We have been comforted in so many situations with the picture of Jesus as “the Good Shepherd,” that we flinch at anything that seems to contradict that image. Yet Mark records two incidents that seem to describe Jesus so far in the opposite direction, that some preachers would prefer to ignore the passage or explain it away. John Peter Lange, author of A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Mark, claims that Mark writes his gospel as a sort of “hero epic.”
The deeds of divine heroism which it describes, find, as it were, an appropriate body in peculiarities of expression, whether by an accumulation of strong negatives (οὐκε͂τι, οὐδείς) and by rapid transitions, or by rapid succession in the narrative...While Matthew transports us gradually into the events of his time, as he relates what “came to pass in those days,” the peculiar expression “immediately,” “forthwith,” “straightway,” employed by Mark, hurries us from one event to another” (2).
By contrast, James W. Voelz, in his contribution to the Concordia Commentary series, Mark 1:1-8:26, describes the theme of Mark in terms of “ambiguity.”  Either way, one could read these passages as being evidence of a quirk of impatience, or perhaps the result of Mark’s handling of the Gospel, except that these two incidents are not peculiar to Mark. Matthew also records Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman in the same way (Matt 15:24-28), and both Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ casting out of the demon that his disciples were unable to accomplish (Matt 17:14-18; Luke 9:37-42).
Thus, we must conclude that Jesus is presented this way in Mark because that is what happened. That is how Jesus spoke in those incidents. Was Jesus harsh, perhaps even dismissive, of people who were in need of his intervention because of their own inabilities? What are we to make of this, not only in terms of how we understand the work of Christ on earth, but also in terms of how we see him at work in and through the Church?
The two incidents recorded in Mark have points in common, as well as contrasts (Mark 7:24-30; Mark 9:14-29). They share the presence of two parents who are grieved by the demonic oppression of their beloved children. Both of them have watched their child suffer the tormenting impact of being controlled by an alien, hostile personality, that would destroy the one whom they love. Both of them turn to Jesus, believing what they have heard about his ability to break the chains of demonic possession and bring deliverance to their imprisoned child. The depth of the crisis makes each parent speak in terms that show the desperation of the situation.
Could it be that the root of not asking is not believing, either in the power, or worse, the graciousness of the Lord to address the issue that lies before us?
The contrasts are equally clear. The first parent is a woman, taught by culture to be humble, beseeching rather than demanding. The second is a man accustomed to engaging in negotiations, demands, and settlements. While she normally experiences power as that which she must appease, he experiences it as something that he can control and direct.
The final, most significant contrast is their place in terms of the promises of God given to Israel in the Messiah. The woman is “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26). The man, while no identification is given, lives in a place where “scribes” also reside, for when Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from the “mount of transfiguration,” they see a crowd surrounding the disciples, which includes scribes (Mark 9:14). Since the man is not defined in terms of nationality, it is safe to infer that he is an Israelite.
Jesus’ reaction to the woman fits with what Paul would later say in Romans 1:16, “both to the Jew first (emphasis mine), and also to the Greek.” In fact, one could argue that his response to her is not harsh at all, as he never rejects her, but merely asks that she “wait her turn.” He responds to her by pointing out that he is Israel’s Messiah, to which she responds that she seeks merely a gift that might fall her way, not because she deserves it, but simply because she is in the place where the giver is. Her statement shows her faith, not only in Christ’s power, but also in his graciousness in the exercise of it.
In a sense, Jesus’ words in the second incident are directed to two groups. The first group, the crowd that is engaged in a dispute, includes his disciples. Jesus speaks, not only to the man who declared his problem in verses 17-18, but also to the rest of them, including his disciples.
The disciples could not cast the demon out, although they tried. Why had they failed? They would later ask that very question, to which Jesus would reply, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). James would write in his epistle regarding the role of prayer in the face of sickness: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:15).
Far too often, in the words of James recorded in James 4:2, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Could it be that the root of not asking is not believing, either in the power, or worse, the graciousness of the Lord to address the issue that lies before us? Will there be issues that confront us today to which God’s promise speaks “yes” and “amen,” but we doubt that God will respond at all, so we remain silent? How long will he bear with our fear to stand in the evil day? He is grieved when we doubt his will to work through us (Rom 12:3-8), so that we don’t administer the gospel to those who are trapped by sin but are deceived into thinking that life is good as it stands. As the late Martin Franzmann wrote in his hymn of triune praise, “Thy strong Word did cleave the darkness; at Thy speaking it was done.” These words apply, not only to the creation story of Genesis 1, but also to the redemption story of John 1. The light of the gospel of Christ breaks the darkness of sin, fear, and doubt.
The ultimate “harsh word” of God fell, not upon us sinners, but upon his son
Jesus’ seemingly harsh words come to us out of his gracious love, a love that desires above all things, that we “have life and that more abundantly.” God does not desire our harm, but our good, so much so that he even uses the intentions of the devil to do evil to us for our good, as it is written, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
The ultimate “harsh word” of God fell, not upon us sinners, but upon his son, “who knew no sin, [yet] became sin for us, so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). This strong word gives us confidence and the blessed hope that sustains us even in our weakness, knowing that in our weakness, he is strong, for he is Emmanuel - God with us.
Thus, we do not need to fear or avoid the “harsh words” of our Lord, knowing that he loves us, as he says, “with an everlasting love,” a love that is not conditioned upon anything about us, but is based in his divine nature (1 John 4:8-10). God declares through both law and gospel that he wills “to work in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). As Dr. Luther wrote in the Heidelberg Disputation, thesis 28, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” This love bids us come to him, whether our struggle is with the world, the flesh or the devil, because “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). This love answered the pleas of a Gentile woman and the anxious fears of a Jewish man. It will answer us today, with an answer of peace, not of evil, the peace that passes all understanding.