This is a passage that I have shared thoughts on previously and rather than repeat some of those thoughts, this time I wanted to step back and see if there were any fresh insights I could bring out of this passage for you today.
We must remember that as Jesus’ ministry unfolded, with an initial focus on the Jewish people, it then began to broaden to include the Gentiles. In today’s passage we are told that Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon – both port cities on the Mediterranean Sea north of Israel – both in a Gentile area. It is here that he has an encounter with a Syrophoenician woman.
Jesus’ is likely to have had several motives for travelling into this region:
- It would serve as a valuable and significant lesson to his disciples about the nature of faith, the nature and importance of having a relationship with God and the role of the Gentiles
- It would have provided valuable opportunity for Jesus and his disciples to have time away from the pressure of the crowds and the Pharisees, with his absence perhaps helping diffuse rising tensions
There is always a risk that when we read an account of an event, we subconsciously interpret it in light of the ‘baggage’ that if we are honest with ourselves we all carry, rather than seeking to put that to one side, and being prepared to ask important questions like:
- What did this mean in the context of the event at that time, and in light of other events that took place leading up to this one and subsequently?
- What was the motive and intent of all of the people involved?
- Is there a deeper truth that emerges from the event that speaks to us today?
Many recent commentators bring accusations that Jesus’ exchange with this woman was dehumanising for her, revealing Jesus’ ethnic prejudice and bigotry. They go on to say that Jesus was ‘taught a lesson’ by the woman as a result of this encounter. These views present some serious issues for me:
- These views call into question whether Jesus knew what he was doing. Not only do I believe that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and chose his words carefully; but he will have known the woman’s heart and her faith too. It is abhorrent to me that anyone would consider Jesus to be ethnically prejudiced, bigoted, and someone who dehumanised others. That implies that Jesus was not perfect and without sin, and the body of evidence and the context speaks clearly against this. Jesus is fully man and fully God and without sin.
- His words have to be looked at in context and in the context of the “audience” bearing witness to this encounter. Some recent commentators give little if any regard for the context or the nature of the use of the language of dispute and argument in Jewish culture. I am sure you have had teachers or even friends who have helped you to formulate your thinking by presenting a controversial view to you, even if it wasn’t a view they themselves adhered to. It is a way by which we might be encouraged to know what we believe and why we believe it. It is a way in which the nature and heart of our faith and belief comes clear.
- Just because Jesus was “mirroring” the typical response of Jewish people doesn’t mean that is what he himself thought or believed in that context. In my opinion he was bringing these wrong views out in the open so that they might be summarily dismissed, and his followers might learn some valuable lessons. We must bear in mind that his disciples urged him to send the woman away, which is something that Jesus did not do.
- Jesus was not calling her a dog in the way that a Pharisee would have addressed a Gentile. The Greek word that Jesus instead used is a term of endearment, the term one might use for a little pet dog.
- The woman’s faith was not destroyed or diminished by this encounter; instead, it was deepened and grew. At all times she behaved with dignity and respect. Her example presents a valuable lesson to us about the nature of persistence in prayer.
- The woman had such faith that she knew that even a “crumb” from Jesus would be sufficient. Her faith exceeded that of many Jewish people.
Jesus’ final response was to heal and set free her daughter who was demon-possessed and suffering terribly.
What might we take away from this today?
- To be encouraged to be prepared to set aside our own baggage and prejudices when we engage with scripture so that we might better grasp the original meaning and context of the passage.
- To remember how Jesus had to break some prejudices, reaching out to include the gentiles. This may give us a challenge today to do likewise, as we consider who the ‘gentiles’ might be to us.
- To be encouraged in our prayer life and to be persistent in prayer.
- To know that even the “crumbs” are enough, and to be mindful of the fullness of God’s grace and love.
- To trust in God, and to hold on to his truth and promises and that he knows what he is doing.