For as long as I’ve read this passage in the bible, it has puzzled me. I told a couple friends yesterday that I would be speaking this weekend on Mark 7:24-30, the story about this woman approaching Jesus to heal her daughter. Now, Jesus does a lot of healing in the gospels, but when I said to my friends, “It’s the one where Jesus talks about the dogs,” they both went, “Oooh, that one.”
Maybe you know it too. It’s the kind of passage you only need to have read once for it to stick in your mind. A woman comes to Jesus in desperation. She is begging him to heal her daughter. And Jesus says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Man, what did Jesus mean by that? For the past fifteen, sixteen years, I have been asking that question. “Lord, isn’t that harsh?” It’s not the kind of passage you hear sermons on. Prodigal son, sure. Parable of the soils, you get that - at least - once a year. But the one where Jesus compares the Gentile woman to a dog? When was the last time you heard that preached in your church, or taught in Sunday school?
I don’t think it’s because we are offended by that story. I think it’s because we are confused. Maybe, like me, you’ve looked at this passage before and gone, “That’s just too difficult. I need to know the Greek word for ‘dog’.” Or, if you are a pastor or a bible study leader, maybe it’s because you are afraid it will offend someone else who is visiting your church. “What if a non-Christian walks in who has never read the bible before? He’s never going to come back.”
So, we skip this passage. Lots of other great stories in Mark’s gospel to cover. No need to dwell on this one. The problem is, it is right next to some really popular bible passages: the one where Jesus feeds the five thousand. The one where Jesus says, “It’s not what goes into a man but what comes out of him that defiles him.” Those passages. And every time we preach those powerful words in our churches, our congregation is going to notice, “Hey, what about this one right in the middle.” And they are going to leave wondering, “Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t get it. Maybe, it’s not so important as the other big statements that Jesus makes in the bible.”
Now, I don’t have some special insight on this particular passage. What I have is a confession that I have been ducking this difficult part of the bible myself. So a couple of weeks ago when I got the invitation to speak at a local church gathering, I prayed, “God, I’ll try. Please don’t let me mess up.” It’s not boldness, it’s a confession of sin and cowardliness; an act of repentance. I want to be able to say to my God, “I’m not cherry-picking my favourite stories. I want to speak what you want me to speak.”
When I spent the first couple of days just reading this passage, over and over again, I’ll be honest; it was hard. I just didn’t get it. And it made me so nervous. “What an idiot.” I was worried that I was motivated by pride: intentionally choosing a hard passage to preach on, and it definitely was there; that temptation to prove myself. Each time, I would go to God in prayer, asking for his forgiveness, begging for his help. I read around the passage. I read Mark’s gospel. I went through the commentaries, the Greek, for both this and Matthew’s version of the same event. In the end, I got no further than I had started. I was stuck.
But something strange happened. I found myself being intrigued by Jesus’ words in a way I haven’t been for some years. In the past, when preparing a sermon, my prayer would be, “Lord, help me to be clear. Help me to understand your word and to preach it as clearly and faithfully as possible.” These past week, my prayers have been, “Lord, help to understand you. Why are you speaking like this? What were you thinking?” I was being surprised by Jesus in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. The passage made me curious, like I was reading God’s word for the very first time. I was stuck, yes. But I became dependant, curious, anxious, excited about who this book was talking about: Jesus.
He surprised me. It made me realise that I had been taking him for granted. It made me realise I had my own impressions about Jesus that I was used to and comfortable with; that I relied on those impressions to assume he would act a certain way or do certain things. After all, I have been a Christian for seventeen years. I have preached about him to others. Of course, I know what he’s like. But I was speaking about, praying to and worshipping at the feet of an impression. A right impression, no doubt, to some degree, but still, an impression. And God was using this passage to remind me that the bible is his Living Word, actively speaking about a Living Saviour. And that I need to keep coming back to this book to be renewed in my mind about who it was who died on the cross for my sin.
The title of the sermon is, “Have you met Jesus?” By the end of it, I hope that Christians and non-Christians alike, will be able to answer that question; either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The service is an event specially organised for guests at the Harry’s and Andy’s international cafe’s. Most have never stepped into a church building before. Most have never heard the bible read. Most have never met Jesus.
Why then this passage? In Mark’s gospel, it is the section in all sixteen chapters of the gospel, where Jesus crosses the border and speaks to a Gentile. Everywhere else, Jesus is on home territory speaking to a home crowd. This is the only place in the whole bible where Jesus engages with an international, in an international context - in a global mission context - to use a modern term.
Furthermore, Jesus does the most powerful miracle in all of Mark’s gospel - save the cross - right here in this passage. We read that the woman’s daughter is healed, that the demon is driven out of her. But the amazing thing is, Jesus doesn’t say word. He doesn’t go down to her house. He just says to her mum, “Go home. It’s done.” Nowhere else does Jesus do this (the closest is the healing of the Roman commander’s son in Matthew 8, an encounter with another Gentile). Everywhere else Jesus says a word or if you look at just the verses after this (Mark 7:31-37), he spits and touches the guys’ tongue and ears (bleagh). Not here. Jesus just says, “Go.”
For those two reasons alone - that this passage is expressly written for internationals, and that this is the most powerful healing miracle in answer to the prayer of an international - well, why not this passage? But there is a more compelling third reason. This passage about the Gentile woman’s faith, I think, is crucial if we are to understand the surrounding passages about what it means for us to put our faith in Jesus as God’s people.
If you remember, Mark Chapter 6 (the chapter before) records the amazing miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. And you may or may not realise this, but Mark Chapter 8 (the chapter after) has Jesus feeding the four thousand. In both cases, Jesus multiplies the bread and the fish. In both cases, the disciples collect the leftovers - seven basketfulls in Chapter 6 and twelve basketfulls in Chapter 8.
Now keep that in mind as we look at what Jesus says to the Gentile woman.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied. “But even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Jesus directly connects her request for healing with the imagery of the bread. You simply cannot read that and not think of the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand happening before and after. They are like a huge sandwich - two big pieces of bread - sandwiching this encounter with the Gentile woman, as if to say: This is what it is all pointing to. Jesus says to her, “Do you realise what you are asking me to do? You want me to give you this bread which is reserved for God’s children in God’s family. That’s not right.”
As first impressions go, Jesus sounds insensitive, cruel, racist, insulting. But within the context of Chapters 6 to 8, Jesus is opening our eyes to see that this is not some isolated incident involving yet another random healing event of another random person. This Gentile woman’s response is crucial if we are to understand what Jesus is doing, not just among the nations but also amongst God’s chosen people. He is testing them.
After all, we know from John’s gospel, he does the exact same thing back in Israel. In John Chapter 6, the crowds come to Jesus - having just experienced the miracle of the bread - and they say to him, “Give us this bread always.”
Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” What happens next? They leave. Everyone is gone. Jesus is too strange for his own people. “This guy is just weird. He wants us to eat his flesh.” Jesus tests them. He tells him he is the bread. And they leave. They fail the test.
But not this Gentile woman. She passes the test. “Yes, Lord.” “I don’t deserve the bread,” she’s saying. “I don’t deserve to be in God’s family,” she hears the same difficult words of testing from Jesus and she passes. “But even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs.” Remember what the disciples did in collecting the baskets and baskets… of crumbs? She’s saying, “That’s all I’m after. The leftovers that the children have dropped on the floor after they have stuffed themselves full. The crumbs.”
Five hundred years ago, Thomas Cranmer wrote a prayer we still say today in our churches. “We do not presume to come before this, your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy even so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.” Where is that from?
You see, five hundred years ago, Cranmer looked at this passage and concluded, this is us. This is who we are before a holy, awesome God: unworthy. Like this woman, we come before God with nothing to our credit except our sin. But still we come, trusting not in ourselves, but in the same gracious, loving, merciful Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke to that woman two thousand years ago.
But there is a difference. Unlike that woman, we come before God asking for the bread. The prayer continues, “Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat this bread and drink this cup, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed by his precious blood.” Unlike this woman, we know that Jesus offers us more than crumbs. He gives us a seat at the table as God’s sons and daughters in his family.
To the Israelites, who had their fill, who came to Jesus looking for more bread, Jesus says, “I am the bread.” And they reject him. He says to the woman, “This bread is not for you,” and she replies, “All I’m looking for is the leftovers.” This woman who is so desperate, so hungry, so helpless, bows before Jesus and places him above her desperation, above her hunger, above her needs.
Friends, the most loving thing God can for us is not to give us what we want, not simply because most times we ask with wrong motives. Even if what we want is something good - healing, security, stability, peace - all good things, but there is yet something else more infinitely precious our loving God offers us. He gives us himself.
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Yet on the cross, that’s precisely what happens. God the Father takes all of Jesus’ righteousness, goodness and love; he gives it to us. And he takes our sin, our hatred, our punishment and puts it on his own son. We get taken in. Jesus gets kicked out.
That’s the gospel, or at least, Jesus’ presentation of the gospel to this Gentile stranger in a Gentile land. He doesn’t say that to many people, but out of love, he says it to this woman. “Do you understand what I am about to do for you? Do you understand the cost, the scandal, the pain that is involved.”
“Yes, Lord,” she replies.
Have you met this Jesus - before whom we are not worthy to pick the crumbs from under his table - but who makes us worthy by taking our punishment on the cross and giving us his place at his Father’s table? Have you met Jesus who surprises us again and again with his grace in forgiving our sin and restoring us as sons and daughters of God? If so, you can pray this prayer. You are in the family.
We do not presume to come to this, your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat this bread and to drink this cup that our bodies might be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.