Unnamed Heroines of Scripture: The Syro-Phoenician Woman

Divine revelation makes faith in God possible. The more revelation given to us, the more faith God expects in us. The disciples of Jesus were among the most privileged people who have lived. They not only heard the claims of the Incarnate Son of God, but they also witnessed the countless miracles which proved those claims to be true. And yet the Lord had to chide them for their lack of faith in Him. The nation as a whole was even worse. They had Moses and the Prophets to guide them to their true Messiah, yet they did not know Him in their midst. So it was that when the Son of Man came to earth the first time, He found very little faith.

There were, of course, noble exceptions, even from among the Gentiles. There was the Samaritan woman who, when confronted with the uncanny perception of this unknown Jew, quickly perceived that she was in the presence of One greater than Jacob. Also, the centurion in Capernaum recognized the greater authority of this Rabbi in common clothes. So magnificent was the other-worldly majesty of this new expounder of the law that the centurion felt his home was unworthy of such a guest. He was convinced that a single command from the lips of Christ was all that his ailing servant needed – and he was right.

Just as only the Magi from the East sought out the recently born King while the leaders of the nation discussed their empty theology in Jerusalem, so a Gentile woman from the North exposed the smallness of the faith of those who followed Christ (Matthew 15:21-28). How she got her knowledge of Christ we cannot tell. Yet we do know that whatever record she had heard, she believed it completely. She came to Christ and called Him Lord. She declared He was that Son of David the Jews were hoping for. Great faith is faith that accepts all the revelation God gives us. How much faith must God expect in us Gentiles to whom the completed Scriptures are entrusted?

It was out of desperation that this woman came to Jesus because her daughter was hopelessly held by a demon. How could she explain to others the dark force that dominated her girl? Physical illness often disfigures the body, but demonic captivity distorts the soul. Every evil passion within the girl was being provoked and magnified, and the fell grip of sin would not let her go. As rumors drifted northward, this poor girl’s mother heard that the Healer was on their borders. Having sought out Jesus, she came, calling out persistently for His mercy. She took the only sane approach to her crisis and became an outstanding example to all who care for children: bring their need to Him. She begged for the deliverance of her daughter. She was prepared to share in the shame of her daughter’s condition and did not cut her off to the dominion of darkness. We cannot be sure what reaction she expected from Christ, but we who know Him better are bound to be shocked at the way He treated her.

Not only did Jesus ignore her cry for help, but when pressed by the disciples to send her away, He seemed to indicate that her plight was not within the scope of His mission. Knowing the wideness of His love, we must not misunderstand what Christ was doing. Firstly, He knew the strength of her faith, and while He was going to put it under immense strain, He would not break it. He could test this woman’s faith in ways that He could not then test His disciples. Her faith was greater than theirs. Secondly, she had truly called Him the Son of David, but she had no right to appeal to Him on those terms. Hence, He publicly declared that David’s Son was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.

But that did not deter her. She came and did what few in Israel would do: she worshipped at His feet. Here we discover another characteristic of great faith: it is found in submission at the feet of Christ. She asks for help again, and again she is rebutted. We may now think that we have stumbled upon a paradox. The One in whom there is no respect of persons will on occasions move heaven and earth to kindle the least glimmer of faith in those who do not trust Him, and He will on other occasions deliberately make obstacles to faith in those who do trust Him. Our Lord will do everything possible to gain our faith, and it is faith that saves. But He will also seek to enlarge what faith we have. The tolerance for testing is different from person to person. Some have confidence in God to the extent that they can say, like Job, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15). Others are not willing to go that far. These will still be received into the kingdom through grace but will lack in the abundance of that welcome since they are stunted in growth.

What Jesus says next seems to be insensitive and pejorative. He calls her a Gentile dog! It would not be proper to take what belongs to the children of Israel and throw it down to her, begging as she was at His feet. True, He uses the word for a little dog, one that might be tolerated in a house, but that hardly blunts the force of His words. With this reply we see great faith become greater still. “What You say is true Lord, I am a little dog, hoping that a discarded scrap of Your mercy will fall from Your table!” Our narrator, Matthew, would agree with her that the children seemed to have little appetite for the bread that Christ had spread for them on His table. They had recently eaten the miraculous loaves at the lake, but their leaders were more concerned with the washing of hands than the Bread of Life. Suddenly, the stern countenance of Christ melted into a smile with her reply. He had always loved her and delighted in the faith He had seen in her. His response, in the end, was swift, her daughter being immediately delivered by His power. When we at last meet our Master, will we hear those welcome words, “O child, your faith is great”?