Deacon Bob Evans
Jesus’ Encounter with Woman in Tyre -2
Updated: Jun 10, 2019
As I pointed out in my previous post, both Matthew and Mark tell us that, following their celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus had His disciples return to Capernaum via a Mediterranean coast route through the region of Tyre [Mt 15:21; Mk 7:24]. In my previous post about Matthew’s account of the encounter [see Matthew 15:21-28], I provided some background on the ancient city of Tyre as well as some thoughts on why Jesus would have had them go to Tyre.
Both Matthew and Mark place their account of the encounter in Tyre right after their account of a confrontation by Pharisees and scribes with Jesus, in the Temple in Jerusalem, over the observance of ritual purity, especially regarding food. Matthew treated that confrontation as a prelude to Jesus’ opening His ministry to include Gentiles. However, Mark used that confrontation, followed by the encounter in Tyre, as part of a larger teaching lesson. I also noted in my previous post that, in Middle Eastern storytelling, the “message” was not primarily in the plot but in the details used to tell the story. So, let’s pay close attention to the details Mark used in his telling of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Tyre.
From that place, he went off to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
The First Detail
“He (Jesus) entered a house and wanted no one to know about it.” Unlike Matthew’s account, Mark gave us a strong hint as to why they went to Tyre: Jesus was seeking respite by distancing them from crowds and people who might recognize them by going into predominantly Gentile territory. Since Jesus and His disciples were devout Jews, the house had to have been one of the few in Tyre that was a Jewish home, because there was a prohibition against Jews entering the house of a Gentile [see, for example, Acts 10:28]. This is an important observation that will become clearer shortly.
In Mark’s account, the encounter takes place in a house –
therefore, there is no public challenge to honor.
“but he could not escape notice. Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet.” In Mark’s account, the encounter takes place in a house – therefore there is no public challenge to honor (as there was in Matthew’s account). Consequently, in Mark’s account, there was no calling out in a crowd by the woman, no initially ignoring her, no exchange between Jesus and His disciples about her – she came directly to Jesus and fell at his feet.
This is very important for us to notice: details that Matthew used in his account, Mark has not included. Why? We are observing an important principle of ancient Middle Eastern storytelling. Their storytelling was a partnership exchange: the speaker/writer was responsible for conveying the lesson; it was the responsibility of the listeners to discern the lesson. Since the lesson was conveyed in the details used to tell the story, details from the actual event were omitted if they did not relate to the lesson, or they could be altered to support the lesson. (1)
The two evangelists’ accounts of the same event differ, not because one or the other didn’t “get the story quite right;” but because they were teaching different lessons using the same event as the setting. Consequently, they followed the well-established practice of their times to only use details that supported the lesson and they left out the rest.
The two evangelists’ accounts of the same event differ, not because one or the other didn’t “get the story quite right;” but because they were teaching different lessons using the same event as the setting.
Although Jews could not enter the house of a Gentile, there was no prohibition against having a Gentile in a Jew’s home because hospitality to strangers was central to Jewish culture. There was an ancient Jewish saying, derived from Deuteronomy 10: 19, that went: “A stranger at your door is a guest sent by God.” Upon hearing about Jesus, the woman knew she could approach Him, even in someone else’s home. In Mark’s account, there was none of the initial “arms-length” exchanges between Jesus and the woman, as had been recounted by Matthew. The woman approached in full trust.
“The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.” Mark identifies her as a pagan woman who lived in Syro-Phoenicia, where Tyre is located. So, all of the ethnic dynamics between Jews and Canaanites, present in Matthew’s account, are not in Mark’s account.
“she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.” In Mark’s account, it was clear that the woman earnestly sought Jesus’ help. Even though she was a pagan in a pagan land she recognized Jesus for who He was when those around Him did not or were still uncertain.
She recognized Jesus for who He was when those around Him did not or were still uncertain.
This appears to have been an important point Mark wished to make to his predominantly Jewish community, which was surrounded by paganism. Prior to this, in Mark’s Gospel, only demons recognized who Jesus really was [see Mark 1:21-28; Mark 5:1-20], now it’s a pagan woman in a pagan land.
Yet, His own people do not yet recognize their Messiah, and His disciples weren’t really sure about Him either. It would be another year of being with Jesus before one of His apostles acknowledged on the road to Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Messiah, “Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘You are the Messiah’” [Mark 8:29b].
“He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’” We are hearing almost the same wording as in Matthew’s account; with one very important difference. Mark has included: “Let the children be fed first,” making the point that while the Jews were first in God’s plan, the Gentiles would not be left out [cf. Romans 9:4].
Up to this point, Mark had stressed that Jesus knew people’s hearts and responded accordingly [cf. Mark 2:8; 3:3]. So, the statement: “For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” has to be interpreted differently than in Matthew’s account. In Mark’s account, the woman is not identified as being of a cursed people (Canaanites). There’s no pushback on Jesus’ part. So, we need more details in order to discern why Mark included this phrase.
The very first people who should have recognized Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, were the scripture-conversant Pharisees and scribes.
One point we note is that Mark’s retaining the subject of handling food appears to be tying this encounter back to the previous confrontation by Pharisees and scribes over ritual purity associated with handling food. (2) The very first people who should have recognized Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, were the scripture-conversant Pharisees and scribes. Yet, they not only didn’t recognize Him, they rejected Him. [Mark 7:1-23] Certainly, after having spent more than a year in Jesus’ company, His disciples should have recognized Him for who He is, but they were uncertain.
“She replied and said to him, ‘Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’” In this detail, Mark makes it clear that this unnamed pagan woman, in a pagan land, recognizes Jesus for who He is by having her be the very first person in his Gospel to address Jesus as “Lord.”
So, Mark appears to have used this exchange, for the sake of his Jewish listeners,
Jesus: “For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
And, the woman: “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps” as a kind of “verbal tussle” between God and a human being. This “tussle” would remind Jews of Jacob’s wrestling with God at Penuel until God blessed him and changed his name to Israel [cf. Genesis 32:23-33]. (The name, Israel, means “one who wrestles with God.”) Both Jacob and this woman knew it was God they were tussling with and from whom they were seeking His kindness.
There’s an important line in the Genesis description of Jacob’s tussle with God, “Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’” [Gen 32:27b]. This woman would not let Jesus go until He blessed her with what she needed. By having the woman “emulate” Jacob, Mark relates to his Jewish listeners why this woman would be among the “children” who were fed first, in spite of her being a pagan.
At this point, you might be asking, “Are we not ‘reading into’ the text more than is there? for Mark made no direct mention of Jacob or the event at Penuel.” The answer is “Yes, that’s how ancient Middle Eastern storytelling worked.” Their storytellers relied on the listeners “reading into” what they heard insights drawn from their own culture, traditions and history in order to discern the un-stated message or lesson in the story.
Ancient Middle Eastern storytellers relied on the listeners “reading into” what they heard insights drawn from their own culture, traditions and history in order to discern the un-stated message or lesson in the story.
The Final Detail
“Then he (Jesus) said to her, ‘For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.’ When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.” In Matthew’s account, Jesus commended the woman for her faith: “O woman, great is your faith.” But, in Mark’s account, she is commended for what she said. So, the verbal tussle is what convinced Jesus; for God honors fervor and has little regard for petitions that are half-hearted, lukewarm, or lacking in the conviction that He will respond to one’s need (cf. Revelation 3:16).
Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Tyre taught his listeners an important lesson about the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah – something many Jews of Mark’s time struggled with, and some do to this day.
We should recognize that there were some mitigating factors. Many first-century Jews were not entirely closed-minded, they were very confused. During the nearly one thousand years between God's promise to David and the birth of Christ, the Israelites' vision of what their Messiah was to inaugurate evolved into something quite different than what God had intended. By Jesus' time, they were expecting a kingdom that would rule forever over the world as they knew it, much as they had in David's day. Oppression by the Romans or any other power would be gone forever, in a sudden flash of God's power. When Jesus did not appear to be doing what they expected, many were confused and unsure. Sadly, some angrily rejected Him.
Mark presents this woman in Tyre, who (under the most unlikely circumstances) recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God, and does it at a time in His ministry when those around Him did not. And, she engages Jesus in a manner similar to their venerated ancestor, their namesake: Israel (Jacob). Clearly, Mark intended for his community to realize that all who recognize Jesus for who He is were to be welcomed as “sisters and brothers in Christ.” This was certainly a big issue in many of the communities Paul encountered in his travels. (3) We learn from the Acts of the Apostles that Mark was with Paul on his First Missionary Journey; this was at least twenty years before Mark wrote his Gospel.
There’s More For Us, Much More
As we learn to listen to Bible passages with a “Middle Eastern ear,” it’s easy for us Westerners to become so absorbed in following the details used to tell the story that we overlook an essential truth. The Gospel accounts are more than just ancient Middle Eastern writings. They are part of the Bible, the word of God. In the Bible, God speaks to His people through the words, imagery and stories recounted by the inspired scripture authors. So, there is a timeless lesson for all of us in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Tyre that we need to discern.
God speaks to His people through the words, imagery and stories recounted by the inspired scripture authors.
There’s no way of proving, with any kind of logic or philosophical argument, that the Bible is in fact the word of God, yet it is what we believe. Indeed, it is something we must believe, or we will be unable to “hear” God speaking to us in the Bible. If we come to Gospel passages merely seeking an observer’s knowledge of Jesus, we will never truly know Him. If we really want to know Jesus, we must love Him, not just regard Him as a wise person who did loving things in a far-off land long ago.
How do the lessons conveyed in the two accounts of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Tyre apply to our lives?
At some point, we must make a leap of faith and “enter into” the biblical words before they will fully speak to us. How do the lessons conveyed in the two accounts of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Tyre apply to our lives? What is God asking of us in the circumstances He has placed us in? Are we really as accepting of others as we should be? Do we recognize Jesus when those around us do not? Our response is particular and special to each one of us.
‘Till next time.
Dcn. Bob Evans
June 9, 2019
1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 1983.
2. M. Healy, The Gospel of Mark, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 2008, p. 143.
3. T.A. Burkill, “The Historical Development of the Story of the Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7:24-31),” Novum Testamentum (July 1967), pp. 161-177.
If you’d like to learn more about how the ancient Jewish expectations of their Messiah influenced many of Jesus’ encounters during His public ministry, I invite you to listed to an audio of the First Chapter of my book, Walking the Parables of Jesus, at http://enroutebooksandmedia.com/walkingtheparables/
Scripture References: Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30; Acts 10:28; Deuteronomy 10: 19; Mark 1:21-28; Mark 5:1-20; Mark 8:29b; Mark 2:8; Mark 3:3; Mark 7:1-23; Genesis 32:23-33; Revelation 3:16