As a child, when I first read the story of the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter, I was struck by the apparent devotion this mother had for her afflicted child. I was deeply impressed. Even now, being a mother has helped me understand that one can love a child whether or not he or she is perfectly formed or of perfect health.
Many skeptics and those who would find fault with Jesus, the son of God, have pointed to this account with relish. They claim that Jesus was not only a racist but also quite cruel in his remarks; however, they fail to understand the mystery of the gospel of Christ. How much do the Scriptures reveal about this mother – daughter pair?
Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. 28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (Matt. 15:21-28).
And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid. 25 For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: 26 The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. 27 But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. 28 And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. 29 And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. 30 And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed (Mark 7:24-30).
When the Lord commanded us to honor all men (1 Peter 2:17) one can’t help wondering how Jesus could dishonor the Syrophoenician woman in speaking such words to her. What can possibly help us understand what seems to have been a racial, gender biased or ethnic slur?
From the beginning Jesus had commanded the apostles to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and specifically command them not to go into the way of the Gentiles and enter not into any city of the Samaritans. (Matt. 10:5-6). Jesus himself did not go into any city of the Samaritans to preach, though he and the apostles may have entered into a city of the Samaritans to spend the night (Luke 9:51-52).
By dealing with the Syrophoenician woman, indicating that she was a dog, Jesus made it clear to the apostles that the command not to go to the Gentiles was still in force. Jesus did not go into the land of Tyre and Sidon, but went to the borders. “And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid (Mark 7:24). Notice further that Jesus did not approach any Gentile, but rather desired to be hidden from them. It is true that many from Tyre and Sidon followed him, but he did not go to their land to preach.
When the Syrophoenician woman heard he was in the border of Tyre and Sidon, she approached Jesus, and it was she who “. . . cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word” (Matt. 15:22-23). Jesus practiced what he preached. However, in the next verse, “. . . his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.” Here we have a specific request concerning Gentiles from the Jews whom Jesus was sent to preach to and help. What would he do to solve this problem (Heb. 4:15)?
Without knowledge of his intent, it appears on the surface that Jesus had no compassion on the woman when “. . . he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). The situation is further complicated when “. . . came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.” Here was a needy woman crying to Jesus for help. What was he to do?
Not only does he try to send her away once, but he also made another attempt to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel when “. . . he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” Very plainly, with a parable, Jesus stated that he did not plan to heal her daughter. When the woman further humbled herself to agree that she accepted her position as a dog and argued that as a dog she was willing to “. . . eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table,” Jesus made an obvious exception to the rule of not going to the Gentiles. It was not an arbitrary exception, for this woman showed that she had great humility and truly did consider herself as nothing (Isa. 40:17).
By this Jesus informed men that it took great faith in God to have this kind of humility. This woman was not just some ordinary Gentile, but one who had great faith in God and understood her position before God. Note how many times that day he told the apostles that they had only a little faith, while he told this woman “great is thy faith.” The apostles had argued about who was the greatest among them (Were not the greatest chosen to be apostles?), but this woman acknowledged her great humility. The apostles had to be rebuked and warned that they needed to change (Matt. 18:1-4), but this woman had already changed to understand her position before God. Thus “Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour (Matt. 15:28).
Is humility not a major reason why the Lord chose Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles? While most men seek to exalt themselves, Paul acknowledged that “. . . the planter and the water are nothing” (1 Cor. 3:7), which included Paul. How many acknowledge this truth the Lord declared through Isaiah? “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity” (Isa. 40:17). Again in Daniel our Heavenly Father makes the same declaration which Nebuchadnezzar had to learn. “And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing” (Dan. 4:35). God even has to humble Himself “. . . to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth” (Psa. 113:6)! What is a man compared to an angel (1 Pet. 2:11)? What then is man compared to God? God had exalted Paul to be an apostle and further testified that Paul was “. . . in nothing behind the very chiefest apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5), but also acknowledged that he was nothing (2 Cor. 12:11). Truly Paul had a marvelous humility in understanding what all men are compared to the Almighty God of heaven!
Our Lord used this Syrophoenician woman of Canaan to be a great example for us of faith, humility and of a mother’s true love for her child. We may find comfort in knowing the little girl was healed and able to live and learn from her mother.