But notice first that before Jesus went to Tyre, first He went to his hometown, and nobody believed Him. Then they went to the other side of the lake and His disciples tried to tell Him what to do (as if they were above Him). Then they freaked out when they saw Jesus walking on the water, and upon their arrival, Jesus and His disciples were accused of uncleanliness because they were eating with dirty hands, which lead into a heated discussion with the Pharisees and Teachers of religious Law, based on their focus of the old traditions, many of which had NOTHING to do with God, worshiping God, or holiness on their part.
So you have rejection and disbelief by God’s own people, little faith of His disciples, and now accusations by people who should know better.
In response to their accusations, Jesus turned them around and pointed out that they were putting their God-less traditions before God’s commandments (a problem still today among the Jews, as well as many Christian churches).
The topic of their argument and accusations was cleanliness and uncleanliness. Jesus explained that not washing one’s hands is not what makes them unclean, nor does washing them make one clean. In fact, it’s not so much what you do on the outside and put into yourself (food, dirt from dirty hands) that makes you unclean, but what comes out your mouth (words) that deems you unclean, for what comes out of your mouth originates in your heart. And it’s the heart that (all too often) guides the decisions that one makes, and that one makes about others. And the hearts of the Pharisees and Teachers of religious Law were hardened and unclean, and ultimately told them to reject Jesus for who He is.
So Jesus takes His own advice to His Disciples, and withdraws from a pointless conversation. But of all places, He goes to the vicinity of Tyre.
Some background about Tyre:
In Old Testament times, the ancient King Hiram had good relations with King David and his son Solomon. In fact, the cedars and pine used for building the original Temple came from Tyre. But as time went on, as with other Canaanites in the area, things turned for the worse. The takeover and Hellenization of Alexander the Great turned Tyre into a Gentile territory, mixed with many national origins, including the Jews. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived during the New Testament times, wrote once that the residents of Tyre were “notoriously our bitterest enemies.” (Source)
Jesus also reinforces this earlier in Matthew 11:21-24 where Tyre and Sidon were used as an example of what destruction would come to the Galilean towns, who were less open to repentance than Tyre and Sidon (like when cities are compared to Sodom and Gomorrah, 2 cities well known for being evil and under God’s harsh judgment).
Basically, Tyre was hardly an area for God’s Messiah, who had come to call the Jews to Himself, to withdraw to. But it was, and He did. And when He got there, He tried to enter a house inconspicuously, hoping He wouldn’t be recognized. But that didn’t happen, for His fame and reputation had followed him even into the Gentile regions. So people recognized Him right away, and such a commotion was made that it caught the attention of a woman who was in a desperate situation and in dire need of Him.
A little background about the woman:
“Mark makes it clear that she was as Gentile as they come. She was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia – in other words, born in this very area. She wasn’t a Jewish transplant, but a native daughter. A Jewish reader would see this in Mark’s gospel and know right away what this says…that she was ‘unclean’.” (Source)
“Matthew (15:22) specifies exactly what Mark’s Hellenistic Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:26) means. She is a descendant of the ancient Canaanites, the bitter Biblical enemies of Israel whose paganism had often led Israel into idolatry.” (Source). Notice also that in Matthew’s account, the Disciples tell Jesus to send her away, giving us a clearer idea of their prejudices and conflicts with the Gentiles.
So when this woman who was recognized as unclean, evil, one who would lead God’s people to idolatry, and a bitter enemy of Israel sees Jesus, she immediately falls to her knees, tells Jesus about her demon-possessed daughter (Mark’s first label of it was “an unclean spirit”, but later when Jesus casts it out, He calls it a demon), and begins to beg Him to heal her daughter from it. Matthew’s account says she even addressed Jesus, “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David!”
Jesus answers in what many see as a rude comment, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What a way to blow somebody off! How would you feel if Jesus (or anybody else you asked for help from) said that to you?
But the woman recognizes that Jesus is calling Jews the “children” and that the Gentiles are the “dogs.” She also recognized that the children get fed first, and acknowledges in her response that the Messiah came to Israel first; but though she may not be able to sit down at the Messiah’s table and eat with the “children,” she should be allowed to pick up some of the crumbs they drop.” (Source)
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Maybe her words were prophetic in that the Jews would reject Jesus as their Messiah. Maybe Jesus went there to meet her in order to teach something to His disciples. Either way, there’s much more to Jesus’ words and the woman’s response than a simple riddle.
According to Matthew’s account, the woman hailed Jesus as “Lord, Son of David“. So in his account, the woman was already acknowledging Jesus as the rightful king over a nation that had conquered her ancestors (Joshua 12:7-24, 2 Samuel 8:1-15) (Source).
But, on that, I also find it interesting to note that:
A) By simply being a Gentile, the Jews automatically recognized her as “Unclean”
B) This Gentile woman recognized Jesus as “Lord”, “Son of David”, God’s Messiah, and as one who could grant her mercy. Yet the Jews, didn’t (don’t).
C) Though Jesus had healed Gentiles before, it was always in Jewish territory. But this time, Jesus did a miracle for a Canaanite woman in Gentile land.
A) Jesus just finished talking with Jews who should know better about cleanliness and uncleanliness. The Pharisees and Teachers of Religious Law were recognized as “clean” in the eyes of Jews, if not only just for the fact that they were Jews, but because of what they were seen doing and for everything outwardly. Yet, Jesus showed them that instead, they were in fact unclean on the inside, and their hearts were not right with God, which is where it all matters.
Then Jesus goes to a Gentile land and meets a woman who Jews recognize as unclean, simply because she is NOT a Jew, but yet in her recognition of Jesus as who and what He was/is, Jesus shows that though she may not be “perceived” as clean on the outside, she is clean on the inside. In Matthew’s account, Jesus even says, “Woman, great is your faith!” The last words Jesus said to His disciples about their faith were “You have so little faith?” (Matthew 14:31) and “Don’t you understand, either (Mark 7:18)?”
B) Though the Jews continued to reject Jesus, the Gentile woman didn’t. Here’s a perfect example of the Gentiles humbling themselves before Jesus, recognizing Him as the Messiah, and crying out for His mercy. The dogs are happy to eat even just the crumbs that fall from the table. But when the children don’t eat all their food, guess who gets the leftovers? The dogs. And as we read later in Acts 15, when the Gentiles were given the option to accept Christ and become part of what was originally only offered to the Jews, they welcomed it with excitement, even often more so than did the Jews.
C) Jesus had healed a Gentile, but it was always within the boundaries of Israel. But here, Jesus healed a woman’s daughter while in Gentile territory…an unclean land, as according to the Jews (and one from which they’d often shake the dust from their feet upon returning to their homeland). This is important because Jerusalem (or Israel), considered as the Holy land, was thought to be the only place where God was present, as well as the only place where God’s presence would rest. But Jesus leaving the Holy land shows not only that God’s boundaries are not the same as humans, but that God will go anywhere, anytime, for anybody who seeks Him. (I wonder also if Jesus’ answer to the woman about the scraps was also a means of challenging His 12, not just the woman? Almost like, ‘but you’re a Gentile, and I’m not here for you, but only for the Jews…or am I?’).
Remember, Jesus was there for the Jews, FIRST. As Paul said, ‘if the Jews hadn’t rejected Christ, the Gentiles would not have had a place to step in’. Only because of their rejection do the Gentiles have the chance to receive God’s gift of salvation (the crumbs falling from the table). And this was all talked of in the old Prophecies. Yes, Jesus’ mission was primarily to Israel, but the mission of the Gentiles would be to go into all the world. (So if Jesus’ Disciples were prejudiced against Gentiles before, then they’re going to have a huge problem later, for Jesus here was setting the example of also going out also the Gentile nations). Simon (Peter) would later learn more about this event when Jesus shows him the vision of the sheet with the many different animals and creatures (Acts 10). The discovery of the huge acceptance of the Gospel by Gentiles would also be again revealed in Acts 15 when two men traveled to Antioch and shared the Gospel about Jesus Christ to the Greeks there.
So once again, the topic is what’s considered as clean and unclean. Cleanliness is not what you see on the outside, but what’s in the heart. The food you eat and how you eat them is not what makes you unclean, for they don’t make their way to the heart (unless of course you’re talking about cholesterol, and here we’re not). But what originates from your heart will come from your mouth, and/or be recognized in your actions. There are many people today who try to look holy and try to say the right things in order to back up their images. But if their hearts don’t match their actions and words, then they’re not as clean as they look. Remember, God knows and judges by the heart, and as He told Samuel, God also does not judge by human standards. If your heart is not right with Him, then it won’t matter what you do. It’s like the question about those people who do good in the world, but who aren’t Christians.
It’s also like the example that I’ve always given about the egg. You can decorate an egg all pretty on the outside, but if it’s empty inside, then it’ll crack once it’s tested. Likewise, you can take an egg that’s not empty and decorate it on the outside, but if what’s inside it is dead (or just unfertilized), then within time, it’ll smell real bad and the beauty on the outside will no longer matter, for the rottenness on the inside is now being revealed. But if what’s inside the egg is live, then regardless of how it looks on the outside at first, what’s inside will grow and soon reveal itself to the world when it cracks its way out (because it can no longer be held just inside…it HAS to come out and be revealed).
If your heart is not right with God, then it doesn’t matter how many nice things you do for others, you’re still not “clean” in God’s eyes. Your heart must be right with God first. The Pharisees’ hearts were not right with God, for they were so bent out over following their traditions. So even though they were recognized by many (and themselves) as being clean, they really weren’t in God’s eyes. The Gentiles’ hearts were often not right for they were bent over following the culture of the land. But then this woman who was recognized as being unclean because of her nationality and place of residence comes around and shows great faith (even greater than Jesus’ own disciples in who He is and what that means), she reveals the possession of a clean heart, even more so than those of the Jews.
So you can look clean, or you can be clean. But your cleanliness is not perceived by God on how you look, where you live, what traditions you follow, your family lineage, or your charity. It’s based on your heart for God, which can only be obtained by faith in and acceptance of Jesus Christ.