The Story of the Reluctant Doctor
Once upon a time there was a doctor of medicine. This doctor was somewhat controversial, in that, though his patients were cured, he used extremely unconventional, even odd ways to cure them – he also had a bit of a mouth on him. He tended to offend people when he spoke, to the point where the city officials and other doctors began to dislike him. At one point he said some things so offensive that they chased him out of town. He left and went all the way to the border, stepped across, taking his staff and his special medicines with him.
He found a house to stay in, but he knew he wasn’t supposed to practice medicine in another country, so he sat in the home, teaching his medical students. One day there was a knock at the door.
A young woman had heard that he had come to their country and was desperate to find him. She had a very sick little daughter who needed him. She’d tried all the doctors of her country and no one could help, but she had heard of this man’s amazing ways and was desperate for him to come and try.
She banged on the door, yelling for him to come out. “Please, I need you help! My daughter is very sick.” The doctor heard from the inside – and did nothing. She kept banging on the door. She looked through windows and saw that he was there – and when they met eyes, he got up and moved to a different room. She wouldn’t relent. She knew that he was her last hope.
She banged on the door even harder, wailing and weeping, calling for the doctor to come and help.
The doctor got up silently, looked at his medical students, and walked out the back door. He had decided to go home. The woman didn’t see him leave, but when she looked through all the windows in the house, she realized it was deserted, and began to run down the road in the hopes of catching him.
Finally, she saw him on the horizon and called out, “Please, help me!” She ran with all her might to catch him, and threw herself down at His feet so he couldn’t take another step. Panting and out of breath, she coughed out the words, “Please… please help me. You’re the only one that can heal my daughter.”
The medical students had had enough. Some were sick of her noise, others were moved to compassion, but they all began to ask the doctor to help the woman’s daughter so she would stop crying and leave them.
The doctor looked down at the woman at his feet, and said, “Why should I help a dog like you? You’re not even from my country. I am saving my medicine to use on my people first.”
She replied, “I may be a dog… but even dogs get to eat scraps from the table. All I’m asking for are some scraps.”
The doctor laughed out loud, lifted the woman from her feet, dug into his medical bag, pulled out a vial of medicine, and handed it to the woman, saying, “You’re right. Here’s the cure to your daughter’s sickness.” She thanked him and they parted ways.
What would you say about that doctor? Is he a good one? Would you call him compassionate? Kind? Loving? Helpful? What words would you have for this man? What do you think Jesus would say to him about his actions?
Jesus is The Reluctant Doctor
“ And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.  But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet.  Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  And he said 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.’  But she answered him, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’  And he said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.’  And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.” (Mark 7:24-37)
Does it surprise you that the doctor from the story is Jesus? This is such a difficult to understand passage to understand, isn’t it? Why would Jesus do that? Why would He say those things? Why did He treat the woman that way? Before we start thinking we know better than Jesus how to handle His affairs, let’s go through the text together and see what’s going on.
Jesus Among the Gentiles
In verse 24 we learn that Jesus leaves His homeland and walks to the border, and beyond, into the gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon. Remember, he’s just had a massive confrontation with the Pharisees about the hypocrisy of their hearts, and, perhaps, that was a good time for a little trip to let things cool off.
When Jesus gets there, He finds a house and though He doesn’t want anyone to know about His presence, even there His fame precedes Him. His plan wasn’t to spend a lot of time ministering to the Gentiles because, He knew He was, first and foremost, “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24).
The Syrophoenician Woman
In verses 25-26 we see the plot thicken. We don’t know how she heard of Him, but we do know that when someone we love gets sick, we all keep our ears open for any chance of helping them, don’t we? This mother was desperately searching for someone who could help her daughter, when she heard that Jesus – the famous Jewish healer, the one who claimed to be the Son of God, the Messiah – was near her.
By now, Jesus and the disciples are used to random, desperate people interrupting Jesus everywhere He goes to ask for help and healing. This story is special because of where it takes place. Mark makes the point to his readers that this woman wasn’t a Jew, she was a Gentile.
The question in the minds of all who would read this for the first time would be: What would Jesus do? How would He react to a gentile in a gentile land? He’s already shown He was willing to interact with Romans who had faith, but they were on Jewish soil. He even talked to Samaritans – but they were a people who held to a form of Judaism. This interaction would be totally different. This is a full-blooded gentile, woman from Syria.
Matthew’s account ups the stakes a bit by reminding his readers that she wasn’t just a gentile, but was, in fact, born and lived among the “Canaanites”, meaning she wasn’t just a gentile, but was from a nation that was an enemy of the Jews, a people that Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to wipe out, but didn’t. Their existence was a mistake and caused trouble for the Jewish people. What would Jesus do with her?
Her reaction to Jesus is surprising. She falls before Jesus, prostrate in grief and reverence. She worships Him. Matthew expands Mark’s telling of what says saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” This was a woman of faith among the Gentiles. She knew who she had come to see. She knew Jesus by reputation, and had worked out that Jesus wasn’t just another miracle worker, but was the Messiah of the Jews. She calls Him “Lord”, submitting herself to Him, and begs for his help.
A Strange Response
Verse 27 is where things go strange. Remember, Mark’s Gospel are the recordings of the sermons and stories of the Apostle Peter, and they are always written in a more action packed way, written to a Gentile audience, skipping some of the details to get right to the heart of the matter. Matthew, on the other hand, gives his Jewish readers a bit more context and a bit more detail so they can see the story in a way that is more meaningful to them.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does something before he answers her. It says, “But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” (Matthew 15:23)
Consider the implications here. This hurting woman came to his door, begging for help, crying and weeping outside the house in which Jesus sat – and for a while He did… nothing. If you extrapolate from the different versions of this story in the Gospels, we see that Jesus not only ignored her, but in fact, left the house without talking to her. He basically snuck out the back door and she caught Him as He was trying to get away. He was heading home when she came crying behind him.
Even more strangely, Jesus didn’t automatically turn to her out of compassion – as we read about Him doing so many times in other parts of scripture – but it was Jesus’ disciples that seem to convince Him to deal with her.
The question is: Why? Why would Jesus do that? Why would He say those things? Why did He treat the woman that way? Let me give you a couple reasons:
First, this is not so much a miracle story, as it is a teaching story. Jesus doesn’t jump straight to the miracle because He needs to teach His followers something. His intention is to open the eyes of His followers to see the pain of the gentiles. He wants them to begin to understand His heart for the lost, hurting, demonized people that exist everywhere in the world – not just among the Jews. In that moment, Jesus was using that woman to test and expand the disciples hearts.
How? This woman is a representative of all gentiles. She is hurting, broken, demonized, in need of help from God. The question was, “Did the Jewish disciples really care?” and the answer was “No.” See how long it took for them to act. They, like most Jews of the time, thought, “Let them rot in their pagan ways. God has forsaken them, and so shall we.”
But Jesus brings His disciples face to face with an actual gentile woman, that had an actual need, and who desperately wanted help from the God of the Jews – and He waits for them to react. He wants their heart to break like His does. I don’t want to extrapolate from what’s not there, but I would imagine that this teaching time was hard on Jesus. Of course, His instinct would be to heal the daughter of a woman that had faith in Him for help – but there was a bigger plan in place, a bigger lesson to be learned.
It takes the disciples much longer than it should for them to come to Jesus to ask for the healing of this foreigner. She has to cry out, over and over and over, finally falling down in front of them so they can’t take another step, before they begin to feel her plight and start to petition Jesus on her behalf. It says, “…his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’”
For some, it was done out of pity, for others exasperation, but what Jesus wanted them to learn was finally learned. They finally looked at Him and said, “Lord, just do something for this poor woman! It doesn’t matter that she’s a gentile. It doesn’t matter that’s she’s different. It doesn’t matter the history between us. Can’t you see her pain? You must do something. Deal with her. Show her mercy. Give her the grace you’ve given us. Please!”
A Heart for Evangelism
Jesus does for the disciples what He must do to us too. Brings them face to face with lost people. The Salvation Army had a brilliant campaign a while back called” We See What Most Don’t” They see it because they are looking. Jesus needs to teach us to look.
Our heart will not hurt for people only unless we actually get to know people. Our passion for evangelism and missions work will only happen when our hearts break for the lost. And as long as we sit quietly and comfortably, not knowing them, not seeing them, not caring, it’s very easy to forget about them. And as long as we couldn’t care less about them, as long as our hearts remain unmoved, we are never going listen to their cries or share our hope with them.
Most of us will never go to where the hurting and lost people are. We will never bring ourselves there because it is uncomfortable and frightening, and because we have prejudice in our heart. We, like the disciples will never go to where they are – so what does Jesus do? He brings His disciples there. He forces them to go out of there way, out of their comfort zone, out of their country, to be around people the don’t know and don’t understand. Why? So they can actually see, feel, hear and touch, the broken hearted that before, they couldn’t care less about.
Most of us will never listen to the lost. We write them off, ignore them, chastise them, drop tracts off on restaurant tables, argue with them – but how many of us truly listen to them? The disciples couldn’t hear that poor woman. She banged on the door, she pleaded, she ran after them, she dropped at their feet, begging for them to bring her to Jesus – and they didn’t hear. Their prejudice, racism, discrimination, intolerance, preconception, and bigotry made them outright refuse to have anything to do with this broken hearted woman. How long did Jesus have to let her cry before they could actually hear her? How long did the disciples have to stare at her tear-stained face before their hearts were moved?
Not only did Jesus have to bring them to where the hurting and lost were, but he also had to let her suffer right in front of them for a long time, before their hard hearts started to crack.
Most of us don’t go to the lost. Most of us don’t listen to the lost. And most of us don’t act on their behalf. How long did Jesus have to wait before someone stood up on behalf of the hurting woman? The disciples, perhaps like many of us, assume someone else would do it. If Jesus wants to save her, let Him – I don’t want anything to do with her. If Jesus wants to deal with those kinds of people, let Him – I’m staying out of it. If Jesus wants to get involved with someone as messed up and troubled as this, let Him – I’ve got better things to do.
Jesus tells us to go to the hurting and lost, listen to them, help them , and plead for their needs and souls. But just like the disciples – many of us don’t.
The task Jesus gave to the disciples, and to us, in in Acts 1:8 was to be “[His] witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But that won’t happen unless our heart breaks for the hurting, broken, demonized and lost first. God knows we won’t get involved unless we feel it. We must begin to ask God to give us His heart for the broken and lost – even if it requires us to leave our comfort in order to get to those people.
I was convicted about this in my own life as I read the words of Charles Spurgeon this week who, though he pastored thousands of people, led dozens of ministries, wrote prolifically, and suffered from great bouts of sickness and depression, still agonized over lost and hurting people. “He was consumed with the glory of God and the salvation of men.”
He once said:
“I remember, when I have preached at different times in the country, and sometimes here, that my whole soul has agonized over men, every nerve of my body has been strained and I could have wept my very being out of my eyes and carried my whole frame away in a flood of tears, if I could but win souls.” ()
Neither was Spurgeon ever satisfied with the amount of people that were saved under his ministry. “The year he turned 40 he delivered a message to his pastor’s and teacher’s conference with a one-word title, ‘Forward!’. In it he said,
‘It is all very well to write essays, but what souls have you been the means of saving from going down to hell? Your excellent management of your school interests me, but how many children have been brought into the church by it? We are glad to hear of those special meetings, but how many have really been born to God in them? Are saints edified? Are sinners converted? To swing to and fro on a five-barred gate, is not progress; yet some seem to think that it is. I see them in a kind of perpetual Elysium, humming over to themselves and their friends, ‘We are very comfortable.’ God save us from living in comfort while sinners are sinking into hell! …. In every minister’s life there should be traces of stern labour. Brethren, do something; do something; DO SOMETHING. While Committees waste their time over resolutions, do something. While Societies and Unions are making constitutions, let us win souls. Too often we discuss, and discuss, and discuss, while Satan only laughs in his sleeve, … I pray you, be men of action all of you. Get to work and quit yourselves like men… Our one aim is to save sinners, and this we are not merely to talk about, but to effect in the power of God.” (From Desiring God and Spurgeon)
I admit that I have never felt about the lost the way that Spurgeon felt… and that is a shame to me, and it isn’t right. And I have sought God’s forgiveness for it. We must pray that God gives HIS a heart for the lost, just as Jesus tried to do for the disciples.
A Test of Faith
Jesus’ words and actions in Mark 7:27 obviously have meaning to the woman too. He said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” That sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? “Dogs” was a common name that Jews would call Gentiles, and the gentiles knew it.
The meaning of what Jesus is saying is that the Jews took precedence over the gentiles during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He came for them first, just like in a family, the children get fed before the dogs do. The children are the Jews, you and I and all the gentiles, are the dogs. Paul repeated this in Romans 1:16 when he said that the Gospel was “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile”. If it makes you feel better, some translations will use the word “puppies”, implying a house pet rather than a dirty, scavenging, street-dog. Not much better though, is it?
The harshness of Jesus words were not an accident, nor were they racist. This is the second reason Jesus said what he did: His words were a test the woman’s faith in God, understanding of who Jesus is, and her place in the Kingdom of God. It was a short, but very meaningful conversation.
Our problem though is that sometimes Jesus’ claims, words, and plans cause us to rankle. His words are not comfortable, not politically correct, and go against our human wisdom. He annoys us with His exclusivity – why can’t He be more open minded? He frustrates us with His timeline – why can’t He be quicker? He says things, and tell us to say things, that get us into trouble – why can’t He just let us fly under the radar? He tells us to do things we don’t want to do – why won’t He just let me do things my way?
That’s all true – but the answer is: He’s Jesus, we’re Not. God is God, and I am not. His question is, “Even if you don’t agree with me, even if you don’t like it, even if you think you’re way is better, how will we respond to what I’m saying? Faith, fight or flight?
Her response in Verse 28 is what our response should be when Jesus says something difficult to us. What would you have done? Honestly? Called Him a sexist jerk? Walked away saying, “Well, if you’re going to be like that I don’t want your help!”? Lodged a formal complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission? Sued him for slander?
What does she do? She doesn’t argue, but instead, response with humility. She actually accepts her place as a gentile, second to the Jews. She humbles herself, calling Him Lord and herself a “dog”… but yet keeps asking for help.
That’s the kind of relationship that God desires we have with Him – and it causes us no end of frustration, because it means that we have to admit that He is Lord, and we’re a dog that is begging for scraps. It means we have to admit that we don’t deserve His grace. It means we have to humble ourselves before Him, prostrate on the ground– and yet stay persistent in prayer, asking for His help, because He’s the only one who can. We want to manipulate Him, force Him, make Him explain Himself – but we can’t. He’s God, we’re not.
We don’t turn away from Him, but keep knocking on His door, asking for salvation, asking for mercy, asking for a miracle because He’s the only one that can do it. There is nowhere else to turn!
Can you pray that prayer? “Yes, Jesus I know I don’t deserve to have you around me. I know you don’t belong here because you are holy and I am not. But I also know that You are good. I know I don’t deserve it, but I also know you are merciful, and I need your help. “
That kind of humility, the admission that we are dogs, sinners, undeserving, barely worthy of the crumbs off a Jewish family’s table, goes against our nature –even as Christians. We’re so used to the Bible verses that tell us we are loved, chosen, desired, predestined, children of God… but we must, must, must remember where we started. Our ancestors rejected God, God’s people, God’s law, and God’s prophets. We rejected Jesus when He came to earth – most of us to ignorant to care, others had ancestors that were involved in His crucifixion. We who sit here today belonged outside of God’s people – but God invited us inside. We deserved nothing, He offered us eternal life.
In the account in Matthew it says that when she caught up to him, she fell at his feet and said three words, “Lord, Help me.” Similar words were spoken by the tax collector who refused to look up to pray, but looked down low, beat his chest and said, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) Words like these were spoken by Isaiah who looked at the holiness of God and said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5) These are the words of Peter who saw the glory of Jesus and fell down before Jesus saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8)
It is that kind of heart that Jesus wants, that Jesus saves, that moves God’s hand.
In verses 29-30 we see Jesus’ response to her humility. He commends her for her humility and works the miracle she has asked for. She goes home to a healed child, and Jesus heads back home.
This is a difficult to understand story at first, and a difficult interaction for us to read – because of the pain of the woman, the hard hearts of the disciples, the patience of Jesus watching her suffer and waiting to help her – but hopefully we see that God used this moment in time for so much good. It’s hard watch God allowing someone to suffer, isn’t it?
Sometimes our troubles seem to make no sense to us. We ask the same questions that woman must have asked: Why would God allow this child to be demonized? Why would God allow one of our loved ones to suffer? Why would she have to travel so far to meet Jesus? Why doesn’t God just come to us where we’re at, instead of making us come to Him? Why would Jesus walk away from her, make her chase Him down the road, weeping after Him, insult her when she finally catches up, embarrass her in front of the disciples, and then test her resolve, when all she wanted was to have her baby back? Why does God put us through so much trial and trouble?
I can’t answer that question for your situation, but hopefully this story helps us to be able to trust that God knows what He’s doing.
This woman was put through all that trouble:
- So a group of disciples would learn compassion and be affected by her plight – and the plight of all lost souls and hurting people. It allowed them to understand a portion of Jesus’ heart for the hurting and the lost, something they didn’t have before. Because of her suffering many, many more people would be saved through the compassion of those same disciples.
- To show the disciples, and all believers that would read the Gospels, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not bound by borders and race. God’s plan for salvation would expand far beyond the small land of Judea, and our small corner of the world. Because of this woman’s journey, and her daughter’s suffering, we can learn that God detests racism and that His love is all-encompassing.
- She had to wait for so long, and go through so much to get His attention, so that the testimony of her humility would be an example to all people for all time for how we are to pray and keep praying. Her persistence in asking, seeking and knocking (Matthew 7:7) would be an example to all believers in their prayer life.
- Her tears were not wasted, nor was her daughter’s pain. Through it Jesus’ was able to show His power over demons, demonstrate His ability to heal over great distances, increase the woman’s faith, and deepen the disciples understanding of who Jesus was.
- And through her story, condemnation was brought upon the sins of the Jewish Religious experts, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Elders, and Scribes who claimed to know God, but didn’t understand Jesus 1/100 as well as this gentile mother did.