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Lamar Williamson, Jr. (Mark, Interpretation) connects our text with verses 1-23 with:
If in the preceding passage Jesus "declared all foods clean" (7:19), in these stories he declares all persons clean, whether a Gentile woman in a pagan city or a man of indeterminate race in the unclean territory of the Decapolis. The stories are two examples of the sample principle: Both advance Jesus' repudiation of traditional taboos (p. 137).
Non-Jewish references abound in these two stories: "Tyre," "Gentile," "Syrophoenician," "Sidon," "Decapolis."
However, in 7:19b Mark adds a comment "Thus he declared all foods clean," but now there is a girl affected by an unclean spirit (7:25). Jesus' comments earlier in chapter 7 do not make everything clean. There are still unclean and evil things and powers in the world, but this Gentile woman is not one of them.
I would also connect these stories with 1-23 about the importance of "what comes out" of a person. It is "what comes out" of the woman that moves Jesus to effect the healing, which was the "casting out of a demon/unclean spirit" from within her daughter (v. 26, see v. 25). Note that the reason given for the healing is "Because of this word" (v. 29) -- because of what came out of her mouth.
Also the healing of the man changed "what came out" of his mouth -- from mogilalos = lit. "difficult speaking" = "speech impediment" (v. 32) to elalei orthos = lit. "was speaking correctly" (v. 35). In both healings, Jesus changes what comes out of a person.
Last week I presented the fact that the Greek word artos, usually translated "bread" or "loaves" or, sometimes "food," occurs frequently in the larger context.
In 6:8, the disciples are sent out two by two and told to take no bread.
After Jesus walks on water and stills the storm, we are told that the disciples "did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened (6:52).
The same word is used in 7:2, 5; but is untranslated in NRSV. In both verses the literal phrase is, they "are eating the bread."
The word appears in our text when Jesus tells the Syrophoenician woman: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (7:27).
The word is used in the feeding of the 4000 (8:4, 5, 6); which would seem to take place in the Gentile territory of the Decapolis. We have no indication that Jesus has traveled anywhere after healing the man of his deafness and speech impediment.
The disciples again fail to understand about the loaves (8:14, 16, 17, 19).
The next and final occurrence of the word is at the Last Supper (14:22).
The other two uses of the word are:
2:26 where Jesus indicates that David ate the bread of the presence that was unlawful for them to eat.
3:20 where there is such a great crowd around Jesus and his disciples that they were not able to eat [bread].
I suggested last week that artos might represent God's grace, which, I think is possible on all instances except 3:20. Closely following a story where thousands are fed with bread and there being 12 baskets of leftovers (Mk 6:43) indicates that there is, indeed, enough bread to feed the children and to fall from the table for the "dogs".
While the analogy doesn't work with real bread, the image of God's grace has been compared to the light of a candle. When one shares it and lights other candles, the original light is not diminished at all. The way this story is told, the "children" do not suffer any lack of bread by offering the crumbs to the "dogs".
Another context connecting word is chortazo = "eat, be filled." In our text, the children are to be fed first.
However, in contrast to the exclusivism of our text, at the feeding of the 5000, "all ate (esthio) and were filled" (6:42). At the feeding of the 4000, which was on Gentile territory, "they ate (esthio) and were filled" (8:8). Before this second feeding, the disciples ask, "How can one feed (or 'fill' or 'satisfy') these people with bread (artos) here in the desert?"
While the question in 8:4 certainly asks about securing enough food to fill these people, in relationship to the stories in our texts and the Gentile-ness (or pagan-ness) of the place, the question could be one of whether or not we break the social and religious rules about eating with Gentiles. In a more general sense, it could apply to helping others who are different than us and/or receiving help from others who are different than us. This was an issue in the early church. After Paul has been traveling around in the Gentile areas collecting money for the believers in Jerusalem (see Romans 15:25-28) he asks the Romans to pray "that my ministry (diakonia, which also means 'contribution') to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints" (15:31). Would those Jewish Christians in Jerusalem accept aid from Gentiles Christians?
chortizo is also used in Luke 16:20-21, which has other connections to words in our text, although it is a completely different event: "And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores." (NOTE: some variant readings also include the word "scraps" that fall from the table.)
Further comments about dogs will come later.
"From there" begins this section, which also connects it to what went before.
Tyre, along with Sidon, were the two leading cities of ancient Phoenicia. The city itself is located on an island that has been connected to the mainland by a siege ramp constructed by Alexander the Great (late 4th century BC). However, we aren't told if Jesus actually went into this city, or sought to seclude himself in the region around this city. In either case, he is in Gentile territory. This area was part of the Roman province of Syria -- thus the title "Syrophoenician." In Matthew, the woman is called a "Canaanite," which is an ancient designation for the same area.
Mark has Jesus wishing to remain hidden. In Matthew's account, there is nothing about Jesus seeking to remain unknown. Perhaps this is part of Mark's "Messianic Secret" motif. However, life, even for Jesus, doesn't go as he has planned. "Immediately" when this woman hears that he is in the area, she seeks him out (v. 25).
Mark has already told us that there were people from that region who had come to him (3:8), so it is not surprising that a woman hearing that he is in the area seeks him.
The repudiation of taboos based on race is mentioned in the quote above. This story also repudiates the taboo against a man speaking to a woman in public. (See John 4:27 for the disciples' reaction at Jesus speaking to a woman.) Jeremias in Jerusalem in the time of Christ says this about the role of women:
... a woman was expected to remain unobserved in public. There is a recorded saying of one of the oldest scribes we know, Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem (c. 150 BC): 'Talk not much with womankind', to which was added, 'They said this of a man's own wife: how much more of his fellow's wife!' rules of propriety forbade a man to be alone with a woman, to look at a married woman, or even to give her a greeting. It was disgraceful for a scholar to speak with a woman in the street. A woman who conversed with everyone in the street could, ... be divorced without the payment prescribed in the marriage settlement. [p. 360]
I also remember reading somewhere that the only women who spoke to men in public were prostitutes. There is nothing else that a man would have to talk about to women, who were uneducated.
What this woman does: coming to Jesus, perhaps touching him as she falls at his feet, speaking to him in public -- were all taboos in the ancient society. These gender rules are in addition to the racial taboos that kept Jews separated from Gentiles -- and Mark makes it abundantly clear that she is a Gentile, a Syrophoenician, from a Gentile region. Would we be willing to break such traditions if we had heard about Jesus and his powers, and if we had a demon-possessed or severely sick child, and if we knew that Jesus was in our neighborhood?
Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) notes: "An encounter between this woman and a scribe or Pharisee would be hard to imagine in the 'tradition of the elders'." (p. 218) Are there some people that would hard to image coming to our churches? Consider sitting at the mall watching people walk by and ask yourself, "Which of these would be welcomed at our church? Which would not?"
Going a further step, which of those people would you be willing to invite to your church or to the Christian faith? Are we willing to break modern social rules and talk to others about Jesus -- especially if we knew that Jesus' presence in the other's life would bring healing to his/her life?
Another social rule found in many congregations is illustrated by this quote from John and Sylvia Ronsvalle in Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church. I don't know about other churches, but we are beginning to work diligently on our stewardship campaign.
In reality we found a definite prejudice in the church against talking about money as a spiritual concept, about its discipleship aspects, its lifestyle implications, and church members' own individual giving patterns. As John C. Hughey has written, "It's not like faith to be silent, but in the presence of money it has learned to accept a monologue." Thus a finance committee meeting could consist of three hours of talk about balancing the budget and yet entirely avoid the topic of whether church members are authentically responding to God's grace in their lives through their giving patterns. [p. 128]
The verbs in vv. 26-28 are either imperfect or present tense -- both indicate continued or repeated actions. "She was asking him." "He was saying to her." "She is saying to him." It could have been that the discussion about Jesus helping her daughter was a longer conversation than what we have recorded in scriptures.
Jesus' response in v. 27 is out of character, especially coming so closely after filling up a huge crowd with bread and now apparently refusing it to a young girl, but perhaps it is offered as a "cheap grace" corrective. There is plenty of bread for all, but you need to know that you don't deserve it. "What comes out" -- that is, "what's in one's heart" is important.
Jesus' first line: "Let the children be satisfied first," is not found in Matthew, but he has Jesus stating, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15:24). Mark, by using the word "first," opens the door for a Gentile mission that comes second. This is consistent with what Paul says in Romans 1:16: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
There was (and is?) a priority to the Jewish people that is indicated by scriptures. That should humble all of us whose ancestors were non-Jewish. We are included simply by God's amazing grace. We don't deserve even the crumbs from God's table; and yet, we are invited to eat the bread of God's grace each week.
In the second line Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs."
The word for "fair" (kalos), can imply "morally right". It is a question of morals. It is not morally right to let children starve while dogs eat their fill.
The word translated "dog" (kynarion) is a diminutive form of kyon. There is some question about what this form might mean in our text. It can mean exactly the same as kyon = "a dog", and I will say more about this word later. It can mean "a small dog," e.g., one that is a housedog. It can mean "a young dog," e.g., a puppy. Note that this word only occurs in the Bible in relationship to this story (Mt 15:26, 27; Mk 7:27-28).
If we take the meaning, "a young dog," it could be a direct reference to the woman's daughter.
If we take the meaning, "a household pet," which is an apt interpretation for the metaphor; then we don't have quite the repugnance that was connected with wild dogs, but we have no indications that dogs were kept as pets in the first century.
If we equate kynarion with kyon = "dog," then there are all kinds of negative ramifications, based on its use throughout scripture.
Jesus says in Mt 7:6: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."
Paul uses the term in reference to his enemies in Philippians 3:2 and entreats his readers to beware of them. This sense of the word as "an enemy" is used in the Psalms (22:16, 20; 59:6, 14).
"Dogs" along with "sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood" are those who are outside the holy city -- those who do not have access to the tree of life. (Rev 22:15)
Perhaps related to this last use, the word is used figuratively to refer to sexual perverts or those who are sexually promiscuous. In Deuteronomy 23:18, "male prostitutes" in NRSV is literally the word for "dog".
Exodus 22:31 contains a whole phrase that is similar to one in our text: "You shall be people consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beats in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs." [The LXX word for "throw" is different than in Mk 7:27.] It is the unclean food that is not fit for Jewish consumption that is thrown to the dogs.
Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentaries) quotes from the Babylonian Talmud that indicates Jewish opinion of the unworthiness of Gentiles:
As the sacred food was intended for men, but not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the Gentiles.
So, the term "dog" could range from being a simple household metaphor without "slamming" the woman, to being a term that suggests that she is an unclean, sexually promiscuous woman. (This second, extreme interpretation, could be supported by her willingness to come to Jesus and speak to him in public. However, when we view Jesus' comments about clean and unclean earlier in the chapter, having him refer to this woman as an "unclean" person seems greatly out of character.)
Or, to put it in the vernacular, she could be seen as a "promiscuous bitch" (or even a non-promiscuous "bitch"), I would guess that her neighbors, like many judgmental people today, would say, "She's just getting what she deserved." I'm sure that all of us have heard people express similar arrogant, righteous judgment when troubles befall someone whom they dislike either because of the other's lifestyle or personality.
This understanding of "dog," also adds the repudiation of another social taboo; besides race and gender, we may also have a case where immorality does not keep one from receiving from Jesus!
Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) makes a good point:
The issue at stake between Jesus and the woman is whether Jesus is sent to "the children" or "to the dogs." The woman maintains the same distinction between "children" and "dogs" in her reply to Jesus, though with one slight change. Whereas Jesus refers to Israel as teknon ("biological children"), the woman refers to Israel as paidion, which is more inclusive, implying both children and servants in a household. The change in terminology suggests that the woman understands the mercies of God to extend beyond ethnic Israel. (p. 220)
How many people consider their "dogs" and other pets to be members of the family?
Whatever Jesus might have meant by his statement, the lady agrees with him. One way to disarm criticism is to agree with the critic. "You're a dog," implies Jesus. She agrees! "I am a dog, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table." Or, perhaps in other words, "I know I don't deserve a thing from you. I am no better than a dog, but even dogs receive better treatment than you're giving me. Can't you spare a few crumbs of grace? I'm not asking for myself, but for my daughter."
Based on observations, unfairness happens. Dogs get to eat what belongs to the children. Families spend thousands of dollars on their dogs' health, while people in the community receive no medical care. She asks that some of this unfairness might happen for her.
The only other place that "table" is used in Mark, Jesus literally turns the tables upside down in the temple (11:15). He is doing a little of that in this text.
A scenario that can be supported by the imperfect and present verbs in vv. 26-28, is that this woman was not going to leave Jesus alone until he grants her request. Remember that Jesus came to the area to be unknown! When what comes out of her -- her word (singular logos, v. 29) is heard, Jesus announces the exorcism of the demon and tells her to go away (apago). He then takes the long way to the Decapolis.
There are speculations that Mark didn't know the geography of that part of the world. Sidon is north of Tyre. The Sea of Galilee is southeast of Tyre. The Decapolis is on the southeast side of the Sea of Galilee. The only reason I can think of for going from Tyre to the Decapolis by way of Sidon would be to avoid going through Galilee. Perhaps this itinerary continues Jesus' desire for some R & R away from those who keep demanding from him. I imagine that a few of us have "been there and done that."
The key characters in this story are the unnamed people who bring the man to Jesus. They are similar to the friends in Mk 2:3 who bring to Jesus the paralyzed man through the roof. These friends don't just drop the man in front of Jesus. They are begging Jesus to lay his hands on him.
In the past, this text often fell on the Sunday when we were starting up our Sunday school program. I have talked about the importance of parents bringing their children to Sunday school; but more than that, the importance of bringing them to Jesus in prayer.
This miracle and the healing of the blind man in 8:22-26 have many close parallels, with nearly identical wording. These two miracles may help to underscore the theme of "hearing" and "seeing," introduced in 4:12:
they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven
and picked up in 8:18:
Do you have eyes, and fail to see?
Do you have ears, and fail to hear?
And do you not remember?
As taboos against racial, gender, and perhaps moral boundaries are exploded in the first story, prejudices against persons with handicapping conditions could be brought in with this story.
The word for "speech impediment" (mogilalon) occurs in only one other place in the Bible: Is 35:6 (LXX), which is part of the thematic OT lesson for the day.
Jesus is the one who fulfills this OT prophecy. The messianic age is ushered in with Jesus.
In contrast to the preceding story, where Jesus heals from a distance by announcing the exorcism of the demon, this healing required touch and spit and a command. We can't put Jesus in a box. What he does in one situation may not be the same as he does in another.
A literal description of the healing in v. 35:
and [immediately] his hearing was opened
and the bonds of his tongue were loosed
and he was speaking correctly
While there is literal level to this miracle, there is also a figurative level. It is not just his "ears" that were opened, but his "hearing" or "listening ability." A benefit that many of us could use.
Many of us may also have things that keep us from speaking out correctly. On the literal level, his hearing problem probably created his speaking problem. On a figurative level, our inability to listen well can affect what we say. The "bonds" of embarrassment, social taboos, inadequate understanding, etc. often keep us from speaking clearly about our faith.
We often take seriously Jesus command to tell no one. There is great irony in this command. This man is finally able to speak clearly, and he is told, "Don't say anything." He can communicate with people; but Jesus says, "Don't." He has been healed, but does Jesus want him to live as if he were not healed?
Why this strange command? One answer, I think, is that it relates to the reaction of the crowd. "Being astounded beyond measure" is not the same thing as faith. Confessing that Jesus has done all things well -- making the deaf to hear and the unspeaking to speak -- is not the same as centering one's faith on the cross.
In the next chapter, we will have Peter's good confession, which is immediately followed by him getting in the way of Jesus. He sees partially, but not enough to completely understand Jesus. The healed man in our text and his friends see partially, but not enough to completely understand Jesus. They rejoice at miracles. They are likely to be offended by the cross.
To return to the money issue, the Ronsvalles (Behind the Stained Glass Windows) write, after discussing church growth primarily by meeting people's needs:
Nordan Murphy, retired director of the National Council of Churches Stewardship Commission, suggested that part of the problem pastors are facing with their congregations is that "no one has informed them what it means to be a giving person." And when people do not understand the dynamics of giving, they continue to protect their resources. Since no one discusses the matter, Murphy is not surprised people view the church as "'It's a free ride. It doesn't cost you anything.' That's the invitation you get to the altar. Then you join and they need money and you're hit with a sledgehammer that you should share the wealth."
Another denominational official suggested there may be long-term serious consequences of this approach. "We've attracted people with methods that weren't entirely 'honest' which now will have the possible effect of further alienating a generation.... 'Entertaining' persons into the church is a far cry from challenging persons to faithful discipleship." [p. 44]
Another answer is that even though Jesus exhibits extraordinary power of demons and illnesses, he does not use that power over people. While the exorcism and healing in our text come solely from Jesus; we can't expect Jesus to "pull all the strings" to our personal lives.
To return to the stewardship issue, what we do with what we have been given, is our response to God, rather than our duty -- e.g., honoring God with not only our lips, but also our hearts and entire lives (7:6-7). Even more important than managing our money, biblical stewardship is about managing "the manifold grace of God" (1 Pet 4:10) or "God's mysteries" (1 Cor 4:1). Perhaps Jesus is illustrating in these stories how he expects us to "manage" God's grace. It hasn't been given to us to keep for ourselves. There is enough for everyone. We can share it with others and not lose any for ourselves.
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