24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28 But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29 Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
Little children and puppy dogs. Today the calendar industry capitalizes on pictures of these adorable subjects. We coo over them and the innocence they represent.
In the first century, however, life was different. Dogs were not pets. They were not even work animals. They were scavengers who fed on scraps and filth (cf. Luke 16:19-31).
Some historians have sought to portray children from this period in a similar light. French historian Philippe Aries makes the case that childhood as a concept, particularly one that inspires affection, did not exist until after the Renaissance. Others have since nuanced this claim, pointing to a culture of childhood in the first century, including affection for children as children and not for any good they could produce.
Nevertheless, the period of childhood was not treated as sacrosanct in first century Palestine (or anywhere in antiquity) in the manner that many families in the West now seek to preserve. Children were a loved and valued part of the family, but they were also a functional part of the family. They were valued for who they were and for the work that they produced and the future that they represented.
However, children in first century Palestine were also extremely vulnerable. Due to malnourishment and disease, child mortality rates were particularly high. Work was difficult and, particularly in the lower classes, food could often be scarce. Parents and other family and community members thus saw it in their best interests to protect their children.
Dogs, on the other hand, were fierce. They fought for their scraps and survived on their own resilience.
The juxtaposition of these two groups by Mark is, therefore, striking.
Little children and dogs. One treasured, yet susceptible. The other scorned, yet irrepressible. The picture the Syrophoenician mother paints (Mark 7:28) is not of small children playfully sharing with their pets but rather of ravenous animals snatching up what their youthful imprecision causes them to drop.
Jesus rewards her, therefore, not with the “leftovers” of the Jewish children, but rather, for her tenacity in defending the child whom she treasures. The same tenacity, perhaps, with which God defends the Israelites and through them the Gentiles, by becoming incarnate in Jesus in the first place (cf. John 3:16).
There are geographical and gender politics at play, of course, in this interchange between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man. But, often neglected, are these household politics at play—causing a mother to fight for her daughter just as surely as our (heavenly) Father to fight for His children.
In neither case is it clean, convivial, or cheerful. These are not the images of picture books or calendars. But they are the images of salvation. They point to God’s irrepressible impulse to go out into the world, through the streets, and under the tables to seek good for us children and free us from the demons that have entrapped us.
What are these demons today? The list is inexhaustible. But, in the spirit of the “little daughter” in Mark 7:25, perhaps we might start by considering those children who, for whatever reason, don’t make it on the calendars and picture campaigns purported to feed the starving children (perhaps on account of their age, their gender, their geographical location, or the fact that they simply aren’t deemed “cute” enough). Let us consider those children who in our own neighborhoods either have no bed on which to lie or no parent to fight for them. Those children victimized by human trafficking, drug trafficking, police brutality, gangs, and more.
For all these children and so many more, the Jesus of Mark’s text commands us to “Go!” (7:29)—to speak out, to plead their case, to fight for them, and not to take no for an answer.