Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30

Like many of the women we have looked at in this series, we do not even know this woman’s name. She was unimportant, or so it seemed to the disciples, who wanted Jesus to send her away. However, they witnessed her exchange with Jesus, saw her faith and heard the outcome. As a result, both Mark and Matthew included an account of this incident in their gospels. What she proclaimed and what she exemplified continues to challenge and encourage us today. She had a desperate concern for her daughter who was possessed by an evil spirit, but she knew exactly where to go for help. "They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, 'Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit'." Jesus initially ignored her but the disciples came and complained: "Now she's bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She's driving us crazy." (Matthew 15:22-23 - The Message Version)

A chosen people

The Syrophoenician woman emerges as a model for Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians trying to figure out what their proper relationship to Judaism should be. The biblical order of salvation is: "first to the Jew then to the Gentiles". (Romans 2:9-10) On the one hand, the woman accepts the priority of the Jewish community without question and with humility. On the other hand, that priority does not deter her from making her own full appeal to Jesus. It is important that we who are Gentile Christians honour God’s chosen people and respect their historical relationship with God. This does not mean that we should accept that everything they are doing politically or economically is correct. It does mean, however, that without them we would not have a Saviour. Indeed, it was their rejection of Jesus that opened the door for us to be "grafted in" to the family of God. We share the same outcome, based on faith in Jesus Christ alone. Spiritual salvation is not based on national history, inherited birthright, position or good works.

Last but not least

We should not assume that humility and begging would have come easily to this woman. At that time, the Greeks were recognized as the most intelligent nation on earth. Their civilisation had produced philosophers such as Socrates and Plato and mathematicians like Pythagoras. For a Greek to ask a Jewish person for help was completely unheard of. So, why did Jesus not respond to her until the disciples pressured Him to do so? Matthew says that Jesus "withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon". (Matthew 15:21) He had been at odds with the Jewish religious teachers over questions of tradition and His own disciples had not really understood the importance of what He was trying to say. Jesus had to spell it out for them and was perhaps just needing a short break. (Matthew 15:1-20, especially verse 16)

Whatever the reason, we find Jesus in Gentile territory and, almost immediately, he is being approached for help. It's important to recognise that, for Jesus, the whole message of liberation and reconciliation which He preached and lived out was first and foremost a word for the Jewish people. These were the people with whom God had made a binding covenant and, despite their rejection of Him, Jesus had been sent with a message of love and reconciliation. Hence, Jesus' opening words to the woman are: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel". (Matthew 15:24)

The woman didn't argue and simply knelt down, pleading for His help. Jesus' reply sounds harsh. He suggests that it would not be right for Him to take the bread that has been prepared especially for the children of the household (the privileged people of Israel) and to throw it to the dogs that they kept as household pets (the less privileged Gentiles). It certainly sounds insulting, but Jesus may also have been testing her faith to see if she would give up at this hurdle.

But this woman is not about to give up so easily! She refuses to take Jesus’ initial “No” for an answer and points out that even the dogs underneath the table eat from the children’s leftovers. In effect, she is saying that there is more than enough salvation to go round. She is prepared to accept that Jesus' mission was primarily to His own people and that she and her daughter may be last in line, but they are not going away! They need Jesus' help. The woman sees no need to compete with others or to seek a better position in the kingdom of God. Such things are not important to her, but she loves her daughter very much and is prepared to endure any humiliation on her behalf. Jesus sees her great love and honours her persistent faith.

Humble persistence

Thus, this woman becomes a model, not only for Jewish-Christian relations, but for every possible kind of relation a Christian may consider. When we picture ourselves standing before God, it is not so hard for us to accept that we come empty-handed and can offer Him nothing. However, when we compare ourselves with other believers, it is all too easy to see ourselves as taking second place to those who we think of as being richer, stronger, more popular with more friends; not fearful, not troubled and never apparently having suffered loss. Perhaps simply - and for no particular reason - we think that they are closer to God than we are! This woman shows us that nothing should stop us getting close to Jesus. We may not be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, but nothing should get between us and our Saviour. We need to be single-minded, pushing forward in our relationship with Jesus and following His word, "not as a hearer only but as a doer". (James 1:22)

Jesus also challenged the disciples on their attitude to someone they would have seen as an outcast. They wanted to get rid of her and send her away, even though she was so desperate. They did not yet have Jesus’ heart for the hurting people whom they would later be serving as apostles. Our world today seems to have grown much smaller with the advances in communication and transport. It is so much easier now to learn about other races and their cultures, even to visit their countries if we wish. But an increased awareness of diversity and difference can also bring friction. As Christians, we need to remember always that: "God so loved the world that He gave..." His all!

Persistence is an essential quality for every woman to have in her life. We all need to be persistent if we want to encounter God's power in our situations. We all need to learn to pray without ceasing, when we feel the need for a miracle or just want to enjoy the presence of Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) As busy women, we need to learn that we do not always have to have a closet experience for prayer. Our Father shares every activity with us and He wants us to share every aspect of our lives with Him, even the simple, repetitive tasks that we do each day. We don't need to regard prayer as an "obligation"; it's a privilege! Most of us are not persistent in bringing our needs to Jesus. All too often, we let the disappointments of unanswered prayer overwhelm our faith. Jesus taught the principle of persistency in the story of the persistent neighbour who got the three loaves of bread that he needed to provide hospitality for an unexpected visitor. "Because of your shameless audacity, he will surely get up and give you as much as you need." (Luke 11:5-13 - New International Version)

We do not deserve anything from God yet, if we go before Him with a humble attitude and ask Him in the name of Jesus (and in accordance with His word), He will give us what we ask for because He loves us. Of course, God is sovereign and, sometimes, we may not get what we want immediately. But, if we join our humble attitude with persistent prayer and faith; if we show our faith with persistent praise and thanksgiving, we shall surely not be disappointed!

Faith for today

Throughout the gospels in the New Testament, time and time again, we see that Gentiles often had significantly more faith in Jesus than did the religious, Jewish teachers and leaders. After the woman had shown herself willing to accept even the crumbs from the Lord's table, Jesus told her: "Because of this saying, you may go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter [permanently]". (Mark 7:29 - Amplified Version) When she went, she found out that the demon had left the girl. Many (Jewish) people who received healing from Jesus only did so when He laid His hands on them. But this (foreign) woman believed Jesus' words alone.

Many people say: "Show me first, then I will believe". But God says: "Believe first and you will see". (John 20:29) Precisely because she is humble, this woman grasps the good news by faith and welcomes it. In Mark's gospel, liberation from demons signifies a liberation from isolation and alienation, leading to fellowship with God and with others. What the woman received went way beyond "crumbs" left under the table. Her daughter was fully healed.
Every encounter with God’s mercy is a completely new beginning. He never gives us leftovers from His kitchen; He treats us as His own children. (Galatians 3:26)

People who wanted healing followed Jesus wherever He went, even following Him up mountains, to receive what they needed. So today, we need to draw close to Him and Him alone, not the latest fad healer or leader. Our faith must be in Jesus Himself. Jesus gives us the gift of faith to follow Him in the first place. (Ephesians 2:8-9) After that, we have to build up our faith, strengthen it and guard it by paying attention to His word. (Romans 10:17) Hearing alone is not enough. We need to show that we really believe it by acting on it. From time to time, we may find that God tests our faith - in much the same way as Jesus did with this woman. He wants us to learn persistance. If our faith is strong and we follow and obey His word, we need never worry about answers to prayer.

  • Is our faith a dead or living faith?
  • Does our faith have love at the centre?
  • Does our faith have respect for people?
  • Is our faith obedient and active?
  • Is our faith protected?

How do we react to a crisis? God tells us to, "count it all joy when you face trials". (James 1:2-8) So, let's not be tempted to doubt God’s word when things are not all going to plan or working out as we had hoped or expected. Let's just keep repeating His promise to ourselves, throw our hands in the air and praise Him for His goodness and for what He is doing, even though the circumstances around us may look very unpromising. Let's focus on Jesus and run towards Him, rather than away from Him. Doubt cuts off His power from working on our behalf. We will no longer be anxious when we look to Him with a grateful heart, fully trusting His power and omniscience. "The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace." (Romans 8:6) Peace is a huge need in all of our lives!

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