Tyre and Sidon
Pp Mark 7:24-30
The Three Players
2. The Disciples
3. The Syrophoenician Woman
I gave the reader a background to why I entitled Mtw 13:53-15:20 ‘Indifference and Attention’ though I in no way meant to use the label as a title which gave the sum total of all that was within the section. Neither is my title here of Mtw 15:21-17:21 of ‘Jesus’ Gentile Mission’ meant to represent the complete subject matter contained within these two chapters.
But that Jesus is found frequently away from the area of Galilee is true and we should perhaps take what transpired in Mtw 14:1-2,13 as being the main reason for His doing so. We saw there that, through Herod Antipas’ increasing attentions towards Him, He withdrew temporarily into the region east of the Lake over which Bethsaida had authority and, therefore, away from the king’s jurisdiction.
Although He appears to have been forced to sail once more westwards into Galilee shouldn’t push us away from noting that this sailing seems to have been for the reason that He was intending to move both north and west upon landing, even though many flocked to Him to be healed of their various diseases and incapacities (Mtw 14:33-35), allowing just enough time for another delegation of Jews from Jerusalem to arrive and to criticise the disciples for eating food without first ceremonially washing their hands (Mtw 15:1-2).
The intention of Jesus appears, therefore, to be predominantly away from Galilee and He appears only to visit the region with the sole intention of passing through it from here on until His decision to journey to Jerusalem for the approaching festival of Passover (Mtw 17:22, 19:1) apart from one visit to Magdala (Mtw 15:39-16:4).
Initially, Jesus appears in the district of Tyre and Sidon (Mtw 15:21) before skirting the edge of the Sea of Galilee (Mtw 15:29) to arrive back in the area of the Decapolis, east of the Lake (Mark 7:31). Here He journeyed eastwards and is once more confronted by the Pharisees who this time come together with the Sadducees (Mtw 16:1 - on the west side of the Sea of Galilee near Magdala) before journeying to the ‘other side’ (Mtw 16:5) which can mean that the disciples sailed north-eastwards to Bethsaida or more east to the shores of the Decapolis before journeying north to the city (Mark 8:22), the place to which Jesus had originally told His disciples to sail when the first miracle of the multiplication of the food had taken place (Mark 6:45).
This city still lay in Herod Philip’s region and, from here, Jesus journeyed almost due north to arrive in Caesarea Philippi (Mtw 16:13, Mark 8:27). It would appear that the subsequent transfiguration also took place in this general area (Mtw 17:1) - away from Galilee and on the summit of a high mountain which are common in this area (you could stick a shrine on almost any one of a hundred mountains here and not be more than ten miles or so out in your locating of the event - not that you’d probably want to do such a thing, however!).
That the next incident (Mtw 17:14-21) must have taken place in the same area seems to be a necessary deduction from the statement that it occurred when they came to the gathered crowds who were being ministered to by the remaining disciples (Mark 9:14) and because, following this incident, Jesus is spoken of as returning into the area (Mark 9:30) something which He couldn’t do if He was already there.
This marks out the end of the section I’ve denoted as being ‘Gentile’ for, from Mtw 17:22 to the end of chapter 18, we get a couple of incidents recorded for us that occurred in and around Capernaum before Jesus sets His face determinedly to journey to Jerusalem, arriving in the wilderness of Judea to minister to those who came to Him (Mtw 19:1-2) before finally marching on Jerusalem (Mtw 20:17) and arriving there five days before the festival (John 12:1,12).
This ‘Gentile Mission’ would be wrong to be interpreted as being an opportunity taken by Jesus to reach the non-Jewish settlers around the boundaries of Israel (Mtw 15:24) but there are indications in the text that Jesus was content to reach Gentiles when they came to Him (Mtw 15:31 - see my notes on the following web page) and that He was present in Gentile territory is an indication that it couldn’t have been easy to specify that only Jews could come to receive healing!
Therefore, we should take this time of ministry to be primarily to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Mtw 15:24) but that He reached many more inhabitants of the lands He entered. Jesus was already known in both the Decapolis from which multitudes had come to Him (Mtw 4:25) and who would, no doubt, have heard the proclamation of the ex-demoniac as he spoke about what Jesus had done for him (Mark 5:20) and in Tyre and Sidon whose inhabitants are also recorded as coming in their numbers to receive healing (Mark 3:8, Luke 6:17). But it does need to be pointed out that, although I have mentioned that Jesus was still seeking to withdraw away from Herod Antipas’ attentions by removing Himself from Galilee, the journey to the region of Tyre and Sidon was not necessarily to begin a missionary work here for we read (Mark 7:24 - my italics) that
‘...He entered a house and would not have anyone know of it’
an indication that there may have been the additional intention to continue seeking to get His disciples some rest (Mark 6:30-31). Markcole adds to these two reasons for His withdrawal by speaking of the possibility that Jesus may have looked upon it as an opportunity for a time of ‘preparation’ which, presumably, is meant to indicate that Jesus was aware that His death would be sooner rather than later and that He wanted time to be ready for all that that trial was to bring.
While this is quite possible, it’s not even hinted at within the text and the twofold explanation of the journey to the region of Tyre and Sidon is the most that we can say with any certainty.
Only Mark 7:24-30 parallels the current passage, Luke leaving out the incident from his record. If Luke had known about the incident which had taken place, it seems strange that he chose to omit it along with the second feeding of the crowds which also took place on Gentile soil for, what we know about the reason for the Gospel’s compilation (Luke 1:1-4), would prompt us to consider Jesus’ ministry into these areas as being indications that Jesus was willing to reach out to the non-Jew even on a limited basis before the establishing of the Church and of its commission to reach all nations. Marklane comments correctly that
‘There can be no doubt that Gentile readers would be vitally interested in the account’
but, for a reason which appears to now be indeterminable, Luke misses this passage out in his Gospel.
The two parallel passages are so different in what they describe and record that it’s necessary at this point to make some attempt at a harmonisation before we go on to consider the actual text.
Mark begins his account by stating that Jesus was attempting to stay in the region unnoticed and that He entered ‘a house’ (Mark 7:24). This, however, seems to be the final throw of the dice for the woman who comes in to Jesus and falls down at His feet to beg Him for the deliverance that her daughter needed. Prior to this, it appears that the woman had been following both Jesus and the disciples around the area and crying after Jesus to have mercy on her daughter (Mtw 15:22) to which Jesus had chosen to remain absolutely silent (Mtw 15:23).
Then the disciples begin to get aggravated with her consistent wailing after them and beg Jesus to send her away (Mtw 15:23-24) - possibly they would have her receive her healing and begone but, seeing as they also appear to be concerned to get some peace (I can sympathise with their concerns for we have a neighbour who enjoys turning music on when he’s in the garden rather than to listen to the sounds around him like we prefer to do), there may be an element of feeling which isn’t too concerned whether this is given to her - and Jesus answers their request with an enigmatic answer which seems to presume that the disciples were requesting that she be sent away with the request for her healing granted to her (Mtw 15:24).
The woman then follows Jesus into the house - which is where Mark begins his account (Mark 7:24) - and falls down before Him, imploring Him to cast the demon out from her daughter (Mark 7:26, Mtw 15:25). It must have seemed quite intolerable to the disciples that she hadn’t been excluded from the house and that she’s now in their midst with her wailing reverberating off the hard walls where they’re trying to get some rest!
The disciples don’t figure in this scene anymore and the two characters that are now focused on are solely Jesus and the woman. Jesus gives the woman an explanation of why He can’t heal her daughter (Mtw 15:26, Mark 7:27) before she responds with quite some statement that ignores the reproach which is in Jesus’ words (Mtw 15:27, Mark 7:28).
Jesus then grants the woman’s request (Mtw 15:28, Mark 7:29) and the story closes with the fulfilment of Jesus’ words (Mtw 15:28, Mark 7:30).
Tyre and Sidon
Matthew’s account speaks of Jesus and the disciples withdrawing northwards to the ‘district’ of Tyre and Sidon where the Greek word which denotes the area (Strongs Greek number 3313) means, firstly, ‘a part’ of something and was used also to denote a specific region. It’s used similarly in Mtw 2:22 where Joseph is warned in a dream not to settle in Judea and chooses rather to go to the ‘district of Galilee’ denoting an area of some five hundred square miles, an area which was considerably large (unless you’re an American).
Mark 7:24, however, uses a different word (Strongs Greek number 3725) which means, as Vines notes
‘the border of a country or district’
though the AV translates it as ‘coast’ in ten of its eleven occurrences in the NT. Certainly ‘coast’ would suit the linking of the word with both Tyre and Sidon but the word is used in Mtw 4:13 to denote the ‘territory of Zebulun and Naphtali’ and there seems no good reason why it shouldn’t retain this sort of meaning here. It’s difficult to be entirely certain, however, and it makes equal sense whether we think of Jesus travelling to the district over which Tyre and Sidon held authority and being on the seacoast or further in land on the borders of their territory.
The statements by both writers certainly don’t infer that Jesus ever entered the cities and, when NIDBA notes an archaeological find in Tyre of
‘...a mosaic-floored first century pavement between what appears to have been a double row of shops with pillared porticoes’
they go on to erroneously marvel that
‘Christ could have walked here on His visit to the area...’
without any firm Scriptural support that He ever came to the city. Marklane is much more accurate when he writes that
‘It is impossible to know how far He penetrated into this Hellenistic environment since “the region of Tyre” [this is one of the manuscript versions which excludes ‘Sidon’ as opposed to Matthew which includes it] simply designates the district of which Tyre was the metropolitan centre’
for we have no way of knowing just how far Jesus went into the territory of the two cities if, indeed, he didn’t simply stay at an undisclosed location ‘on the borders’ of their district (see above). The distance from Capernaum to Tyre is approximately thirty miles as the crow flies and much more when one is on foot - and to Sidon it’s fifty, a route which would bypass Tyre. Both Phoenician seaports are some twenty-five miles apart on the Mediterranean coast.
The area was part of the province of Syria which lay away from Herod’s jurisdiction - and this would appear to have been part of the reason why the location was chosen (Mtw 14:1-2,13). The area had received no major ministry from Jesus’ direct presence (in fact, the Biblical account gives no mention of any ministry in this area save the incident we are about to read) hence His use of them as an example in Mtw 11:21 as a comparison with the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida who had witnessed some of Jesus’ greatest miracles and yet still hadn’t repented. Tyre and Sidon, Jesus says, if they had seen those sorts of miracles in their midst
‘...would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes’
But there were people in the region who had heard of Jesus’ fame and who had come to Him in Galilee (Mark 3:8, Luke 6:17). In fact, it’s entirely possible that the ‘house’ referred to in Mark 7:24 was one belonging either to a disciple or to one who had come to Jesus for ministry from this area.
Markcole is a little too categorical in his statement (my italics) that
‘...it must have been in the home of some Jewish disciple of His that He was now staying incognito’
and, while Marklane notes that, because Jesus had had contact with the region’s inhabitants, His attempt at remaining ‘incognito’ became largely futile, it has to be said that, if the house to which He now came belonged to a disciple (that is, not one of the twelve) then it was probably primarily because He’d ministered to those from this region in Galilee that the house became available to them!
A clear case of popularity making opportunity but, with it, new problems present themselves.
Marklane also follows a line which I shan’t be taking in the following notes on the main body of the passage by writing that
‘Mark’s placement of the incident in the district of Tyre immediately following the discussion of clean and unclean provides a concrete example of Jesus’ disregard for the scribal concept of defilement...’
but we should firstly note that this ‘placement’ appears to be the historical and chronological sequence, for Matthew follows it as well and it makes perfect sense in the context of needing to get away from the region of Galilee over which Herod Antipas ruled. But it does serve as a good example of Jesus’ concept of what makes for uncleanness. However, we noted throughout chapters 8 and 9 that the catalogue of events demonstrated to the reader that Jesus was fully content to cut across the accepted culture of His day so that men and women might be both healed and reached with the Gospel, and He previously has entered the recognised unclean territory of the Decapolis (Mtw 8:28) which He will repeat a short time later in the Gospel (Mark 7:31).
What Jesus does here, therefore, is nothing new in that sense but it does lend weight to Jesus’ continued disregard for the accepted norms of His day to do as He felt His Father would have Him to do.
The Three Players
There are three ‘players’ or characters in this story which each need to be understood for the full implications of the story to be realised. Commentators often major on both the attitude of Jesus in not being initially willing to heal the woman’s daughter and on the woman herself who perseveres to the point of achieving what she had set herself to receive.
But we forget the disciples’ contribution to the story at our own peril for, as we will see below, their response to the continual screamings of the woman demonstrate something about them which needs to be contrasted with the attitude and persistence of the Syrophoenician woman.
We first look at Jesus, however, and, in so doing, we will cover some of the ground which should really be included under the second and third headings. But the story is fairly well integrated and this needs to be done unless we disjoint the story too much.
The greatest need of the commentator is to accurately understand the reason or reasons why Jesus refuses initially to heal the woman who follows after Him for a miracle to be performed in her daughter. If we correctly determine this, all the other responses of both the disciples and the woman - and the reason why Jesus changes His mind from refusal to acceptance - should fall immediately into place.
Unfortunately, whichever explanation we choose as being the right reason, we’re going to have to make a few assumptions with what’s being said in the text for neither Matthew nor Mark spell out for the reader the undercurrents and hidden intentions which are necessary. We’re left to grope somewhat in the dark and to theorise about what might have been Jesus’ reason in His stern rebuke of the woman and of His categorical denial to the disciple that He could offer deliverance to the woman’s daughter (Mtw 15:24).
The commentators are also divided on an explanation of this passage and it will be beneficial to us to focus our attention on some of these before going on to theorise (and I emphasise that it’s no more than this) about what’s going on inside Jesus’ mind.
The position of Marklane is stated quite clearly in his commentary and we should note, firstly, that he talks about Jesus’ ‘apparent’ refusal to help rather than seeing that Jesus’ mind was made up from the beginning that He would not work in the situation, a decision which was eventually changed by the woman’s response. He comments that this refusal
‘...in a situation of clear need conveys an impression of harshness and insensitivity’
as it most likely does in a great many unbelievers’ lives if they should stumble upon this passage by accident. But there’s a reason for Jesus’ refusal which he sees in the situation in the area including Galilee where men and women would flock to any miracle worker in order for their needs to be met and that it was only fitting that the power of God should be revealed and applied into a situation which could be clearly shown not to be one of general superstition, which regarded Him as some sort of magical miracle worker. Therefore, says Marklane, Jesus
‘...put before the woman an enigmatic statement to test her faith. The irony of comparison is intended to invite a renewed appeal’
But it seems difficult to accept the comments made here for we should naturally expect the same sort of safeguard upon a misunderstanding of the power of God in the lives of the Jews to whom He was ministering. There were, indeed, events which could also be considered to have been a demonstration of the crowds’ belief that the power of God was magical in nature (Mark 6:56) but this appears to have been accepted because all who responded with a procedure for receiving their healing rather than a belief simply in Jesus’ word of command (Mtw 8:8) were healed.
Besides, the woman addresses Jesus as ‘Son of David’ (Mtw 15:22), a title which a Gentile would presumably not have realised the full implications of unless she at least knew a little about the Jews’ hopes for a Messiah who would restore both themselves into a relationship with God and the Davidic kingdom over the nations of the world. Perhaps this might also indicate that the region where Jesus had now come was littered with Jewish settlements side by side with Gentile ones and that they had made themselves fairly well known to the non-Jewish people of the area. Markcole goes on to see the woman as
‘...standing on false ground...’
because of the way she appealed to a Jewish hope when she herself wasn’t from that lineage, concluding that
‘She must be taught that her only hope lay in the uncovenanted mercies of God’
This would be easily demonstrable if she hadn’t responded so positively to Jesus’ rebuke that she was a dog and not worthy to receive such a miracle, something which she seems to have fully understood in the context of her being a Gentile and the ‘children’ being Israel. But to Jesus, the refusal gives no opportunity for her to be able to change His mind and, besides, what wins the day isn’t the mercy of God demonstrated in her life regardless of anything in her (or, perhaps better, because of what she is) but it comes about through a demonstration of her persistence and her faith (Mtw 15:28, Mark 7:29).
Without putting too strong a point on it, the woman had worked for her healing in a way that, for instance, the widow of Nain hadn’t (Luke 7:11-15). She’d heard about Jesus, pursued Him, wouldn’t let Him go because she knew only He could help her and wasn’t willing to be put off even by the apparent sternest of rebukes. Instead, the continuance of her faith was what, in the end, won the day and turned the will of Jesus to bestow deliverance on her daughter from the demon.
We shouldn’t think that the woman, therefore, had solely to rely on the ‘uncovenanted mercies of God’ for that initial approach hadn’t worked (Mtw 15:22).
This isn’t the main reason why Markcole sees the woman as needing to throw herself solely upon Jesus and to rely on no standing of her own. He sees Jesus’ refusal to initially give her healing as a desire on His part
‘...to see whether the woman was ready to take such a lowly position in order to win healing’
Again, this is an effect of the situation just as God does indeed bestow mercy upon the woman when her faith won’t let go of the hope she has for her daughter - but I find it difficult to accept that Jesus is announcing her position simply to see whether she’ll be willing to humble herself into a lowly position where she acknowledges she isn’t worthy to receive such a miracle.
She already knew this or she wouldn’t have first cried out (Mtw 15:22)
‘Have mercy on me...’
demonstrating her need for something which she recognises she doesn’t deserve - her action of coming to kneel before Him also being an outward demonstration of her speech (Mtw 15:25). I don’t believe Jesus is wanting to see demonstrated her humility, simply because He responds to her faith rather then to the humbling of herself before Him.
There are a couple of other statements made by commentators which, to me, remain puzzling. Firstly, Mathen comments that Jesus’ initial silence (Mtw 15:23) wasn’t a response in the negative to her request for healing. He writes that Jesus
‘...does not reject the woman’s request though it seems as if He does’
but we could hardly think of it as acceptance! And neither could we take it as a response which was to demonstrate that He was thinking about it. The woman knew that Jesus would have heard her cry and realised that the silence indicate a negative response.
Also Mattask’s statement that
‘...He could not be at the beck and call of everyone, however deserving their requests might be’
is more in keeping with a disciple who is so concerned with his own needs that he decides to ignore those who would come to him to receive something from God. It won’t surprise the reader to learn that I don’t accept that there was anything of this concept behind Jesus’ silence to the woman’s crying after Jesus and the disciples. He also comments that Jesus
‘...would make no exception in the case of this Canaanite woman until He was convinced that she understood fully [that Jesus’ mission was to the Jew] and until He had overwhelming evidence of her faith’
but this seems a little contrived for nowhere else do we find Jesus refusing to respond to a request for healing until He’d seen demonstrated faith. In the story of the healing of the centurion’s slave (Mtw 8:5-13), we find the centurion’s faith coming as a surprise to Jesus who marvels that such a person as this could exhibit it when the Jewish people lacked it - the widow of Nain also couldn’t have exhibited any faith for the miracle was performed simply because Jesus chose to intervene. Mathen runs parallel to this belief when he writes that
‘He wanted to give her faith an opportunity for more glorious expression’
interpreting Jesus’ delay in granting healing not as a personal need for Him to see her faith but as an opportunity for the woman to express what He knew she already possessed. This isn’t easily provable, though, from the text before us. Mathen also concludes that part of the reason for Jesus being silent initially is so that (my italics) He can
‘...make it perfectly clear to all concerned that the wide-opening of the doors for the influx of the Gentiles into the Kingdom of Heaven is a matter that pertains to the future’
and a few other commentators also follow this line. However, nowhere do we find Jesus even hinting at a future opportunity for the Gentiles in this passage - indeed, his categorical statement that He’s been sent only to Israel seems to preclude this possibility. We shouldn’t, therefore, take the granting of one woman’s request as a proclamation that Jesus’ ministry would be thrown open at a future date to the entire world. We can look back in hindsight and say that Jesus was willing to be petitioned by the Gentiles and that it indicated that the Kingdom might be allowed to be preached to them, but the mission is stated only as being to Israel and neither is it stated that it’s for a specific length of time after which it was to change.
We need to start our interpretation of the passage, I believe, with a statement such as that of Mattask who writes that
‘In view of all that has been stated in the previous narrative about the compassion of Jesus, we might perhaps have expected that He would have at once given the woman the help she needed’
and this appears to be accurate. Nowhere previously do we find Jesus withholding a healing from people who came to Him in sincerity - we find a sign being refused because of the wickedness of the requester’s heart (Mtw 12:38-39) but nothing that would parallel such an occurrence as we find here. Though, perhaps, a case for such a situation could be made from the silence of the Gospel record in the healing of the two blind men (Mtw 9:27-28) where there needed to be an equal persistence in their lives for them to eventually receive what they required - Jesus doesn’t deny them their healing initially, however.
But, further than this, in previous healings and deliverances even as people approach Jesus and before they’ve had a chance to tell Him their need, He allows healing to take place (Mtw 9:1-8).
This response of Jesus to a situation of obvious and apparent need is, therefore, surprising and we shouldn’t belittle that fact.
I also feel that we shouldn’t adopt the interpretation that Jesus knew the outcome of the event before it transpired, nor that the woman would have achieved her purpose had she shouted a few times and given up when there was no response in the One she was petitioning. There appears to be a definite decision by Jesus not to heal her on the grounds that He’d been sent solely to the people of Israel, a statement which is in perfect harmony with the disciples’ own commission in Mtw 10:5-6 where they were told to
‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’
This may sound particularly harsh - but we must also notice that this isn’t the final word and was never meant to be. In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus told a parable where a widow continually petitioned an unrighteous judge to get a decision in her favour even though it appeared that the man would never give in to her requests. Even so, the judge eventually realised that the widow would wear him out with her continued assaults on his peace and quiet, and gave in to her requests. But this wasn’t because he found that he cared for her or that his fear of God prompted him to do anything about it.
Jesus told this parable to emphasise the need for perseverance in prayer and noted that God would soon answer His chosen who continually petition Him to act on their behalf. Therefore, we should see in this story, an acted out parable that relies as much on the reaction of the disciples as it does on the persistence of the Syrophoenician woman in not giving up.
And it’s this dynamic contrast which the writer is trying to bring out for his readers to understand. It wasn’t that the story is related only because of the interplay between Jesus and the woman but because her persistence is being contrasted with the lack of persistence in the disciples who give up, as we shall see, rather too easily when they attempt to petition Jesus on her behalf (Mtw 15:23).
The woman’s perseverance by refusing to give up on her knowledge that Jesus could heal her daughter (that is, the persistence of faith) was what eventually secured the healing for her.
Finally, we need to consider Jesus’ statement concerning the woman being one of the ‘dogs’ who could not expect anything from the children’s meal. Matfran comments that the term ‘dogs’
‘...was a current Jewish term of abuse for Gentiles...So Jesus is expressing the contemptuous Jewish attitude to Gentiles in order to explain why her request does not fit into His mission to Israel’
but, even here, we shouldn’t think that the words are spoken to her with a harshness and degree of contempt that one would have expected from, for instance, a Pharisaic person who couldn’t help but remove himself from the woman’s presence for fear of contracting ceremonial defilement and of rendering himself unclean in the sight of God. By the time Jesus sees the woman approach Him in the house (Mark 7:24) and falls down before Him (Mark 7:25), it would appear that He already had the willingness to heal before He ever uttered the statement that she was a dog. This appears, at first glance, to be much more than one can get from the words which are often taken as being in the form of a stern rebuke. But, as Matfran writes
‘...written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react...the tone need not have been a humourless rudeness’
and Matmor, quoting Barclay, comments that
‘The tone and the look with which a thing is said make all the difference. Even a thing which seems hard can be said with a disarming smile. We can call a friend “an old villain” or “a rascal” [or far worse!] with a smile and a tone which takes all the sting out of it and which fills it with affection. We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in His eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness’
This is, I admit, an interpretation based on nothing in the text but it seems to be warranted if, by the time the woman approaches Jesus in the house, He is already deciding that she should receive the healing she has been actively pursuing for sometime. This interpretation of His reply to her request for help (Mtw 15:25) is more in-keeping with His previous willingness to heal all who came to Him than it is a true reflection of a normal response to those who were actively demonstrating their faith by their continued insistence for healing to be granted them.
2. The Disciples
The disciples, although not ignored by commentators dealing with Mtw 15:21-28, are not brought to the fore and shown to be an integral part of the story. Their position, however, seems to be fairly clear - they’re quite willing to have Jesus heal the woman if they can get her ‘off their backs’ and make her shut up. Perhaps they found her shouting after Jesus all the more embarrassing, being in a foreign land and away from the places that they were accustomed to, not having friends and acquaintances around them and a little aware that there weren’t too many of them to the population as a whole in case anything should happen.
But their concern isn’t very deep and once they’re told by Jesus that she won’t be receiving her healing because she isn’t of Jewish descent, they leave the matter unresolved.
And Jesus’ answer seems to interpret the disciples’ question for us, for His reply that He’s only been sent to the Israelites presupposes that their request to have the woman sent away from them was not some petition to have the woman policed as a disturbance but that Jesus might answer her appeals and send her away with the healing she was requesting. Mathen sees this interpretation, however, as
‘...not supported by any solid argument’
but Jesus’ answer seems to be meaningless unless there was an implication that this was their request. Certainly, if the disciples felt that they only wanted her removed with or without a healing, Jesus’ reply is demonstrating to them that the only way for this to be achieved would be for her to be healed - something which He had not been commissioned to do. Matfran is right, then, in his comments that their insistence that He do something was simply a request that granting what she wanted would be
‘...the easiest way to get rid of her’
But, whatever the actual implications, it’s clear from their failure to continue their request that they were demonstrating their lack of compassion for both the woman and her situation. Yet, in some ways and, more importantly, they showed that they were unwilling to intercede on her behalf with persistence and perseverance for the need of another when they first received the negative response.
The sad fact of the matter is that to Jesus’ statement in Mtw 15:24, they could have replied with a number of different arguments had they been concerned with her welfare. They could have appealed to Jesus’ previous mission to the Samaritans when returning from Judea (John chapter 4) or reminded Him about the healing of the centurion’s servant (Mtw 8:5-13) or even brought to mind His statement in the synagogue in Nazareth on His first return visit shortly after His ministry had begun (Luke 4:25-27) when He’d highlighted the faith of two OT Gentiles who received from God what they knew they needed - and one of these was specifically a healing.
As Jesus noted then, when God’s servant Elijah needed sustenance and protection, he was sent not to a Jewess but to a Gentile and, perhaps just as significantly, a woman who was a resident of Zarephath near Sidon in the same general vicinity in which this woman resided. And, in the time of Elisha, although leprosy was common place in the land, it was only a Gentile Syrian commander who sought out a miraculous cure for his condition through a servant of the God of Israel.
Such events clearly demonstrated that God would and did respond positively to the faith of Gentiles when they approached Him, but such considerations seem to have been far from their thoughts.
And why didn’t they attempt to heal her themselves? Remember that they had already been given authority over all the power of satan and over every sickness and disease (Mtw 10:1) and they had already demonstrated it as they travelled throughout the land bringing the Kingdom of God through the miracles they performed and the words they proclaimed.
That their ministry continued even after they’d returned to Jesus seems certain from both Mark 6:31 immediately after their return and, later, in Mtw 17:14-16 where the disciples find that their faith doesn’t actually extend into this person’s situation - nevertheless, they were still trying to meet need even when their Master is away from them up a mountain with Peter, John and James (Mtw 17:1-8).
In a previous miracle when the five thousand men were fed (Mtw 14:13-21), Jesus had urged the disciples that they give the crowds something to eat (Mtw 15:16), something which they couldn’t perceive was possible. In the following parallel miracle of the feeding of the four thousand (Mtw 15:32-39), they still fail to comprehend that such a multiplication of natural resources was a continuing possibility (Mtw 15:33) and seem content to resign themselves to the impossibility of the problem rather than to give themselves over to the vast possibilities which were presenting themselves to them by having Jesus with them. A simple
‘Shall we feed them like You did before?’
would have been more a demonstration of their faith than what they eventually came out with and would have placed the miracle into the court of the followers, showing they’d grasped something about God’s provision towards His people.
Instead of the disciples taking it upon themselves to do something, however, when the woman begins to scream after them (something which Paul experienced in Acts 16:16-18 but he did something about it), they allow the situation to continue without any thought that they might meet her need by the authority they’ve already been given.
And, when they receive the first negative response from Jesus, they pursue the matter no further because they’re unconcerned for her need. Had it been their own daughter, however, I’m sure that their petitions before Jesus would have continued regardless of the reply they received - especially if, similarly to the woman, they had had the faith in Jesus that He could bring about what it was they wanted.
The disciples, therefore, are good examples here of what it means not to persevere.
3. The Syrophoenician Woman
In contrast to the disciples, the woman is willing to intercede for the need of another even when at first there is little response - the answer which is recorded as coming from the lips of Jesus in Mtw 15:24 was directed primarily at the disciples and, in all probability, she won’t have heard it. Even so, her grasp of the situation that Jesus is a Jewish miracle worker and that she presumes not upon what’s hers by right but through an appeal to His mercy is certain even from the beginning of her requests (Mtw 15:22).
The woman has set her hope on Jesus, that He might have mercy on her and just say the word that her daughter may be healed. In this respect, she’s very like Peter who, before he walked on the water (Mtw 14:28-33), knew that he needed a word from Jesus - and very like the Roman centurion also (Mtw 8:5-13) who wasn’t concerned to have Jesus lay His hands on the servant when he knew that just a word of authority would do to solve his problem.
Jesus’ reply to her in Mtw 15:26 is the same statement as given to the disciples two verses before except put into a sentence that she would immediately have recognised as being predominantly Jewish. I have noted above that, by the time the woman kneels before Him, I take it that Jesus was already willing to grant her request but that this rebuke was said with a great amount of compassion that the woman would know exactly what it was that she was asking Him to do (Jesus does the same sort of thing in Mtw 8:7 where see my notes under ‘Uncleanness and Authority’).
Her total attitude and not just her reply should be seen as an example to follow to all the disciples who had wanted her need met to get rid of her and, failing that, seem to have ignored her as best they could. But it also should speak to present day believers that a belief that Jesus is able to meet a need sometimes has to be echoed by a life that is unwilling to let go until that need is met.
And so the incident shows the reader, as Mathag comments, that
‘...it is ultimately receptive faith and not physical Jewishness that determines the blessing of God’
Descendancy from Abraham through Isaac was not the final word on the matter and was never intended to be. Though there was initially that barrier which stood in the way of the woman receiving what she required, her persistent faith won out over the objection that debarred her from the healing.
Therefore she becomes a relevant example to all men and women throughout the Church age that Jesus will work in their lives through faith and that, even though sometimes the tendency is to give up when first confronted with a negative response, perseverance can change it.
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