Nobodies of the Bible: the Syrophoenician woman
Talk about a nobody. We don't even know her name. Jesus encountered her at the end of a particularly hectic time of his life. Before describing that day, it helps to look at what drove Jesus out of Palestine to begin with. The incidents are recorded in Matthew beginning with 13:53 and in Mark 6-7.
- Jesus taught in the synagogue at Nazareth, where everyone was offended at his teaching. He could do no mighty works there because of their unbelief. That pairing of offense and unbelief is key to understanding his later two meetings with the Syrophoenician woman.
- He sent out the twelve two by two for ministry.
- While they were away, he learned that John the Baptist had been beheaded.
- When the disciples returned to Jesus, he wanted to hear how their ministry had gone. I suspect he also needed to grieve for the murder of his cousin. So in Mark 6:31, he told them, "Come aside by yourselves to a quiet place where we can rest." But when the multitude did not allow them any peace and quiet, Jesus wound up feeding the 5000 instead.
- Jesus sent the disciples back in the boat so he could get some private prayer time for himself. A storm came up, and he walked to them on the water.
- Once they got back to land, the multitude wanted healing, and the Pharisees wanted to pick a fight.
Jesus still wanted to have some quiet time alone with his disciples, so he left Jewish territory and went to the region around Tyre. There must have been a few Jews there, because they all stayed in a house. But Jesus must have also expected that most people would not know or care who he was.
Jesus rebuffs the woman
But the Syrophoenician (or in some translations, Canaanite) woman did. Jesus found his plans interrupted yet again. There are two accounts of what happened next (Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30), and we need to consider both of them.
In Matthew 15:22, she cried out to him. The disciples were upset in v.23 because she cried after them. The Greek word for "after" (Str. 5693) means "from the rear". Clearly she yelled from a distance and then approached. The scene must have been in open countryside, along the road. Jesus answered her (not the disciples) in 15:24, so she must have been close by. Then, in v. 25, it says she came. If she was already near him in v. 24, why would she come in v. 25?
Mark's account explicitly takes place in a house. It appears, then, that she encountered Jesus on the road. Jesus refused to help her, so she went to the house he was staying at and asked for his help again, this time successfully.
We think of Jesus as being full of compassion, so it is disturbing that he did not immediately answer her prayer. But does he always immediately answer ours? If we are not surprised when God apparently rebuffs us, why should we be surprised that he did not help her? First, we need to understand why he denied her prayer in the first place, then we need to see what she did--and did not do--that accounted for the end result.
We may not suppose that, because of the press of recent events, Jesus was tired and cranky, that he was fed up with interruptions and drew the line at putting up with any more. We may also not suppose that he was a bigoted, narrow-minded Jew who looked with disapproval on everyone else. These would be sinful responses of the flesh nature, and Jesus never yielded to such temptation. Yet he as much as called the woman a dog. Here are some things to keep in mind.
First, in calling on Jesus as Son of David, the woman was praying presumptuously. As a non-Jew, she had no claim on the king of the Jews. She had no covenant relationship with the God of the Jews, and so no rights under the covenant. She was in no position to know what it meant to call on the Son of David, and may have been intending to flatter Jesus.
Second, Jesus gave up his omniscience when he took human form. We know that he did only what he saw the Father doing. The Father did on occasion show mercy to Gentiles, and Jesus had already mentioned it in at least one sermon (Luke 4). But was this such a time? Jesus's earthly ministry was limited in scope. In John 12:20, Jesus took it as a sign of the end of his earthly ministry that Greeks wanted to see him.
Therefore, the most important thing to recall is that God never responds to fear and panic. Never. He responds only to faith.
Jesus grants her prayer
So she left for a while. Then she came back and asked again. Jesus quickly did what he had refused to do before. He sent her home with the assurance that her daughter was healed. What happened?
- She did not get offended. She did not go out in a huff wondering "What's wrong with him? Who does he think he is?" Remember that when the people of Nazareth became offended at Jesus, it counted as unbelief and prevented him from doing works that he was willing and even eager to perform.
- She also did not ask herself, "What's wrong with me?" That can be just another way of getting offended. She may have asked, "What was wrong with my approach?"
- When Jesus denied her request, she was undeterred. She came back and worshipped. What that literally means is that she bowed down toward Jesus with her face to the ground. Somehow, she must have heard stories of other people doing so (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 14:33) and believed them.
- Beyond coming in worship, she came with humility. She agreed that she did not deserve the children's bread. But she wasn't asking for what she deserved. She was asking for unmerited favor. She was asking for grace.
If Jesus does not respond to panic or fear or presumption or even to great need, he does respond to faith and humility. He commended her for great faith and granted her prayer. Notice that she left believing that her daughter was well, even though she had no evidence for the healing besides Jesus's words.
Her faith was great because:
- She came to Jesus with a need, believing that he could and would meet it.
- She refused to be discouraged or offended.
- She was persistent.
- She worshipped in the absence of an answer to her prayer.
- She considered her greatest need a small thing for Jesus.
- She accepted revelation knowledge of her answer without first demanding sense knowledge.
In other words, even though she did not have much knowledge of Jesus and his ways, she acted on what little she knew. And that was enough. Do modern Christians know Jesus more than she did? Some do. Probably some don't. It doesn't matter. Great faith is not having great knowledge. It's acting humbly and persistently on what knowledge we have.