Mark 7:24-37 — Crumbs for the Dogs, Dignity for Humanity

After the aborted attempt to give his disciples some rest (Mark 6:30-34), Jesus now withdraws from the popularity and press of the crowds in Galilee to the regions of Tyre and Sidon on the Phoenician coast (modern Lebanon). This is not a far journey–only 30-50 miles or so—but Jesus takes his disciples into a Gentile region of northern Palestine. He had done this previously when he crossed the lake of Galilee into the Decapolis (Mark 5:1-20). He was not able to stay there long. This time Jesus goes in the opposite direction toward the Mediterranean Sea.

Importantly, Mark places this story next to the previous discussion of what is “unclean” (7:1-24). Jesus goes to what many would regard as an “unclean region.” The categories of clean/unclean are not boundary markers for Jesus. His entrance into a Gentile region of Palestine reflects his willingness to cross boundaries that restrained others.

Mark uses a formula which indicates that Jesus’ interests are privacy and rest: Jesus “left that place” (cf. 9:30-31) and found a house in which he could spend some private time with his disciples. Perhaps in the predominantly Gentile coastal region Jesus will find some rest and escape the crowds that relentlessly press him in Galilee. Tyre and Sidon are part of the Syrian province of Rome and thus Jesus has crossed political lines (moving from the region of the Herodians who want to kill him [3:6] to a region where, presumably, he would be relatively unknown to the political leaders). But Jesus was not unknown in this region. Mark has already noted that some had already travelled from “Tyre and Sidon” to Galilee for healing (Mark 3:8).

As a result, Jesus’ presence in the “vicinity of Tyre” does not go unnoticed. Desperate people can go to great lengths to find the help they need—especially a parent for a child. A Greek-speaking, Syro-Phonecian mother finds Jesus to beg for the healing of her daughter. Jesus encounters a Gentile mother who intercedes for her daughter.

What does Jesus do with this request? He responds that the children must first eat at the table before the scraps are tossed to the dogs. Does that seem a bit harsh? It is important to recognize the proverbial character of the language. The word “dog” here is not the common derogatory term that represents some kind of hostility. Rather, it is a diminutive, that is, “little dogs” like house dogs or domesticated pets (perhaps functionally equivalent to “puppy”). The proverb refers to the relations within a household; and it is not name calling. Allen Black in his College Press commentary on Mark (p. 137; n. 16) suggests it is like Joe asking Bill whether he should bring up an issue with his wife and Bill responds with the proverb, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Bill is not calling Joe’s wife a “dog” but is answering the question with a proverb. Jesus does something similar here.

The woman has a quick, spunky, and clever reply which may reflect the Markan intent that we read this story in the light of Jesus’ interest in testing or probing the faith of this mother. The mother is persistent and pushes back for the sake of her daughter. Perhaps he responds with the proverb to see how she will respond. Will her faith persist in her request or will she turn away?

Her response assumes the world that Jesus has pictured. Indeed, she is a house (“little”) dog and does not presume to be one of the children. But even house dogs wander around table waiting for the crumbs that the children may drop. She is asking Jesus for the overflow—the crumbs from the disciple’s rest. Her response touches Jesus and her daughter is healed. Jesus exoricizes the demon from a distance but in response to the faith of this Gentile mother.

Who are the children and who are the dogs in this proverb? William Lane, in his commentary on Mark, suggests that the “children” are the disciples who need rest and the “dogs” are those to whom they minister. The children (disciples) need to eat, that is, they need their rest. There will be a time for others to receive what the need but that time is not now. This may be the primary referent in Mark.

However, most others see a Jewish-Gentile theme here. This is certainly how Matthew interprets this incident (cf. Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus is sent to the Jews first (the children), but ultimately the Gentiles (dogs) will be fed as well. This is not explicit in Mark but it fits a canonical reading of the Christian story as we see the followers of Jesus include the Gentiles in the coming years and Mark’s narrative does anticipate the inclusion of the Gentiles at several points, even prior to this incident. This is not a moment where Jesus decided to help Gentiles because he was awakened to a larger vision of the kingdom by this request. The Markan narrative, as we have seen in previous blogs, is clear about the inclusion of the Gentiles in both the present and eschatologically.

After a period of rest, Jesus returns to the sea of Galilee through the Decapolis, presumably on the eastern side of the lake. Jesus took a circuitous route back through Gentile lands to the lake in order to avoid the crowds in Galilee. Even in the Decapolis, however, the needy await him and his healing ministry resumes. Mark singles out the story of a deaf-mute (or possibly a deaf man who had a speech impediment).

Jesus takes him aside privately—separate from the crowds—to focus his attention on this man. Jesus, perhaps to communicate with this man, uses unique means for healing. He plugs his fingers into the man’s ears and puts his saliva on the man’s tongue. These are powerful symbolic gestures that communicate his intent to heal.

When Jesus prays, he “sighs” (from the verb stenazo) which means to groan in the sense of grieving. Paul uses both the verb and noun (stenagmos) for the painful groanings which the Spirit interprets but we ourselves find it difficult to utter (Romans 8:23, 26). Jesus grieves over the brokenness of the world as he prays for this deaf mute. Jesus feels the pain of the world in which he participates. He sighs with humanity.

Mark highlights this healing with the detail description, using the Aramaic word (ephphatha) for the healing command just as he did with the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:41), and the resultant command to not tell anyone. This is the “Messianic secret” theme once again and it is pronounced here as the Markan text moves closer to the announcement that Jesus is the Christ (8:29). But the people cannot keep quiet. They are seeing what Isaiah anticipated (Isaiah 35:5-6). Mark expresses the amazement of the people—“he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

The final saying is functionally a praise chorus with three lines. It is the joy of the redeemed and the wonder of those who bear witness.

He has done well,
he makes the deaf to hear,
he makes the mute to speak.

The healing of a ear and mouth was anticipated in Isaiah’s picture of redemption in Isaiah. Moreover, and most significantly, such healings bear witness to a coming time when there will be no more sorrow or sighing (stenagmos in the LXX; Isaiah 35:10). Symbolically—and theologically—the Markan narration has reached a threshold. Jesus’ miracles have mounted in number and scope. He has raised the dead, calmed the chaos of the sea, exercised authority over hostile powers (demons), and restored human dignity to a leper and now to a deaf-mute. He is dispelling the darkeness and renewing joy. He is recreating the world; he is “doing good.”

The miracles are not mere displays of power or simply expressions of compassion. They are divine acts of reversal. They reverse the brokenness of the world—the deaf can hear, the mute can speak, the dead live, chaos is conquered, and the demons are defanged. A new world—the kingdom of God, the reign of God—is emerging. Jesus is the presence of the reign of God in the world which brings healing, peace, justice and righteousness.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to participate in that mission, to participate in reign of God by healing the brokenness of the world and reversing the curse. Disciples of Jesus sigh over the brokenness, pray for the broken and act for their sake.

5 Responses to “Mark 7:24-37 — Crumbs for the Dogs, Dignity for Humanity”

  1.   Kelly King Walden Says:

    I’ve been reading this a different way. I thought Jesus’ reply to the Syro-Phoenician woman was not him personally insulting her, but his responding the way the Jews, including his disciples, would. They see the Gentiles as unclean and inferior, so this is how they might regard this woman, and might even use the term “dogs” for them, even if they wouldn’t say it out loud. But Jesus does say it out loud, forcing everyone to acknowledge the prejudice, mirroring their attitude toward the Gentiles. But then she gives her snappy, but humble, little comeback, and Jesus is amazed at her faith (in the Matthew account) and praises her. I thought that was basically a lesson for the disciples in faith. They’ve just failed the faith tests in the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water (and are getting ready to fail it again with the feeding of the 4000), so I figured Jesus was making a very pointed observation about her faith, even though she is not Jewish, and, in the disciples’s eyes, spiritually inferior. In doing this, he showed their prejudice to be invalid. So, do you think I’m wrong about the “insult” from Jesus being for the disciples’s benefit? It was the only way I could understand him saying something so apparently unloving to her.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      If one reads it as an “insult,” then probably the only way to salvage the comment is to locate in the testing of either the woman or the disciples. However, I don’t see the disciples as a focus in this text. There is no discussion between Jesus and the disciples about it nor any reference to it in subsequent narration. There is nothing about inferiority in the statement itself if one reads it as a proverb.

      I think it is better to understand that Jesus is quoting or stating something proverbially. It was not intended as an insult but an explanation of why his focus was not on public ministry or public healing at this point. But she is like the persistent widow of Luke 18 who would not give up and Jesus’ responded.

      Also, I think we should read Mark on its own terms without permitting Matthew’s interpretation to influence what Mark is doing with it. Matthew has his own contextual purposes for accentuating the Jew/Gentile dimension.

      This is a difficult text and there are several viable opinions and one of them is what you expressed. But I don’t see the disciples as the major intent of the story or the point of Jesus’ engagement with this mother.

  2.   riverwindfire Says:

    Thank you for sharing a clear reading with us. I really appreciate how you’ve highlighted the eschatological emphasis in the stories, and your desire to allow Mark to speak on his own terms.

    Dr. John Bertone (Concordia University, Montreal) pointed out that “stenagmos” also refers to the groaning of labour pains, and shows up in Romans 8, the Spirit’s “groaning” within us.

    As I’ve mentioned before, re the deaf-mute, that other commentators have noticed that Jesus expends what appears to be a considerable amount of effort to effect a healing which in other previous settings would not have required quite so much work. This might comport with other puzzling features of the miracle stories in this part of Mark: the healing of a blind man in Mark 8 (two stages?), the apparent inability of the disciples to cast out a demon in Mark 9 (after having done it many times before), and the fact that in the second feeding of a multitude (Mark 8), Jesus creates less left over, even though the crowd was smaller and He started with more bread than in the feeding in ch. 6.

    Whether there’s an actual metaphysical condition involved or not, what is Mark doing with these stories? I’m not sure how to articulate the possibilities. Do you think he’s pointing to some sort of connection between the disciples’ incomprehension about “clean/unclean” and what would appear to be increased difficulty with mighty works, or frustration of God’s work? Or am I simply eisegeting? 😉

  3.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    My initial response is that the attention devoted to the healing is not so much the difficulty of the healing or the increased difficulty of healings in the narrative of Mark (feeding the 4000 does not appear difficult, for example–and actually it is more leftovers with the different uses of the terms for “basket”), but that it is narratival emphasis (as with the blind man). The narrative emphasizes the eschatological reality that is breaking in at this point–healing the deaf, mute and blind of Isaiah 35. I think Mark is reaching a decisive moment in his narrative…moving to the confession of Jesus as the Christ. The feedings, the miracle stories, the dullness of the disciples all lead us to this confession and then the narrative changes. Now it becomes a narrative about the suffering servant rather than the reversing of the curse…but both are kingdom in the world. That is my opinion at this point.

    I think you are correct to see a drama developing and reaching a crescendo of some kind. I think the turning point is the confession itself.

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    1. This a difficult text, but at the same time I think we can make it more difficult by hearing it in a postmodern, politically correct kind of culture rather than in its literary context.

    2. Any reading positing a racial dehumanization is out of sync with the Markan narrative as a whole where Jesus receives Gentiles warmly.

    3. Read as a proverb, there is no intent to demean anyone’s humanity or make any kind of racial slur. Proverbs state points in culturally embedded ways, and the danger is to attach more to the proverb than intended. For example, Paul writes, “Beware of the dogs.” He has a negative view of their teaching, but it is not a dehumanization of the teachers.

    4. The function of the proverb is to call attention to priorities in this moment of Jesus’s ministry. Contextually, in Mark, the point is probably more about rest for the disciples and Jesus’s attempt to move privately within the Gentile territory rather than engage in public ministry. Perhaps it also has Jewish/Gentile priorities as well (as in Matthew’s application).

    5. Jesus does not retract what he said. The proverbial statement is still true in the context of his ministry. But this does not mean “crumbs” (in the proverbial sense) are not available upon request.

    As a result, I don’t see any dehumanization here or racial slur. Rather, I see Jesus working out of a priority in ministry, but that priority does not hinder him–in response to faith–in helping this woman’s daughter.


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