Mark 7.24–37 tells two stories.
In the first story, a Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) asks Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. Easy enough, of course! Jesus has already exorcised numerous demons as well as given his disciples the power to do so (Mark 1.21–28, 39; 3.11–12, 15, 20–30; 5.1–20; 6.7, 13). And yet, Jesus responds to the woman with what seems like an ethnic insult: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” As the parallel story in Matthew 15.21–28 makes clear, “children” refers to Jews and “dogs” to Gentiles. Jesus seems to be saying that he will not help the woman because she doesn’t deserve the blessing reserved for Jews.
The woman is persistent, however. She counters Jesus’ apparent insult with a strong riposte: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Incidentally, this woman is the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus as “Lord.” She demonstrates a theological acuity that others lack.) “For such a reply,” Jesus says, “you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” And indeed, it had.
What do we learn about Jesus from this story? That Jesus is an ethnic chauvinist? No! As Matthew makes clear, Jesus is a mission-driven individual: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15.24). Jesus’ mission is to bring the gospel to God’s chosen people, the Jews, his countrymen and fellow religionists. And yet, Jesus everywhere permits mission creep. All who come to him with genuine faith receive what they ask for. In the immediately preceding story, “Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (Mark 7.19). In Jesus’ day, food divided Jews and Gentiles. By declaring all foods clean, Jesus crosses the dividing line declares all people groups clean as well.
In the second story, Jesus heals a deaf mute. Then he commands the man to remain mute and not share his testimony with others. “But the more [Jesus] did so, the more they kept talking about it.” The people hear and see Jesus’ handiwork, and they respond by saying, “He has done everything well.” Excellence is a hallmark of Jesus’ life, teaching, healing ministry, death, and finally resurrection.
What do these two stories teach us about how we ought to respond to Jesus? First, to approach him with bold prayers. The Syro-Phoenician woman boldly crosses a language barrier (Greek), an ethnic barrier (Jew-Gentile), and a sex barrier (male-female) in order to ask Jesus a favor. And he grants her request. Are we boldly forthright in our prayers? Do they cost us anything? Second, these stories teach us to share our faith boldly. In the Gospels, people violate Jesus’ commandment of silence with impunity. It’s almost as if Jesus wishes us to disobey him in this regard. But all too often, we act like mutes when we should be shouting the wonderful things Jesus has done for us.