Jesus Honours a Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 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. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “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 the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man
31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Jesus wants some peace and quiet and has been wanting it for ages. He is travelling to the land of the Gentiles and is desperate for some quiet so that he can gather his thoughts. Yet, he does not get it because he is approached by a woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit. Despite being a Gentile, the woman knows about Jesus and follows Him.
Before I became a minister 20 years ago, another minister called Alwyn Knight preached on Mark 7, and I remember one of the things he said. Jesus said to the Gentile woman, who according to tradition is called Justa, whose daughter is called Berenice, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Many theologians and preachers have trouble with this verse. What Jesus said comes across as very harsh and horrible. He has called the woman a dog, which is not something you expect from the Son of God. But Alwyn Knight pointed out, this verse is not showing us the twinkle that Jesus had in his eye. He claimed this was a bit of banter between Jesus and the woman.
Yet, most commentaries say that Jesus meant what He said. He was calling the woman a dog, and that is difficult for us to get our heads around. Why would Jesus call this woman a dog? But the woman gets the better of Him by saying, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus appreciates this remark and tells her that for saying that, the demon has left her daughter. She went home, found her child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
What does this passage mean? I would like to share the first joke I used when I began preaching as a lay preacher about 23 years ago. A man wishes to go to a nightclub, but the bouncer stops him and tells the man he cannot come in. “Why’s that?” asks the man. The bouncer informs him that only people wearing ties can enter the club. The man asks what constitutes a tie, and the bouncer tells him it is something long and thin tied around the neck. So, the man goes away and finds a set of jump leads, which he ties around his neck. When he returns to the club, the bouncer says, “You cannot come in because you do not have a tie.” But the man says he has and indicates the leads tied around his neck. The bouncer sighs and says, “Okay, you can come in, but don’t you start anything!”
Now, how does this joke relate to the Gospel reading? I think what Jesus is doing is showing humanity. We have this idea that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. If He is fully human, then Jesus has to have some human foibles. In this passage in Mark, Jesus is showing his human side and that, perhaps, He did not recognise the full extent of his ministry. Has this woman, this Gentile woman, made Jesus realise that He has also been sent as a Saviour to the Gentiles?
I believe this passage shows us Jesus’s human side. He was rude, and somehow we need to process that, but it did prompt Jesus to rethink. Had His ears been opened to the wider ministry of the Gentiles, rather than sticking to the Jews? We believe the second miracle in Mark 3 also involved a Gentile. Does the passage make Jesus realise He is not just serving the people of Israel but that His mission is worldwide? Did this Gentile woman make Jesus change His mind about helping the Gentiles? There was only one time before this where Jesus changed His mind; that was about changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana (John 2).
Should theologians, preachers and all Christians consider Mark 7 as the moment when Jesus realised that His ministry is worldwide, and that there are no boundaries about hearing the word of God, that His ministry is for all people? So, think about it. Was this the beginning of Jesus’s wider ministry?
This Sermon was first preached at Wanstead URC on 5th September 2021
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon