From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24–30 NRSV)
It would be difficult to overestimate the complexity of what’s happening here in this sanctuary. At first glance, one might simply say, “We’re listening to a sermon.” And while that is true, much more could be said. Think for a moment about your morning. Most of you have had a good morning, but very likely a few of you have not. Some of you slept well; perhaps a few of you just came from a night shift. Now think about yesterday . . . and about last week . . . and last month. On and on it goes. My point is that an incalculable number of trajectories are converging right here, right now. Your family, your education, your profession, your emotions; my family, my education, my emotions . . . we bring all these themes here with us, and they strongly influence how we’ll experience this sermon. So, if a visitor were to look in on us and ask, “What’s happening in there?” No simple answer would suffice. You could say, “We’re worshiping.” Or, “It’s a sermon.” But whatever you say would surely lead to more questions.
Preaching about this story from Mark chapter 7 is like that. It’s as if we are glimpsing a moment in the ministry of Jesus, watching him interact with a certain woman, and this sermon is the answer to the question, “What’s happening over there?” I could simply say, “Jesus has been asked to heal a child.” Or, “Jesus is insulting a woman.” Or, “Jesus is illustrating what he taught in the prior story.” One fuller answer, though it’s a bit cumbersome, is, “Mark the Gospel writer is bringing together an interwoven stream of trajectories in order to challenge some of the Christians who lived around AD 70 and their view of discipleship, particularly their view of the discipleship of women.” But whatever I say is going to lead to more questions. For example, here are seven questions you might ask after glimpsing this story:
Why did Jesus and his disciples walk thirty miles to the region of Tyre?
Why did Jesus want so desperately to be alone?
What precisely is demon possession?
Does Jesus initially deny the woman’s request?
Why would he say something that could offend her?
Does Jesus change his mind in this story?
And one of the most important questions we could ask after glimpsing this episode in Mark’s Gospel: Of all the stories Mark could have included, why this one?
I should tell you that I’m not going to answer all seven questions. I do hope to answer some of them, but to do so I need to get a running start. Like a good storyteller, Mark weaves threads throughout his story. There are more of these than we have time to follow. I am, however, going to follow three of Mark’s trajectories from the beginning up to the sermon text for today.
Tracing Three Themes through The Gospel of Mark
Food in Mark
The first trajectory is fun to follow. It’s food. Someone is eating on essentially every page of Mark’s Gospel. Usually it’s Jesus and his disciples. Bread in Mark is a symbol of the presence of God’s kingdom, of God’s blessing, of God’s work in the world that is blossoming in the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus. I’ll give you seven examples, one for each chapter leading up to our story:
In ch. 1, Jesus is in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. Though the Gospels of Matthew and Luke say Jesus fasted during this experience, Mark makes no such claim. Mark doesn’t want to remove this important symbol from Jesus’s time of trial.
In ch. 2, Jesus is asked why his disciples don’t fast. Not only do they eat a lot, but they openly eat with sinners. And his reply, if I may paraphrase, is “The kingdom of God is a party!” To be more precise, he says the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and it makes no sense to fast at a feast.
In ch. 3, we read, “Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, such a large crowd that they couldn’t even eat!”
In ch. 4, Jesus tells his first parable, The Parable of the Sower. And, of course, the Sower was sowing grain, which is food. Some seeds fell on good soil and produced lots and lots of food.
In ch. 5, Jesus raises a twelve-year-old girl from the dead—his most amazing miracle to date! When the girl gets up, what does Jesus say? “Give her something to eat.”
In ch. 6, we come to Jesus’s most famous food story—The Feeding of the 5,000, which begins with five loaves and two fish and ends with a satisfied multitude and twelve baskets of leftovers.
In ch. 7, right before our text for today, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their especially exacting eating customs, which tended to oppress rather than liberate people. Mark’s side comment is that Jesus, as a result of this teaching, declared all foods clean. That is, eat anything you want!
And then we come to our story, which—of course—continues this theme of eating bread, even breadcrumbs.
Abundance in Mark
Having arrived at our story, it’s time to back up again and follow a second trajectory forward. This second trajectory is a double claim about the nature of Jesus and his kingdom. On the one hand, the clear claim is that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of abundance. There is enough food (both literal and metaphorical) for everyone—even for 5,000 plus. There is indeed unlimited power for everyone—power to heal, power to save, even power to raise the dead. We read that the power of the kingdom is so abundant that Jesus doesn’t even have to cast out demons; instead, the demons see him coming, fall down before him, and proclaim him the Son of God.
The other side of the claim of abundance is that just a tiny taste of the kingdom is enough to change your life. Mark’s message is, “Jesus provides an ocean of power and goodness, and I suggest you start with just a drop.” Perhaps Mark’s favorite Scripture is Psalm 34, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8 NRSV).
Consider the woman who is healed after twelve years of bleeding in ch. 5; she need only touch Jesus’s robe and she is immediately healed. And listen to a similar verse from ch. 6: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (6:56 NRSV, italics added). These people are gathering the breadcrumbs of the kingdom, and they feel privileged to do so.
However, not everyone in Mark understands this two-sided feature of the kingdom. In ch. 10, for example, James and John ask to be the most important people in Christ’s kingdom. They aren’t content with crumbs; they want the whole loaf. Contrast this with the desperate Gentile woman in our story. She has sunk her teeth into this two-fold truth: Jesus could easily provide a lavish feast, but she would be content with a crust of bread.
Discipleship in Mark
Having arrived at our story a second time, I need to back up and follow a third trajectory. And here’s a heads up—this is the most important one for the sake of our story. It’s the theme of discipleship: What does it take to follow Jesus? What does it look like to be a disciple of Christ? Mark, writing a generation after Jesus, wants the Christian disciples of his own day to identify with the original disciples of Jesus. When Mark shows Jesus’s disciples failing, the reader should recall her or his own failings. When he shows Jesus’s disciples growing in faith, the reader should take heart and grow in faith as well.
Mark accomplishes this sense of connection with a variety of literary devices, and one of the central devices is a travel motif. Jesus and his disciples are nearly always on the move in Mark’s Gospel, on both land and sea. In the first half of the book, for example, they take the five to seven-mile trip across the Sea of Galilee again and again and again. Each time, Jesus stays for a surprisingly short time on the respective side of the sea before getting back in the boat to return. And foot travel is equally as abundant. In the opening words of our story, we learn that Jesus has just walked about thirty miles. And in the opening words of the next story, only seven verses later, Jesus is on the road again, this time embarking on an even longer trek in the opposite direction.
The reason this is the most important trajectory is that it’s the one that most clearly involves you. Jesus said what he said to this Syrophoenician woman for the sake of his disciples who were listening in, and then Mark recorded the story for the sake of his disciples, and you and I still stand in that centuries-long line of disciples, listening in on the stories of Jesus. Thus in a very real way you are part of this story. You are the bystanders, and both Jesus and Mark want you to see the setting, to hear the characters, to ponder what happened, and to go on your way changed because of it.
We again arrive at our story, just as Jesus is arriving in the region of Tyre, and the journey motif promptly piques our attention for a lesson in discipleship, a lesson in how to follow Jesus. Anyone who has traveled a long way with a small group—by foot or car—knows that conversation is as natural a part of the experience as the actual travel is. No one invites you to go hiking and then hikes the whole way in silence. No one picks up a hitchhiker but doesn’t say a word. So, we rightly infer that a long journey is a time for the disciples to interact with Jesus, learning about him and from him. Furthermore, anyone who has walked a long distance knows that you can get a lot of thinking done in that time. So we also rightly infer that Jesus has done a lot of thinking, and much of his thinking has been about the disciples. He thinks, “Here’s how I can make them understand. I told them, I told them again, and I told them again. I’ve even shown them, and they still don’t get it. I think it’s time to take it to the next level and shock them into understanding!” And sure enough, the first chance he gets upon their arrival, he shocks them.
Overhearing Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman
A woman approaches; she’s a local, and thus a Gentile. Jesus has already taught his disciples in this Gospel that God doesn’t play favorites or observe purity laws. He has eaten with sinners, and without washing his hands properly. He let an unclean woman touch him. He even touched a corpse. But what about a Gentile? And what about a Gentile from Tyre—a city the first-century Jewish historian Josephus called “our most vile enemies”? And what about a female Gentile from Tyre? Hey, what about a female Gentile from Tyre who has a demon back at the house! Sure, Jesus is prone to set aside various Jewish customs, but at least that was within Judaism. Now he’s got the disciples’ attention, and they’re wondering if he’s going to take his acceptance policy up a notch.
When the woman speaks, the story seems right on track. She bows down in respect. In fact, she shows him as much respect as any other character in the book! She is anything but selfish, for her request is not for herself, but for her daughter, a little child. When Jesus responds, however, the mood changes. Indeed, it is the words of Jesus that establish this as one of his most vexing encounters. Not only does he deny her request, but his denial includes that infamous line: “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27b NRSV).
Because Jesus’s reply is so abrasive, I need to address it. But only briefly, for we shouldn’t let a detail of the story derail us. I don’t want to erase Jesus’s words from the page altogether, but I do want to take some bite out of them. I’ll try to put some salve on the sting of his dog language, and then we’ll return to moving toward meaning and application.
Jesus uses a particular word that means “small dog” (kunarion) rather than just “dog.” Commentators are quick to point this out, and also quick to say that it doesn’t matter. To call a woman a dog or a doggie, they say, is equally offensive. And they would be right, perhaps, if Jesus had actually called the woman such names. But Jesus doesn’t call the woman a dog; he calls the daughter a puppy. Just read the story, and I think you’ll agree. And a detail of the Greek text supports my point. The same diminutive suffix that Mark puts on “dog” to turn it into “little dog” is also affixed to the word for daughter, which is why v. 25 calls her a “little daughter” (thugatrion). Both of these words, “little dog” and “little daughter,” are rare, occurring nowhere in either testament except this story. The suffix is Mark’s marker that Jesus is referring specifically to the daughter. I trust you’ll agree that it is less offensive to call a small child a puppy than it is to call a woman (or a man, for that matter) a dog.
Back to the story. Does the woman cower like a whipped puppy? No. Does she lash out like a wounded dog? No. She responds with deference to Jesus, calling him “Lord.” But she also responds with boldness, and with wit. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” By the way, notice where the dogs are. Many commentators talk of packs of wild dogs scavenging for food, but Mark pictures dogs inside the house waiting for children to toss bits of food to them. And this woman would be just as delighted with a scrap of blessing from Jesus as those dogs are when a child tosses them a morsel.
We come now to v. 29, the story’s main course. Jesus doesn’t snap back at her; instead, he applauds her response! He says that, precisely because of her response, she may go. Jesus then ends the encounter by saying, “the demon has left your daughter.” It’s important—very important, I think—to notice that he uses the perfect tense, “has left.” Not “will leave,” not “is leaving.” The perfect tense typically refers to something that occurred in the past and remains true or in effect at the time of the speaking or writing. What I’m suggesting is that Jesus already healed the daughter, most likely when he was first asked to. I can’t prove this, but it is a natural reading of the story, and it fits with Mark’s style and with the compassion that Jesus shows elsewhere in Mark. This would change things a bit, wouldn’t it? He heals promptly for the sake of the girl, but doesn’t say so for the sake of the disciples.
Notice that his response doesn’t include the word “no.” It’s not a refusal as much as a probing. After a three-sentence conversation, during which the woman’s stress level soars but she nevertheless remains composed and confident, Jesus reveals that he’s already healed the daughter and the woman is free to return home to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
What’s the Point
We’ve now had three running starts and one slow walk through the story. So what’s the message? Part of the message is how a disciple of Jesus should view and treat Gentiles. Part of the message is how a disciple of Jesus should view and treat oppressors and enemies, which is what Tyre was to Galilee. And part of the message is how a disciple of Jesus should view and treat women. All three of these are worthy of a sermon, and to be sure, a better preacher could drive home the first two points in a powerful and relevant way. But this sermon—this sermon is about women. Indeed, the title of the sermon is “Women Count.”
So how could this text, in which Jesus speaks abrasively to a woman, give rise to a sermon titled, “Women Count?” Let me move toward an answer with some quotations. The first two are from a book by Ken Bailey titled, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. Bailey lived in the Middle East for forty years. He says,
Even today in the Middle East, in conservative areas, men and women do not talk to strangers across the gender barrier. In public [first-century] rabbis did not talk to female members of their own families.1
Again, he says,
[Jesus] breaks the social taboo against talking to a woman. . . . Throughout forty years of life in the Middle East I never crossed this social boundary line. In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman.2
Consider another quotation, this one from the Mishnah, “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself.”3
We are shocked by what Jesus says to the woman, but the disciples are shocked, as we should be, that he speaks to her at all! Moreover, he speaks to her about weighty matters. The kind of back-and-forth that we see between the two of them is much the way that first-century rabbis discussed religion. For Jesus to engage her in this way, in public, is to treat her as intellectually capable, to show her respect—like a professor respects a female student by questioning her, rather than letting something slide because she is a girl.
Remember the disciples who are standing by? Jesus is saying to them, “Women Count.” And forty years later Mark is saying through his Gospel, “Women Count.” And nearly 2000 years later I’m reminding you, “Women Count.”
Do you think women should have a voice in Washington DC? Of course you do. But if you think that twenty-six female U.S. senators is enough, then you should ask yourself if you really think women count. This number is up from seventeen when this sermon was first preached in 2011. That is real progress, but twenty-six percent still cannot fairly be called equal. Surely fifty percent is not an unrealistic goal. Half of the senators in the Parliament of Australia, for example, are women.
Do you think women should have a voice in business? Of course you do. The percentage of female CEOs in the 1000 largest companies in the United States has more than doubled since I first preached this sermon in 2011. Unfortunately, that percentage is still in the single digits! If you think that level of progress is commendable, then you should ask yourself if you really think women count.
Do you think women should have a voice in the church? Perhaps you do. But if you think the choir and the nursery are sufficient venues for that voice, you should ask yourself if you really think women count. If you do, then I encourage you to find ways to work toward women’s voices being heard equally in the church.
Our world is more androcentric and more patriarchal than many of us realize. And the church is not exempt. Examples abound, but I only have time to give one.
That example is the 1984 New International Version of the Bible.4 The Greek NT contains the word for “woman/women” 215 times, and it contains the word for “man/men” 216 times—a difference of only one. The 1984 NIV has “woman/women” 259 times (thus they added it 44 times in order to make a smooth translation, which seems appropriate). Now brace yourself . . . the 1984 NIV has “man/men” 1138 times—which means they added it 922 times!5 What’s happened here, and in various other English Bibles, is that translators have made the NT sound much more male-oriented than it originally did! Or, to be blunt, perhaps they didn’t think women count.
One of the places the 1984 NIV added the word “men” without good reason is in the story of The Feeding of the 4,000. You remember, of course, The Feeding of the 5,000, which comes before our text for today. In that feeding story the text of Mark specifically says there were “5,000 men” (see Mark 8:9 1984 NIV). Now, who did the counting? Not Jesus. It was the disciples. Why did they count only the men? Not to save time. It’s because in their world and even in their minds women didn’t count as much as men. How do you think the women in the crowd that day—women who may well have been in the majority—felt as the disciples passed right by them to count the men?
The Feeding of the 4,000 comes after our story. That is, the disciples’ glimpse of Jesus encountering the Syrophoenician Woman is sandwiched between two miraculous mass feeding stories. In the second one, the disciples count 4,000 people. The text doesn’t say “4,000 men” like it does before, just “4,000 people.”
And now I’m finally getting right down to the point. It seems the disciples got the message. The second feeding takes place in Gentile territory, and they don’t seem to mind a bit! And when they count the hungry multitude, they count the women as well as the men. Thus Jesus and a Gentile woman from the region of Tyre have together changed the disciples. They now understand that Women Count. I hope the same is true of us.
This sermon was first published in Leaven: A Journal of Christian Ministry 19/4 (2011) 222–26, Pepperdine Digital Commons © 2011, used by permission.
1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2009) 220.
2. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 203.
3. Avot 1:5.
4. This sermon was first preached in 2011, when the revised NIV was newly available. Nevertheless, nearly twenty years later, millions of 1984 NIVs are still in use.
5. For similar information on several Bible translations, see Jeffrey D. Miller, “A Defense of Gender-Accurate Bible Translation,” forthcoming as ch. 22 in Discovering Biblical Equality, 3d ed., ed. Christa McKirland, Ronald Pierce, and Cynthia Long Westfall (InterVarsity, 2021).