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.

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