From there Jesus set out for the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house there where he didn’t think he would be found, but he couldn’t escape notice. He was barely inside when a woman who had a disturbed daughter heard where he was. She came and knelt at his feet, begging for help. The woman was Greek, Syro-Phoenician by birth. She asked him to cure her daughter.
He said, “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”
She said, “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”
Jesus was impressed. “You’re right! On your way! Your daughter is no longer disturbed. The demonic affliction is gone.” She went home and found her daughter relaxed on the bed, the torment gone for good.
Then he left the region of Tyre, went through Sidon back to Galilee Lake and over to the district of the Ten Towns. Some people brought a man who could neither hear nor speak and asked Jesus to lay a healing hand on him. He took the man off by himself, put his fingers in the man’s ears and some spit on the man’s tongue. Then Jesus looked up in prayer, groaned mightily, and commanded, “Ephphatha!—Open up!” And it happened. The man’s hearing was clear and his speech plain—just like that.
Jesus urged them to keep it quiet, but they talked it up all the more, beside themselves with excitement. “He’s done it all and done it well. He gives hearing to the deaf, speech to the speechless.”
So, this passage follows an interaction with Jesus and the Pharisees where he talks about the reality that God makes all things clean. That is, all the dualistic moralism that the Pharisees embrace has little value when it comes to God. No, what matters Jesus says is the heart. What is happening inside determines whether or not you’re clean before God, not what you eat.
Jesus moves on from this interaction to two Gentile regions. Tyre and the Decapolis (The Ten Towns).
In the first scene a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to him to ask healing for her daughter. Jesus’ response makes us uncomfortable. It certainly feels rude, offensive, and possibly even racist. Some today have argued for that reading of the passage. Why? Well, because throughout the Old Testament a “dog” was not held in high regard and viewed as being unclean. It was a scavenger animal. Dogs were not as domesticated as they are today. So, this term “dog” was often used by the Jewish people in the first century to mock the Gentiles in disdain.
So was Jesus being an offensive racist? Was he simply a man of his time? Was this Mark writing back in his own prejudice?
I had to do a little research (Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mark) this week because it is a tough question. As a modern reader this certainly feels “icky” and it certainly doesn’t “sound” like Jesus.
It turns out that there are few things happening here that we lose in our translation from Greek to English, mostly because we don’t have the range of words to use. The key to understanding this story is that Jesus just had a debate about what is clean and unclean with the Pharisees. His conclusions there must color our understanding of this interaction. Nothing that Jesus does in the Gospels is done in a vacuum.
First, Jesus uses what’s known as the “diminutive” form of “dog.” This was used as a way of talking about a house pet type dog. So, he uses a term that is intentionally trying to move away from the clearly and overtly offensive. The non-diminutive form of dog was the one used by the Jewish people of his time as derogatory. He also doesn’t deny that people outside of Israel should get fed, he’s stating a primacy of mission. The woman, refers to herself and her daughter with the same word, so we might rightfully assume she didn’t take offense but understood what was going on in the moment. The woman also acknowledges that the children should get fed first. She understands the scope of the mission of the Messiah.
Second, he uses the term for biological children (teknon) in reference to Israel. The woman however uses a broader term for children (paidaia) which included servants as well.
It is at this moment that Jesus sees that she understands more deeply what the mission of the Messiah is more than just about anyone he has interacted with. Why? She understands that the Messiah was here for universal and inclusive redemption and reconciliation. The Messiah did not come just for ethnic Israel but for all.
Do you see how this story expands on what Jesus was teaching the Pharisees about clean and unclean? It’s not just objects that don’t fit the dualistic morality but people too.
The story in the Ten Towns just nails now the position. We see a microcosm of the fulfillment of the prophecies about the Messiah in one interaction. It’s a beautiful moment where the world beyond ethnic Israel sees the the light of the world and give glory to God.
I suppose the question for me is, “Who are the people that I treat with dualistic morality?” It’s an uncomfortable question. If I’m going to follow Jesus I have to realize that there is nobody that is unworthy of his love and grace and mercy. All have deep intrinsic value as image bearers. Who am I apt to try to ignore?
How about you? Who are “those” people for you?