“Even the Dogs Will Be Shown Mercy” (Mark 7:24-37)

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Personally, I don’t know many dog owners in Japan but I imagine they treat their dogs very well and feed them nutritious pet food. I read that, in the past, Japanese people used to feed their dogs leftover rice with miso soup. Many Malaysians still do that; they give leftover rice and other food. Another interesting fact about dogs in Malaysia is that they are considered unclean by the majority of Malaysia’s population, who are Muslim. If a dog’s saliva touches a Muslim person, they should cleanse themselves using a method prescribed by their religion.

So why am I mentioning this? Well, in my last sermon we talked about the theme of religious purity; while in today’s passage, dogs are mentioned. You’ll see the connection after we read the passage.

[Read Mark 7:24-37]

Both healing stories involve Gentiles

What these two stories have in common is they happen in Gentile territory and the healings happen to Gentiles.

Jewish people considered Gentiles—that is, non-Jews—to be unclean. We are not talking about cleanliness in terms of hygiene but in terms of religious purity.

In my sermon last month, I mentioned that Jews follow Old Testament laws, many of which are about keeping ritually clean. For example, Jews mustn’t eat pork or shrimp because it is considered unclean. But in the first half of Mark 7—just before today’s passage—Jesus declared all foods to be clean. And now, in today’s passage, Jesus interacts with Gentiles in a way that shows he accepts them; he doesn’t reject them like the Jews did.

God’s plan was to include Gentiles in his family, alongside the Jews. Even though the Old Testament prophesies God’s desire to include foreign nations, not all Jews in Jesus’ time were so receptive of the idea—especially since they lived under Roman occupation. I wonder if this is why Jesus seemed secretive in the two stories we just read; he didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to his presence in Gentile territory.

With that, let’s look in more detail at these two healings. I’ll spend more time on the Syrophoenician woman than on the deaf-mute man.

The faith of an outsider (7:24-30)

When the Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus for help, he replies, “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v27).

That just doesn’t sound good! Isn’t Jesus basically calling her a dog? Furthermore, Jews often used the word “dog” when referring to Gentiles, as a way to show contempt.

But in this case, Jesus didn’t use the usual Greek word for “dog.” Rather he used a word that sounds more like “little dog”—in Japanese it would be like saying wan-chan instead of inu. Still, I don’t think anyone wants to be called wan-chan!

So what is Jesus saying? Matthew’s version of this story gives us a clue. In the Gospel of Matthew 15:24, Jesus has an additional line: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, the “children” of Israel—that is, the Jews—are Jesus’ main focus. Unlike children in a family, pet dogs are also given food but dogs are not given the same rights and privileges as human children.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the woman said, “Who are you calling a dog?” and simply walked off.

But her response is remarkable. She agreed with Jesus: “Yes, Lord.” In Matthew’s version she even calls him “Lord, Son of David.” Despite not growing up in the Jewish faith, she acknowledges him as Messiah, King of the Jews. Her acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity comes even earlier than Peter’s.

And instead of arguing about being called a dog, she made use of Jesus’ metaphor in her plea: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words, she accepted her lower position as a Gentile from a Jewish perspective. And she expressed faith that God would not exclude even dogs from his mercy.

In reality, Jesus’ seemingly insulting words were a test of her faith. And she passed the test with flying colors. He said, “For such a reply, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

There is one other story in the Gospels where Jesus does long-distance healing: where he cures a Roman centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; John 4:46-54). In both these stories, the people asking for Jesus’ help were Gentiles and they showed remarkable faith in Jesus—a stark contrast to the lukewarm faith of many Jews.

Later, I want to say more about the Syrophoenician woman’s humility. But first, let me speak briefly about today’s second story: the deaf-mute man.

The Messiah breaks down racial walls (7:31-37)

Verse 35 talks about the man’s healing: “And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

The Greek word for “tongue” here is “mogilalon.” It’s a very rare word in the Bible and found only in this story and in Isaiah 35:5-6, which says:

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue (mogilalon) shout for joy.”

Isaiah talks about the arrival of the Messiah and the blessings that come with him. By using this word, Mark is implying again that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jews have been waiting for.

Jesus didn’t want the man to publicize this healing. But the fact that he went outside of Israel and healed Gentiles shows his intention to extend the kingdom of God beyond Israel. God intends to incorporate Gentiles into his family so that they can experience the full blessings of being his children (Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 3:6).

Until the coming of Jesus, Gentiles could be part of God’s people but only if they became Jewish converts. That meant changing their entire lifestyle, from their food to their moral behavior. In a way, the Old Testament ceremonial laws were a wall that hindered Gentiles from approaching the God of Israel.

But Jesus broke that wall down through his death, resurrection, ascension, and sending the Holy Spirit, who created a multi-ethnic Church. Membership in God’s family is open to all ethnicities. And becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you have to abandon your culture, your nationality. You are both Christian and Japanese. Christian and Chinese. Christian and African.

We affirm this truth every month in the Apostles’ Creed at IBF, which states, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church.” The English translation of the creed uses the term “holy catholic Church,” but here, catholic doesn’t refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Small-c catholic simply means universal, which signifies the universal nature of the gospel, meant for all, regardless of nationality or ethnicity.

The Syrophoenician mother models humility and persistence

Let me end this sermon by going back to the Syrophoenician woman. I think Mark and Matthew recorded her story because she showed the kind of attitude that receives high praise from Jesus. She came to Jesus with humility and persistence.

God is pleased when we approach him with humility. We acknowledge our sins; we recognize that we didn’t deserve to be adopted as his children. Yet we believe in his mercy.

For a few years now, I do my daily devotions by praying the prayers in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Its daily devotional prayers begins with this confession. Let me read it to you: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.” Saying this confession daily helps me to foster a posture of humility in my prayers.

Although God is our heavenly Father, we don’t act like entitled children. We know our place. These days, my daughter—who just turned 4 on Friday—is very good at speaking and being bossy. Instead of asking politely, she sometimes shouts and demands: “More!” Even if I plan to fulfill her request, I also have to teach her how to speak respectfully. She is not the boss; I’m not her servant. (Although we often feel it’s that way!)

Believing in God’s mercy should lead us to be persistent in prayer. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a widow who seeks justice from an unrighteous judge. Despite the judge’s lack of fear for God or respect for others, he grants her request because of her relentless pursuit (Luke 18). Jesus said: if an unrighteous judge would help the widow, how much more will God show mercy to his people who cry out day and night?

Let me share the story of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine. Augustine, who lived in the 4th and 5th century A.D., is one of Christianity’s most influential theologians. Monica raised her son as a Christian, but he became a skeptic and chose a life of hedonism. Nevertheless, she persisted praying daily for him and believing in God’s timing. Many years later, her prayers were answered; Augustine not long became a follower of Jesus but he also made a large impact on the Church. The influence of his theology continues today. Augustine’s writings about salvation by grace profoundly influenced Martin Luther and the 16th century Reformation. Monica’s persistence teaches us not to give up on praying for loved ones and friends.


To summarize today’s message, the Syrophoenician mother is a model for us in her faith, humility, and persistence in prayer. And both stories of healing carry a powerful message of racial inclusion. The coming of Jesus broke boundaries that once separated people from God and each other. God’s mercy is accessible to everyone; we are all invited to be part of his family. But while we are in a high position as God’s children, we try to remember our low position compared to God and give him the respect he deserves.

Let’s pray:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks,

for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,

that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

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