Mercy for the Defiled

24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark 7:24-37 ESV

After His rather lengthy and heated debate with the religious leaders over the topic of ritual cleansing and defilement, Jesus took His disciples on an unexpected journey outside the confines of Israel. The Jewish Messiah, who had come “to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11),  took His message to the Gentiles. In a sense, Jesus was leaving behind the legalistic, self-righteous law-keepers and choosing to align Himself with the unclean and lawless pagans living in the land of Phoenicia.

The scribes and Pharisees had been appalled that Jesus and His disciples did not practice the traditional rite of hand-cleansing before eating bread. What would they think when they heard that Jesus had defiled Himself by traveling outside Galilee and associating with non-Jews?

But that seemed to be the point of Jesus’ excursion outside the land of Israel. God had promised Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 ESV). And the apostle Paul picked up on that theme in his letter to the churches in Galatia. These congregations would have been made up mostly of Gentiles who had become followers of Christ.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” – Galatians 3:7-8 ESV

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

In traveling to the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was demonstrating the truth of the Father’s promise to Abraham. The “offspring” of Abraham was about to “bless” the nations.

Mark indicates that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden” (Mark 7:24 ESV). This statement was meant to carry a lot of weight. According to Jewish law, by entering the house of a Gentile, Jesus defiled Himself and rendered Himself ceremonially unclean.

The strict Jew would not enter a Gentile’s house, nor sit on the same couch, nor eat or drink out of the same vessel. The very dust of a heathen city was defiling. – Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers

A second-century text called The Book of Julilees contains the following warning against any association with Gentiles.

And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable. – Jubilees 22:16

So, Mark’s reference to Jesus entering a Gentile home was meant to shock and surprise his readers. Yet, the rumors concerning Jesus and His miraculous powers had made their way all the way to Phoenicia. And Mark indicates that “immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet” (Mark 7:25 ESV). Matthew refers to her as “a Canaanite woman” (Matthew 15:22 ESV). The term “Canaanite” was an all-inclusive term used to refer to any and all Gentiles who lived in the land that had originally been known as Canaan. This woman was a Gentile and yet she was willing to seek out the Jewish Messiah in the hopes that He could help her with a pressing problem. And it seems clear that Mark wants his readers to grasp the shocking nature of this encounter.

Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. – Mark 7:26 ESV

The woman was a non-Jew, so she was unclean and unholy. And to make matters worse, her daughter was possessed by a demon. Everything about this scenario is meant to stress her defilement and to place Jesus in a potentially compromising position. But in his account of this story, Matthew adds a very interesting and important detail. In begging Jesus to help her daughter, the woman reveals an uncharacteristic understanding of who Jesus really was.

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” – Matthew 15:22 ESV

By addressing Jesus as “Son of David,” she acknowledged her belief that He was the Jew’s long-awaited Messiah, the promised descendant of King David. This was not necessarily an expression of saving faith, but a confession that she believed Jesus to be someone of great power and significance. And because she had heard of His many miracles, she begged this powerful man to show her mercy by helping her daughter.

Only Matthew provides any indication as to the reaction of the disciples to all of this. He reveals that these good Jews were appalled at the woman’s unmitigated gall and begged Jesus to get rid of her.

“Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” – Matthew 15:23 ESV

Everything about this trip must have had them shaking their heads in wonder. Why would Jesus drag them on a 30-mile journey to a place like Tyre. It’s likely that none of these men had ever ventured outside the borders of Israel, so they might have seen this trip as an adventure. But when Jesus began to interface with the local inhabitants, they must have been surprised and confused. And what Jesus says to the woman echoes the disciples’ sentiments.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” – Mark 7:27 ESV

Dogs were considered unclean to the Jews. Rarely kept as pets, they were typically used as guard dogs, and the streets of most Israelite towns and villages were filled with strays that scavenged for food and could prove to be a threat to public safety. So, when Jesus referred to this woman as a “dog,” He was expressing the commonly held view of most Jews concerning Gentiles.

According to Matthew, Jesus had told the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 ESV). He had made it clear to her that His original mission had been to His own people. But she was not willing to give up that easily. Her need was great and Jesus was the only hope she had.

Unphased by Jesus’ comments, she simply responded, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28 ESV). She didn’t debate His assessment of her social standing. She wasn’t offended by His seeming slight. She acknowledged her unworthiness and humbly begged for a “crumb” of His goodness and mercy. She knew she was undeserving of His mercy and she was willing to take anything He was willing to give her. And Jesus gladly obliged her request.

“For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” – Mark 7:29 ESV

And Matthew reveals that it was not the statement itself that produced her daughter’s miraculous healing, but it was the faith that had motivated it.

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:28 ESV

She had believed in the power and authority of Jesus, and she was rewarded for that belief.

And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. – Mark 7:30 ESV

She went home to find her daughter completely whole and in her right mind. But Jesus and His disciples left Tyre and headed north to the city of Sidon, then back through Galilee and all the way to Decapolis, on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. This would have been a long and arduous trip that lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a month. And when they arrived in this predominantly Gentile region, Jesus once again found Himself confronted by a request for healing.

…they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. – Mark 7:32 ESV

Mark doesn’t reveal whether this man was a Jew or a Gentile, but like the Canaanite woman, he had a pressing problem that required the power of Jesus. And Mark’s description of the man’s condition is critical to understanding the meaning behind this miracle. This man suffered from a “speech impediment” and Mark uses a rare Greek word, mogilalos, to describe it. The only other time this word appears is the Greek Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 35:4-6.

Say to those who have an anxious heart,
    “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute [mogilalos] sing for joy.

This Messianic passage prophecies the coming of the Messiah and portrays the amazing miracles He would perform on His arrival. And here was Jesus being provided with yet another opportunity to reveal His true identity through another supernatural display of His power.

The means by which this miracle was enacted is truly unique. Jesus took the man aside, “put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then, spitting on his own fingers, he touched the man’s tongue” (Mark 7:33 NLT). None of this was necessary. Mark had just described Jesus healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter from a distance and with nothing more than a spoken word. But in this case, Jesus went out of His way to touch the man, and in doing so, He would have become ceremonially defiled. This man’s very condition made him unclean because it was a common belief among the Jews that disease and disabilities were the end result of sin. Yet, Jesus touched the man’s ears and even his tongue, then declared, “Be opened” (Mark 7:35 ESV). And they were. The man’s hearing and speech were immediately and fully restored, and the onlookers “were astonished beyond measure” (Mark 7:37 ESV). They couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed.

“Everything he does is wonderful. He even makes the deaf to hear and gives speech to those who cannot speak.” – Mark 7:37 NLT

And while Jesus warned them to tell no one what they had seen, they couldn’t help themselves. The news of this miracle spread throughout the region. And these two miracles, the healing of the girl in Tyre and the healing of the man in Decapolis, created an interest in and a hunger for the Messiah among the Gentiles. And this is important, because after His resurrection, Jesus commissioned His disciples to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). And when they arrived in those places like Phoenicia and Decapolis, they would find an audience ready to hear about the good news of Jesus, the Messiah.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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