A sermon based on Mark 7:24-37

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

September 9, 2018

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.


                I want to begin this morning by saying it is great to be back among the First Baptist family again after being out of commission during the last two weeks. Thank you so much for your many expressions of kindness to me and to the Dakin family during this time. And thank you especially for the prayers that have been offered on my behalf while I have been recuperating from my surgery. I’m still moving a bit more slowly than usual, but God is good. I am feeling stronger every day and will be back at work with a limited schedule during the next couple of weeks…


I also want to publically express my thanks to my lovely wife, the Reverend Doctor Miriam Dakin, for being willing to lead worship in my stead these last two Sundays. From everything that I have heard, both services were great times of worship and the Spirit of God was very much in evidence among you.


You know, in some ways, I feel like the “Carson Wentz of First Baptist Church.” If you follow professional football, then you know that Carson Wentz was the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles last year. During week 14 of the 2017 season, the Eagles played the New York Giants when Carson went down with a season-ending injury. Off the bench came reserve quarterback Nick Foles. With Nick Foles as quarterback, the Eagles finished the rest of the season with a 5-1 record. They won all of their playoff games, and eventually they beat the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl as well. And in the Super Bowl LII, Nick was named the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player. Thank you, Miriam, for playing the Nick Foles to my Carson Wentz. You are certainly one of First Baptist Church’s Most Valuable Players…


Some of you may remember Dr. Mark Biddle. He is an internationally renowned Bible scholar who spoke here the last time that First Baptist hosted a meeting of the Lynchburg Baptist Association. In discussing the first of the two stories in today’s gospel reading, Biddle describes it as “Jesus’ Battle of Wits with One Sharp Syro-Phoenician Woman.” In discussing this exchange, he writes, “According to [the gospel of] Mark, Jesus ‘lost,’ as it were, only one exchange of wits—not to a scribe or a Pharisee but to a Gentile woman, a Syro-Phoenician.”[1] The story goes like this:


Jesus travelled out of his home region to the area around the city of Tyre. Now Tyre was a major seaport on the Mediterranean northwest of Judea. Mark tells us that Jesus was going there to get away from the crowd for a while. Was he going on vacation? Was this a time of retreat to spend some time alone with God? Was he physically, emotionally or spiritually exhausted? We do not know—the scriptures do not tell us…) Anyway, whatever his reason for wanting to get away, he wound up not being very successful in his attempt to go away unnoticed. Word soon got out that he was in the city of Tyre.


[Side bar here—Isn’t it interesting that, even though Jesus was a good distance from Galilee, which was the place where he had exclusively ministered up to that point, the news about him and what he could do had already travelled far afield into decidedly Gentile territory. His reputation as a healer had obviously preceded him to Tyre, as Mark makes the comment in verse 24 that even though Jesus “did not want anyone to know he was there, he could hardly escape notice.” I think that this points us to something that is true in the 21st Century as well. Even people who may not be “church people”—in this day as well as back then—often have heard at least something of who Jesus is and what he is about. I have encountered several people over the years who do not have a good opinion about church. I’ll bet you have too. And some of them have very good reasons for rejecting church—especially with all the bad press that the church has received over the last couple of decades. But I have yet to meet anyone who knew something of Jesus who did not have a good opinion of him—and that includes even those who are skeptics and non-believers…]


As Jesus was trying to get some rest in Tyre, he is approached by a local woman. Mark describes her as “Syro-Phoenician.” She is the only person in the entire New Testament described with those words. By describing her thus, Mark tells us a whole lot about her in a few short syllables.


He tells us that she is from Syria. That is the name of the Roman province in which Tyre is located. He also says that she is “Phoenician.” This is the coastal area of the province, home of the ancient seagoing people known as Phoenicians. By using this one term, “Syro-Phoenician woman,” Mark tells us of the many boundaries that she had to cross in order to approach our Lord. These are boundaries of gender, race, religion, class and nationalism. She was probably Greek in her ethnic background and spoke Greek as her primary language. Her religion was most likely that of the pagan gods of Athens and Rome—and not the God of Israel. As far as the Jews of Jesus’ day were concerned, she would be considered as much of an outsider as one could be. There was no guarantee that this itinerant Jewish rabbi would even give her the time of day—let alone help her…She was risking rejection at several points at the hands of our Lord…


But in spite of all of those barriers that she faced, she was not going to be discouraged. The fierce love that she had for her daughter compelled her to seek out Jesus.  And when she found him, she bowed down before him to present her request that Jesus free her daughter from the demon that possessed her.


Jesus’ first response to her has baffled interpreters for centuries. As well it should. At first, Jesus flat out refused the woman’s request. He replied 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.” Hmmmm….Doesn’t sound very much like Jesus. And it is not a good look for him either. Calling this woman a dog is not exactly a good example of pastoral care from Jesus, now is it?…


Several explanations have been offered for Jesus’ uncharacteristic response. Did our Lord mean to compare this Greek woman to a dog in a derogatory fashion, suggesting that he saw himself as the Messiah for only the Jews? Or was Jesus’ understanding of his mission still developing such that he had not come to realize the place for the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God? Or did Jesus envision a Gentile mission, but only after Easter, so that he regarded this woman’s request to be a bit premature? Truth be told, none of these explanations really make much sense. In part, that is because Mark records two chapters earlier that Jesus had already healed a presumably Gentile demon-possessed man from Gerasa.[2] (This is the story where Jesus allows the demons to leave the man and enter a nearby herd of pigs, who then rushed headlong to their deaths. Jews would not have been making their living as swine herders…)


Or maybe it was something else. Perhaps he was simply testing her convictions concerning his authority, her determination and persistence, her love for her daughter. We really cannot say with any confidence why Jesus initially responded to her in that way. It is hard to understand. But gratefully, the story does not end there.


Instead of becoming crestfallen because Jesus initially spurned her request, she came right back with a snappy response. Picking up on the “dog theme” of Jesus’ response, she says in verse 28, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”


The English translation of her response in the translation that was read a few moments earlier—the New Revised Standard Version—misses a couple of important things that may help us in understanding what is going on. In that translation, she calls Jesus in verse 28 “Sir.” The Greek word used is actually the word kyrios. In most instances in the New Testament, kyrios is translated as the word “Lord.” It is exactly the same word that the disciples themselves use when referring to Jesus as “Lord.” By calling Jesus kyrios, perhaps she was indicating that she at least was beginning to come to an awareness of who Jesus really is—that he is not simply a miracle worker—or that he is not simply a good teacher—or that he is not just a prophet sent from God. Instead, perhaps she is indicating that she is beginning to see him for who he really is. That he is God. That he is the Lord.


A second thing that bears mentioning is the word that both she and Jesus use for “dogs.” “Dogs” was often used as an epithet in 1st Century Palestine—and it still is today—because dogs were considered to be unclean animals by the Old Testament Jewish law. For example, you may remember that Jesus told his disciples in The Sermon on the Mount, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.”[3] Dogs and pigs used in the same context—that should tell you all you need to know about how Jesus’ contemporaries felt about dogs…


But here is something to consider. The Greek word used in the Sermon on the Mount for “dogs” is the word kyon. It is a different word than the one that Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman use. The Greek word used here is kynarion. In fact, this story is the only place in the New Testament where this word is used. It is translated in most English translations as “little house dogs” or even sometimes “puppies.” Instead of being insulting, it is a lighthearted word. By using this word instead of kyon, perhaps Jesus was inviting this woman to a playful exchange. When she responded to him in kind, Jesus was impressed.


The gospels record that Jesus often engaged in verbal debates with his detractors. The Pharisees and others attempted to catch him saying something that they could bring against him at a later time. But unlike Jesus’ cynical opponents, this Syro-Phoenician woman was willing to recognize Jesus’ acts of healing for what they were—evidence of his authority and power over the forces of darkness. With debate skills far surpassing those of any of Jesus’ critics, she turned Jesus’ comment about dogs-at-the-dinner-table into a worthy response. She made it clear to Jesus that she was not presuming to eat from the table. Instead she argued that there was no harm in permitting her to get the crumbs that fell to the floor.


Our Lord’s reaction to her response was crystal clear. He had to admit it. Simply put, she had bested him in a battle of wits. In contrast to the ill will of the scribes, the Pharisees and everyone else who challenged him, this Gentile woman was able to make a valid point with Jesus. And ultimately she was right. There is plenty of food to go around in the Kingdom of God. That includes nourishment even to the most unlikely of people—outcasts who live on the margins of society. And the least of these blessings—“the crumbs,” as it were, that she called them—that God’s children enjoy in the Kingdom are superior to what can be found outside of God’s provision and bounty.


And for making such a remarkable reply, Jesus told the woman, “You may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Mark finishes the story by telling us that the woman did just that. She returned home. And when she did, she found that her daughter had been healed.


The rest of today’s gospel reading tells the story of another healing by our Lord. Verse 31 tells us that Jesus left Tyre travelled north to the seaport of Sidon, and then turned southeast until he passed by the Sea of Galilee into an area known as the Decapolis. (“Decapolis” means “Ten Cities.”) It is kind of an odd circuitous way to go since going back to Galilee seems to have been Jesus’ ultimate destination. By taking this route, he went about 70 or 80 miles out of his way and took several extra days to make the journey. Maybe Jesus figured that if he were out on the road instead of staying in one place too long, he could finally get some of the solitude that he had been seeking when he went to Tyre in the first place. Maybe…


When he arrived at the Decapolis, a man with a speech impediment was brought to him. Instead of arguing with the folks, Jesus simply healed the man in private—away from the crowd. Although Jesus ordered the man not to tell anyone what had happened, word once more leaked out about this miraculous healing. The crowd took note and proclaimed, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”


Our closing hymn this morning is the familiar gospel hymn by Fanny Crosby, “All the Way, My Savior Leads Me.” There are numerous Biblical allusions sprinkled throughout this hymn, but I want to call your attention to the end of the first stanza. The last line of the first stanza references the final verse of today’s gospel reading: “For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.” And indeed he does…and indeed he does…


Let us pray—O Lord, Kyrios, hear our prayer this morning. For we know that we are all beggars, that we all desire to be fed from your table. Help us to come in simple, trusting faith that looks to you for all that we need. And help us to point others to the spiritual bounty that you have provided for us—that they may also have a share in your kingdom. In Christ’s name we ask these things, Amen.


And to God alone be the glory! Amen.

[1] Mark E. Biddle, A Time to Laugh—Humor in the Bible (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2013), 110-111.

[2] Mark 5:1-20.

[3] Matthew 7:8.