Go thy way: A mother’s desperate faith
by Jonathan S Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Most of the people who received healing from Jesus were Israelites, kinsmen of Christ according to the flesh. Jesus did indeed heal many people from several different things: blindness, deafness, paralysis, muteness, and even casting out demons. The Gospels have numerous examples where Jesus performed these types of healing.
And yet there was at least one occasion when Jesus ministered to a foreign woman, a Gentile from another country. The text is from Mark chapter 7, beginning with verse 24 through 30, from the King James Version (KJV):
Mk 7:24 And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid. 25 For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: 26 The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. 27 But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. 28 And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. 29 And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. 30 And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.
I Jesus departed from Israel temporarily
Several things had happened in a seemingly brief period of time just before this event. Going back to chapter 6, we can read that John the Baptist had been executed. Following this, the disciples and Jesus had fed the 5000 men using only five small loaves and a pair of fish. Now they were going to row across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret but ran smack-dab into a contrary wind, so that they were going nowhere fast. Then they saw Jesus walking on the water, He joined them in the boat, and they reached the other shore.
The last few verses of chapter 6 give in a summary what Jesus did, mostly healing people. This in quite a contrast to another visit of Jesus and the disciples some time earlier: Gadara was in the same vicinity, where Jesus had cast a “legion” of evil spirits out of a man. The reaction of the citizens? They begged Jesus to leave! But Jesus had at least one disciple, namely, the man whom Jesus had healed! Could the change in this visit be a result of one man’s testimony?
There was one serious problem, though, and that involved the “mission” of some Pharisees and scribes, who had come all the way from Jerusalem to Gennesaret or Gadara (the east side of the Sea of Galilee)—apparently, to either spy or find fault with something, anything, that Jesus was doing. Sure enough, they pounced on the first problem they saw, namely, that the disciples were eating with unwashed hands. The first several verses of chapter 7 have the record of how Jesus answered these folks, plus how He explained some other things to the disciples.
It’s with all this in mind that Jesus, being human, simply needed some time alone! In fact, verse 24 states that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know where He was. We can compare this with another time Jesus was in a house, and not making an effort for people to know where He was. Chapter 2 says that He was in a house, preaching the Word of God to the people, and the people were lined up near the door to the house, keeping the ones who needed healing away (accidentally?) from Jesus and His healing touch. Now He’s in a secluded spot, where He and the disciples could get a little rest and refreshment.
Or could they?
II Jesus listened to a woman in distress
Verse 25 tells us that a woman made one of the most sincere requests for help that we’ll read in the Gospels. Mark also tells us that this woman’s daughter had an “unclean spirit”. Among other things, this tells us that the Devil, the enemy of our souls, was after youth of that day as well. Think of it: not only was this young girl possessed by an evil spirit, but in Mark 1, there was a man in the synagogue; chapter 5 tells about the “maniac of Gadara”; and Luke 9 has the story of a young man who was seriously afflicted. Surely this handful of youth were not the only ones who suffered from problems like this. Yet, there was one thing in common: according to the Gospels, when the parents discovered the demon possession and oppression, they did something about it. They got the children to Jesus and asked Him to heal their children!
Another touching thing is that this woman didn’t just ask once. Now, we’re not told how she found out where Jesus was staying, or how it could be possible for Him to heal her daughter, but we do have the record that she came and fell at His feet (verse 25). She didn’t ask just once; rather, according to Dr. A. T. Robertson, she asked repeatedly. Some remarkable things included the fact that the woman was not a Jewish person, rather, she was called “Greek” or a Gentile. She was also a Syro-Phoenician woman, meaning that she lived in the area of Syrian Phoenicia. Something I had forgotten is that there were two, at least, parts of the world named “Phoenicia”. One of these was the area north of Israel and west of Syria itself, or the land of Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus was staying at this time. The other Phoenicia was Carthage, or North Africa, the land of Hannibal. This woman, then, was a Gentile, a native of Phoenicia, living in the Syria-Phoenicia area. She was about as far away from the blessings and hopes and promises for Israel as she could be! But she knew one thing: she believed Jesus could heal her daughter and she wanted to get that healing.
III Jesus tested the woman’s faith
Reactions are all over the place when it comes to discussing the reactions of Jesus to this foreign woman. Some might say Jesus was being harsh towards the woman, and at first glance, that might be a fair perspective. After all, Jesus was in a house, either near the border between Israel and the land of Tyre and Sidon, or on the other side of that border, and He didn’t go there in order to be recognized. When someone came in, unannounced and apparently uninvited, repeatedly asking for a miracle, the potential is there for a bit of severity.
Even great preachers from long ago had opinions about this interview or request for help. For example, Martin Luther published the text of a sermon on the parallel passage in Matthew, “The Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent; Matthew 15:21-28”. Fascinating reading. So let’s take a deeper look at what Jesus and the woman both had to say.
First, even though we don’t have these words in this passage, the woman was calling Jesus “Son of David” according to Matthew’s account (Matthew 15:21-28). The problem is this: she was a Gentile and had no real authority to make such an appeal. Jesus Himself gives a bit of polite reproof when He told her, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 15:24)”. That didn’t stop her, as Matthew records that she said, “Lord, help me.”
Second, Jesus tests her faith again. I say that because the woman may have given up after Jesus didn’t answer her (erroneous?) request. She could have said something like, “Oh well, I tried, and He didn’t answer” but she didn’t. We ought to remember she was a foreigner, but exercised more faith than some Israelites, male or female! When Jesus said it wasn’t right to feed table food to the dogs, He meant (as many commentators observe) the little dogs, the pets, maybe puppies, who were part of the household. Some, incredibly, have tried to use this as an artificial contradiction between here (giving the crumbs to little dogs) and Mathew’s gospel where Jesus said to not give holy things to the (adult) dogs. Something to remember is that few animals were kept in the household, and that adult dogs were usually scavengers—wild dogs.
And third, we see the woman’s persistent faith. Jesus did say that it wasn’t right to give table food to the dogs (but surely some children must have tried this!) but He never called her a dog. He was using a figure of speech and His remarks were designed to test her faith. The woman could have stopped or quit at any time, but she didn’t do it. She replied, in the same spirit, with a bit of humor and good grace: “True, Lord, but even the puppies get the crumbs falling from the table!” People of those days didn’t sit at tables, they reclined on mats or couches to eat, and the “table” wasn’t too far off the ground, according to books on Bible customs and manners. I doubt if any house owner was going to allow a dog of any size near the evening meal!
So Jesus granted her request. Matthew adds that the woman’s daughter was made whole from that very hour (Mt 15:28). The lesson we can learn from this woman is that Jesus will listen to anyone who calls upon Him, and that He will answer according to our faith. The answers may not be as miraculous as this case, but we can trust Him to provide answers He knows are best.
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible.