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.
Our church is in North Little Rock. North Little Rock is a great town, but it used to be referred to as “Dog Town” and sometimes is still called that today. Some people are offended by that term. Others have gladly embraced it. It would appear, however, that the term was not originally a nice one. Here is the North Little Rock History Commission’s take on the term.
So far, the earliest known use of it in print – and this could change as research continues – came in an Arkansas Gazette column on September 11, 1960.
The writer credited Little Rock High School students with inventing the insult as a new cheer (Beat Dogtown!) in 1941 when the basketball series between the two cities’ white high schools had reached peak intensity. Mary Munns Williams, the late city clerk and a 1942 graduate of North Little Rock High School, recalled in a 1995 interview that Little Rock High students taunted their northside counterparts in the early 1940s by chanting “dogtown” and calling them “dogs.” She had never found any humor in the word, though she was fond of a dogtown legend older than the one told in the Gazette.
That earlier theory on the term was actually written about in The New York Times. On March 20, 1983, The New York Times ran an article entitled, “‘Dog Town’ buries nickname but feud lives on; The Talk of North Little Rock.”
Several years ago, residents say, this city got fed up with being called Dog Town. So the Chamber of Commerce decided to give the humiliating nickname a proper funeral. To make it official, they purchased, at great expense, a marble tombstone, declaring, ”Here Lies Dog Town.”
Those city fathers who were neither under indictment nor in jail that day in 1965 attended the ceremony and witnessed the placing of the white marble marker over a shallow mock grave on the east side of City Hall.
In 1975, the tombstone vanished. ”That led to lots of jokes in poor taste about how Dog Town had risen from the grave,” said Betty Nannie, owner and operater of Deli-Delight, a popular diner down the street from City Hall. ”Anyway, a city alderman just happened to chance upon the marker two weeks ago. He found it covered with dirt and weeds in a ditch near the river.”
”Now we’re takin’ no chances,” she added firmly. ”Jackie Neil, our city clerk, has the tombstone under lock and in her office in City Hall.”…
…Many here attributed North Little Rock’s problems to a citywide inferiority complex. These feelings of inadequacy, Mrs. Neil explained, stem from the city’s break in 1901 from neighboring Little Rock, a far larger, more affluent city.
People in Little Rock refer to their sister city ”across the river” in the same tone Northerners use when they speak of ”the other side of the tracks.”
Relations between the twin cities worsened in 1904 when a group of North Little Rock residents managed to shepherd a bill through the Legislature that enabled their city to claim jurisdiction over what had been a part of Little Rock.
”Little Rock leaders were furious,” Mrs. Neil said. ”To retaliate, they gathered up all of the stray dogs in their city and dumped them on us across the river. That’s how the city got its nickname.”
”But you see, we took care of them,” Mrs. Nannie elaborated. ”We fed ’em and adopted ’em as our own. That’s what gave us our reputation for compassion. I’m kinda proud of this nickname. And I wouldn’t leave here for the world.”
It is a charming story and a charming dynamic in this area…at least, I should qualify, to somebody like myself who moved here later in life and did not go through those days of tension between the cities. Even so, it is likely the case that most places in the world have a Dogtown, an area on the outside that they consider to be uncouth or backwards.
Israel certainly did. To them, the area north of them called Phoenicia was there Dogtown. The bitterness between the regions went back a long way, as William Barclay explains:
Ideally these Phoenician cities were part of the realm of Israel. When, under Joshua, the land was being partitioned out the tribe of Asher was allocated the land even unto great Zidon…and to the strong city Tyre (Joshua 19:28,29). They had never been able to subdue their territory, and they had never entered into it.
So the Jews viewed Phoenicia as land that should have been theirs. And the Phoenicians, knowing this, reveled in disdaining the Jews to their south.
Phoenicia was Dogtown. It was the outside. It was where “those people” lived. And it is where Jesus went in Mark 7:24-30.
Jesus demonstrates the extreme, controversial reach of the love of God.
I would like to propose that Jesus’ very entry into Phoenicia, into “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” was itself a powerful and prophetic statement about the reach of God’s love. In short, Jesus demonstrated the extreme and controversial reach of the love of God by going into this place at all and then by engaging this woman as he does.
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.
There are some telling details in this little verse: (a) Jesus goes to Phoenicia, (b) Jesus goes into a house in Phoenicia, (c) Jesus was hoping to remain hidden for a while, and (d) the fame of Jesus did not allow Him to be hidden.
Jesus was not unaccustomed to going to controversial places. See, for instance, His going to Samaria in John 4. However, this journey into Phoenicia was even more controversial. Danny Akin writes of this:
Jesus heads north to the district of Phoenicia – what is today Lebanon – to the seaport city of Tyre…As best we can tell, this is the only time Jesus ventured beyond the borders of Israel. Further, Tyre and Sidon were inhabited by pagan Gentiles, and the region had a long history of opposition to Israel. This had been the home of Jezebel (1 Kgs 16:31-32). Both Ezekiel (ch. 26) and Zechariah (ch. 9) prophesied against her. James Edwards says, “Tyre probably represented the most extreme expression of paganism, both actually and symbolically, that a Jew could expect to encounter.”
To say that Jesus’ venture to Tyre was eyebrow-raising does not go far enough. It was an outright scandal. These people were not only outsiders, they were enemies who had inflicted real harm on the Jews. “Josephus reports that the Tyrians were among the Jews’ bitterest enemies,” writes Joel Marcus, “…and cites pogroms going back to the…first century B.C.E…”
To draw a parallel from the Old Testament that might help us, we might think of the book of Jonah. The outrage that the average Jew likely felt at the idea of doing missionary work among the Ninevites parallels what they would have thought about doing missionary work in Tyre.
Even so, Jesus goes to Dogtown…because Jesus loves Dogtown!
As we have seen throughout the gospel of Mark, where Mark places the stories he recounts is anything but haphazard. This book is intentionally structured in such a way that the stories link together in a tapestry that increases the force of Mark’s portrait of Jesus. Thus, for instance, it is telling that the verses immediately preceding this involve Jesus informing the scribes and Pharisees that their ritual concepts of cleanliness have caused them to over-value the external and under-value the internal. In so doing, Jesus turned on its head the very concept of what is clean and what is unclean as the Jews understood it.
Then He travels to Phoenicia to talk to this “unclean” woman in this “unclean” place.
This is no accident.
James Brooks gets at this dynamic nicely when he writes:
Whether Jesus went into Phoenicia immediately after the preceding event(s) is unimportant, but Mark’s placing the account immediately after 7:1-23 is most significant. If the proper inference from the teaching of Jesus in 7:1-23 is that all foods are clean (v.19), the lesson to be learned from 7:24-30 is that all people are clean! For Mark the excursion of Jesus into “unclean” Gentile territory exemplified his disregard for the concept of ritual defilement.
Food is food. It cannot make you holy.
People are people. They are not more or less clean because of what kind of people they happen to be.
The implication is clear: God loves Dogtown just as much as God loves Israel! The love of God is not contained by humanly contrived borders and boundaries! It reaches out to everybody!
Jesus provocatively explains the priority and scope of His mission.
That amazing fact is what makes what happens next that much more perplexing.
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.”
Now this is a troubling development to be sure. A Gentile woman asks for help. Jesus says that “the children” must be fed first and that, after all, it is not right to take bread from the children and throw it to dogs.
Let us deal first with Jesus’ statement, “Let the children be fed first,” for this part of the statement is the easiest. Simply put, it means that God’s plan has always been that the saving knowledge of God would come first to the Jews and then, through them, to the whole world. The Jews, the people of God, were intended to be the means through which God reached the world. So in saying this, Jesus is saying that there is an order to the divine plan: the Jews first and then the rest of the world. Paul said precisely this in Romans 1.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Again, think of the point of the book of Jonah. One of its primary points is that the saving knowledge of God is not to be hoarded by Israel. It must get to Nineveh too. So God saved the Jews not so that the Jews alone could be saved. God saved the Jews so that through them the world could be saved.
In communicating this truth, however, Jesus refers to this woman as a dog. It should be noted that Jesus not only called this woman a dog but also her suffering child! To put it mildly, this is quite perplexing! But what is Jesus doing here and what is He actually saying?
Joel Marcus has made the interesting observation that, in one sense, Jesus is alluding to the political tensions that existed in that day between the Jews and the Phoenicians and that He is doing so specifically through referencing the giving of bread that belongs to children to dogs.
…there was bad blood between the Tyrians and the Galileans, partly because much of the agricultural produce of Jewish Galilee ended up in Gentile Tyre, the main urban area near Galilee, while the Jewish peasants often went hungry. When Jesus speaks, therefore, about the unfairness of taking bread out of the mouths of the (Jewish) children and giving it to the (Gentile) dogs, his statement may partly reflect the socio-economic tension between the two communities.
This is helpful. It suggests to us that one thing Jesus is likely doing is drawing on the politically inflammatory rhetoric of the day – rhetoric that this woman undoubtedly knew well – in order to highlight the surprising nature both of her approaching Him at all and of her asking for His help. It is almost as if He is saying, “You do know that to the Jews you people are dogs, right?”
I do not say this in any way to avoid the awkwardness of Jesus’ statement. It remains a shocking statement. The Jewish scholar Klausner said of this statement, “If any other Jewish teacher of the time had said such a thing Christians would never have forgiven Judaism for it.” Maybe so. Yet it is certainly right to ask of this text what we would ask of any text: how was this said and why did Jesus draw on such offensive imagery? And when we look at the times we realize that Jesus is almost certainly parroting in a sense the kinds of statement that this woman would have heard from the Jews and maybe even the kind of thing she herself thought about the Jews. After all, both sides likely saw the other as dogs.
So is Jesus provocating here? Is He saying to her with a knowing tilt of the head that it really did take some guts for her to come to Him and ask for anything at all? Is this perhaps a kind of test to see if she is really ready to set aside all the long of years of bad blood and call upon Him, a Jewish rabbi? Perhaps.
Whether Jesus is mimicking the political rhetoric of the day or not, He calls her and her child a dog. At this point it needs to be understood that there is in fact a nuance in how He refers to her as a dog. Michael Card has offered a nice explanation.
Jesus’ reply sounds harsh. Is he really calling her a dog? Dogs were unclean animals in Judaism (Lev 11:27). But Jesus does not use the common word for stray dogs. He uses the diminutive term for “little dogs” or perhaps “pet dogs.” The scene he is painting for the woman is not a Jewish scene but a Gentile one. In her world it was common to keep small pet dogs. The image of the children throwing scraps of bread to their pets underneath the table does not offend her in the least. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Her charming but stubborn response delights Jesus. It represents an imaginative expression of her faith in Jesus. In the give-and-take or ordinary human conversation, Jesus is enchanted by the faith and wit of this extraordinary woman.
James Brooks tends to agree, noting that “the harshness is softened somewhat by the use of the diminutive form that could be translated ‘puppies’ and could refer to house pets rather than the scavengers of the streets.” Brooks suggests that “the phrase probably is best understood as an ‘acted parable.’”
The terminology does need to be understood for the text to be properly interpreted, but, again, we must not go fishing in order to lessen the scandal of the comment. I am not sure that this was necessarily a charming and sweet exchange of cute words, but the point is well made that Jesus is not calling the woman a junkyard dog. He is drawing on a metaphor she knew well: good parents do not bypass their children to feed the puppy begging under the table.
It is clear that Jesus did not intend for this to be a throw away insult, a cold rebuff as He passed her by. On the contrary, He is drawing her in in a way that is surprising and unexpected. In so doing, He explains the order of God’s saving plan. What, then, will this woman do in response?
The woman demonstrates admirable resolve, stunning humility, and great faith.
Jesus has thrown a most unusual idea at this woman in most unusual terminology. Will she be offended? Will she insult Jesus and the Jews? Watch:
28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
It has been observed that this woman is the only woman who, in a sense, agrees to play the game, steps into the parable, and meets Jesus using His own terminology and method of communicating. Most folks in the gospel seem dumbfounded or perplexed or enraged by the parables of Jesus. Certainly this woman could have responded in kind. But she does not.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Wow! How beautiful! How humble! How filled with faith!
She does not take insult. She seems to understand what Jesus is up to. She agrees to “play the game,” so to speak. She is willing to be called a dog. Fine. No problem. “Ok. I am a dog. But even the dogs get the crumbs.”
Why did she not respond in anger? Why did she not take issue and insult with His provocative words? One reason: her little girl was at home and her little girl was suffering.
Why did she not respond with anger? Because she was the concerned parent of a hurting child and she knew that if God did not show up her little girl was done for.
Tim Keller writes, “There are cowards, there are regular people, there are heroes, and then there are parents. Parents are not really on the spectrum from cowardice to courage because if your child is in jeopardy, you simply do what it takes to save her.” Yes. That is so! And this woman was a parent.
We might look at this another way. We might say that this woman had reached the point that all of us must reach if we are truly to receive the Lord Jesus: her need overrode her pride and her desperate cry of faith eclipsed her petty desire for dignity.
“A dog? Fine. I am a dog. I am whatever you call me. I no longer care about my name or my identity or my sense of importance or significance. My little girl is tormented and so I am tormented with her. I come with nothing but my lowliness. I come with nothing but my status as an outsider. I live in Dogtown. Fine. I embrace it. But if you will meet me here in Dogtown, if you will just drop some crumbs before me, I will feast like a queen and praise you all the days of my life!”
The truly humble, the truly needy, the truly broken do not have time for politics and they no longer care about keeping up appearances. They are happy to be a dog so long as they can be a dog who gets some of the crumbs.
Dear church. Dear friends. We all live in Dogtown. We none of us deserve a place at the table. We have no right to the feast. We should be content with the crumbs that fall before us. Even so, the last two verses of this story tells us something very important about these crumbs.
29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus is touched deeply by this woman’s humility and faith.
God went to Dogtown and there He found faith. Then, Jesus moved and did what Jesus desires to do for us all.
30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
Ah! A single crumb from the table of God is a greater feast than the greatest feasts that the world has to offer. The crumbs of the kingdom are grander than the feasts of the world. We ask for the leftovers, we are content with the crumbs, but then we find that we have been invited to very table of God and the table of God is a table of plenty.
The crumbs fall and the demons flee.
Such is the Kingdom of God.
Such is the King.
Such is our King!
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press,
 Daniel L. Akin, Mark. Christ-Centered Exposition. (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), p.159.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27 (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2005), p.471.
 James A. Brooks, p.120.
 Joel Marcus, p.462.
 Joel Marcus, p.468.
 Michael Card, Mark. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p.100.
 James A. Brooks, Mark. The New American Commentary. Gen. Ed., David S. Dockery. Vol.23 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), p.122.
 Daniel L. Akin, p.160.