate that included in that number there will be many from the region of Tyre and Sidon who, like this lady, went, pleading nothing in her own defense, offering nothing by way of her merit, and crying out to you only for mercy. Thank you that you are a merciful God.
And we pray your blessing upon us as we go from this place, that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit may be the abiding portion of all who believe, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Mark 6:34 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 40:11 (NIV 1984).
 “Coroner Criticises Doctor Who Turned Away Sick Mother,” Telegraph, March 5, 2010, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7376620/Coroner-criticises-doctor-who-turned-away-sick-mother.html.
 See Luke 7:11–17.
 See Mark 7:17.
 Matthew 15:22 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 15:22 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 15:23 (MSG).
 Matthew 15:23 (Phillips).
 R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 150.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 403.
 Morris, 403.
 See John 5:1–15.
 Matthew 15:24–25 (NIV 1984).
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2, Chapters 11 to 28, 2nd ed., The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958), 135.
 Acts 1:8 (NIV 1984).
 See Revelation 7:9.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.