A Pagan Woman Who Understands Grace

This message from Mark 7:24–30 titled A Pagan Woman Who Understands Grace from Ligon Duncan was given at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The three-day conference was titled Conversations with Jesus and urged participants to be faithful in their efforts at evangelism and gospel proclamation.


The following is an edited transcript of this message. Please confirm quotations using the original audio or video above.

If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to Mark 7. This is one of the most interesting conversations with Jesus recorded in the gospels. It is also seemingly very awkward, and even offensive, and thus perhaps, perplexing to us.

But there are stores of grace to be found in it if we will listen carefully. So let us give attention to God’s holy word in Mark 7:24-30.

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. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inherent word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

This story is about God’s grace being even for the Gentiles. In an arresting way, Jesus affirms his mission to both Jews and Gentiles. It might look like Jesus is indifferent and reluctant. But, this story actually teaches the opposite. And I want us to focus on two things in particular:

  1. What this passage teaches about Jesus’ mission, and
  2. What the woman’s response to Jesus teaches us about his person.

Jesus goes to a region that’s important—we’ll come back to that later—he doesn’t go to Tyre or Sidon but to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

He’s in Gentile territory. He’s outside not only of Judah and of Galilee, but he’s outside of the place where most Jews lived in that region. His intention, Mark tells us, is not to go have a public ministry there. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He wants to remain undisclosed.

It’s key that one of the things that’s going on in this passage, and in the passage that follows it in Mark, is he’s pulling aside from his ministry in Galilee, in order to invest himself in teaching the disciples. One of his big concerns is that they understand some things that they clearly don’t.

But as often happened when Jesus withdrew, he was found anyways. A Gentile woman, literally a Greek-speaking woman born in Syrian Phoenicia hears about his presence, seeks him out, falls at his feet and begs him to liberate her daughter from a demon.

The woman is desperate, but Jesus appears dismissive. At first glance, Jesus looks indifferent and rude, if not cruel. He uses a derogatory term for Gentiles: “dogs.” Jesus suggests that her request for aid is out of place since, if he were to answer her, he would be giving to her what belongs only to the children—Israel.  Jesus says “it would not be right for me to do what you are asking for me to do.” And we’re left jarred and shocked.What is going on here?

Now, you might think if you turn to Matthew 15, and the parallel passage that things will get a little bit better. They don’t; it’s worse. Look with me at Matthew 15:21 and on. In this parallel account, Matthew seems to make things worse by calling the woman a Canaanite.

In Matthew’s account, we learn that the woman pled with Jesus to have mercy on her because her daughter was cruelly demon-possessed. And Jesus did not answer a word (Matthew 15:23). In fact, as she begs him for help, his disciples also begged Jesus to send her away. She’s shouting and his disciples are shouting “send her away” (Matthew 15:23).

When Jesus does speak, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). This is emphasizing a point that Mark makes in Mark 7:27. In other words, Jesus is saying: “my mission is to Israel; I’m here for the children, not for the dogs; I’m here for the Jews, not for the Gentiles.” Matthew tells us she was undeterred by this. And she prostrates herself before Jesus and begs, “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25).

Despite that importunate and desperate plea, Matthew says that Jesus replied to her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).

What is going on here? Where is my Jesus and what have you done with him?

If we look and listen carefully, the Holy Spirit shows us, in this passage, God’s grace to the Gentiles. But He does it in the most striking ways: He introduces us to a pagan woman who seems to understand things that even Jesus’ disciples do not understand; He presses us on the issue of the warrant of faith; He gives us a striking example of what happens in prayer; and he reveals to us Jesus as the Savior of the world.

Let’s put our noses back into Mark 7 again and ask the question: does this passage reveal a Jesus who is unconcerned for the Gentiles and unentreatable  by this earnest woman? Paying careful attention to Mark and Matthew, the answer is, emphatically, “No.” And I want to point you to two lines of evidence in the passage itself.

First, this trip to Tyre and Sidon is clearly and purposefully planned by Jesus in order to explain his mission, and the inclusion of the words about the children’s bread are an important and deliberate part of that explanation. The second thing that I want you to see is what we learn from the way that the woman approaches Jesus, how she identifies him, and her response to him.

Jesus’ Deliberate Mission and Words

Let’s hear the first line of evidence—looking to that trip to Tyre and Sidon and his words about the children’s bread—and here’s what I want you to see: this passage is showing us a deliberate mission to the Gentiles by Jesus. The gospel writers give you everything you need to know and see that this is a deliberate mission of Jesus to the Gentiles.

Keep your Bibles open and turn back to Mark 5. You will notice that Jesus has already delivered, in Mark 5:1-20, the Gerasene demoniac in the Gentile region of the Decapolis. In Mark 7:15-19, the immediate preceding context to our passage, Mark tells us that Jesus declared all foods clean. Which has massive ramifications about the ceremonial law and the distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

In the immediate following passage, Mark 7:31–37, Jesus goes back to the Gentile region of the Decapolis and he heals, presumably, a great number of Gentiles. And then our own passage, in spite its initial perplexity, builds up to a totally positive conclusion—with regard to Jesus’ answer to this Gentile woman’s prayers.

It is very clear that the story is meant to teach the disciples, the original readers of Mark, and us, something quite important about Jesus’ mission—and ours as Christians. The whole future of the Christian movement is informed by encounters like this in the gospels.

Notice how this passage is bracketed by two feedings of thousands. If you look back in Mark 6, you have the feeding of the 5,000. And if you look ahead in Mark 8, you have the feeding of the 4,000. One in Jewish territory, one in Gentile territory. And Mark 6:51-53 is hugely important, look with me there.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples after the event of his walking on the water. Mark says, “He got into the boat with them, the wind stopped, they were greatly astonished for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened.” They had seen him miraculously multiply bread and fish and they didn’t understand.

The same thing will happen again in Mark 8:14-21. They had forgotten to take bread. They did not have more than one loaf in the boat with them. He was giving orders to them saying, “Watch out, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began to discuss with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus said, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not understand? Do you have a hardened heart?”  So the story is bracketed between two feedings of thousands, with bread, that the disciples do not understand.

Bread is made the subject of Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples’ lack of understanding in both Mark 6:52 and Mark 8:14-21. Now in this passage, bread is the image of the blessings of the Messiah’s ministry to his own people. It is God’s provision for them. Furthermore, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter reminds us that Elijah the prophet had gone to, roughly, the same territory and worked a miracle for another heathen woman in 1 Kings 17.

Zarephath is 8.5 miles south of Sidon, and 14 miles north of Tyre. Jesus didn’t go to Tyre or Sidon, but to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus has gone to the same territory where Elijah went. Why did Elijah go to this territory? Because there was a famine in Israel. In order to provide for him, God sends him to this widow in Zarephath for bread. Elijah asks a Gentile woman for bread. Elijah provides her bread to continue during the time of the famine and resurrects that widow’s son. Jesus goes to the area of Tyre and Sidon, and a woman asks him for bread, and he saves her daughter from demon possession.

Now, Jesus himself has already mentioned that story (Luke 4:24-26). Do you remember when the people in his own synagogue were skeptical of him? He uses the story of Elijah going to Zarephath and he says, “Look, there were a lot of widows in Israel that were hungry during the famine.” But God sent Elijah only to the widow of Zarephath. There are a lot of lepers in Israel, but only Naaman the Syrian was cured.”

Jesus is clearly talking about the children rejecting the promises of God, and those promises being given to those who are not children. He’s already got that in mind as he goes to Zarephath.

These two towns of Tyre and Sidon are closely linked together in the New Testament. This miracle of Elijah is clearly already in Jesus’ mind because of Luke’s account of his rejection at Nazareth. And Jesus is there giving clear warning of his coming mission to the Gentiles, using the widow of Zarephath as his illustration.

In fact, if you turn to Luke 10:13-14, he will say, “You know what, if the miracles that I had done in your presence had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented. And in fact, the judgment day will be better for them than they are for you.”

Tyre is the place from which Jezebel would introduce Baal worship into the northern kingdom. Josephus says, “Tyre was notoriously our bitterest enemies.” And yet Jesus is deliberately going to this Gentile region and this Gentile woman in order to teach his disciples, and you and me, about his mission.

That’s the first line of evidence that I want you to see in this passage. It is a mission to the Gentiles. The context and the text itself both testify to that.

Her Response and Jesus’ Revelation of Himself

Now, here’s the second line of argumentation. The woman’s response to Jesus teaches us about who he is and what his mission is.

The woman’s response to Jesus teaches us about prayer. It teaches us about what theologians call the warrant of faith. It teaches us about Jesus’ mercy, and it teaches us about the Gentile mission. In John 4, Jesus engaged with a Samaritan woman, leading her to conversion and the salvation of many in her city.

In Mark 7, Jesus talks with a Greek-speaking Gentile, Syrian, Phoenician, Canaanite woman. How’s that for intersectionality? If Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews, she was a Gentile of Gentiles. If ever someone was a Gentile in the flesh—the uncircumcision, separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, a stranger to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in this world—it is this woman. And yet, Jesus is standing in front of her. The Messiah has come to her.

Notice how she approaches and addresses Jesus. She prostrates herself before him and she calls him “Lord” in Mark 7:28. It is the only vocative use of that term in the Gospel of Mark, “O Lord.” Matthew tells us that she called Jesus “Lord” three times. And specifically gave Jesus the messianic title, “Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22).

In other words, her identification of Jesus is far more insightful than the Pharisees. It is far more insightful than the disciples. It is far more insightful than the crowds. In fact, it won’t be until Matthew 16 and Mark 8 that Peter will give his identification of Jesus. And he had already heard it—with his own ears—from a Gentile woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Compare, by the way, her reaction to Jesus and the widow of Zarephath to Elijah. You remember in 1 Kings 17:12. When the widow approaches Elijah, she says, “As the Lord your God lives, do this for me. As the Lord your God lives, do this for me,” not this woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.

She identifies Jesus as the Messiah. She calls him her Lord. She recognizes Jesus’ authority and acknowledges her need of his help. Her hope and confidence was in his person. She was staking her whole trust in him.

Notice her appeal. Her entreaty. Her request. She is importunate; she is persistent; she is relentless in her pleas. She falls down at his feet and begs for, what Mark tells us, her little daughter. This term of affection: my little girl. With raised voice, she says, “Have mercy on me. My daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.”

She prostrates herself before him and she says, “Lord, help me.” She puts her whole hope in his answer to that cry. And what a reminder and lesson that is to us about prayer.

I love what J. C. Ryle says about the little girl in this passage, this little demon-possessed girl: “Hopeless and desperate as her case appeared, she had a praying mother, and where there is a praying mother there is always hope.” Sometimes all we can do for our children is pray for them.

 

Notice how this woman stays locked in on her request and her hope —even when she meets apparent indifference, apparent rejection, and apparent dismissal. Jesus ignores her. The disciples beg him to send her away.

He then speaks to her as if to deny her request, and even uses a term of disrespect, a derogatory term for the Gentiles. And by the way, aren’t you glad that Peter was not live tweeting this? Jesus would have gone viral in the worst of ways. There would have been an almost infinite thread of rage tweets about his heartlessness and racism and misogyny.

Nevertheless, she persisted. “Yes, Lord. Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). Now, Matthew tells us Jesus had already given her two discouraging replies:

  1. “I wasn’t sent for you. I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
  2. “It would be wrong for me to give you what belongs to the children. It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).

But we need to factor in three things when we consider Jesus’ words to her:

The first one: she knows who Jesus is. She says, “You’re the Lord. You’re the son of David. And these men you brought with you, they may not fully understand that, but I know who you are. You’re the Lord. You’re the son of David” Secondly, The Geneva Bible (400 year ago) says, Jesus speaks to her— according to the opinion of the Jews. You see what Jesus is doing? He is putting his disciples and their contemporaries’ thoughts in his mouth, and he’s looking at them as he speaks to her. Third, Mark—not Matthew but Mark—tells us that Jesus apparently tipped her off with his words. Look very closely at Mark 7:27:“Let the children be satisfied first.” And that’s the window; the crease that she needs. She goes right for that, first.

“Yes, Lord, that’s fine. Satisfy them first. I’ll take crumbs. I’ll take the leftovers.” It was like Jesus said, “The children have to be satisfied first.” And she responded by saying, “So you’re saying there’s a chance?”

He verbally tips her off that the door is not as closed as it may seem. And she apprehends his mercy. This is what theologians called ‘the warrant of faith.’

You have to ask the question: “When a sinner realizes his sin and what his sin deserves, why would a sinner cry out for help and aid and pardon to God—knowing that he deserves God’s judgment?” And theologians answer by saying, “You have to understand the warrant of faith.”

And, in The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the chapter on repentance, it describes repentance as a gospel grace. And it says: the sinner sees, not only his sin, and not only the deserving of his sin for judgment, but “the sinner also apprehends the mercy of God to him in Christ, to such as are penitent” (WCF 15.2) This woman sees that there’s hope. There’s mercy here even for me.

It really reminds me of a story. A friend of mine was an Episcopal priest, who was part of a delegation to go see Archbishop Kolini in Rwanda, when they were trying to get the Anglican Mission in America started.

They wanted Bible-believing Anglican churches. In Episcopal and Anglican polity, only bishops can give permission for the establishment of churches according to proper order. The American bishops were not Bible-believing and so they went to Archbishop Kolini to beg him for help and asking, “Would you establish Bible-believing Episcopal Churches, Anglican churches in America?”

And my friend went to Archbishop Kolini, with a delegation of Americans, to ask for his help; and Archbishop Kolini wouldn’t see them. He sent one of his aides to show them around the various genocide sites in Rwanda. They spent two days looking at the various sites where the genocide occurred.

And then, finally, they were granted an audience with the bishop. And when they came in, the bishop said: “When the genocide began, we reached out to the United Nations and we asked them for help—and no help came. And then we reached out to your country, the United States, and we asked for help—and no help came. And then we reached out to the church, in America, and we begged for help—and no help came.I understand that you’re here today to ask me for my help, is that correct?”

My friends, tremblingly said, “Yes, your grace.” And he said, “I will give it to you. You did not come to our aid. You did not answer my calls for help, but you’ve come to me for help? I’ll give it to you.”

This woman knows that she has no grounds to expect help. She’s a Gentile in the flesh. She’s of the uncircumcision. She’s not of the commonwealth of Israel. She’s a stranger to the covenants of promise. But she’s talking to the Christ, to the Messiah.

And therefore, she is not without hope. It’s almost like she says, “Yes Lord, you came only for the lost sheep of Israel, but I notice that you are here in Tyre talking to me. And yes Lord, the bread is only for the children. But you know what? You’re here talking to a little dog.”

She apprehends his mercy. She sees through the word. She knows who this is. She says to him, “My sins, they are many, but your mercy is more.”

And notice Jesus’ response. He says, “I won’t do this. I shouldn’t do this,” and then he does it. Her daughter is healed immediately. By the way, in the Gospels, this only happens with Gentiles. Everywhere else, Jesus goes to the one who is in trouble. But with Gentiles, he can heal them with a word without even going to them. Here, he doesn’t even speak a word.

And then he says to her something that he never, ever said to an Israelite. “Your faith is great” (Matthew 15:28). Jesus only commends the faith of Gentiles in the Gospels.

Jesus has been showing his mission to the Gentiles in words and deeds throughout the Gospels. Think of Matthew 8:10-12: “I tell you, many shall come from east and west and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out in the most distant darkness.” Or, the passage that we looked at in Luke 4:24-27, his home synagogue. Or, in John 10:16: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Jesus is fulfilling Psalm 87:4. The psalmist says, “Among those who know Me,” this is God speaking. Me, capital Me. “Among those who know Me, I mentioned Rahab, prominent name for Egypt in the Old Testament and Babylon.” God says, “there are going to be Egyptians and Babylonians who know Me. Behold, Philistia and Tyre with Cush will say, ‘This one was born there.’”

In the kingdom of God, people from Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Cush will be numbered among the Messiah’s people. Jesus is speaking to this woman; she is numbered among the Messiah’s people.

And this, my friends, is one of the things that reminds us that missions is rooted in the Old Testament vision of the people of God, as well as in the New Testament. We can never fail to have a concern for the work of world mission. It’s not just a New Testament thing. It’s a whole Bible thing. To Abraham, God says, “In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

And in this passage—like in Esther, like in Ezekiel, like in Exodus, where we find God saying, “And then even you will know that I am the Lord”—God is making his name known among the nations. And that’s why we must be concerned to share the gospel with men and women, and boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. It’s not an option for us. It’s not a New Testament thing. It’s not an Old Testament thing. It’s a Bible thing—Old Testament and New. And that’s why our hope is, from Earth’s wide bounds, from oceans farthest coasts, through gates of pearl, stream in the countless hosts singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”

This passage reveals that Jesus is the merciful, gracious, and only savior of the world. When the Samaritans heard of Jesus in John 4:42, they said, “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” And in 1 John 4:14, John says, “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world.”

And Jesus is teaching his disciples that. Jesus is using a Gentile woman who makes the profession of Peter, before Peter makes that profession in Mark 8, to teach them that.

Hallelujah. What a God. What a savior. What a gospel.

Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for our Savior. We thank you that he has come to those who are undeserving, for those who are not of the bloodline of Abraham; and he has heard their prayers; and he has pardoned them; and he has welcomed them into his family. And Lord, we want to have a heart like our Savior. We want to go out into the highways, into the byways, and around this world, and invite people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to the marriage feast of the Lamb. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching that even in this passage. We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.