I like it when Mark, the gospel writer, plays with words. We find an example in today’s pericope regarding the demonized daughter of the Greek, Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:23-30). Let’s note the context. Jesus had unflinchingly redefined what creates clean and unclean (Mark 7:1-23). With great courage, Jesus rewrote the script about what truly defiles human beings. Jesus moved from externals to the internal—the heart (Mark 7:21). Meticulous cleanliness rituals foisted upon the people (and in particular in this episode, the disciples—Mark 7:5) are overridden by Jesus’ new perspective. Unclean hands, unclean utensils, unclean foods, unclean people—are reframed in Jesus’ kingdom vision. How extensive is this new, redefined world? Jesus shows us geographically.
Jesus enters unclean territory, the vicinity of Tyre. Gentile dirt will be on his and the disciples’ sandals. An unclean person, a Greek, a Gentile woman whose daughter is tormented by a demon disturbs Jesus’ attempt to finally find peace and quiet for himself and the Twelve in a private home (see 6:31-32). On her face before Jesus, this unclean woman begs Jesus to liberate her daughter. Jesus responds. The question is: is Jesus being rude and abrupt with the woman? I don’t think so.
First, Jesus reminds this Gentile woman that his first Messianic priority is to his own people, the Jews. Jesus refers to his people as the children. It’s not that Gentiles cannot have the bread of “the children” (is this a reflection on the feeding of the 5000?), only that the Gentiles aren’t first. Many think this is pointing toward the future, to Paul’s mission priorities (see Romans 1:16). Jesus is not outright rejecting this woman. He is simply stating his mission priorities. Second, we observe the diminutive word for dogs, i.e., puppies. Then we see the creative play on words. Jesus says that it is not right to take the children’s bread and “cast” (βαλειν) it to puppies. It’s not as the NIV reads— a mere “toss.” It’s a vigorous fast ball. Mark will use this word again.
The woman’s witty reply to Jesus’ priorities was to talk her way into his saving power. Crumbs from the children fall off the table to the dogs (we need not milk the difference between dogs and puppies). In effect she says, “I’m not presuming to be first. I’ll be happy with just measly bread crumbs when they fall.” I can imagine Jesus giving a hearty laugh, elbow-poking Peter, saying, “Did you hear that? That is humble faith. That is kingdom stuff!”
Who is this Jewish man in Tyre, and soon Decapolis, throwing the bread around? We’re getting there.