Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why "The Syrophoenician Woman"?

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus' disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."
He said in reply,
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me."
He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters."
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
"O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour. -Gospel of Matthew 15:21-28

This past Sunday we heard Matthew's version of the story of the Syrophoenician Woman. Matthew calls her a Canaanite, but the point of the story is the same. Here is a woman, a *gentile* woman, pleading Jesus for help. At first, he doesn't seem to want to help her. She's not one of his people, the Jews, and he came to help his own people. But she argues with him. With her wit and her perseverance, Jesus is persuaded to heal her daughter.

This story inspires me in two main points:

1. The strength and the courage of a woman fighting for her daughter.

2. God can change His mind.

Put yourself in her shoes: Your daughter has been acting strangely for months. She never feels well and rarely gets out of bed. She apparently has no control over what she says or does. She randomly screams and throws herself on the ground. She threatens you. You've done all you can to watch over her and care for her, but you're at your wits end. You hear about a Jewish man coming through your neighborhood. He's healed many people. He seems to have some authority over demons. You go to see if he can heal your daughter, too.

When you get there, the apostles all around him glare at you. You fight for the miracle man's attention, but it's clear that the crowd around him does not want you there. You're not a Jew, you're a gentile. The crowd wants nothing to do with gentiles. The miracle man ignores you. You watch him heal other people in the crowd. That only makes you more desperate for his attention. When he finally looks at you, he tells you he won't help you because you're a gentile.

After months of stress caring for your daughter, this finally pushes you over the edge. You know he can heal your daughter, he just doesn't want to. You beg him for his help. He calls you a "dog." So be it, you think, he can call me whatever he wants as long as he heals my daughter. In one last act of desperation, you turn his argument on it's head. "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." He finally grants your request and your child is healed.

I'm sure there are people out there that can relate all too well to this woman. We can all relate to the feeling of being at one's wits end for one reason or another. There are definitely parents out there who can relate to this sense of desperation, looking for someone to help their child. I am impressed by the Syrophoenician woman's courage, standing up to a crowd who didn't want her there. I am inspired by her perseverance, there are many times I just want to give up. I admire her wit. I know I couldn't have thought that well in the heat of the moment. I'm not the only person inspired by her, she's in two gospels and a search for her online yields over 56 thousand results.

This is a gentile woman who argued with God and won. People typically have difficulty with that idea. If God is all-perfect, God must be never changing because change is imperfect. God, Who is perfect love, must have been intending to help this woman all along, because it would be cruel to not help her. God knows no prejudices!

The story of the Syrophoenician woman is not the only time in scripture that someone argues with God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we see Abraham argue with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities are ultimately not spared because God does not find 10 righteous people in them, but God does spare the righteous people that God does find. Later on in Genesis, Jacob even wrestles with God, being consequently renamed Israel. Just because God is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect doesn't mean humans can't argue with God and it doesn't mean we can't sometimes change God's mind. I like an analogy I saw somewhere. It's like children arguing with their parents. Just because parents are wiser and more powerful than their children, it doesn't mean that children can't argue and sometimes even win.

While God does not know any prejudices, the human Jesus may very well had. Christians hold that Jesus was truly God and truly man. So he knew our faults. He knew that it was not customary in this time for a Jewish man to have anything to do with a gentile woman. At that time, he may have honestly thought that his mission was only to the Jews.

Being perfect does not mean not changing. My experience with perfection does not support that hypothesis at all. But that is definitely a topic too big to tack on to this post.

I love the Syrophoenician Woman


  1. I love thinking of this woman as someone who came face to face with Jesus and literally 'taught Him a lesson.' She is invoked often by Liberation Theologians--the outcast, of the wrong ethnicity, wrong religion, and wrong gender, showing Jesus that His work isn't just with the segment of the population that is like Him (male, able-bodied, Jewish) but with everyone. I like her a lot, too.

  2. I found this passage deeply troubling in both Mark and in Matthew's versions. Jesus was always shown to be a friend of supplicants and sinners, and a champion for the downtrodden. Yet in this account he flatly rejects a woman pleading with Him, just because she is not a Jew, and even insults her before finally healing her daughter after she degrades herself. This has been hard for me to reconcile.

    1. I would say that Jesus always knew what He was going to do. His dealings with people were often to show the crowd around Him a different perspective. He encouraged her to persist. He loved her certainly. But He could have instantly healed her daughter and He didn't. An opportunity was provided to display her faith.

      I'm researching because I'm doing a portrait of this woman, and I really want a perspective that is different also.

    2. Very cool. I'm interested in seeing your portrait. Please remember me when you finish it. I wish you the best of luck.

    3. Anonymous, I don't see it as "she degrades herself." I see it as she argues Him using logic. Like: "Hey, I realize you just called me a dog, but even a dog gets some help, jerk!" Okay, maybe she wouldn't have called Him a jerk, but you get my point.

  3. I saw humility in her that made Jesus answer her and I also saw the spirit of a fighter that never takes no for an answers.


What do you think? I want to know.