Monday, January 09, 2006

The Story Behind the Story

For some time now I’ve had the pleasure of working with a small group of Biblical storytellers at my home church. We get together every other week to swap stories and learn more about the storyteller’s art. One of the things we do when preparing to tell a story from the Bible is research the story behind the story. Knowing the history of the people involved can greatly enhance our understanding of the Scriptures. Tonight we were looking at the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman found in Mark chapter 7. After everyone left, it occurred to me that some of you might find the tale of interest as well, so - here goes.

Let’s start with the story found in the Bible....

From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden. For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
And she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.”
Then He said to her, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed. (Mark 7:24-30 New King James Version)

It is hard for us to fully appreciate what a remarkable story this is. To do so requires some understanding of the relationship between the Syrians and the Israelites at the time. The relationship has its basis in the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes recorded in 2nd Maccabees chapters 6 & 7. The events took place about a century and a half before Jesus lifetime, but they were still quite vivid in the cultural memory of the people.

Most poignant among the stories of this period is the martyrdom of seven brothers who were arrested and publicly tortured to death for refusing to eat pork. I’ll leave it to the interested reader to seek out the entire story, but Ill give you the long and short of it here. It’s a gruesome story, so the squeamish among you may want to skip to the end of the next paragraph, but if you do, the impact will be lost.

When they were arrested Antiochus required the family to eat pork in order to preserve their lives. One of the sons, acting as spokesman for the family, said to the tyrant, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we would rather die than transgress the laws of our fathers.” For his faithfulness to the Law of Moses the spokesman had his tongue cut out, his hands and feet cut off, his head scalped to the bone and his brothers and mother were forced to watch as he was taken to a fire and fried alive in a large iron pan. This process was repeated with each of the other six brothers, the rest of the family encouraging each one to die nobly, trusting in God and the hope of the resurrection. Finally the mother too, was tortured and executed in like manner. The family became an inspiration to all of Israel as they continued to seek release from their oppressors.

Though eventually freed from the oppression of Antiochus by the Romans, the Jews maintained a hatred and distrust of the Syrians; not unlike, I imagine, the feelings modern Jews have for the Nazis and the Third Reich. So for Jesus to travel to Tyre and Sidon to begin with would have been regarded as controversial by most, traitorous by some. No doubt this was one of the reasons he sought to keep his visit quiet (vs 24).

But, as shocking as Jesus going to the region would have been, to have a Syrian, even a half-breed Syrian such as this woman, humble themselves at the feet of a Jew would have been unthinkable! These people just didn’t do such things. Syrians only regarded Jews with contempt. Their pride and arrogance would never let them take notice of a Jew for any longer than it took to spit in their direction. So what was this woman up to? She had to be faking this show of humility in an effort to get this prophet to heal her daughter.

At least, I’m sure that’s what Mark’s Jewish readers would have been thinking. The question is: Is that what Jesus was thinking? Because his next words seem out of character for the Son of Man.

“Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” (vs 27)

He calls her a dog!, and to her face no less. He did not speak to the woman at the well this way, or to the Roman centurion. Was he testing the sincerity of this Syro-Phoenician’s humility? I think so; no other explanation makes sense. And how would the Israelites of the first century expect a Syrian to respond to such an insult? Would her pride over-rule her concern for her daughter? Would she get up and storm out in a fit of racial arrogance?

“Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” (vs 29)

No. She swallows her pride and accepts the title. Then she argues her case from the dog’s position of status, asking this Jewish prophet to throw her a crumb and drive the demon from her daughter. Two hundred years of racial bigotry and hatred are thrown out the window as one woman sees only her daughter’s need and recognizing true Godly power, cares not who’s hand wields it.

Jesus now knows this woman has truly humbled herself. Even in public, in front of witnesses, Syrian and Jew alike, she comes to Christ with true humility in her heart. Once again a Gentile responds to Jesus in ways His own people cannot bring themselves to do.

How many of us need to learn the lesson this woman has to teach us? How many of us can see the solution to our needs, our problems, our challenges, but fail to take advantage of that solution because of our prejudices? We don’t like the person who can help us, for whatever reason, so we will continue to suffer rather than swallow our pride and ask for help. We endure in silence because the solution requires we admit that we were wrong about someone or something.

From another perspective... how many refuse to accept Jesus’ offer of healing because of something someone has done to them in the past? Most importantly, is something we have done keeping someone else out of the kingdom?

Prejudice comes in many disguises. I hope and pray we will all learn to set them aside, humble ourselves at the feet of Christ, and allow Him to drive our demons away as well.

1 comment:

Margaret Jones said...

Hi Dennis,
Wow, a very informative and thought-provoking piece that increases my understanding of the story. Thanks!
In my own life, God used a very poignant moment several years ago to humble me and open my eyes to the "unlikeliness" of someone He chose to help me.
At the time our daughter Kate who is mentally handicapped was hitting puberty, and for us with her hormones raging but no verbal skills to speak of or understanding of the chemicals changes in her body, she was lashing out aggressively and sometimes uncontrollably several times a day or week. It was a dark time indeed for her Dad and brother and I...spiritual warfare on steroids, I think! In the midst of this, I agreed to visit with a friend of ours who is also mildly mentally handicapped...a very simple woman my age who had clung to us and "adopted" us as her family...her own family had more or less abandoned her. She insisted I come for lunch to visit her in her simple apartment. I barely had time or energy but agreed to come to be polite. She opened a can of tomato soup and served it at her tiny table and chairs in her tiny kitchenette. I confessed to her that things were really tough with Kate, so she said grace, praying for all the people in the world who don't have enough and thankful for what she had. She also prayed for each member of our family by name, and I was so touched that I was in tears by the time she was done. she said,
" I'll help you with Kate! I can teach her things because I have struggled to learn too!" And that is exactly what she did. In the months that followed, she helped Kate learn bus skills and other things that I didn't have time/patience/energy to teach her. What a great lesson in receiving God's provision from, at times the most surprising people or places. I was truly humbled!