Jesus left Galilee and headed north some 35 miles to the gentile occupied port cities of Tyre and Sidon. The purpose of Jesus’ short visit to these cities is not clear. He was not preaching in this region nor was he performing any miracles. Then why did Jesus take his disciples and travel such a long distance to Tyre and Sidon?
Jesus was laying low and staying in a house as he did not want anyone to know about His visit. But somehow (as was always the case) the news of Jesus’ arrival spread. At that time the daughter of a Syrophoenician Woman living in that region was possessed by an unclean spirit. Somehow she got to know that Jesus of Nazareth was in Tyre and mustered the courage to go seek this man that the Jews were calling the Messiah. Mark mentions her as Syrophoenician while Matthew calls her a Canaanite. A Syrophoenician citizen is one who belonged to the Roman province of Syria as they were distinguished from the other Phoenicians who lived in Africa, or the Carthaginians. The two gospels are not contradicting each other in their accounts of the origin of the woman, she was a Canaanite living in this province.
The woman came and fell at Jesus’ feet pleading for her daughter’s deliverance from the unclean spirit. This woman did not want to leave the opportunity for the sake of her daughter. Matthew notes that Jesus did not respond to the plea of the woman. In fact, it was the disciples who were dealing with her. What would have been the thoughts churning in her mind? What do we have in our minds when we come to Jesus expecting something and being ignored? We certainly will not delighted when someone ignores us. We have lots of unanswered questions but are we humble and determined enough to receive something from God.
The disciples came to Jesus wanting to shoo her away when Jesus finally broke his silence and answered her saying that he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel. This again raises few doubts? What did Jesus mean? Even when sending out His disciples for their first missionary journey, He instructed them to only go to the lost sheep of Israel. Was Jesus telling her that she was a Gentile and wouldn’t receive anything or was he trying to prove something else? The Woman continued her plea and said, “Lord, please help me.” To this Jesus said something which we would just not expect, he said that “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. The woman doesn’t get discouraged or angry by this statement but says that “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. If we look back at the character of the woman we realise that there was something astounding about her, she never gave up but still asked the Lord to help her. To this Jesus responds that her desire be granted and her daughter was healed. This woman was persistent in asking Jesus what she wanted and in faith she believed that she would get it. Jesus was not testing her faith but rather was using her to show what faith a gentile possessed to the disciples and those in the other ‘believers’ in that house. Jesus came all the way to Tyre and Sidon just for this woman and left back soon after letting the disciples know that he came not just for the lost sheep of Israel as was his purpose of coming to this region.
The woman’s human emotions (anger or frustration) did not stop her quest and her humility proved to be of much worth. There are three things Jesus teaches us from this incident – faith, humility and persistence.
This Canaanite woman showed much greater faith than anyone of us would have. She had just heard of Jesus and might not have even seen Jesus healing anyone but still she believed that everything is possible by God. She lived up to Jesus’ expectation of faith. Do we also have such faith in God that we could endure humility in front of everyone?
“… Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” -Matthew 17: 20
This Syrophoenician woman was extremely humble as we see from her answers. In 2nd Kings chapter 5 we read about Naaman who was a Leper and the commander of the Syrian army. He was suggested to go to a prophet for healing. When prophet Elisha told him to dip in the Jordan seven times and he would be healed, Naaman was not very happy with this. Naaman expected a majestic healing and was not humble when he was told to dip in the dirty Jordan river. In fact it was his servant who persisted him in dipping in the river Jordan. Naaman’s example is quite contrasting to the Canaanite woman’s. This woman was ready to do anything and accepted everything with humility.
This woman was persistent in asking God what she wanted. The parable in Luke 18: 1-8 excellently complements this woman’s nature. This parable is about a persistent widow who keeps asking for justice to a judge who neither feared God nor respected man but her persistent nature forced the judge to take action. Not only that, the judge also says that “..will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?”. Hence the persistent nature of the widow brought a big change. Persistence melts everyone. This nature of the Canaanite woman also works wonders for her.
There is a lot to be learned from the Syrophoenician woman. It’s not simply one of the miracles that Jesus performed for the gentiles but a lesson in Faith, Persistence and Humility for all of us. We must strive to get these qualities in us so that Christ can proudly acknowledge and accept us in front of everyone.