Her Race and Religion
This facinating story is found in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. Her name and her daughter’s name are unknown. Matthew calls her a woman of Canaan, so she was not a Jewess. Mark refers to her as a Greek, a common term to distinguish Jews from Gentiles. She was a woman who had experienced discrimination. Being a mix of Jew and Gentile, she would not be accepted by the Jews. She is also known as “the Syrophenician woman” because her country of Phoenicia belonged to Syria. She was from an area north of Palestine, about a three days walk from Jerusalem. The Syrophenicians were a nation marked by divine judgments for their sins, especially idolatry (read Deuteronomy 7:2 and Ezekiel 28:22). This woman would probably have worshipped the national goddess called Ashteroth, The Queen of Heaven. She seemed far from the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about in region, race and religion.
This is not the only time God helped a Syrophenician woman. In I Kings 17, God used Elijah to assist a woman from that area. He multiplied her meal and oil and later raised her son from the dead. God also multiplied food in the New Testament in the form of bread and fish. He can surely supply the “crumbs” that this Syrophenician asked for.
We do not know if Jesus ever actually entered Tyre and Sidon, only that He was headed in that direction when he met this lady. Mark 7:24 specifically states that Jesus reached the borders of Tyre and Sidon, but there is no evidence He ever left His homeland. In fact, Jesus told His disciples not to go into Gentile towns, but to stick to the nation of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6). He went to Israel to manifest himself as Israel’s Messiah. His miracles and His teachings were all done in Israel. However, Jesus said, “I have other sheep not of this (the nation of Israel) fold” (John 10:16). It is noteworthy that Jesus didn’t give The Great Commission until after the resurrection, for he would manifest Himself to the world through the Spirit. Jesus seems to be reserving the evangelization of the Gentiles until after the Day of Pentecost. He could then be everywhere in the world through the Holy Spirit. He came to this planet to a certain nationality but He will come back globally at the Rapture.
She may have been familiar with the story of the woman of Zarephath and Elijah. Perhaps she had heard of Jesus’ miracles. It would seem that somehow this woman knew the Messiah would not be a racist. Her confession of Jesus as the “Son of David”, a term referring to the Messiah, would imply that she recognized Jesus as God’s Son. (Matthew 15:22). She was aware, to some degree, of His authority and abilities.
Matthew 16:25: “Help me!” Her daughter’s case was hopeless. She was in anguish, but for her daughter, not for herself. She came knowing she had no claims to God’s mercy, for she was of a nation outside the covenant God had made with Israel.
Jesus never spoke to her until she cried for His personal help. “Have mercy on me,” she cried. “My daughter is vexed with a devil.” She wasted no words, for eloquence is not necessary when you talk with Jesus.
Her Remarks to His Response
At first His response was no response at all. Then, there is a refusal. Then, He grants her request. Why His initial silence in her case? He knew her situation. But she, like her child, would be blessed as an object lesson for His disciples. “My girl is ‘grievously vexed’ (severely demonized) with a devil.” She had the faith to believe God would reach out to both Jews and Gentiles! She was a nobody and she knew it. There is no evidence Jesus ever refused a cry for mercy. Usually, He responded immediately but not in this case. Other times and in other places, we find the blind groping, the crippled limping, the demoniac foaming, the demoniacs screaming…and Jesus heals them all.
But His remark doesn’t dissuade her. She would not be discouraged. The disciples’ attitude toward her was “Send her away” (Matthew 15:23). Get rid of her, she’s a pest! We can’t hear great truth from Jesus with her mouth running!” These were the same disciples who wanted to send the children away. But Jesus said we must allow the children to come to Him. Note that Jesus didn’t grant their request in that case or in this one. Jesus, while responding to her request, was trying to teach His disciples a great truth.
But what about Jesus referring to her as a “dog”? Does Jesus call people bad names? Note that in 15:26, the “children” (of Israel) are contrasted with “dogs.” This was a proverbial expression, used by Jews, to denote their own special recognition by God above all other nations. Gentiles were known as dogs by the Jews and everyone knew this. But the word “dog” here is not a reference to the wild dogs which roamed throughout Palestine. In the context of the term used here, it refers to a pet puppy, for wild dogs don’t have the master’s tables to get scraps from. His remark was meant to test her faith. But we see that the circumstances stacked against her didn’t hinder her. Note that she never argued with Jesus, but rather seems to follow them along as they walked, as if to say, “I know Jesus will grant my request.”
God has put the love of a mother in each mother’s heart. Most men would have given up right then, but this was a woman who would not take “No” for an answer. She was as determined as Bartimaeus. This was a didactic scene, for Jesus had to teach the disciples that the Messiah was to have a global ministry. She probably heard the disciples tell Jesus that she should be sent away, but it never slowed her down. She could have quit anytime.
Compare this passage with the parable of the persistent widow. In Matthew 15:26, Jesus states that it is not right to take what “belongs” to Jews and waste it on Gentile dogs. Her persistence sounds like, “OK, Lord, I am a dog, but can I be your dog? I accept my title and my place, but can I get a portion of grace from you, Jesus, for my daughter? I’m not asking for a whole loaf or even a little slice. Just a few crumbs of your grace. I’m not asking for an equal portion, just a little piece of Who you are.”
She seemed to be aware that Jesus had plenty to give. She had no way to know that one day there will be a Marriage Supper with all nationalities represented at His table. She didn’t know that angels even now may be preparing her place-setting at that table, with a place card with her name on it and a place beside her for her daughter. She would not let Him go until He blessed her.
She takes His own words and makes use of them. She “re-cycled” His own words in a beautiful and respectful way. Jesus responds favorably to her re-use of His words. They were polite, honest and thoughtful. Her focus is on the privilege His words imply, for dogs deserve nothing, but even they get fed. The difference between her and many 21st century Christians is that she knew she deserved nothing. She admits her own unworthiness. Note that she doesn’t suggest that anyone else get less because she asks for something. She didn’t suggest that the Jews deserved to get less. Note in Matthew 7:27 that Jesus said, “Let the children first be filled.” She never asked for a place at the table. Meditate on the beauty and patience involved in her reply. Matthew 6:8 records Jesus telling His disciples that “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him,” and certainly Jesus does as well.
Contrast the confusion of the male disciples to the great commendation that came from the lips of Jesus. Her honesty, boldness and persistence are honored. She knocked until the door was opened…and it was opened by Jesus.
There are some parallels between this story and that of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew Chapter 8. Both he and his servant were Gentiles too, but Jesus granted their request. I’m sure what she said blessed Him, for He seems delighted with her response. She agrees with what He says about her position, but she still asks for a portion. “O woman, great is your faith: you will receive what you have asked for.” It is as if Jesus had said, “Go on home and your girl will come skipping along the path to meet you. She is now in her right mind, delivered and perfectly whole.” Jesus can heal at a distance as He did with Jairus’ daughter. Thirty years later, Paul stayed in that region for a week and Luke wrote in Acts 21:5 that entire families walked with them out of the city and they all kneeled and prayed on the shore.
Several observations can be made from the reading of this passage.
- God honors the faith that will converse with Jesus.
- The love of God knows no racial boundaries.
- The love of God knows no territorial boundaries.
- Jesus always met the needs of those He encountered.
- The Canaanite woman was willing to take a lower place, but Jesus elevated her to a higher place.
- She may have been one of the very first Gentile converts. Perhaps she was the very first.
- We know from Paul’s writings that the church at Tyre grew. One wonders if this woman played a prominent role in the growth of this church.
- When this Canaanite woman came home, she found her girl sleeping peacefully (Mark 7:30).
One may wonder why Jesus dealt with this woman in this particular way. But He knew what she would do. Jesus draws the best out of those who seek Him.
1. What title does this woman give to Jesus (Matt. 15:22)?
2. What title does this woman give to herself (Matt. 15:27)?
3. What did Jesus claim to possess in John 10:16?
4. What was wrong with her daughter (Matt. 15:22)?
5. According to Matthew 16:25, what was her simple request?
6. What did the disciples want to do with her (Matt. 15:23)?
7. Who else did the disciples want to dispose of (Mark 10:13-14)?
8. Jesus was irritated because the woman insisted Jesus come and heal her daughter.
True or False?
9. The centurion adamantly insisted Jesus come and heal his servant (Matt. 8:8-10).
True or False?
10. What did this woman later discover (Mark 7:30)?
11. She was a Gentile. What does this story teach concerning the love of Christ crossing gender and racial boundaries?