Jesus’ Syrophoenician Dog
The following is an excerpt from A Path Strewn with Sinners: A Devotional Study of Mark’s Gospel and His Race to the Cross written by Wade Johnston (1517 Publishing, 2017).
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
Jesus had just driven home what makes a man unclean and what doesn’t, what the chief concern should be. We don’t merely wash the outside of a glass. Too many, in the name of religion, had gotten this all backward. They were obsessed with the outward, with the letter of the Law, and completely missed the Spirit. They looked at God’s commands and thought, “I can do that” and were so confident that they even came up with more. God is clear. The Law always accuses, but they had stopped listening. They thought they had a check-list, and they were crossing things off, making their way to heaven one step at a time. But heaven isn’t earned; it’s given. The Law isn’t a checklist; it’s a death sentence for the sinner. This is why they had no use for Jesus. They simply didn’t get it or refused to get it. They were determined to live by the very thing whose ministry was their condemnation, their death.
Someone got it, though. It’s no accident that Mark places this account here. He’s shaming those whose religion was all too human. Christ came to confound the sociologists, not fit into their categories. The Christian faith is like no other. We do not give to God. God gives to us. We do not get right with Him. He declares us righteous, for the sake of His Son, dead on a tree, victorious from the grave. The Law is not a vehicle. It is a death trap for the sinner. We need something more, something else, and not of our creation. We need the Creator, in our flesh, under our curse, dying to put death to death. We need someone to look to, not to put on a show. This is the lesson of the Syrophoenician woman, the Lord’s dog. She would rather carefully watch His hands, wait for gifts, even crumbs, and snatch them up like a rambunctious pup than try to wow him with her person, work, or righteousness.
By all accounts, things did not appear to start well for the woman. Jesus had come into the region and gone into a house in the expressed hope—Mark expresses it—of going unnoticed. Jesus did not want people to know he was there. And yet He was Jesus, and word spread, and somehow this woman found out He was there, and she came to Him, desperate for help, hopeful that He could save her daughter into whom an unclean spirit had entered. Mark makes sure to emphasize here that she was not a Jew. She was Greek (likely not a Jewish convert, that is), a Syrophoenician. The Jesus she encountered didn’t seem a friendly one. He did not seem welcoming. He was blunt and seemingly cold. Yet she argued with him. She wasn’t going anywhere. He was going to heal her daughter, or at least she was going to do everything in her power to get Him to do so. This woman was special. But Jesus was unmoved: “It isn’t right to take the kids food and throw it to the pups”—Mark uses the word for a pup here and not the derogatory term for a dog that the Jews would have used for the Gentiles (7:27). Still, it wasn’t an encouraging answer. It bordered on offensive. We might expect the woman to explode or march away at this point, to spread the news about how the so-called Messiah was a bigot and a jerk. And yet that isn’t what we see. What happens
Here’s what happens. The woman comes back at Jesus with one of the most beautiful confessions in all of Scripture. She practically leaves Him no option. She confesses, “Lord, even the pups under the table eat the kid’s crumbs” (7:28). You’ve watched children eat. It’s not a science. It’s an adventure. Food ends up many places besides their mouths. And pups aren’t stupid. They know where to post themselves for their spoils. They may be crumbs, scraps, but they are gold for a pup, a true treasure, coveted morsels. That is how the woman viewed any gift from God, from Jesus. His crumbs were more than she deserved, and they were gracious and merciful and good. Even His crumbs were gifts beyond anything the world can give, beyond anything even one’s most dearly loved ones here can provide. She was ready to take her post. Her eyes were fixed on God’s Child’s benevolent hand. Let something fall, Jesus. I’ll pounce on it!
Jesus was convinced. “Through this case you’ve made, go! The demon has already left your daughter” (7:29). More than “it’s good as done,” Jesus speaks what the Gospel always says: “Done.” The woman had argued her cause well. She had talked her way into a teachable moment. This unclean, Gentile, irreligious, uncatechized, self-effacing woman proved a model of faith—trust in the mercy of Jesus our Christ, convinced of the power of Jesus’ Word. Jesus demonstrated it for all, “Done!” The girl was already healed. The spirit was gone. And when this woman went home, that is precisely what she found, like the disciples on Easter, just as He said.