Jesus gets a lot of criticism for an encounter with a Greek Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile. The account is found in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. We read that Jesus was seeking a bit of rest from the crowds; He had hoped to go unnoticed as He took refuge in a house in the region of Tyre, a good distance from Galilee up on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As we could expect, word got out that the miracle-performing Jewish teacher was in town.
He is approached by a desperate mother whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit. Knowing He can hear her, she cries out, Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David (Matthew 15:22). Matthew tells us the disciples are irritated and want to send her away. At first read, you might think Jesus agrees with them and has no interest in helping her, but that’s not true. Instead, He tells her that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In other words, His mission was focused on the Jews. He came to His own [people] (John 1:11).
Jesus’ next statement is where He meets criticism from the skeptics. He tells her it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Mark gives us the complete statement; Jesus prefaces what sounds harsh with the disclaimer, Let the children be satisfied first (Mark 7:27).
There are two Greek words in scripture translated as “dogs.” The first is kyōn, and is a derogatory term used to describe false teachers (Phil. 3:2), those who refuse and trample the gospel message (Matt. 7:6), those who have known truth but turned away in unbelief, back to their ungodliness (2 Pet. 2:22), and wicked sinners who fail to enter the kingdom of heaven (Rev. 22:15). This is not how Jesus was referring to the woman. The other word for “dogs” is kynarion and is only used in this story. It means “little dog,” describing the children’s puppies that would gather under the table in the family’s house.
The woman was not offended by what Jesus said. She seized upon the hope He offered and increased her faith-filled request. She already recognized Him as the Messiah, having referred to Him as Lord, Son of David. She also understood He came to the Jews, but in His response, realized the Gentiles were not excluded, but only to wait until the message went out to the Jews. She respectfully responds to Jesus, reminding Him that even the [puppies] under the table feed on the children’s crumbs (Mark 7:28). A crumb of Jesus’ power and grace is enough to meet her need.
Jesus sees immediately the depth of her faith (proof that He was not referring to her in a derogatory manner). Because of her answer (i.e., because she approached him with humility and faith), He gives her what she requests. At the very moment, the demon goes out of her daughter, as she discovers when she returns home.
What’s our takeaway? First, how grateful I am as a Gentile that Jesus came for us, too. Yes, He came to His own people first, but those who were His own did not receive Him (John 1:11). They were broken off and we were grafted in; it is the Jewish roots that support our faith. One day, they will recognize their Messiah when He comes again, when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Romans 11).
Second, the woman shows us how to approach Jesus – with humility and faith. Faith that demands is not a faith that understands who we’re addressing. He is Lord, Son of David, the Son of God, our Savior. Real faith requires fear and trembling before a holy God.
Lastly, the smallest crumb of the power of Jesus is enough to release us from the power of sin. Jesus didn’t have to lay hands on the child, or even pray to the Father. He wasn’t even in her physical presence. He only had to will it, and it was done.
How do you approach God? As if He owes you something, or as if you only require Him to do what you demand? Or do you truly acknowledge Him as the sovereign, all-powerful, Creator of all that exists and the righteous judge to whom you are accountable, as well as the loving Master who can provide all you need? The power of God to change our lives is only available when we recognize Him as Lord, seek Him humbly, and put all our faith in Him alone. Just the crumbs from the table are enough for me.