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.

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.

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.

Jesus May Be Mocked, But He is Always Worthy of Praise

When Jesus was crucified, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, it certainly appeared foolish. Here Jesus is seen as a common criminal, a failure, and powerless. In Mark we read these words of how he is mocked at the crucifixion:

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.

Mark 15:16-20

That is our savior. Paul won’t waiver from this painful sight–the Messiah dying on the cross. It seems foolish. But it is our savior. It is love in action.

I thought I’d share a hymn that puts these two concepts together. Each stanza begins with what appears foolish: birth in a manger, a wandering existence with no home, his beating, and finally his crucifixion. But coupled with these scenes is the fact that such humble events do not diminish our Lord. Each stanza asks, “Who is this?” And the answer is always, regardless of circumstance, “our God.” We still praise him. Jesus Christ is the Son of God in these times and judging by the world’s standards, or by the world’s wisdom, does not fully comprehend his real power and glory.

Who Is This, So Weak and Helpless?

Who is this, so weak and helpless,
Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered,
Coldly in a manger laid?
’Tis the Lord of all creation,
Who this wondrous path has trod;
He is Lord from everlasting,
And to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of Sorrows,
Walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping
Over sin and Satan’s sway?
’Tis our God, our glorious Savior,
Who above the starry sky
Is for us a place preparing,
Where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold him shedding
Drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected,
Mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
’Tis our God, Who gifts and graces
On His church is pouring down;
Who shall smite in holy vengeance
All His foes beneath His throne.

Who is this that hangs there dying
While the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors,
Torn with nails, and crowned with thorns?
’Tis our God Who lives forever
’Mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city,
Reigning everlastingly.

You can also listen to the song here, in a rendition from Indelible Grace, sung by Sandra McCracken (although the video was not made by them):

Exploring the Possibilities

Image of Folio 27v, with the four evangelist symbols from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old book.

I was in a group tonight that was reading the beginning of Mark. Probably for all of us there it was re-reading this gospel. But even though it is familiar to us, God always can speak. His word is fresh and needs to be approached with the expectation he’ll still meet us there. We’ll never quite have all the answers, rather we are constantly in a place of need. We should be humble and open to the leading of the Spirit.

If that is what God can do in a familiar passage, what do you think can happen with books of the Bible we know very little about? If there can be newness to familiar passages, what is there to learn from the more unfamiliar passages?

We can easily pick up Jeremiah and think, “I don’t know anything about this!” This can lead to our being discouraged. But how much better to respond with an attitude of excitement. If we don’t know much, how much is there to explore? What will God speak to us? How can it be stale if we’ve never passed through these texts before?

We may like familiar. We like what is known. Many really like routine and habit. But we need to have that adventurous spirit that gets excited when we encounter the unknown. Sure, we may feel out of our element with some of these books of the Bible, but that’s how we learn. Look at your Bible’s study notes (if you have them), search the internet for answers, call a friend and discuss, and even–if you’re desperate and grasping for straws–email me.

When you get into these books, like Jeremiah, be excited for a new word from God, be expectant that he will speak, and embrace the perspective of “what can I learn?”.

Quarter Two, Week Three

Is it just me or have the last couple weeks flown by? We’ve already finished up both Joshua and Mark and now we begin Judges and Galatians.

I’ll just make one tip as we get into these readings. Galatians is a letter, and how many letters do you read spread out over a week? Answer: none. We don’t typically read letters in parts, so I’d encourage you to take your time with Judges, but when it comes to Galatians, try to read it in one sitting. It’s not that long, so don’t worry. If you do I think you’ll get a good sense of Paul’s intent and purpose in writing this to the churches in Galatia.

If you have questions throughout this week, send them my way!

Week in Review, Quarter 2, Week 2

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still

The following verses are the most well-known of the book of Joshua:

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Joshua 24:14-15

We’re missing out if we think this statement is only for a past time, a time of Joshua. We still today have foreign gods, idols that seek to take a place in our lives that only God should occupy. To be a disciple of Christ and follow him is a choice that is for God, and by necessity is then a choice against other gods. It is a choice that excludes possibilities from our life. We are to turn from those lesser things in this world, the false gods and idols. We must stop worshiping them or worshiping self and make a stand for God.

Joshua reminds the people before this statement of who their God is and all that he has done. Having read Mark we’ve been reminded of who God is and we see him most clearly in Jesus Christ. We know what he has done for us. God has done it all. Jesus Christ died the death we deserve so that we may be with him. Christ tells us as well what marks the life of a disciple. A life of sacrifice, death to self, service, witness, love of neighbor, and obedience to the will of the Father.

In response to God’s good news and his invitation to follow Christ, will we cast off the false gods of the land in which we dwell serve the Lord?


Jesus Loves the Little Children

Even though we’re reminded in Scripture not to hold some spiritual gifts and ministries in higher esteem than others, since we are all part of the same body in need of the unique callings and work of all its parts, we can at times fall into that trap. One area that can be tempting is in regards to the gift of teaching. You may find yourself thinking that the higher up the educational ladder you are, the more spiritually accomplished you are. If I can teach wise, elder members of a congregation that is more impressive than “just” teaching some little kids. You’ve really got to be real spiritual to do the former, and the latter is just glorified child care, right?

But listen to these words of Jesus from Mark 9:33-37:

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

The disciples are wrapped up in who is the greatest. Maybe it is a discussion about who is the most spiritually mature. Jesus’ response is to take a child into his arms, and challenge these bickering disciples to do a great work–to receive a child in his name.

That’s not a work that is leftover for those who can’t do something else. He says this to his twelve disciples, future leaders of the early church. Working with and for children is a great, high calling. It is a wonderful witness that within the church children are valued so much. They are not a nuisance nor are they a distraction of the real work of the church. Receiving a child in the name of Jesus is part of what we are called to do.

We have been gifted by God in different ways, so don’t let the differences lead you into ranking these works or associating some with differing levels of spiritual maturity. All of God’s gifts are needed and valuable to him.

So today I give a special thanks to all who work with children. Know you do a special work of Christ in sharing his love with those little ones.