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Nobodies of the Bible: the Syrophoenician woman

Updated on September 13, 2012

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.

Canaanite woman / from Très Riches Heures Duc de Berry
Canaanite woman / from Très Riches Heures Duc de Berry

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.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman / by Germain-Jean Drouais
Christ and the Canaanite Woman / by Germain-Jean Drouais

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.


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    • allpurposeguru profile imageAUTHOR

      David Guion 

      5 years ago from North Carolina

      carolina muscle, thanks for stopping by.

      Kala-ada, as I type this, I'm noticing your comment for the first time some two months after you posted it. I can't imagine how that happened. Thank you so much for your heartfelt reply. You really hit the nail on the head with this comment: ". . . picture of God wanting the Gentilles to come into the House of the Lord and get what they want, perhaps a sign of intimacy."

      I could quote others, too, but you have really found the place where God's judgment and his grace intersect. May he continue to bless you as you walk with him.

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 

      5 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      thank you for an interesting read !

    • Kala-ada profile image


      6 years ago from Jerusalem, Israel

      Man this is great, this is it this is the answer i am looking for. Do you know one thing I realized whilst typing this response. Is that God simply doesn't in not doesn't care like doesn't care but God is I AM that I AM self sufficient He doesn't need our approval but He in Love condescends to our lowly estate.

      This passage in the bible has been interpreted very wrongly even by me an ethnically conscious person. But God knew it would be controversial and still allowed it to be in the bible. if the world wants to make a big deal out of it so what I AM. God doesn't seek the approval of man. and from now on I am not seeking the approval of man just God.

      I also daresay that if is true according to the research or writings of this article that the Syro-phoenician woman came to Jesus' house to meet him again, than perhaps that is a picture of God wanting the Gentilles to come into the House of the Lord and get what they want, perhaps a sign of initmacy... God wanted the Gentiles no longer to worship Him from afar off "on the road trailling behind" knowing Him as the "Son of David" or "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" you know those titles that make Him more "Godly" and less "Fatherly" but He wanted us Gentiles to come in and worship Him as Lord. If it is true that she went into his house again and worshiped him as Lord. Where she said "Truth Lord..."

      The lady worshiped Him as Lord and no longer as the "Son of David".

      We also have to taken into consideration that in those days there were many "God-fearing" Gentilles as they were called who would from afar worship the God of Israel.

      Remember in the book of Acts the Ethiopian Eunuch an olden days version of the Finance Minister of Ethiopia came to Jerusalem to worship at the feast. For such a person to do that it probably wasn't his first and there would have been many others alongside him doing that. In one of the gospels it says "the Greeks who also came to the feast sought Jesus" These Gentilles probably were not allowed entry into the Temple (House) of God. But would pay their respects and reverence to the true God from afar. Knowing God in titles and principles of Jewish tradition. Though the Holy Spirit convicted them that the God of Israel was the true God they couldn't come as close to God as they desired and all the traditions and Jewish titles and Hebraic languages only grained it in their conscience that they were strangers worshiping the God of another tribe.

      So now we see Jesus inviting a Gentile to come into His Presence and take freely of Him, pointing that let the Gentiles come to Him freely and openly with the full consciousness that they are Gentiles and God accepts them just the way they are as Gentiles. Knowing that they are justified by faith through grace freely.

      This is my theological addition but spiritually in my personal life i see God telling me that boy, stop tryna go through processes and qualifications to get what u want from me come to me freely as you are I know who you are and what u've done and haven't done so stop pretending.

      Have faith in me and my grace and let my grace qualify you. Also humble yourself and be open.

      This passage shows that there is no body that will come to God with a true sincere heart that will not get his or her testimony.

      As long as you try to justify yourself by your works or by some sort of tradition you will remain "a dog" or "puppy" but as long as you come by faith and truth believing in my Grace you will be a "O Woman".

      Praise the Lord for He is Good and His Mercy Endures Forever

    • Porshadoxus profile image


      6 years ago from the straight and narrow way


    • allpurposeguru profile imageAUTHOR

      David Guion 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks, Porshadoxus, for your comment, your vote, and your question.

      The short answer is that God's perfect love casts out fear in response to faith. If by lack of faith I have no relationship with God at all, he won't cast it out. If I'm saved but hold on to my fear because I don't have faith in him to help me, he won't cast it out. In other words, God doesn't do things for us because we have fear. He does everything because we have faith.

    • Porshadoxus profile image


      6 years ago from the straight and narrow way

      Quote: Therefore, the most important thing to recall is that God never responds to fear and panic. Never. He responds only to faith.

      Question: What about perfect love casting out fear? How does that fit here?

      Voted up.


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