To be healed, first you must be sick. To be set free, first you must be a slave. To be rescued, first you must be in peril. To be saved, first you must be a sinner. To be resurrected, first you must be dead.
And to be a child of God, first you must be a dog.
For the second time in Mark’s account, Jesus travels outside of Jewish territory into a Gentile region. He’s apparently taking a sort of “vacation” with his disciples, trying to get away from the chaos and crowds so he can devote his time to his immediate followers. However, as a result of his spectacular ministry, his reputation precedes him. He can’t stay hidden even in the region of Tyre and Sidon, two cities to the north of Galilee. Before long, he is approached by a woman whose daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit. She falls down at his feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Now, this story comes right on the heels of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees, a group of nationalistic Jewish religious leaders. They are very concerned about the national identity of Israel, and they devote themselves to staying ceremonially clean, even inventing their own laws to stay safe. If they were in Jesus’ shoes, they would shrink back from this helpless wretch: she is an unclean Gentile, a woman, and her daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit. She is not a part of God’s chosen people, the people of Israel. She has no claim to the kindness of God. That’s what a “good Jew” would have thought about this woman.
So Jesus responds to her request with a proverb. He says 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.” Yes, he is referring to the Jews as God’s “children” and to the Gentiles as mere “dogs.” If your concept of Jesus is limited to Flannelgraph Jesus from Sunday School or Hippie Jesus from American culture, this statement seems appalling. But a Jew of the time wouldn’t have blinked an eye. That’s how they thought about their pagan Gentile neighbors. Jesus is asking the woman, “My priority is to minister to the people of Israel. You’re not a part of God’s chosen nation; why should I help you?” He’s challenging her the way a Pharisee would; he’s playing “devil’s advocate.”
It becomes clear right away that this woman understands the meaning of grace. The Pharisees thought of themselves as earning God’s favor through their merits, but she admits that she has no merits to speak of. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
There are a lot of ways she could have responded. If it were me, I might complain that I am a valuable person created in the image of God. I might plead my self-worth. I probably wouldn’t say out loud that I deserve Jesus’ help because I’m a good guy, but I would probably think it. This Gentile woman, though, doesn’t miss a beat. She embraces her status as a “dog.” She doesn’t think there is anything special about her that should convince Jesus to help her. Instead, she finds an opening in Jesus’ proverb and seizes it. He had said, “Let the children be fed first.” She admits that the power of God is “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16). But she believes that Jesus’ power is more than enough, that it can overflow to her as well. Jesus had fed 5,000 men with five loaves of bread, and there had been twelve baskets of leftovers; she is convinced that there will be leftovers for her as well.
In other words, this woman does not plead her own merit. She pleads the unlimited power of Jesus. She pleads his compassion that overflows from his love for Israel and splashes down on wretched Gentiles like herself. She has nothing to offer him, but she believes that he has the authority, power, and compassion to rescue her daughter.
Jesus is delighted with her answer. She has wrestled with him and prevailed. “For this statement you may go your way,” he tells her. “The demon has left your daughter.” Sure enough, when she gets home, her daughter is lying asleep in bed, and the demon is gone.
The contrast is sharp between this woman and the Jewish religious leaders. They are clean; she is unclean. They are “good people”; she is not. They are in a position of privilege; she has no rights to claim. She is a loser, and she knows it. That’s what makes her an insider and the religious leaders outsiders. She doesn’t plead her own goodness. She pleads only the goodness of Jesus.
If you and I want to see the power of Jesus at work, in us and around us, we must abandon our merits and our rights. We are morally bankrupt, powerless, helpless. We don’t deserve to be rescued by God. All we can plead is the compassion of Jesus and his superabundant power to save. So don’t try to be accepted by God on the basis of your performance. Come to him, filthy and broken, and plead Jesus Christ, because Jesus wants worthless people.
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to the cross I cling
Naked, come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace
Foul, I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Savior, or I die!