Author: Alan Hau
Passage: Mark 7:24 – 30
Today’s passage is contentious with many interpretations by theologians and churches. Jesus came to Tyre and a Phonecian woman begged him to perform an exorcism for her daughter. Jesus compared the woman to a dog and initially rejected her but decided to help her from the way she replied. His actions were unkind and generally unlike the loving and caring character we associate Jesus with and it has stumbled many readers throughout history.
Jesus responded “First let the children eat all they want,” and told her “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27). The woman didn’t give up her initial rejection and gave a clever reply “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28). Without further explanation in the scripture, Jesus drove out the demon from her daughter on account of her reply. (Mark 7:29).
I had the privilege to give sermons on this passage multiple times in the last decade and moved many souls, including myself, on the importance of keeping steadfast on our faith amid challenges. The entire passage is reduced to an example of how Jesus tests the faith of believers and how she endured his humiliation because her faith is strong. Looking back, I played safe and aligned myself with however traditional churches apply their framework, without truly understanding the context.
In other words, I was a real bigot. I’m no longer my same self ten years ago. With the courage to dig deeper and find out more this time, I will redeem myself.
Tyre, a Wealthy City in Conflict with the Jews
In the old testament, we learn that Tyre was a well known economic powerhouse of the region. “Tyre has built herself a stronghold; she has heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets.” (Zechariah 9:3). Flavius Josephus, a noted first-century Romano-Jewish historian, recorded in his work Against Apion, that Tyrian had massacred the Jews in 66 AD during a period of Jewish rebellion. Under Roman rule, the Jews living the vicinity in Galilee supplied food to the rich inhabitants of the city while they starved in the countryside. There is an abundance of sources pointing to the animosity between Tyrian and Jews. This is a historical fact that I haven’t considered before.
I used to classify the woman in the passage as a victim of oppression, who was abandoned by her husband and supports her daughter alone, but there are scholarly arguments against this view. Those who speak Greek and can actually afford a proper bed (Mark 7:30) were from the upper class at that time. The original Greek word for “bed” was used here instead of the common “mat” a poor person would lie on.
With the evidence above, the story is given a new light with new insights.
Jesus was Swearing at the Woman
Given the new context and tension with Tyrians, Jesus gave a very rude and insulting reply to the woman. This reminds me of an activist friend who also gives rude replies to the judge in court. The form of expression implies a sense of urgency and insurmountable oppression their people are facing.
Love for All
Jesus at the end chose to help the woman anyways regardless of her social status. He may not agree with the way she accumulated her wealth and the other people she may have harmed along the way. However, just like the lepers he healed, he similarly invites them to join him and live a transformative life of faith. Jesus is on the side of the Jewish victims who were economically taken advantage of by the upper classes and his anger is noted, but this does not negate the needs of the non-Jewish woman and her daughter. His anger has a righteous place and it doesn’t consume his genuine love to help another regardless of his Jewish identity. That is the barrier he is piercing and the courage he is calling for inside all of us to follow him and transform the world. After all, to punish and judge one person does not solve the systematic injustices the victims collectively face.
Can we also learn to not let anger overcome our perspectives and set aside differences when we hear the cry for help from another person?