THE SYROPHOENICIAN WOMAN: THE WOMAN WHO PERSISTED IN BELIEVING IN JESUS | Lenten Devotional, 3/23/21
THE WOMAN WHO PERSISTED IN BELIEVING IN JESUS
Introduction | We are walking together through the Church season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Body of Christ sometime during the 4th century. Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. Lent is a sacred time of remembrance, renewal, and spiritual preparation in our journey of faith with Jesus.
Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But several women also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.
Each week, we will look more closely at one of these women to better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. On Thursday, a female member of our staff will offer their thoughts. Each Saturday, I will provide a Lectio Divina prayer exercise so that we can reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.
Reflection | Over the last two weeks, we’ve reflected on two women who were very much on the inside of Jesus’ ministry–Martha and Mary, two sisters, we are told, for whom Jesus cared deeply (John 11:5). Today, we turn our attention to a quintessential outsider: the Syrophoenician woman. Let’s start with a bit of context for this story.
Following a frustrating encounter with the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus went away, walking northwest into Gentile territory, to the district of Tyre and Sidon – along the Mediterranean Sea. Tyre was a predominantly Gentile city with an extensive relationship with its Jewish neighbors. Those who know their Bible well may recall that Tyre is mentioned several times in the New Testament. In Acts, Paul visited a Christian community in the vicinity of Tyre (Acts 21:3-7); we are told Herod supplied food to Tyre and Sidon (Acts 12:20), and Paul visited this region by ship from the west (Acts 21:3). All of this suggests that Tyre was a well-known commercial center with significant trade relations along the Mediterranean Sea.
In journeying to this region, Jesus was putting some distance between himself and King Herod. Herod, the tetrarch, heard about Jesus by reputation and equated him with John the Baptist, whom he had already put to death. So Jesus and his disciples decided to lay low for a while by journeying far from King Herod and the crowds in Galilee to the edge of the Jewish world, somewhere they hoped would enable them to maintain a low profile. Surely, no one would recognize Jesus there.
Enter our titular Syrophoenician woman.
The term “Syrophoenician” simply identifies her as an inhabitant of this region. It is Mark’s version of this story that refers to the woman as Syro-Phoenician. Alternatively, Matthew’s account describes a Canaanite woman. The usage of this term, “Canaanite,” is meant to evoke long-standing historical biases and deeply ingrained national prejudice. After all, no Canaanites lived in the first century A.D., so the label does not describe present-day encounters.
The point is this woman is not just any Gentile (non-Jew). The Canaanites were those who lived in the Promised Land before the arrival of the Israelites. The Canaanites worshipped idols and thus were a threat to God’s people, whose first commandment ordered them, “You shall have no other gods.” More than just outsiders to the Jewish faith, Canaanites were considered the enemies of God’s people and, indeed, the enemies of God. By calling this woman a Canaanite, Matthew primes his audience to perceive this woman as a total outcast, unworthy of God’s grace.
This woman is a mother whose daughter is anguishing under demonic possession and needs healing. Every parent who has seen their child suffering and dangerously ill knows the pain this woman was experiencing. She is so desperate for help that she has put aside all thoughts of self-pride to adopt the standard cry of a street beggar, “Have mercy on me!”
It appears this woman had heard about Jesus and how he had mercifully healed many people and delivered others from demonic oppression. Indeed, back in Mark 3:8, we are told word of Jesus’ miracles spread far and that people from Tyre and Sidon were among the crowds that flocked to him.
But this woman’s awareness of who Jesus is goes beyond a secondhand report of his healing ministry. That this woman truly knew who Jesus was is evident in how she continually entreats Jesus–“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” She uses a Messianic title for Jesus, very unexpected from a Gentile.
Socially, as a woman daring to publicly address a man–let alone a foreigner man–she has no reason to expect this Jewish rabbi to answer her. And yet, she persists. She believes Jesus is more than a rabbi.
This woman knew that Jesus could help her daughter. And so, despite being a Gentile and a Caananite to boot, she goes to see Jesus and she begs him for mercy. This woman demonstrates faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah of her mortal enemy–the Jews.
An interesting thought here: if this woman knows the Jewish scriptures so well, perhaps with her initial words, she is claiming an ancestral relationship to Jesus. After all, three women in Jesus’ genealogy are Canaanite women: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth (Matthew 1:3, 5). Are these not also the foremothers of this anonymous woman? Taken together with the fact this story (in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30) is the only record of Jesus traveling beyond Israel’s borders, we are left with a significant implication. Just as Matthew uses the Canaanite women in the genealogy to lay the groundwork for Gentile inclusion in the Good News, Jesus’ encounter with this woman demonstrates that God’s mercy extends beyond Israel and the Jews.
Initially, however, as she pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter, he surprisingly ignores her.
Therefore, this woman continues to shout – raising a ruckus and making a scene. Jesus’ disciples attempt to mute her voice, but they demonstrate no success in shutting her down. Annoyed by this woman’s refusal to take Jesus’ lack of reply for an answer, the disciples look to their master to send her away (Matthew 15:23b; see Acts 16:16-18).
Like the disciples, we often resist empathizing with people whose experience is different from our own. If the oppression, injustice, or pain is not happening in our house and neighborhood–if it does not impact people of our race, gender, class, or sexuality, we dismiss it as unwelcomed, unjustified noise.
But this woman will not be silenced. Hers is an unwavering faith reminiscent of the woman in the parable Jesus tells about the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8).
Despite her unrelenting cries, Jesus says nothing–at first. But Jesus doesn’t stay quiet for long. Through her particular choice of words, this woman demonstrates she knows who she is talking to — that she is asking the right person for what she seeks.
Rather than answering the disciples’ request, Jesus instead offers a response clearly intended for the woman to hear: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” This is a rhetorical statement that functions as a challenge to the woman. In other words, Jesus is saying to her, “Tell me why I should help you.”
We need to understand Jesus is encouraging her to come right up to him now. That she gets the message becomes evident as this woman draws closer to Jesus, kneels, and switches from the beggar’s standard plea to the simple words, “Lord, help me.”
What Jesus says next may shock and disturb us; “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” At face value, it looks like Jesus is first dismissing this woman and then insulting her with a racial slur. Read this way; it appears this woman only obtains miraculous healing for her daughter by submitting to humiliation and the degradation of agreeing that she is nothing more than a dog.
How do we reconcile what Jesus says and does in this encounter with the character of God–the professed integrity of Christ as a loving, compassionate, and righteous Savior of all humanity?
One of the general principles of biblical interpretation is to read difficult and challenging passages like this in light of other comparable passages that are easy to understand. In other words, we use the scriptures to interpret the scriptures.
Even if we take this encounter at face value, it represents an outlier. Elsewhere, the Gospels consistently portray Jesus as ready to help any sufferer who comes to Him — including Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and lepers. This is our first clue that there is something else going on here. So what is it?
First, the initial response of Jesus to this foreign woman–not answering her a word — was entirely following the norms of the day, and the disciples knew it. After all, she was not a Jew, nor even a Gentile. She was a Canaanite. This, along with the fact that she was a woman, not a man, both culturally and religiously gave her no right to approach a Jewish rabbi. Hence, the disciples ask and anticipate that Jesus will do the expected thing, the right thing, and send her away.
However, while Jesus first interacts with this woman within the expected social norms, his next move is to step outside of them completely. He not only engages her but invites her to come closer. Jumping ahead, and given how this whole episode turns out, it appears Jesus was first testing his disciples to see what they had learned from him and what they would do. Jesus has done this before. When they fail this test, Jesus then teaches his followers (yet again) the extent of God’s mercy and grace and teaches them the way of the Kingdom in responding to foreigners — and to women.
Second, Jesus isn’t baiting this woman as much as he is offering her a challenge of the sort that was common in Ancient Near Eastern cultures. But here’s the thing: this custom of a back and forth repartee was extended only between men — learned men. This was how 1st-century rabbis discussed matters of life and faith. We see lots of these sorts of exchanges in the Gospels, mainly posed by Pharisees, Sadducees, or other religious ofﬁcials towards Jesus.
For Jesus to publicly engage this woman and engage her in this manner, she is to embrace her as an equal both intellectually and spiritually. Given that no self-respecting rabbi would deign to speak, let alone converse, with a woman in public, Jesus is showing this woman more than just a little respect. Again, this is a pattern we see throughout the scriptures in Jesus’ encounters with women. Let us think back to the woman at the well in John 4:1-42, or the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears in Luke 7:36-50.
Third, let’s look at exactly what Jesus says in his second response to her. When he refers to her as one of the “dogs,” Jesus is not using the more disparaging term that we find in other scriptures like Matthew 7:6, Philippians 3:2, and Revelation 22:5. The form of the word translated as “dogs” that he employs here is more diminutive. It doesn’t refer to the dogs that are scavengers on the streets. It relates to household dogs that hang around the family table looking for scraps dropped to them–what we often call “lapdogs.”
This makes sense in light of the metaphor Jesus constructs through his full reply, one that presumes more of a domestic setting. The “children” are, of course, his fellow Jews–reinforcing a point Jesus made with the first reply he gave to the woman. The “dogs” are part of the family–part of the household–but are fed afterward. “Wild” dogs and “scavenger dogs of the street” aren’t typically allowed “under the table” and around the children.
What Jesus expresses here is not a derogatory reference to the woman or a simple misogynistic or racial put-down. It is a parable-like saying specifically appropriate to the woman. This metaphor would have made more sense to a Gentile than to a Jew. In the ancient world, Greeks and other Gentiles had a more familiar relationship with household pets, particularly dogs, than the average Jewish person. You were far more likely to see a dog as an endeared pet in the house of a Gentile than you would in a Jewish home. Added to this, the Jews of Jesus’ day would never have fed an unclean dog from under the family table.
Fourth, the woman’s reply to what we may perceive as a slur, much like her response to Jesus’ initial statement to her, indicates she is not insulted. Rather she is tracking with what and how Jesus is relating to her. She begins by affirming Jesus’ observation but then adds, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Her response is pithy and yet also striking as she embraces the metaphor and then turns it on its head. In essence, she retorts, “Call me dog, but even the dogs get to take part in the feast.”
She willingly places hope in what others have discarded. She recognizes the meal that this Son of David is serving is so abundant that there is more than enough for all in the house of Israel and for the Gentiles too. Leftovers are fine with her. In fact, she just wants a crumb. For this woman, even a crumb from Jesus is enough to defeat the demon that has possessed her daughter.
In the end, Jesus praises her: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” This woman seems to understand what many members of the household of Israel, who have been invited to the table, have yet to grasp. Jesus is not just hope for Israel, but hope for all the world.
Following this back and forth repartee, he essentially acknowledges this woman as having bested him in this challenge. Even in the rabbinical tradition, such verbal contests often became an attempt to gain honor at the other person’s expense. Hence, what began as a pursuit at learning would turn into wrestling for power. However, in ceding this woman’s win, Jesus publicly restores the honor and dignity of a woman who had risked both, according to every social convention in Gentile and Jewish culture, to help her daughter.
Jesus calls her “Woman.” He affirms her personhood and elevates her gender. Jesus embraces her as a child of God without any separation being made as to her nationality or ethnicity. She is never be labeled or limited by racial or religious prejudice again.
In that moment of recognition, respect, and connection, her daughter is made whole, healed and renewed, filled with new possibility and hope. No longer is this child identified with disease and demons; she is defined by God’s grace.
We must be careful with this passage, however. There is a danger here. Often, this Biblical passage has been used to say that if one had enough faith, they would get the answers they want to the prayers they make. Many have wondered if a spouse, child, parent, or other loved one died because they did not have enough faith in their prayers.
This is a misunderstanding of the nature of faith as well as the point of this story. Faith is not a human work–something we do to prove or earn something from God. If the Lord’s engagement in our lives is about our faith then that puts all the power and control in this life into our imperfect hands and out of the Lord’s. This kind of understanding of faith turns God into a vending machine rather the Creator and Sustainer of all creation.
Faith is a gift from God; it is something the Lord gives to us and seeks for us to apply towards him. But believing in God is not about believing that God will give us what we want. Believing in God is trusting that God is the One we need–the person of God and not simply the benefits of God. Interestingly, this woman cries out repeatedly for Jesus. While healing her daughter is implied, she desires to come near to Christ and for Christ to come near her.
Faith is trusting that God is always working–for our good and for the good of all creation–even when we aren’t getting the answers we want or seeing results that make sense to us. Indeed, in this season of Lent, as we about to turn the corner into Holy Week, we have a poignant example of someone with great faith who prayed and did not receive what he requested.
It was Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane and later on the Cross. Jesus, like this woman, experienced the silence of God, when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet, despite the perceived silence of his Heavenly Father, God was powerfully at work in the death of Jesus. The Lord was active in ways that were hidden from human perception, bringing about the forgiveness of sins and reconciling the world to Himself.
While having enough faith isn’t the prerequisite for answered prayer, in this encounter, we still witness how humble yet bold faith can change things. It is the tenacious persistence of this woman, in her conviction that the love of God is not confined to one people group, that breaks down the barriers of pretense and prejudice. In refusing to be silenced and defined by labels, she shatters the divisions and differences borne of past history and contempt.
To the early Christian community, unsure about its relationship with Judaism, Jesus’ interaction with this woman and his celebration of her deep faith served as an important reminder. And it continues to be an important reminder to us.
It is a reminder that there all are welcome in the Kingdom of God. It is a reminder that the obstacles between us living together both in and for Christ are not of heaven but of our brokenness. It is a reminder that we cannot ignore the cries of those in need. It is a reminder that those who persist in seeking equal treatment and justice for their children will not be silenced. It is a reminder that if we would see and embrace all with the eyes of Jesus, then we must look beyond the racial stereotypes borne of deeply ingrained prejudices that go back generations or even centuries. It is a reminder that everyone has a place at the table of Christ–that grace is to be shared and not withheld.
Consider & Discuss | The disciples are annoyed and flustered by this woman’s persistent pleas for help because they fell outside of understood social norms. Consider how you respond when someone breaks your social script. How can you engage and acknowledge the feeling and needs of those whose perspectives and/or backgrounds differ from your own?
The woman in this passage was relentless in her faith, even when it seemed Jesus was not listening; she was confident that God was at work whether she could perceive it or not. Are you this confident in your prayers? Are there areas of your life you hesitate to bring before the Lord? How can you rely on and submit more fully to the powerful work God is already doing?
Prayer Focus | O God, Heavenly Father, please help me to have a faith as strong as the Syrophoenician woman. Encourage me to accept your invitation to draw closer to you. Remind me that the feast you provide is abundant and that all are welcome at your table. Empower me to proclaim your mercy and grace to the world. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!