Why does Jesus seem reluctant to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter?

By chapter seven of Mark, we’ve seen many miracles and healings of Jesus. But it isn’t commonplace—it is still marvelous and people flock to him to see what will come next. So as you flip the pages the image in your mind should be one of Jesus constantly surrounded by crowds pushing to come near him, hoping for Jesus to show his power again. So why does this interaction with the Syrophoenician woman play out so differently? We know Jesus has the power?

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 ESV)

As mentioned yesterday, Jesus had clear intentions with his actions that lead him to not only reveal himself, but also work to quiet the crowds and maintain some distance. He travels out of the predominantly Jewish areas into Tyre and Sidon to find such space. He wants to be hidden. Yet even here, a Gentile woman finds him out. The news has spread far and wide regarding Jesus and all he’s doing.

Why does he talk of dogs? Is this insulting? Why isn’t he eager to heal a Gentile if the gospel is intended to be spread to the ends of the earth? If he doesn’t want to heal her daughter, why does he do it in the end? Was he corrected or convinced?

This passage gives us another angle on how Jesus is sticking close to his plan. It isn’t just about controlling his timing that will take him to Jerusalem and controlling the crowds that want to move things along. His plan is also to come first to the Jewish people, helping them to see the that the long-awaited Messiah had come to deliver them. That means he focuses sharply on the Jewish audience, revealing himself as the Jewish Messiah, who then later will be understood with a universal scope that is hinted at here as he does heal this Gentile woman’s daughter. NT Wright says it well (and better):

This story is therefore a sharp reminder to us that Jesus wasn’t simply called to go around being helpful to everyone. He had specific (and controversial) things to do and a limited time to do them. If we remake Jesus in a cosy image of a universal problem-solver, we will miss the towering importance of his unique assignment. If he must not be distracted from the messianic vocation that will lead him to the cross, nor must we, readers of the gospel and followers of Jesus, be distracted from focusing on that too by our natural, and indeed, God-given, desire to spread the healing message of the gospel as widely as possible. (Mark for Everyone, NT Wright, 2001, p.96.)

Jesus had a narrow focus in that he must walk the one road to the cross, but it would be wide in scope with its implications. He would be for the Gentiles, but to be for them he had to walk the narrow path, fulfilling his call in the unique way only he could. So now on this side of the cross (and resurrection) we see how this Jewish Messiah is the King of all, and our response is to spread his good news as far as we can, just as he told us in the beginning of Acts.

Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

In this first half of Exodus, there are many (at least 19!) references to Pharaoh and his hardened heart. What is that about?

First of all, I want to point out the importance of reading this part carefully and in order. We want to see the progress of the story as a whole. If we just single out one occurrence like “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:27), and then try to understand the meaning of this verse apart from the whole, we will miss the bigger story and meaning.

What have you noticed about Pharaoh from these first 10 chapters? He’s pretty terrible, isn’t he? I think we are supposed to be able to see that Pharaoh is an evil character. He epitomizes the turning away from God that had been the problem of humanity throughout the book of Genesis. Pharaoh is a powerful figure that wants his own way and will do anything to keep the power and control he desires. Before his confrontation with Moses, we already see that Pharaoh’s actions are oppressive and in defiance of the Lord of the universe.

Now to the references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart… While reading about the first five plagues, you’ll notice that the text says that either Pharaoh hardened his own heart or that his heart “grew hard.” In these instances, the responsibility for the hardness of heart is attributed to Pharaoh himself. And, in each of these plagues, the Lord give him a chance to humble himself, to change his ways, to soften his heart. And yet, Pharaoh chooses his own way, and hardens his heart. It seems that this hardness of heart is what happens when people choose their own way and reject God’s way.

In the span of the next five plagues, there are instances of God hardening Pharaohs heart, Pharaoh’s heart growing hard, and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. What we are meant to see in these chapters is that God is going to use Pharaoh’s evil for his own purposes. The Lord’s plan to deliver Israel from their bondage will not be thwarted. Even Pharaoh’s ruthlessness, his unwillingness to bend, his hardness of heart will not stop God from doing his redemptive work.

What do we learn from these references to Pharaoh and his hard heart?

  1. Pharaoh is responsible for his actions. He has hardened his own heart and chosen his own way.
  2. Pharaoh’s actions lead to his own destruction. During the final plague, he loses his own son, and finally allows the people of Israel to depart. But it is a short time before he changes his mind (yet again!) and pursues the Israelites with his armies and chariots. His continued hardness of heart draws him and his army into the middle of the Red Sea where they are destroyed. God allows Pharaoh’s evil to lead him to his own destruction, and to the Israelites freedom from the pursuing army.
  3. God wants to save us from our own destructive tendencies. This is why he shows us mercy, he gives us chance after chance to repent (how many chances did he give Pharaoh?!). God is patient with us. He warns and encourages us to soften our hearts. He is both merciful and just, and we see these characteristics throughout the Exodus narrative.

Jesus comes to reveal, yet conceals?

Gustave Dore, Jesus Walks on the Sea, c 1866
Gustave Dore, Jesus Walks on the Sea, c 1866

On our way back from a Young Life meeting my son asked a question about something he heard that evening. In Mark 1 Jesus heals a man with leprosy, but tells him to keep it quiet. Why does he do this? Why does he keep telling people to keep their mouths closed?

In Mark 1 the man doesn’t listen. He can’t help it and shares openly about Jesus. This makes it so Jesus can’t move about town anymore, and he had to go out to “desolate” places. He’s like a celebrity that leaves Los Angeles after being harassed by the paparazzi.

In the next chapter his following continues to grow. Jesus is teaching and the house he’s in is so crowded that a group of friends destroy the roof to reach Jesus. In chapter three he’s headed out to sea as crowds follow. In verse nine it says his disciples prepare a boat for Jesus “lest [the crowds] crush him.” He had gained quite a following with his authoritative teachings and especially his miraculous healings. Yet he still tells people to stay quiet, even after he brings a girl back from the dead at the end of chapter five. He does wondrous things and says to keep a lid on it.

So why would Jesus, who came to do these things tell people to stay quiet or tell no one? Why is he often withdrawing from the crowds? Why not keep all eyes on him at all times to see everything he does? Even in Mark 6 it seems like he may be trying to play things down a little. We read about Jesus walking on water, and there is this line in verse 48, “He meant to pass them by.” The words jumped out to me and upon further research it may not be what I thought at first. It could be that meaning to “pass them by” echoes the Old Testament where God passes by someone like Moses. So Jesus may not have intended to be unseen but this wording expresses an intent to reveal. But it could still continue this tension of revealing his power yet keeping things hidden. Again why?

Why didn’t Jesus fly around and write in big letters in the clouds, “I’m the Son of God”? Couldn’t he at least encourage, rather than discourage, people from sharing about him?

It seems the answer, or at least the one I told my son, comes back to the fact that Jesus isn’t winging it. Jesus didn’t make things up as he went along, rather he is following a plan that has been around since before the world was made. And part of that plan necessitated a bit of quiet. Even with Jesus trying to limit talk, the crowds were already mobilized. Word was spreading and spreading fast. But things needed to progress as Jesus intended, building up and coming to a peak just when he enters Jerusalem ready to be the true passover lamb.

We may have a time table that suits our desires, but God has a plan that cannot be rushed. In the moment it may be difficult and may leave us with some confusion. But we need to trust the one who was willing, according to his plans, to go to the cross for us.

Send Out Your Light and Your Truth – Psalm 43

Have I already mentioned how much I like having songs pop to mind as I read the Psalms? Well, I’ll say it again!

How wonderful and beautiful a tool music can be to help us listen, process, remember, experience, reflect, share, understand… The list just goes on.

In Psalm 43, we sort of continue right along with Psalm 42. They work well as one larger piece, pretty much sharing the refrain, “Why are your cast down, O my soul/Hope in God.” I talk about Psalm 42 a bit in the service for this coming Sunday and share a song there, but I wanted to do the same here for Psalm 43.

There is pain and anguish in both, and the Psalmist takes that to God. Why is my enemy victorious? Why am I lost in mourning? Yet such lament is always directed to God, for the psalmist always sees that God is still his hope. These two Psalms are likely written with the context of a people who led the worship of God at the temple yearning to return there, to praise God again. Whatever the solution, God will be the one to bring them back, so the call goes out, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me…”

It is a humble posture. To acknowledge the need to be led is to acknowledge we don’t always know the way. Even in the midst of pain and anger, anger even directed toward God, this psalmist can still humbly say, “God, you need to be the one who can deliver me.” God remains the source of hope and joy and salvation.

Give a listen to this song based on Psalm 43 by Sandra McCracken. Actually first read Psalm 43 and then you’ll really see how closely this beautiful captures the words.

The beginning that comes in the middle

Baptism of Jesus

We begin reading the book of Mark this week and even in these opening chapters you’ll see the quick pace he’s known for. He’s pretty direct and to the point, at least compared to the other gospel writers.

He starts off, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet it is so important that at this beginning, Mark immediately then quotes the book of Isaiah. So verse one says this is the beginning and verse two tell us that it actually goes back further. He begins by looking back. It’s of great importance for the reader to understand that something new has happened in the coming of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, in his life, death, and resurrection is unlike anything that had come before. But before he came, the prophets were pointing the way. Therefore is it also so important to hold the whole Bible in your hands, and not think that the New Testament is the start of God’s Word. The gospels mark the beginning of the turning point of history, but there is history that preceded Jesus.

So hold those two ideas together: Jesus is the beginning of something new, but the plans of God go way back. We can’t lose that link, and if we do, we miss out on how God is able to work throughout all time and how he has always had a plan that in Jesus, his Son, he would come to set things right.

John’s Emphasis on Truth and Action

We’ve had a short hiatus with posts to go along with our readings, but we are back. (And if you needed something to tide you over, we did have a couple worship services that, as always, draw from the readings in both the times of prayer and preaching.)

We’re finishing up the trio of Johannine letters this week with 3 John. While there is a great satisfaction with finishing a good, long book, finding a good, short book is wonderful, too. And John comes through for us three times. And his short books don’t make them insignificant.

There are issues behind all the letters of the New Testament, and we’re pretty certain one issue for John was something like a first century Christian conspiracy theory, Gnosticism. Gnosticism itself wasn’t new and it often would morph and latch on to different ideas of the day, and Christianity was just another target. John’s repeated insistence on Jesus coming in the flesh in 1 John was a direct challenge to gnostic beliefs that Jesus only appeared in the flesh.

Gnosticism appealed to a desire to know a secret truth behind the public truth. Something hidden and kept back, and that knowledge gives you power. If you know something that others don’t that gives you a leg up. A similar draw is found within conspiracy groups who claim to see what no one else can see.

Here in 3 John the author continues to drive home that truth is still very important. In verse four he says there is no greater joy for him than to hear that the church is walking in the truth. Walking and truth go together for him. Action and belief are linked. For them to waiver from the truth of Jesus will undoubtedly lead them astray in their walk. He even name drops an example of someone doing this, Diotrephes, who is a clear example of how closely tied a belief (I am first) goes with action (put myself first). And Dio is talking “wicked nonsense”—not harmless lies, but harmful—that leads him to harm some brothers.

Yet the truth of Jesus is in contrast to the gnostics. The wonderful news of Jesus is that he came to reveal the way, the truth, and the life. What was not known in full has been shared, and the fullness of God is seen in the face of Jesus! It isn’t to be kept back and made a secret so that only the few may know. Jesus did all he did for us so we can know and experience life with God. While yes, not everyone knows this and certainly not everyone believes it, the tone of the gospel message is out of step with the gnostics who seek to maintain some level of secrecy. Jesus came so that the whole world may know the truth and he invites us to walk in it.

John through his three letters shows that link between truth and action, and frequently truth and love. There is no expectation of one without the other. Hence, he’s not content to write about these issues. That’d make it too easy to lean upon truth alone. Rather John puts down the pen, intending to be with them soon, face to face, able then to join action to his words.