The Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman
Mark 7:24-30 / Matthew 15:21-28
There’s been a couple times over the past several weeks where we have seen that Jesus and the disciples needed to catch up on some rest. They first attempted to get some rest by crossing the Galilee over to a remote area, and that’s when the storm came and Jesus calmed it. Then they landed the boat and were immediately greeted by the demon possessed man, but were soon asked to leave by the people of that region. When they returned back to Capernaum, a large crowd gathered and Jesus again taught and healed people. Then they traveled to Nazareth, and from there Jesus sent out his 12 disciples as apostles to proclaim His kingdom message in that region. When the disciples returned, they all went back up to Capernaum and got in the boat again to go for the second attempt of a retreat across the lake. And that’s when the crowd saw them leaving and ran ahead of them, so that when they landed the boat, there were thousands of people waiting at the shore to be taught. Jesus had compassion on them and taught them many things, and there He multiplied the bread and fish, and had the disciples serve the food to thousands. That same night, the disciples rowed back across the lake, and struggled all night against the wind, until Jesus came walking on the water, got in the boat, and transported them immediately to land. Of course, as soon as they landed, the people again gathered and Jesus in His compassion began teaching and healing yet again. And during that time is when the Pharisees asked Jesus about the disciples not doing the proper spiritual, purification ritual of hand washing. And that is the passage we looked at two weeks ago, as Jesus brought before the religious leaders the fact that they were dishonoring God by adding to scripture and neglecting the requirements of God. Jesus taught that spiritual uncleanness was a matter of the heart, not a disease contracted by food, or contracted by touching someone from a different ethnicity or religion. So, after directly confronting the religious leaders’ hypocrisy, seeking the rest that Jesus and the disciples found so hard to obtain, Jesus led the disciples up to a new region in order to escape the crowds and have a retreat. Let’s look at Mark 7:24 together.
This verse lets us know that Jesus was wanting to be on the downlow. He and the disciples couldn’t get some rest from ministry in the region of Israel proper, so they headed north to what is now modern-day Lebanon. Now this region during the time was within the land that God had given to the Israelites; the tribe of Asher was to inhabit this portion of the land. (Joshua 19:28-31) The Canaanites lived in this region, descendants of Noah’s cursed son Ham. (Genesis 9:22-25) Now the Canaanites were an extremely evil people, a people with whom God had been patient with for hundreds of years, yet they did not repent and turn to Him. So, God had commanded the Israelites to conquer the Canaanite inhabitants of the land. In much of the land of Israel they did so, but in this particular region of Tyre the Canaanites still remained. The Greeks ended up calling the people there Phoenicians, Phoenicia being the name of the purple cloth that was a major trade of the people of that region. During this time, the Romans ruled and deemed the larger part of the region as Syria. So here was Jesus, in a land not occupied by Jews, but occupied by the enemy Canaanites, now known as Phoenicians, or Syrophoenicians- the “Syro” part meaning the Phoenician people in the land of Syria. Now the reason I’m mentioning all of this, is because the most recent event before Jesus arrived in this region, was Him confronting the religious leaders’ idea of spiritual uncleanness. If there were ever an unclean people, these Canaanite-Syrian-Phoenicians were it. God had said to conquer these people, they were enemies to Israel. They were involved in the grossest idolatry and worship of the demonic false gods Baal and Ashtaroth. The religious leaders would have never even set foot in this region for fear of catching the spiritual uncleanness “cooties” from this despised, evil people group. With this knowledge in mind, let’s finish reading the passage together. Mark 7:25-30
What a strange encounter- this story seems completely out of character with what we know of Jesus. And Mark is even softening the story; put a bookmark there and let’s turn over to Matthew’s account in Matthew 15:21-28. This story sounds even harsher when reading from Matthew. Is this the first time we see Jesus apparently ignore a need of someone? Is this the first time we see Him, perhaps insult someone? If we don’t understand what’s happening here, we can all very easily walk down the path of doubt that Adam and Eve did when tempted by the serpent. Like them, we could all begin to question, is God- is Jesus, really good?
If we look at this passage through the lens of other scripture, we know that Jesus was not just sent for the Jewish race. God told Abraham in Genesis 22:18 “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice." In speaking of Jesus the Messiah, God said in Isaiah 49:6 "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” After the resurrection, Jesus instructed His disciples to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15) In Revelation, John recounts his vision of Heaven and says: “…I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands”. (Revelation 7:9)
So, if the good news of Jesus is for all peoples, nations, tribes, languages- then why does it seem like Jesus is being racist here? Jesus wasn’t racist- we see how He lovingly engaged in sharing the gospel with a Samaritan woman, how He healed a Roman Centurion’s slave, how He healed the man from Gerasene of demonic possession. No, He wasn’t racist at all, but He knew that there was a certain order to the events surrounding His salvation being offered to the world. God’s promise to Abraham was to be fulfilled in that the Jews were to be used as God’s method through which Jesus would be proclaimed to all nations. Israel was to be the mega horn through which God’s goodness, forgiveness, and mercy was shouted out to the rest of the world. As we saw in Mark 7:27, “the children” (meaning the children of Israel) were to eat first of the bread (meaning Jesus). The children weren’t the only ones who were going to eat of Jesus the Bread of Life- no, the whole world was going to be offered the bread of Jesus as well; but the order was that first Jesus was to reveal Himself as God to the nation of Israel, and then the nation of Israel was to reveal to the world that Jesus was God.
If Jesus wasn’t being racist in this passage, was He perhaps being insulting? Dogs were typically referred to in the bible as unclean animals that scavenged for food- licking up blood and eating off of dead corpses. But this use of the word “dogs” here in this passage from Matthew and Mark, is the only usage in the Bible of the Greek diminutive form of the word dogs. Basically, it translates in English as “little dogs”, or “puppy dogs.” The Greek word is pointing towards a household pet, not the mangy mutt that’s roaming the street eating dead things. Jesus wasn’t giving an insult, rather He was giving a parable that was to illustrate the order of God’s revelation. The father brings the bread to the children, and the children then give out of their excess to their beloved pet puppies. God brought the bread of Jesus to Israel, and Israel was to then give the blessing of Jesus to the world.
With the Samaritan woman, the Roman Centurion’s slave, and the possessed Gerasene man, Jesus was foreshadowing His ultimate work. He was edging closer to showing His disciples God’s heart for the other nations. But in this instance, from a Jewish perspective, this woman was as far away as possible from being “clean” and able to rightfully approach one who was holy. She was an enemy Canaanite, she was located in a land devoid of God’s people- a land full of spiritual cooties, and she was a woman- who according to that culture was inferior to a man. In Jewish eyes she was the antithesis of someone who deserved God’s favor. Because of this, I believe Jesus made a big deal out of this encounter. He ignored her at first, perhaps to intensify the drama. He let her voice her recognition of who He was, and He let her voice her request. I can imagine her over and over, saying, “Lord, please, you are the Messiah, the Son of David, only you can heal my daughter who is affected by this demon.” And the disciples are there, witnessing how much this “Canaanite-puppy-dog of a woman” is sincere in her confession and belief of who Jesus is and what He can do. As a result of Jesus ignoring and not responding to her immediately, what the disciples see is a massively sharp contrast to the disbelief, arrogance, hypocrisy, and attacks of the Jewish religious leaders that they had just retreated from. But perhaps in her passionate calling out to Jesus, the disciples are worried that her loud voice is going to give away their cover. If she doesn’t go away or hush soon, crowds of people are going to eventually hear the commotion and the whole “rest and retreat trip” will be done- for the 3rd time. So, in verse 23 the disciples ask Jesus to send her away. I’m not sure if they implied “send her away” as in granting her wish, or as just telling her to go away and stop bothering them, but Jesus’s answer in verse 24 seems to indicate that the disciples were thinking that Jesus needed to just go ahead and grant her wish just so that she would be quiet.
In that verse 24, Jesus stated His mission, but in doing so He perhaps was testing the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’s ultimate mission. After answering the disciples by saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, the disciples themselves should have then answered “Yes Jesus, but remember the Samaritan woman, the Roman Centurion, and the Gerasenes man? And according to God’s blessing of Abraham, aren’t we as the nation of Israel to bless all the other nations? And Jesus, with you being the Messiah, aren’t you to be the light to all the world?” That should have been their response.
But they didn’t respond in that way. The woman was left on her own to plead with Jesus and in a dramatic way she showed to Jesus and the other 12 Jewish boys how desperate the despised, “unclean” people groups were for Jesus’s work. “Lord, help me!” she cries. And I can imagine Jesus thinking, “I am going to help you, that’s what I want to do; but wait- this drama has to play out a little further in order for my disciples to fully see, experience, and understand a very important lesson.” So in verse 26 He responded again in similar fashion to His previous response: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. The disciples don’t understand what’s going on, for whatever reason they’re not jumping in with biblically sound questions or statements that might persuade Jesus to heal the daughter so that the shouting would stop. But the woman, she’s not giving up. Her motherly instincts have kicked in. She knows and understands Jesus’s position, her position and her people’s position, the disciples and the Jewish people’s position- perhaps all better than the disciples themselves. So, she responds in verse 27, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
In her answer is contained the lesson that Jesus wanted His disciples to hear and understand. This answer is perhaps what Jesus was attempting to draw out by His prolonged silence and hardness. She didn’t take insult or offense by what Jesus had said, nor did she feel that her rights were being infringed- but she expressed a beautiful humility, acceptance, and understanding of the way in which God was working and was going to work. She basically said “Yes Jesus, my place is not at the table and I know whose mouths you have been sent to feed. But the food you offer is more than enough for those at the table and more than enough for everyone in the whole world. Mere crumbs of the Bread of Life are life giving, fulfilling, sustaining, scrumptious morsels that can feed every nation including the lowliest of the low.” That was the message Jesus wanted His disciples to hear. That God had a plan and order to His salvation, and that there was enough of Jesus to satisfy all those who would crave after Him. The disciples needed to remember that there were 12 baskets of food left over after the thousands ate and were satisfied. The crowds of people, the disciples, the religious leaders all had equal opportunity to eat as they wished from the Bread of Life, and no matter how little or much they chose to eat, there was going to be abundantly rich and tasty left overs served to the rest of the world.
Pastor and author Tim Keller states that the type of wrestling and assertiveness that this woman demonstrated is somewhat foreign to us as westerners. He says that we do not know how to contend unless we’re standing up for our own rights, standing on our dignity and our goodness and saying “This is what I’m owed”. He continues and says, “But this woman is not doing that at all. She’s not saying, ‘Lord, give me what I deserve on the basis of my goodness.’ She’s saying, ‘Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of Your goodness’”. That is the heart of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus is one in which we recognize our lowly position, yet recognize God’s goodness and desire to give to us from that goodness, even though we don’t deserve it.
And in response to this beautiful confession of the gospel, Jesus says “your faith is great; is shall be done for you as you wish”. (Matthew 15:28) I want us to look a little closer at the elements that contributed in making this woman’s faith “great.” First of all, she acknowledged Jesus as Messiah in her calling Him “Lord, Son of David”. She recognized Jesus’s position, purpose, authority, and power. Secondly, her faith was characterized by persistence. She refused to go away until she received what she knew Jesus would give her. She didn’t grow weary in waiting, but wrestled with and pursued Jesus. Another Pastor in considering her persistence said this: “Who says things like desperation and tenacity aren't the same thing as faith, when that desperation and tenacity are brought to Jesus? In Mark, "faith" is hardly about getting Jesus' name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It's about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save. It's about demanding he do what he says he came to do.” Thirdly, her hope and steadfastness in her belief of God and Jesus’s goodness contributed to making her faith great. Throughout this agonizing experience, she refused to doubt the goodness of God. She refused to doubt, get discouraged, or give up on receiving God’s grace and mercy. And lastly, it seems that this woman was satisfied and was able to trust in Jesus’s word alone that her daughter had been healed. Jesus said her request was granted, and that ended the conversation. She had to trust in His word all the way back to her own home; she took Him at His word and traveled alone back home to confirm Jesus’s healing.
Another way in which you might see this woman’s faith is through her humble recognition of His position, her humble recognition of her position, and her humble recognition of His goodness. Humility. Her response to Jesus was humility, a response drastically different from the opposite response He received from the religious leaders: pride. In quoting from Proverbs, James 4:6 says “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Someone once defined humility as “a feeling toward God that He has absolute rights over your life, that He can do with you as He pleases, and that He has absolute authority to tell you what is best for you; and that’s just fine with you.”
This morning I want to challenge us to humbly and tenaciously pursue Jesus. Realize His high position of authority and goodness, and realize our low position as puppy dogs, feeding from the overflowing abundance of His table. Understand His heart for the nations- His Kingdom heart and mercy for those we might consider “enemy nations”, lowly despised people groups, or those entrenched in false and evil world religions. He wants to graft in and receive into His Kingdom Jews, Arabs, New Agers, Atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Africans, Asians, Latinos, Indigenous, and even people like you and me. But there is only 1 person who makes that possible- Jesus. This morning I want us to pray to that end. Let’s pray that not only we ourselves would be fed and nourished from the Bread of Life, but may we right now be tenacious in pleading with the Lord to feed these others as well, out of the lavish abundance of His goodness and mercy.