New Testament Gospel of Mark Crumbs at the Table

Crumbs at the Table

Mark turns from the handwashing and dietary laws of the Pharisees who questioned Jesus’ disciples’ cleanliness, of what is clean and unclean. In this literary masterclass, he now writes about the story of the Syrophoenician woman. Up to this point, many people have not understood Jesus and his teaching. The pharisee’s thought the law was about having clean hands and not a clean heart. They thought they could enter heaven with their handwashing and diet. However, in today’s passage, we see the simplicity of the gospel. The sweet news of the gospel to those who do not think they deserve it. The sweet sound of faith is coming from this woman’s mouth. This story is written following the Pharisee’s question at the start of chapter seven, but also in the middle of the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44) and the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10). These important passages show the connection to Mark as a whole, the progression of discipleship, and the foundation for Peter’s confession in Mark 8:29. In these passages, we have the underlying theme of bread and being fed.

I. Stubborn faith (24-26)

The change of scene comes as Jesus leaves Capernaum and heads to the region of Tyre and Sidon. The reason for this location change is unknown. Two possible reasons could be the fleeing persecution and/or seeking rest from his busy ministry schedule. The passage does not give us information other than he left and went to a house trying to stay hidden. He has withdrawn before because of the threat of persecution (Mark 3:6-7, Mark 6:45). He has also withdrawn for rest and prayer (Mark 1:35). It is possible for both reasons, yet we also need to understand that Jesus is doing the will of the Father (John 5:19). We will also see this could be a practical outworking of Jesus leaving the 99 to find the one lost sheep.

A woman approaches Jesus and seeks for him to heal her daughter. Mark does not give as much information as Matthew (Matt 15:21-28). We need to be reminded that Mark is about one-third shorter than Matthew. We also need to be reminded that Matthew is written to a Jewish audience and Mark is written to a Gentile audience. (I also want to remind the reader that I do not seek to turn to other gospel accounts but focus on Mark as the central text). However, back to the woman, we are told several things about her; 1) Woman, 2) Gentile, 3) Syrophoenician, and 4) daughter had an unclean spirit.

a. A woman

Firstly woman, we noted in Mark 5:25-34 how women were treated in the first century. Often, they were treated as second-class citizens. They were not treated as image-bearers of God but often taken advantage of by men. Some rabbis would even wake up in the morning and pray, “I thank God that I was not born a woman.”

b. A Gentile

Secondly, she was a Gentile. In contrast to clean and unclean, a Gentile was unclean. One of the main reasons Pharisees would wash their hands after visiting the marketplace was because they might have touched something that a Gentile had touched. A Gentile is someone outside the covenant community of God. They did not have the promises of Abraham. The rabbis would thank God for not being born a woman and that they were not born a Gentile. The Gentiles did not have the law, they did not worship God, but they were far from God.

c. An enemy

However, Mark does not stop there. Mark explains that she is a Syrophoenician by birth. She is not only outside the covenant community but also an enemy of God’s people. She was born in the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is the ancient land of Canaan. Therefore Matthew calls her a ‘Canaanite’ (Matt 15:22). Canaan was the son of Ham, cursed in Genesis chapter 9, Canaan’s first birth son was named Sidon (Gen 10:15). It was the Canaanites that were inhabiting the promised land in the time of Joshua. They would make it the top five list of arch enemies to the people of Israelites. Not only does this region have a history with the Jews, but it also had tension within the 1st century. The region of Tyre and Sidon was entirely under Roman rule, which was generally seen as the evil of the day.

d. A Mother

Finally, this woman was a mother. She came to Jesus because she had heard of what he had done for others. Like Jairus, who came to Jesus to heal his daughter, this woman, although opposite ends of society, find them coming to the same man to help them. Jairus was a leader of the Synagogue. This woman had never stepped foot in a synagogue. She comes to Jesus and falls at his feet, just like the woman who had stopped Jesus on the way to Jairus’ house (Mark 5:25-34). The contrast between this passage and the interactions of the Pharisees before is amazing. The Pharisees didn’t see a need for Christ and therefore treated him like their equal, if not less than themselves. However, this woman who would never have read the Torah, never heard of the promised Messiah, comes and falls at his feet. The NASB and the NKJV say that she “kept asking him…” Persistently, she continues to ask that Jesus would cast out this unclean spirit out of her daughter. Matthew explains that Jesus was silent, and his disciples tried to get her to leave (Matt 15:23). But like the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-5, she knows that Jesus is the only one that can help her daughter.

II. Sure Faith (27-28)

Jesus finally speaks to the woman and utters a fascinating sentence. I have mentioned before the famous saying in the 1990s, WWJD, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Ultimately this saying simplified all of Jesus’ words and actions to ‘Loving your neighbor as yourself.’ However, Jesus in this passage calls this woman a dog. Jesus explains you do not take the child’s food and feed it to the dogs. Dogs are one of the most cultural differences that we might have from the times of the Bible. Dogs were often feral and untamed, carrying diseases and unclean in Jewish Culture. To call someone a pig would have been offensive, but to call them a dog would be lewd. Dogs in the Bible are scavengers; you feed them the unclean and defiled food (Ex 22:11). However, Jesus uses a term that some have tried to lessen the offensiveness. The Greek adds ending, such as an, i.e., y, in English, e.g., Cutie or sweetie. However, even today, with pet portraits, pet insurance, and calling dogs family members and grand dogs, even with the elevating of dogs to more a human level, to call someone a dog is still offensive, even if they have a better dental plan than you do.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus had said similar words before: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs” (Matt 7:6a). We need to be reminded that Jesus is sinless. I have heard some explain that Jesus’ comments were racist and chauvinistic. Those claims question Christ’s sinless perfection, and he did sin. We do not get his perfect righteousness. Still, we get his sin as well, therefore damning everyone to hell who believes in him, which is not good news. Christ is explaining that God did call Abraham made him a great nation, which is given the blessing and promises of God. Paul explains this principle in Romans chapter 3:1-2, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” However, he continues that the Jews are not better off because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:9-23). This woman did not have the promises of the Bible nor the law. However, she understands more than the Pharisees who did.

The woman said something even more surprising than Jesus’ comment. She does not deny Christ’s words but embraces them. She explains that even the dog eats the crumbs that fall from the children’s plate. Her understanding of Christ is truly remarkable, she does not seek a loaf, but a mere crumb will satisfy her. She explains that she comes not as a child who demands any promise but as a dog who would take a small portion of the promise. Esau would trade the promises of God for a meal, but this would take a slither of God’s promises. She would settle for a crumb. What would satisfy a mouse is enough to satisfy her. The prodigal son sought to be a servant in his father’s house. This woman only sought to be a dog in the master’s house. Bother the prodigal son, and this woman expected little, yet they received much. This is grace. We often think we deserve grace. We point at others and their life choices and say, “Of course, they have found themselves in that mess.” We are not like them, yet without the grace of God, we are dogs. We have no right to any promises of God. We are unclean outcasts who deserve nothing. All we can do is hope that a merger crumb might fall off the side of the table and land in front of us. Yet this woman understands that all she needs is one crumb of grace, a crumb of faith, one single crumb of God’s promises.

How do you come to God? Do you come as a child running to the table thinking that you have earned your position and food? Or you do come humbly begging that you might be able to have a dirty crumb? Jeremiah Burroughs, in one of my favorite books, ‘The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” explains:

“I am a dog, I confess, I, but let me have but a crum. And so when the soul shall be in such a disposition as to lie down and say, Lord, I am but as a dog, yet let me have a crum, then doth it highly honour God. It may be some of you have not your table spread as others have, but God gives you crums; now saith the poor woman, dogs have crums, and when you can find your hearts thus subjecting unto God, to be but as a dog, and can be contented, and bless God for any crum” [1]

III. Satisfied Faith (28-30)

Matthew explains that this woman has ‘great faith’ (Matt 15:28). She receives her crumbs and more. Like the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-5, she receives what she asked. Some have called her a female Jacob who would not let go until she received her blessing. This story of the woman sits in between the feeding of the five and four thousand. Mark has a word (fed/filled/satisfied) that is only used four times (Mark 6:42, 7:27, 8:4, 8:8). Mark uses this word to tie these three events together. In Mark chapter six, Jesus is the great shepherd promised in Ezekiel 34, who was to come to be the shepherd of his flock. In Mark chapter eight, Jesus feeds those in the region of the Decapolis, the location where Jesus cast out the Legion of demons into the pigs. Christ has compassion for those outside of the covenant community. The woman homes in on one word that Jesus said, “Let the children be fed (Satisfied) first…” The woman explains that I don’t mind if I am second. If I am last, I just need a crumb, that is all. As long as I am fed, then that is all I need. Compared to the Pharisees who believe they are first because they have the law, they are the ones that are blind and unable to understand. The woman has nothing to her name, but she understands the gospel.

She might not have known the promise of Abraham, but she used it as her argument. Abraham is called to be a great nation, but also that through Abraham, all nations shall be blessed (Gen 12:3). We have no claim to the blessings of God because of the way we’re born. Most of us have no right to claim we are descendants of Abraham, yet we do not need to like this woman. We come on our knees begging for a crumb. We come to Christ, the one who came as a servant to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). We claim not our heritage but God’s grace. We claim not our bloodline but Christ’s blood. We have nothing on our birth certificate that gets us into heaven, only those who are born again. As Paul explains in Galatians 3:28-29:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

Interestingly, when Paul travels in the book of Acts, they come to this region in Acts 21:1-7. Luke explains that they unloaded the cargo and then sought out the disciples and stayed with them for seven days when they arrived there. We do not know who these disciples are. Maybe this woman or her daughter were there for those seven days. We might not know for sure that information, but we know that Christ came to give his life for a ransom for many. That we come to Christ in our weaknesses, carrying our shame, sin, guilt, and condemnation, yet God shows us grace, underserving, unwavering, and unending grace. He does not treat us as enemies, but children, as dogs but as guests at his table. The free offer of the gospel is just that, all peoples from every tribe, nation, and tongue are called to be children of God. Let us come to Christ poor and needy, lost and helpless, weak and outcast, but let us come to Christ.

[1] Jeremiah Burroughs, “Sermon VI,” in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (London: W. Bentley, 1651), 69.

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