Jesus encountered a woman in Gentile territory at the end of a particularly hectic time of his life. We know her as the Syrophoenician woman from Mark’s account. Matthew’s account calls her a Canaanite woman. The incidents that finally drove Jesus out of Palestine to are recorded in Matthew beginning with 13:53 and in Mark 6-7.
- Jesus taught in the synagogue at Nazareth. The townspeople were 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 his disciples in pairs for ministry.
- While they were away, he learned that John the Baptist had been beheaded.
- When the disciples got back to Jesus, he wanted to hear how their reports. He probably also needed to grieve for the murder of his cousin. So in Mark 6:31, he said, “Come aside by yourselves to a quiet place where we can rest.” But the multitude didn’t allow them any peace and quiet. Jesus wound up feeding the 5,000 instead.
- Wanting private prayer time for himself, Jesus sent the disciples back in the boat. They didn’t want to do it. 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.
The interruption of the Syrophoenician woman
But the Syrophoenician woman did. She interrupted his plans 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.
She’s a Canaanite woman in Matthew’s account. The ancient Jews were supposed to have driven the Canaanites off the land. Technically, none remained alive in Jesus’ time. But in using the term, Matthew emphasizes her status as an unwelcome outsider.
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 along a road in open countryside. Jesus answered her (not the disciples) in 15:24, so she must have been close by. He said he had been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. And she was Canaanite. Then, in v. 25, it says she came. If she was already with him in v. 24, why would she come in v. 25? We find out from Mark.
Mark’s account explicitly takes place in a house. It appears, then, that the Syrophoenician woman 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. We can easily find it disturbing that he did not immediately answer her prayer. But does he always immediately answer ours? If we are not surprised when God doesn’t immediately do as we ask, why should we be surprised that Jesus didn’t immediately help this woman?
Why did Jesus at first refuse to help the Syrophoenician woman?
We need to understand why he denied her prayer in the first place. Then we need to see why he eventually answered it. In particular, we need to understand what she did differently when she went to the house.
We must not suppose that, because of the press of recent events, Jesus was tired and cranky, that he was fed up with interruptions and decided not to put up with any more.
Also, we must not suppose that he was a bigoted, narrow-minded Jew who scornedf everyone else.
These would be sinful responses of the flesh nature, and Jesus never yielded to temptation to sin.
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 rights under God’s covenant with the Jews. In calling him the Son of David, She may only have intended to flatter him or appeal to vanity.
Second, Jesus gave up his omniscience when he took human form. We know that he did not make any decisions on his own. He only did what he saw the Father doing.
Jesus knew that he Father sometimes showed mercy to Gentiles. It was his reference to one incident in Luke 4 that offended the people of Nazareth. But Jesus’s earthly ministry was limited in scope. Was this a time the Father would answer the prayer of a Gentile?
After all, in John 12:20, when Greeks wanted to see him, Jesus recognized a sign of the end of his earthly ministry. The desires of the Syrophoenician woman came too early in his ministry for that.
How she got her miracle
God never responds to our fear and panic. Never. He only responds to faith.
When Jesus rebuffed the Syrophoecian woman on the road, she found him at the house 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? That’s how the people of Nazareth responded to his teaching. It counted as unbelief. He was willing and even eager to perform miracles there. He could not do any because of their unbelief.
- She also did not ask herself, “What’s wrong with me?” Self-reproach can be just another way of getting offended. But she probably did ask, “What was wrong with my approach?”
- When Jesus denied her request, she was undeterred. She came back and worshipped. That is, 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.
- 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 undeserved favor, for grace.
Jesus doesn’t respond to panic, fear, presumption, or even to great need. He does respond to faith and humility. So he commended her for great faith and granted her prayer.
And let’s not miss one final important detail: she left believing that her daughter was healed, even though she had no evidence for it besides Jesus’s words.
Evidence of her great faith
The Syrophoenician woman didn’t have much knowledge of Jesus and his ways. But she acted on what little she knew. And that was enough.
- 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.
Do modern Christians know Jesus more than she did? Some do. Probably some don’t.
It doesn’t matter. Great faith doesn’t depend on having great knowledge. It’s acting humbly and persistently on the knowledge we have.