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. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” 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 statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
Mark 7:24-30 ESV
During the days of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign in Israel, God raised up the prophet Elijah, who began his ministry by decreeing a drought upon the land. While Elijah was fed by ravens for some time near the Jordan, the LORD sent the prophet beyond the land of Israel whenever the brook dried up. In Zarephath, between the cities of Tyre and Sidon, Elijah came to widow’s home, where he stayed with her, and her last bit of flour and oil never ran out.
Yet at some point during Elijah’s stay, the widow’s son became sick and died. The woman lamented his death to the prophet, and Elijah cried for God to raise her son back to life. And He did. Although most in Israel were blinded to the true and living God, the Gentile widow of Zarephath saw clearly.
THE SETTING // VERSE 24
Moving on from Jesus’ tense encounter with the scribes and Pharisees, we see Jesus leave Galilee entirely to the region of Tyre and Sidon. While both were significant cities in the ancient world, Tyre was the greater. It sat on a rocky island that formed a kind of natural fortress, which was then amplified by building an actual fortress. Indeed, so great was the pride of Tyre in their safety that God’s foretelling of the fall of Tyre’s prince in Ezekiel 29 makes many allusions to Satan’s prideful fall from heaven. Hendriksen notes that while both David and Solomon had an alliance with Tyre, employing many of the city’s artisans, it also “introduced Baal worship into Israel.”
Furthermore, 1 Kings 11:5 reports the apostasy of Solomon in going “after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians…” Idolatry became most widespread whenever King Ahab took Jezebel “the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians” (1 Kings 16:31) as his wife. Together, they established temples and altars to Baal and Asherah and put the prophets of the LORD to death. Thus, the region of Tyre and Sidon carried significant baggage for the Jews. Yet just as salvation came to the widow of Elijah’s day, so too does Psalm 87 prophesy that even people of Tyre would one day count themselves as being born of God’s holy city, Zion.
Interestingly, however, Jesus did not seem to come to bring the hope of salvation to the Gentiles just yet. Rather, because He did not want anyone to know, we can presume that Jesus went to this Gentile region in order to find rest, yet he could not be hidden.
Let us glean two truths from this statement. First, we should consider with thankful wonder again that Jesus lived a life of restless toil (physically speaking) in order to give to us His eternal rest. He labored not only in outward actions, but He labored as one under the law of God. This picture of Jesus finding no rest physically is a reminder that He never relaxed on one iota of God’s commandments, perfectly fulfilling them on our behalf.
Second, we should also recall the Parable of the Lamp that Jesus told in Mark 4. “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest, nor is anything secret except to come to light” (4:21-22). As the light of the world, it was impossible for Christ to remain hidden. Whether drawn by repentance and need or by scorn and mockery, Jesus must draw all men to Himself. Here we see this to be true even in Gentile territories.
THE PLEA // VERSES 25-26
With the setting of our present scene established, Mark now moves into setting the scene itself. ‘but immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell at his feet.’ Although we can assume that most people came to Jesus out of pure interest and speculation, this woman came before our Lord with a purpose and on behalf of another. The following verse tells us that she begged Jesus, similar to Jairus begging for Jesus to heal his little girl. Keller rightly notes the reason behind this desperation:
Parents are not really on the spectrum from cowardice to courage, because if your child is in jeopardy, you simply do what it takes to save her. It doesn’t matter whether you’re normally timid or brazen–your personality is irrelevant. You don’t think twice; you do what it takes. So it’s not all that surprising that this desperate mother is willing to push past all the barriers.
The most significant of these barriers was that she was a Gentile, while Jesus was a Jew. As a Syrophoenician, she was a native of the region around Tyre and Sidon. As we noted a few weeks ago, Jews would shake the dust off of their feet whenever they left a Gentile region, which they would only enter, in the first place, if need compelled them. Indeed, there was a rabbinical saying that Gentiles were like dogs, and not the house pet kind, the eat-the-broken-body-of-Jezebel kind. So, for this Gentile woman to so boldly approach Christ was certainly taboo.
Yet she was clearly convinced that Jesus could deliver her daughter and was determined not to leave until Jesus had done so. How did she come by this kind of faith? It began with her hearing of Jesus, as Paul said that it must: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (romans 10:17). She caught the slightest rumor of Christ, yet it was enough. Her faith was kindled, and she responded accordingly: she came to Him and fell at His feet. This is the supreme evidence of true faith in Christ, to come to Him and submit ourselves before Him! As we have said, the amount of one’s faith is not nearly as important as the object of one’s faith. Christ is the only sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, and we only need enough faith to come to Him and fall down before Him.
Perhaps the most difficult circumstance to do so is immediately after committing some sin. The default response whenever guilt and shame strike the heart like a bolt of lightning is pull away, to run as children are prone to do from the rod. Yet by faith, we must remember the grace of Christ, the love of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit, and we must fall down before our Lord, begging His mercy and pleading for His strength in future obedience. Yes, sin makes Gentiles of us all, but faith brings us to abundance of God’s table.
THE TEST // VERSES 27
For all of this desperation and faith (isn’t it interesting how she seems to combine the elements of both Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage?), Jesus gives her one of the most striking answers in all of the Gospels: Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. While the metaphor of children and dogs may sound somewhat subtle to us, the woman would have clearly understood that Jesus was referring to the Jews and Gentiles respectively.
Sproul remarked that he once heard a feminist scholar who accused Jesus of sinning in His response to this woman. We may soundly note that that is not the case. In fact, Jesus’ response to the woman was not quite as harsh as it appears to us.
First, we should note that Jesus was not permanently excluding Gentiles; instead, He was informing the woman that He was first sent to the Jews. Of course, Jesus sent out His disciples on their short-term mission with the same instructions. Even Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles, always preached first in the synagogues of whatever city he visited and upon being rejected went to the Gentiles. Because the church is largely composed of Gentiles today, we can easily forget the sheer wonder that the gospel would be for all nations at all. Of course, even in Exodus, God told Israel that they were to be a kingdom of priests, a beacon of light in the pagan world that would draw all peoples to the one true God. Israel, instead, conformed to the nations, becoming like them even in their idolatry.
While Jesus came to make all nations glad in their worship of God, He came first to the Jews. Indeed, Paul calls us Gentiles “wild olive shoots” that have been grafted onto the tree after the branches (Jews) “were broken off because of their unbelief” (Romans 11:20). Now, in the church, Jew and Gentile have become one new man as the body of Christ. Yet such had not yet come to pass. Jesus’ first ministry was to the Jews. Thus, His answer is similar to the leaving of the sick of Capernaum behind because He needed to continue preaching throughout the other towns.
Furthermore, while Jesus did use the common notion of calling Gentiles dogs, He did so in the diminutive, so it might better be translated as little dogs or even doggies. This had the effect of changing the metaphor from wild and diseased mutts to beloved household pets. Just as we rightly feed children first but do not neglect our pets entirely, so was Jesus telling this woman that the time of the Gentiles would come but it was not yet.
THE ANSWER // VERSES 28-30
Verse 28 is the great verse of this passage, for it glimpses even more the woman’s faith and desperation to have Jesus deliver her daughter. Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. As He did with the woman in chapter 5, Jesus points out this woman’s answer (which reveals her faith) and tells her that her daughter is delivered.
Notice both the humility and the perseverance of the woman! As far as the woman’s perseverance goes, her faith is a notable parallel to the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8:
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The point of the parable is explicitly that even an unrighteous judge will sometimes answer pleas for justice when bothered, so how much more will the good and righteous Judge answer the calls for justice from His own people? The woman in our text is a similar example to us. If Jesus was willing to answer the plea of this Gentile woman while His earthly ministry was focused upon the Jews, how much more will He answer us now that Jews and Gentiles have become one new man in Christ’s church?
Yet such perseverance requires the humility to beg, which is exactly what the woman displayed. She essentially told Jesus, “It might not yet be time to feed us dogs, but we can still eat the crumbs that the children drop.” In her humility, she did not deny her status as a Gentile, as one who was outside the people of God. She was ready to accept the moniker of a dog, so long as like a dog, she was able to be fed a crumb from the Lord’s table. Like the woman in chapter 5, she knew that the slightest touch from Christ, that the smallest word of His mouth, would be more than enough. R. C. Sproul writes,
Do you see the difference between this woman and the Pharisees? She was not interested in fighting for her rights or for her dignity. She knew who she was. Very often in the Bible, when people come before the living God, they identify themselves with the lowest forms of life. David said, “I am a worm, and no man” (Ps. 22:6a)… The Syro-Phoencian woman was adopting the same posture, which is the only proper posture for anyone coming to the almighty God. (159)
C. S. Lewis wrote a marvelous fiction book called The Great Divorce that illustrates the opposite. He writes as if he were dreaming of people leaving Hell in order to have one last chance to enter Heaven. With this setting, he gives poignant glimpses at the many reasons why people reject the eternal joy of God. One of the first interactions is between a Ghost (since those who come from Hades are desperately thin against the marvelous reality of heaven) and one of his former employees on earth. In their dialogue, we find out that the former employee became a Christian after he murdered someone in anger. The Ghost simply cannot grapple with the fact that a murderer entered Heaven, while he was sent to Hell as a good and decent man. The Ghost’s closing final words as he walks away are telling:
I thought there’d be some damned nonsense. It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique. Tell them I’m not coming, see? I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I came here to get my rights, see? Not to go snivelling along on charity tied onto your apron-strings. If they’re too fine to have me without you, I’ll go home… That’s what I’ll do… I’ll go home. I didn’t come here to be treated like a dog. I’ll go home. That’s what I’ll do. Damn and blast the whole pack of you…
This matter runs far beyond prayer requests. The great hindrance of salvation is pride. Jesus said two statements that we hold as equally true. First, He warned that the way to life is hard, and its gate is narrow so that few find it. Second, He promised that His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. Our pilgrimage to heavenly Zion is both things at once. It is a burden lighter than air, and it is a path of trial and humiliation.
We see both these truths through the lens of grace. By its very definition, grace is free, unearned, undeserved, unmerited. Yet that is precisely what makes grace so difficult to accept. Like the Ghost, we do not want charity. We don’t want to be treated like dogs. If we can’t have our rights, we will simply go our own way. “Everyone,” as Calvin said, “flatters himself and carries, as it were, a kingdom in his breast.”
In reality, we do not deserve to be treated even so good as dogs. John Bunyan wrote a little-known book of poetry for children that includes a poem about a man having a conversation with a venomous spider. The man begins by calling the spider horrendous and other such descriptions, yet the spider calmly shows the man that he is truly the horrifying one. After all, the spider is as the Creator made him, and though he is filled with venom, the man is filled with sin, which has not only ruined him but also all of creation. The man finally acknowledges his fallen state and that he is truly more horrid than the spider. In the same sense, dogs have committed no sin against God. While they are not as they should be, their fall from paradise is because of our own sin since they were under our stewarding care. Thus, on the day of judgment, all with eyes to see will gladly be treated as dogs rather than face the eternal flames of God’s wrath.
This makes grace, at once, both free and easy as well as difficult and costly. Grace is truly and wondrously free, but accepting grace means killing our pride, slaying any notion of our own merit and worthiness. Such death to self is what makes grace so difficult to receive. It is also why no other religion presents such a thing. Yet if we will see ourselves as we truly are, helpless and needy, then grace comes to us with ease. As a hymn rightly says,
Let not conscience make you linger
Nor of fitness fondly dream
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your of him.
Let us, therefore, arise, cast off our pride, and go to Jesus, for He will embrace us in His arms. And in the arms of our dear Savior, “oh, there are ten thousand charms.”
 William Hendriksen, Mark, 297.
 Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, 86.
 R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 159.
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 30-31.
 John Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian Life, 32.
 Come, Ye Sinners by Joseph Hart