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The Faith of the Syro-Phoenician Woman

Readings

Mark 7:24-37

How would you like to be addressed as a dog?

Here it appears at first glance that Jesus is being very rude to this woman who needs his help (as atheist web sites are quick to point out). As often the case it is not that simple and as is also often the case, the English in the translations lets us down somewhat, so some background is required.

First we need to understand where Jesus was and what he was doing.
Tyre and Sidon are in what was the north part of Israel under David and Solomon, but now (at the time of this event) following invasion and exile of the Jews, this northern area is very cosmopolitan with people of many races and religions, including Syrians and Phoenicians.
All of it was under the control of the Roman Empire, as was Judea to the south.
The word ‘Greek’ is used here, as commonly by the Jews (of that time) to mean a Gentile of any nationality.

In Mark 6 (the chapter before our reading today) we can see crowds flocking to Jesus for healings so probably Jesus just wants to get away from this turmoil for a little while to as we would say, ‘recharge his batteries’. So he goes far up north into Gentile territory where it should be quieter.

But even here there is a woman who has heard about him and she has a problem with her daughter. We do not know the exact nature of the evil spirits and what that means but her daughter has a problem and she thinks this famous Jewish Rabbi, Jesus can solve it.

Jews at this time did not normally associate with Gentiles or even talk to them. Religious Jews such as Rabbis (most of whom would consider themselves very superior) especially had nothing to do with Gentiles and particularly with Gentile women.

Jesus’ mission is to reinvigorate the Jewish nation into truly following Yahweh, the true God. The Purpose of Jews defined by God was to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’ (Isaiah 49:6). God is God of everyone Jew and Gentile alike but Jesus’ specific personal mission is to Jews, Others, like Paul (the Apostle), have the mission to evangelise Gentiles later.

Picture the scene

The woman approaches Jesus and she probably expects to be shooed away but she is desperate about her daughter. She falls to her knees. Contrary to her likely expectations, Jesus holds out his hand. She probably kisses it and then to her what must have been her utter amazement, Jesus talks to her. She asks Jesus what she wants; the healing of her daughter.

At this point it is necessary to understand something of the original Greek of the scripture as well as Jewish culture of the time.

Jews did not keep pets; dogs were regarded as fierce, dangerous wild animals.

Gentiles often kept pet dogs who would live with their owners and eat scraps (no cans of dog food then!) and there are two different Greek words to describe the two different types of dog: the wild and dangerous ones or the loving docile pet ones.

Jesus; seeing the woman kissing his hand as a pet dog might lick the hand of its owner in friendship; connects with a well-known Jewish manner of speech which referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs’. Jesus is a witty and funny person. He loves word-play jokes and there are many of them in the Gospels (although this is not always obvious in English translations).

In what is meant to be a humorous way he tells her that his message is for ‘the children’, that is the children of Abraham; Jews; and not for dogs (Gentiles) - but the word used here in the original Greek is not that for wild dogs but is that for pet dogs.

The woman is not offended at all by what Jesus has said but with wit of her own replies that even dogs (Gentiles) eat the children’s (Jews’) crumbs.

At this point I think Jesus would have laughed out loud; he is impressed by the wit and humour of the woman. After dealing with religious leaders like the Sadducees, who were not known for their humour, this must have been a breath of fresh air. He then heals her daughter from a distance with no physical contact whatever.

The act of casting out demons was not all that unusual in the Jewish world of that day; Pharisees, rabbis, and their followers had the ability to cast out demons but this had to be done within the framework of Pharisaic Judaism and required the use specific rituals.

Jesus here does not perform any rituals.

Jesus returns to Galilee where there are more Jews than in the far north but also some Gentiles as well. Here he heals a man who is a deaf mute and this time with physical contact.

There are no miracles of curing deafness or inability to speak recorded in the Old Testament but there is a prophesy in Isaiah 35:6: ‘Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy’.

So Jesus does all kinds of healing miracles that have not been done before in many different ways and does what has been done but in a way that others could not. This is the point of Jesus’ miracles including the healings; He is proving that he is who he says; He is the awaited Messiah (which means ‘anointed one’). Jesus is proving he is the chosen one of God for whom the Jews have awaited.

Lessons for us in 2017

  1. It is not wrong to get away to recharge batteries. In fact this is the principle of Sabbath and the way God designed us. This does not necessarily mean working to a fixed Jewish Sabbath of sunset Friday to Sunset Saturday as in Exodus 20, but it does mean a break from work. Jesus was against the minutiae of ritualistic human made rules which had been imposed by that time but he was not against the God-given principle. This does not imply doing no work at all ever, but just taking a rest from it.
  2. God may still find something for us to do during such a break and we need to be obedient and available to do it.
  3. We need to be brave in our requests to God. He might say no, but He might surprise us by what He does as Jesus surprised this woman.
  4. Don’t be afraid of how you talk to God. The psalmists often shout at him. He knows what you are thinking anyway so you might as well express it in words!
  5. Laughter is a God-given gift. If you look around you can see God’s amazing sense of humour. John 10:10 says ‘Jesus came that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ Being or looking miserable is therefore not a good witness to non-believers!
So in our walk with God we may be the Gentile ‘dogs’ but we dogs still need to keep on laughing!