Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Notes on Mark: Table Scraps

MARK 7:24-30
I always was rather shocked by Jesus' apparent attitude toward this woman. For one thing I know that to call someone a dog in the Middle East is a great insult and for him to use it while turning down this poor woman's request is ... well just not the way I think of Jesus acting toward supplicants.

Barclay provides a good answer to this objection, and one that is exactly in line with how Jesus usually acts. I especially like the idea that this actually turned into witty repartee where Jesus was just waiting for the woman to give the right answer so he could say yes. Sometimes, the truth is in the translation!
The story itself must be read with insight. The woman came asking Jesus' help for her daughter. His answer was that it was not right to take the children's bread and give it to the dogs...

The dog was not the well-loved guardian that it is today; more commonly it was a symbol of dishonor. To the Greek, the word dog meant a shameless and audacious woman it was used exactly with the connotation that we use the word bitch today. To the Jew it was equally a term of contempt. "Do not give the dogs what is holy." (Matthew 7:6; cp. Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15)...

No matter how you look at it, the term dog is an insult. How, then, are we to explain Jesus' use of it here?
  1. He did not use the usual word; he used a diminutive word which described, not the wild dogs of the streets, but the little lap-dogs of the house. In Greek, diminutives are characteristically affectionate. Jesus took the sting out of the word.
  2. Without a doubt his tone of voice made all the difference. The same word can be a deadly insult and an affectionate address, according to the tone of voice. We can call a man "an old rascal" in a voice of contempt or a voice of affection. Jesus' tone took all the poison out of the word.
  3. In any event Jesus did not shut the door. First, he said, the children must be fed; but only first; there is meat left for the household pets. True, Israel had the first offer of the gospel, but only the first; there were others still to come. The woman was a Greek, and the Greeks had a gift of repartee; and she saw at once that Jesus was speaking with a smile. She knew that the door was swinging on its hinges. In those days people did not have either knives or forks or table-napkins. They ate with their hands; they wiped the soiled hands on chunks of bread and then flung the bread away and the house-dogs ate it. So the woman said, "I know the children are fed first, but can't I even get the scraps the children throw away?" And Jesus loved it. Here was a sunny faith that would not take no for an answer, here was a woman with the tragedy of an ill daughter at home and there was still light enough in her heart to reply with a smile. Her faith was tested and her faith was real, and her prayer was answered. Symbolically she stands for the Gentile world which so eagerly seized on the bread of heaven which the Jews rejected and threw away.
The Gospel of Mark
(The Daily Bible Series, rev. ed.)
Barclay's insights above are supplemented by these from Mary Healy.
Jesus' reply expresses his delight with her answer. once can imagine his smile at this lady's chutzpah. Her indomitable faith has moved his heart to accelerate the plan: the "children's bread" is given ahead of schedule to a Gentile. Upon her return home the woman finds her child delivered from the demon. This exorcism is the only work of healing done at a distance in Mark, accenting the efficacy of the woman's faith. In fact, it is one of only two healings at a distance in the Gospels, the other being the cure of the centurion's servant (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; see John 4:46-54). Significantly, both involve Gentiles, and both demonstrate remarkable faith, in contrast to the tepid faith Jesus often finds among his own people. His ability to heal by a mere word someone who is not even present is a powerful message for readers of the Gospel: to experience the Lord's power it is not necessary to have seen or touched him as he walked on earth before his resurrection. All that is needed is faith.
This makes me wonder is my faith strong or lukewarm ... am I expecting enough from God?


  1. A few things I noticed on this one, especially when combined with the same incident as reported in Mt. 15:

    -There's a bit of lead-up in the teaching Jesus is doing just prior. See especially Mt. 11:20, 12:15, and the whole conflict between Jesus v. Pharisees.

    -In Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus to heal the woman because . . . she's making a pest of herself.

    --> I wonder if our Lord's comment was really meant for the woman, or for his disciples? As in, "You want me to heal her? But weren't you just saying _____?"

    Also, I think -- though it's hard to tell in a language that I don't actually understand -- that there's a pun going on between the word for dog and the word for Caananite."

    All that to say - yes. Agreed. Good find, Julie.

  2. I explain this story to 6th-graders here: http://platytera.blogspot.com/2012/01/snips-snails-kunarion-tails.html