THE FORECAST OF A WORLD FOR CHRIST
He left there and went away into the regions of Tyre and Sidon. He went into a house and he did not wish anyone to know about it, but he could not be there without people knowing about it. When a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, she immediately came and threw herself at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. She asked him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “First of all you must let the children eat their fill; it is not right to take the bread that belongs to the children and to throw it to the dogs.” “True, sir,” she answered, “but even the dogs below the table eat some of the bits of bread that the children throw away.” He said to her, “Because of this word, go your way! The demon has come out of your daughter!” She went away and found the child thrown upon her bed and the demon gone.
When this incident is seen against its background, it becomes one of the most moving and extraordinary in the life of Jesus.
First, let us look at the geography of the incident. Tyre and Sidon were cities of Phoenicia, which was a part of Syria. Phoenicia stretched north from Carmel, right along the coastal plain. It lay between Galilee and the sea coast. Phoenicia indeed, as Josephus puts it, “encompassed Galilee.”
Tyre lay 40 miles north-west of Capernaum. Its name means The Rock. It was so called because off the shore lay two great rocks joined by a three-thousand-feet-long ridge. This formed a natural breakwater and Tyre was one of the great natural harbours of the world from the earliest times. Not only did the rocks form a breakwater, they also formed a defence; and Tyre was not only a famous harbour, she was also a famous fortress. It was from Tyre and Sidon that there came the first sailors who steered by the stars. Until men learned to find their way by the stars, ships had to hug the coast and to lay up by night; but the Phoenician sailors circumnavigated the Mediterranean and found their way through the Pillars of Hercules until they came to Britain and the tin mines of Cornwall. It may well be that in their adventuring they had even circumnavigated Africa.
Sidon was 26 miles north-east of Tyre and 60 miles north of Capernaum. Like Tyre it had a natural breakwater, and its origin as a harbour and a city was so ancient that no man knew who had founded it.
Although the Phoenician cities were part of Syria, they were all independent, and they were all rivals. They had their own kings, their own gods and their own coinage. Within a radius of 15 or 20 miles they were supreme. Outwardly they looked to the sea; inland they looked to Damascus; and the ships of the sea and the caravans of many lands flowed into them. In the end Sidon lost her trade and her greatness to Tyre and sank into a demoralised degeneracy. But the Phoenician sailors will always be famous as the men who first found their way by following the stars.
(i) So, then, the first tremendous thing which meets us is that Jesus is in Gentile territory. Is it any accident that this incident comes here? The previous incident shows Jesus wiping out the distinction between clean and unclean foods. Can it be that here, in symbol, we have him wiping out the difference between clean and unclean people? Just as the Jew would never soil his lips with forbidden foods, so he would never soil his life by contact with the unclean Gentile. It may well be that here Jesus is saying by implication that the Gentiles are not unclean but that they, too, have their place within the Kingdom.
Jesus must have come north to this region for temporary escape. In his own country he was under attack from every side. Long ago the scribes and Pharisees had branded him as a sinner because he broke through their rules and regulations. Herod regarded him as a menace. The people of Nazareth treated him with scandalized dislike. The hour would come when he would face his enemies with blazing defiance, but that was not yet. Before it came, he would seek the peace and quiet of seclusion, and in that withdrawal from the enmity of the Jews the foundation of the Kingdom of the Gentiles was laid. It is the forecast of the whole history of Christianity. The rejection of the Jews had become the opportunity of the Gentiles.
(ii) But there is more to it than that. Ideally these Phoenician cities were part of the realm of Israel. When, under Joshua, the land was being partitioned out, the tribe of Asher was allocated the land “as far as Sidon the Great…and to the fortified city of Tyre” (Josh.19:28-29). They had never been able to subdue their territory and they had never entered into it. Again is it not symbolic? Where the might of arms was helpless, the conquering love of Jesus Christ was victorious. The earthly Israel had failed to gather in the people of Phoenicia; now the true Israel had come upon them. It was not a strange land into which Jesus came; it was a land which long ago God had given him for his own. He was not so much coming amongst strangers as entering into his inheritance.
(iii) 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 dogs. At first it is an almost shocking saying.
The dog was not the well-loved guardian that it is to-day; more commonly it was a symbol of dishonour. 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 to-day. To the Jew it was equally a term of contempt. “Do not give dogs what is holy.” (Matt.7:6; compare Php.3:2; Rev.22:15.)
The word dog was in fact sometimes a Jewish term of contempt for the Gentiles. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi had a parable. He saw the blessings of God which the Gentiles enjoy; he asked, “If the Gentiles without the law enjoy blessings like that, how many more blessings will Israel, the people of God, enjoy?” “It is like a king who made a feast and brought in the guests and placed them at the door of his palace. They saw the dogs come out, with pheasants, and heads of fatted birds, and calves in their mouths. Then the guests began to say, `If it be thus with the dogs, how much more luxurious will the meal itself be.’ And the nations of the world are compared to dogs, as it is said (Isa.56:11), `The dogs have a mighty appetite’.”
No matter how you look at it, the term dog is an insult. How, then, are we to explain Jesus’ use of it here?
(a) He did not use the usual word; he used a diminutive word which described, not the wild dogs of the streets, but the little pet lap-dogs of the house. In Greek, diminutives are characteristically affectionate. Jesus took the sting out of the word.
(b) 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.
(c) 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.
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