The Syro-Phoenician Woman

Pastor Asafa Rajaofera

The Syro-Phoenician Woman

4 min.
September 7, 2021

Mark 7:24-37

Last week, we were reading the story of the Pharisees and scribes who questioned Jesus as to why his disciples weren't following the tradition of washing their hands before eating. Jesus told them that it is not what you do on the outside that makes you clean, it's what comes out of your heart. These religious leaders elevated traditions as more important to be observed and obeyed rather than God's commands. They judged everyone else by that standard.

Judging Others

We do that as well, whether consciously or unconsciously. We judge people by their skin color, the way they dress, the way they act, their status and position in society, rich, poor, and so forth. That shouldn't be so. God's command can be summed up in love God and love your neighbor.

As if to prove this point, Jesus travels off into “impure” territory, the Gentile region of Tyre. We don't know if he's scouting out new territory for mission or if he just wants a break from the crowd and get away from Galilee for a while. Our text says, “he went to the vicinity of tire and entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.” so, for sure, he wants to be left alone. He needs a break. He is tired. But he is not successful. A woman, a Gentile woman, a Syro-Phoenician Gentile woman to be exact, noticed him and came to him.

What is odd and unconventional with this Syro-Phoenician woman is that she broke tradition. She knows the risk of approaching a Jewish man. This woman knew that a Jewish man of Jesus’ status would view her as unclean and would have no reason to speak with her. But she was a mother also and new that he was her daughter's best and only hope. This was the only way to save her daughter's life and make her whole again. So she persevered, despite all the odds that were stacked against her. This mother came to Jesus, fell at his feet, only to have her worst fears realized. Jesus calls her a dog. How dare he?

I remember reading this passage for the first time when I was in middle school or high school and I was just so mad at Jesus for being so rude and offensive as to call a person, a woman, a dog. A dog was the lowest of the low as far as the Jews were concerned and it was an ethnic slur that Jews reserved for the Greeks. Jesus just said the very thing that the rest of the Jews were thinking. He voiced their prejudice and her fear. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Children refers to the children of Israel and dogs refer to all others.

I read a few commentaries on this and some say that Jesus wasn't really insulting her, he's just testing her. She passes and so her daughter is healed. Other commentaries say that the dog right here is a puppy, a pet. It doesn't matter whether it's a Chihuahua or a Pitbull or whatever; it is still a dog and he just don't associate people with animals.

Others propose that here we see the very human side of Jesus, exhausted and needing a break, or perhaps not yet understanding the scope of his own mission. This latter makes more sense to me. In previous chapters, we see Jesus feeding the 5000, teaching, healing, going from one place to another. Twice already, he was trying to get away to be alone but the crowds always found him. Here he is again trying to get away an even goes to a different region, a Gentile region, and wanting to be alone but this woman finds him. As a human, Jesus reached the end of his rope, I think, and this woman came at a bad time and got lashed on. In Matthew's version of this story, Jesus begins by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”

This woman is not about to take no for an answer. She challenges Jesus to view those outside the Jewish community as worthy of grace and blessing, as well. Her words almost sound like, “call me a dog if you want but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” Jesus responds, “for saying that you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” so, she went home and found the child lying on the bed. The demon was gone.

Had this encounter been like an a-ha moment for Jesus? Is he seeing the implications of his Kingdom now? That is God’s Kingdom, one that includes all people, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, everyone. I don't really know, but our text goes on to say that Jesus then heals a deaf Gentile man. “They brought to him a deaf man who was also with an impediment in his speech and they begged him to lay his hand on him.” 

Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, this man is also an outsider. He is cut off from the world by his inability to hear and communicate with others. This time, Jesus does not hesitate to respond to a desperate request, though he does take the man aside, away from the crowd. In a very earthy scene, Jesus puts his fingers in the man's ears, spits, and touches the man’s tongue, saying, “Ephphatha,” which is Aramaic for, “Be opened!” 

Immediately, the narrator tells us, “the man's ears were suddenly opened and his tongue was released and he spoke plainly.” Suddenly, this man is able to hear and communicate with those around him. Not only is he physically healed, he is also restored to the community.

What lesson or lessons can we take away from this story? 

As we launch this new school year, and our programs here at church begin again, we are invited to think about where the focus of our congregational life and activity is to be found. Tending to our spiritual nourishment is essential: Bible study, Sunday school, catechism, confirmation, memorizing verses, devotionals. These are all important but as we see here in this story, just like Jesus and the disciples, we are continually called to a larger vision of mission. One that aims to embrace the outsider, the stranger, even the enemy. Because God's love and healing power knows no ethnic, political, or social boundaries, maybe it is time to enlarge our mission.

There are a few things here that we can learn from this woman but I'm just going to name two. Those are her request and her persistence.

The woman's request

This woman came to Jesus because she was concerned about her demon possessed daughter. She needed help in a desperate way. She was heartbroken over the condition of her child and she was determined to get help that she needed for her child. Perhaps she had heard about how Jesus had healed all manner of diseases, about how he had opened the eyes of the blind and unstopped the years of the death, about how he had driven the demons from other people. She may have heard about how Jesus had gone over into the country of the Gadarenes and had delivered the man possessed by a legion of demons. She may have said, “If he can deliver that man from a legion of demons, surely he can deliver my daughter from the grip of one.”

This woman came to Jesus because she needed something that society had not been able to provide. She was looking for something that her dead religion had been powerless to give her period she needed a solution that she had not been able to provide by her own self efforts. She was desperate and she saw Jesus as her only hope.

How many of you can identify with this poor mother? Perhaps you are dealing with a child that is out of control period perhaps you are at your wits in over some situation in your life and you need help. Perhaps you have exhausted every means at your disposal and do not know where to turn for help. Regardless of what you face in your life today, the answer will be found only in him. He can do it but you have to get it to him.

How many of you can identify with this poor mother? Perhaps you are dealing with a child that is out of control period perhaps you are at your wits in over some situation in your life and you need help. Perhaps you have exhausted every means at your disposal and do not know where to turn for help. Regardless of what you face in your life today, the answer will be found only in him. He can do it but you have to get it to him.

Her persistence

this woman was considered a member of a doomed race. She was from a region known for vile religious practices. According to most, she had no right to come to Jesus through the door of Judaism. She was a Gentile and, if we read the story from the book of Matthew, we will see that Jesus gave her the response she deserved. That is, “he answered her not a word.” he literally ignored her. When the disciples see and hear this Gentile calling out to their Messiah, they react by telling Jesus to send her away. They wanted nothing to do with her period she was not one of their people. And their eyes, she was different and there was enough to justify them not caring about her at all. That is racism.

What obstacles are you facing? Persist in seeking the Lord. As Jesus spoke with this woman, though he seems to come forth as rude, aloof, even offensive, we see that he never slams the door of hope in her face. When Jesus says, “Let the children first be filled…,” she took that to mean that seconds were available. She says, “I know that it isn't right to take the food from the children's table and give it to the dogs. But even the dogs are sometimes treated to a morsel from the table. All I am asking for is a crumb.” She wasn't asking for everything, just for puppy’s portion!

How much does your problem mean to you? Have you encountered some obstacles along the way that have made you throw up your hands and quit seeking God about the answer you need? Have you looked at the hypocrisy and the apathy of the church and concluded that, since God's people don't seem to care, you won't care either? Have you decided that God can't help you and Jesus can't save your soul? You know what? Too much is at stake. Be like this poor mother and keep bringing that need to Jesus until he answers. Keep seeking his face until he responds. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking and, in his time, he'll hand you down the morsel for your answered prayer.

That kind of persistence, that kind of faith, got Jesus’ attention. In fact, this woman is the only one of two people Jesus referred to as having “great faith.” the other person was a Roman centurion who came to Jesus to have Jesus heal a sick servant. Amazingly, both of these people were Gentiles.

This woman's faith exceeded that of the people he had come to save. Here was a Gentile “dog” that had more faith than the Jewish scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and priests. This kind of faith excites the Lord and this kind of faith gets rewarded. Her faith was so strong that she didn't ask for proof. She took Jesus at his word and turned around and went home to her family.

This article was orginally reported by
Pastor Asafa Rajaofera

Rev. Asafa Rajaofero was born in Madagascar and serves as pastor of the United Church of Christ parishes in Greenwood and Owen, Wisconsin.