The Feast Found Under the Table
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.”
The past two weeks we have been studying Jesus’ response to the Pharisees question regarding purity before God. Last week we saw how Jesus denied inherent impurity in anything that God creates. Perhaps to demonstrate that point, we now see Jesus traveling to “unclean” Gentile territory where he interacts with two individuals in some very unique ways.
Remember that Mark’s aim throughout is to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. He is the promised Messiah who has come to bring the promise of God to fulfillment. The promise to restore all things. The promise to “save” in the fullest sense of the term. Messiah will bring with him the peace of a kingdom that will never succumb to evil. It’s the promise of passages like Isaiah 35:3-4:
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
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.”
Mark wants us to believe that Jesus is that Savior. He doesn’t want us to miss him. Too many do. Sometimes we miss him because we don’t understand him. He does things we don’t expect him to do, and we can’t understand why. That’s what we are faced with in this passage, as we see some interesting things—even strange things—about him in two different stories.
There are a few things that these two stories have in common that invite us to study deeper into what Mark may be telling us about Jesus. Let’s consider in these two stories the setting we find Jesus in, the secrecy he wishes to keep, and the strange ways he acts.
THE SETTING: JESUS IN GENTILE LANDS
It is striking to find Jesus spending so much time in Gentile territory. His last visit to the Decapolis was very brief. He healed a demon possessed maniac and then left (Mark 5). But now he spends extended time there, in fact traveling in such a way as to remain in non-Jewish lands. So we are invited to ask why he went there.
The Long Journey
The last place Mark locates Jesus is Gennesaret back in Mark 6:53. From there, Mark says, Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, some 35 miles to the west and north. Then, in verse 31, Mark says he returned from the region of Tyre” by going “through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” This is quite a journey, well over 100 miles on foot, and it is anything but a direct route. It is like when you board the plane in Oklahoma City to go to Detroit and they send you to Dallas first. There must be a good reason to go so far out of the way from the destination.
The Land of Tyre
Furthermore, he goes to Tyre, an old Phoenician city-state located on the Mediterranean coast, in modern day Lebanon. This was not exactly a favorite resort town for Jews. This was the homeland of Queen Jezebel who, through her marriage to King Ahab, introduced Baal worship in Israel. Tyre became the target of many Old Testament prophetic condemnations (Ezekiel 26; Zech 9:3-4), and the Jewish historian Josephus referred to the inhabitants there as the Jews’ worst enemies.
But Tyre was still an important city in Jesus day, about the size of Jerusalem in population and power. We might then think that Jesus has gone there for strategic purposes to extend his mission. But Jesus “did not want anyone to know” that he was there (v. 24). Matthew’s account (Matt 15:21-28) gives us this explanation from Jesus: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). When Jesus sent out his disciples to further his teaching he commanded them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles . . . but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). He is the Jewish Messiah, sent on mission particularly to them. So why did he go there?
Withdrawal from the Pharisees
From the story Mark has been telling we can venture a guess. He has been in frequent and recent conflict with the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem (Mark 7:1). And in chapter six we read that he had drawn the suspicions of Herod, who had murdered John the Baptist for proclaiming the same message Jesus himself was proclaiming. So when we read in Mark 7:24 that it was Jesus desire to remain hidden, we are led to believe that Jesus has come here to escape the harassment of the Pharisees and the threat of Herod.
Remember in Mark 6:31 Jesus had invited the disciples “to a desolate place” to rest, but then proceeded to feed five thousand people? With Jesus now looking for privacy among a people to whom God had not sent him, maybe now he will get some rest.
THE SECRECY: JESUS DOES NOT WANT TO BE KNOWN
But even Jesus does not get his wish. Mark tells us that though he did not want anyone to know he was there, “he could not be hidden.” And then after he heals the deaf man, he orders those who witnessed this miracle “to tell no one.” Once again his wish is ignored. “The more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36).
From a literary perspective you can tell a lot from a character by the way the storyteller describes how that character responds to different situations. Here, as in the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ desire for anonymity takes second place to the needs of people. He keeps giving in to people. Still, we wonder what is behind this desire for secrecy?
Worker of Wonders
His first encounter is with a woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. Imagine that you have a child with an illness that doctors cannot diagnose or treat. You feel like you’ve done everything you can, and you are starting to lose any hope. Then news begins to spread that someone has come to your city who has reportedly been able to heal diseases similar to the one your child has. You would undoubtedly do exactly what this woman did. Mark tells us that as soon as she heard about Jesus she came and fell down at his feet. And she begged him to help her daughter.
Mark has recounted three previous exorcisms so far; we are primed to read about another one here. But Jesus has not come to Tyre to do miracles. He wanted to remain hidden, and he seems reluctant to help this poor mother. Jesus is more interested in obscurity than in anything else, and he seems intent on keeping it that way. Why does he seem so reluctant to help, giving in to her request only after she seemingly wins the debate between them?
The answer lies in this ongoing desire of Jesus to remain hidden from public view. It seems strange, doesn’t it, that if he has come as Savior that he would also want to remain in obscurity? Of course his fame is spreading with every miracle performed, yet Jesus sincerely wishes that this would not be so. He frequently tries to silence his fan base as he does in the next episode (v. 36).
Jesus’ Brothers: “Show Yourself to the World”
This is not what we would expect. Later Jesus’ own brothers will advise him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:3-4). That sounds like wise counsel, but John tells us in the very next verse why they said this. “For not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5).
Jesus’ Adversary: “Throw Yourself Down”
This kind of unbelief is what lies behind Satan’s temptation when he takes Jesus to the top of the temple and challenges him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5-6). It is the kind of unbelief that challenges God to prove himself. It is the kind of unbelief that says, “If you really are who you say you are, then. . .” In other words, I will not believe you are who you claim to be unless you meet my expectations.
Jesus will not be received in that way. He does not want his brothers or Satan or this woman or you or me coming to him on our own terms. He will not be received as a worker of miracles alone. If you come to Jesus looking for entertainment he will quietly slip by you.
The Compassionate Christ
This does not mean that Jesus does not care about human need, or that he shrugs it off as unimportant to his mission. He does expel the demon from the woman’s daughter. And in our second episode in this text, he responds to the plight of “a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment.”
This story, too, is consistent with Jesus’ desire for anonymity. Before he heals the man, he takes him aside from the crowd privately. He proceeds to heal the man away from the observation of the crowd. And afterward he gave specific instructions to those who knew of the healing to not tell anyone about it. This command to silence is a frequent theme in Mark, and its meaning is quite clear. Because his identity has been so misunderstood Jesus is careful to guard this identity from further misunderstandings.
So Jesus is thoroughly compassionate. His compassion is seen in his secrecy because he wants sincere worshipers not hyped-up fans. At the same time his desire for anonymity does not preclude him from deep personal concern. Mark notes this characteristic of Christ by telling us that Jesus removed the man from the crowd who had brought him to Jesus. One commentator notes, “By himself the needy man is simply another face in a crowd of Gentiles. But in removing him from the crowd, Jesus signifies that he is not simply a problem but a unique individual.” By touching the man Jesus shows that he is willing to identify with us even in our deepest problems. And then he looked up to heaven and sighed, appealing to God with deep personal empathy for mercy to be shown to this man.
THE STRANGE BEHAVIOR
So far we’ve seen the reason why Jesus went to these foreign lands, namely to escape the harassment of unbelieving Jews. And we’ve seen the compassion of Jesus demonstrated in spite of his desire for anonymity. But we still haven’t gotten to the heart of the two episodes in our text today. The most striking thing is the way he interacts with this terrified mother of a demon possessed girl and the way he heals the deaf man with the speech impediment. What does Mark want us to see in Jesus in the way that he interacts with these two individuals?
Let the Children Be Fed First
When this mother requests that Jesus cast the demon out of her daughter, his reply is curt: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v. 27). Not only does he appear reluctant to answer her request, but he adds insult to injury in referring to her and her daughter as “dogs.” This is no compliment, even in the first century. Especially for a Jew, dogs were perceived negatively because they ate garbage and other decaying things. We find several pejorative references to dogs in the New Testament. Jesus warns us not to give to dogs that which is holy (Matt 7:6). The book of Revelation tells us that “the dogs” will join the murderers and idolaters in banishment from the eternal kingdom (Rev 22:15).
Some attempt to soften the blow by noting that the word dog here is in the diminutive form, showing that Jesus is speaking of little dogs which were often allowed to live in homes as pets. Indeed, the woman seems to pick up on this in her response, “yet even the [little] dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (v. 28, cf. NKJV). It is instructive, however, that Mark makes the point that this woman was “a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth” (v. 26). Clearly, Jesus is setting up a contrast between Jew and Gentile and the privilege that the Jews are offered.
But this is not an unimaginably rude and ethnocentric comment from Jesus, though it may originally strike us so. To view this woman as “unclean” because of her heritage would be a reversal of everything Jesus has been teaching in this passage. So this is not Jesus’ intent here. Note that he does not ultimately deny this woman’s request, and he does not directly refer to her as a Gentile “dog. Jesus’ response is somewhat enigmatic, even parabolic.
So what’s striking about this account is how quickly and wittingly the woman responds to Jesus. “Yes, Lord,” she agrees. “Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28). She has understood the parable without the need of any explanation from Jesus, the first person in Mark’s Gospel to do so. While Jesus’ parables typically leave even his closest followers confused (see Mark 4:10-13; 7:17), this “unclean Gentile woman” gets it! And Jesus rewards her accordingly, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).
This woman understood who Jesus was. He was the Messiah of the Jews who had come to fulfill God’s promises to his people. Jesus’ parable was an invitation to this woman, to see if she understood and believed exactly who she was talking to, and she did. Jesus was not a wonder-working phenomenon, but the living Son of God. And this woman understood that if this is who he was then in spite of the fact that she was not a part of ethnic Israel, to whom God’s promises were originally made, she could still benefit from him as a part of the “real Israel” if she would cling to him in faith.
In other words she believed that she did not have to be sitting at the table with the “children.” There was a feast to be found under the table! Though the mission of Jesus must necessarily begin with Israel, she knows it cannot be confined there. The Messiah brings with him an abundance of supply, and where there is much food there will be many crumbs.
Fingers, Saliva, and a Sigh
In the healing of the deaf man with the speech impediment we observe that Jesus strangely heals the man by putting his fingers into his ears, spitting into his hands and then touching his tongue. Why does Jesus do that?
It is not because Jesus is performing some magical healing technique; rather, there is a symbolism to Jesus’ teachings that Mark does not want us to miss. Mark is the only one of the gospel writers who tells us this story, so what is he wanting us to see?
I began this message by referring to the Messianic expectations we read about in Isaiah 35. I read verses three and four, but there is something very significant to this text in Isaiah 35:5-6.
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 sing for joy.
The word mute in the Greek translation of the Old Testament is found in only one other place in the Bible—right here in our text. It doesn’t mean unable to talk; it means having a speech impediment, unable to talk without great difficulty. Mark tells us this story in a way that points us directly back to Isaiah 35 so that we see that Jesus is the fulfillment of that passage. Mark wants us to think of Jesus not as the great miracle worker that he is but as the great promised Messiah. By his own power and authority, symbolized by the fingers in the ear, he opens the ears of the deaf and heals all other diseases.
CONCLUSION: SATISFIED WITH JESUS
Mark invites us to join the crowd in their astonishment. In verse 37 they proclaim, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” We are invited to come and behold this Jesus. If we will receive him as he is rather than deny him because he is not what we want him to be, then what we will find is that what Jesus provides is more than enough to satisfy us.
The response of faith is the one that is grateful simply to be at the feast because you know that you will be satisfied there. You don’t need to prove yourself by looking for the best seat. You are content to sit under the table, as it were. The gospel invites you to the table on the basis of faith not on the basis of your own merit. If you can believe today that what Jesus provides for you is enough to satisfy you, then you can come and feast. Even the crumbs will be plenty.
 Josephus, Against Apian, 1:13.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 225.
 Horst Balz, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT), ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, 3 vols (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 3:272.
 Otto Michel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964–74), 3:1104.
 R. T. France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002), 299.