The Syrophoenician Woman

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Women in the New Testament

  • The story of the Syrophoenician woman is found in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28.
  • In both gospels, this story follows an incident between Jesus and the Pharisees over eating with unwashed hands. The Pharisees had accused Jesus of not following the “tradition of the elders.”
  • Jesus replied that whatever goes into a man from outside does not defile him; it is what comes out of his mouth that defiles him.
  • Possibly because of such antagonism, Jesus left that place and went into the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon.
  • Tyre (modern Lebanon) was mainly a Gentile region with a long, unhappy history with Israel. It was the home of Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31-32). Tyre was typically considered an enemy of Israel.
  • In Mark, Jesus entered a house “and did not want anyone to know his whereabouts.” In Matthew, he is simply walking through.
  • Mark calls the woman a Greek (read Gentile), a Syrophoenician by birth.
  • Matthew simply states she was a Canaanite. (This term is used only here in the New Testament.)
  • Both designations highlight her paganism. The point is clear – she is not a Jew and can be counted as an enemy of Israel.
  • In Mark, the woman had “heard about him” and fell at his feet, imploring him to heal her daughter.
  • In Matthew, she just starts screaming – using a word that usually has the meaning of speaking too loudly or shouting.
  • She screams, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.”
  • She calls Jesus both “Lord” and “Son of David.”
  • Obviously, she is somewhat familiar with Jewish messianic tradition.
  • Unfortunately, in both gospels Jesus completely ignores her and does not speak to her.
  • His silence gives the impression to his disciples that he’s not interested in helping her.
  • So, in Matthew they suggest that he “send her away” since she is annoying them because she keeps on screaming. It is doubtful that they expected him to heal the daughter; they just wanted Jesus to get “rid” of her.
  • In contrast to the woman who calls Jesus “Lord” at least three times, the disciples don’t even address him by name. “Just send her away.”
  • Jesus repeats that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Scholars wonder to whom he was speaking. He does not say this “to her,” so these words could have been said to the disciples or to himself.
  • The woman, however, was not to be denied.
  • She kept on screaming on behalf of her daughter.
  • It would be so helpful to know what Jesus was thinking at this moment.
  • This is where some scholars say he was testing her (but that seems like a very cruel thing to do to someone with such a great need).
  • Others say he was trying to make up his mind what to do.
  • His mission was to fulfill God’s promises to the Jews. The plan was supposed to be that when Gentiles saw this fulfillment, they would be impelled to praise God. Gentiles would be included in God’s plan, but only through God’s chosen people.
  • On the other hand, he had just had an encounter with the Pharisees in which he declared all foods clean. Should that also apply to the common people?
  • The good news is that he was silent and didn’t send her away.
  • In Matthew, only at this point does she fall at his feet, once again imploring him “Lord, help me.”
  • Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
  • This word for “dogs” could mean “house dogs,” which would suggest that both the children (Jews) and the house dogs (Gentiles) are already under the same roof.
  • The woman quickly responds that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
  • This time he said “to her” – “O woman, your faith is great; let it be done as you have requested.”
  • “Great” is the first word in the Greek sentence, indicating its emphasis.
  • Her daughter was healed at that moment.
  • He told her to go home; with complete trust, she did.

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