Jesus and the Canaanite woman (also called the Syrophoenician woman) have a fascinating interaction in the Bible. Unfortunately, it’s also subjected to some ludicrous interpretations. Many have abused this passage and turned it into something that totally misses what’s actually happening.
In this blog post we will look at this story and see what we can learn from the Syrophoenician woman. We will start by looking at the context and then we will look at what it means for us today.
Both Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28 record this interaction. We will be jumping between these two as they focus on slightly different details that help us understand what’s happening.
Immediately before this passage we see a familiar sight. Jesus is dealing with the Pharisees. Things are heating up. Jesus and the disciples are facing increasing pressure from the religious who don’t like what he’s saying.
So Jesus goes to find a more quiet spot (Mark 7:24). In hopes of finding a quieter spot he goes to the edge of enemy territory. But even here people know who he is, and he is soon approached by a Syrophoenician woman who wants something from him (Mark 7:25-26). While this happens in just the few verses of this text, it likely happened over a couple of days.
We should also take note of who this woman is. Mark calls her a Syrophoenician woman and Matthew a Canaanite woman. Nationally she’s a Phoenician and ethnically she’s a Canaanite.
In other words she’s not a Jew. But she’s not just a Jew, it’s worse. The ancient rivalry runs deep between the Jews and the Canaanites. They were enemies.
It’s important that we don’t ignore the context because it helps us see the larger picture of what is unfolding.
The Interaction Between Jesus And The Canaanite Woman
Now that we know the context, let’s dive into what unfolded between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
The Request The Syrophoenician Woman Made
In Mark 7:26 we see what the Syrophoenician woman wanted. Her daughter was demon-possessed and she was desperate for help.
In Matthew 15:21 we get a little more detail on how she approaches Jesus. She cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”. These are not the words you would expect from a foreigner. This is a kosher Messianic title. She approaches Jesus with respect.
What she is asking is to be blessed by Jesus. Mark 7:27 and Matthew 15:24 record Jesus’ response. Many today look at his response and think that’s it’s harsh. But we need to remember Jesus’ mission.
Jesus came to save and restore all people. But he came first for the Jews. The people whom he had entered into a covenant through Abraham. His ministry was to be first for them and then for the gentiles (the rest of the world).
Jesus’ earthly ministry was directed towards the Jews (Matthew 10:5-6, John 1:11) and then later expanded. The book of Acts immediately follows the Gospels and it shows this pattern being lived out. The Gospel starts with an invitation for the Jews and then expands to the ends of the earth.
Mark Moore says it this way in The Chronological Life Of Christ: “What this woman is asking for, as an outsider, is to be blessed by the Jewish Messiah. Jesus is wanting her to realize is that she can be an insider in God’s plan. Jesus is now the Jewish Messiah but soon will become the universal Lord. So Jesus rejects her request, not because he disdains Gentiles, but because she is not ready to receive the blessing until she understands who she is in God’s eyes.”
In this moment Jesus is not only teaching the Syrophoenician woman, he’s also teaching the disciples. Often the disciples struggle with outsiders becoming insiders. And what Jesus is teaching both her and them is that the Kingdom of God is for ALL people. She is not yet part of the kingdom, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a seat at the table.
The Canaanite woman is persistent. She doesn’t take no for an answer. She goes once again to Jesus this time kneeling begging for healing (Matthew 15:25).
This is a bold move for a woman in this culture. She oversteps the cultural boundaries for a woman because of her great need.
Jesus respond to this audacious act with: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
This sounds derogatory. It seems like Jesus is kicking her while she’s down. But that’s not what’s happening. And that’s certainly not how she took it. What Jesus is doing is trying to raise her understanding of who he is and her sinful condition.
Jesus used similar illustrations with the Jews and with others. The purpose isn’t to be mean, but to help people understand their sinful/fallen condition.
And we see from her response that she gets it. We’ll look at that in a minute. But first let’s look a little more into why Jesus called her a dog.
Jews did not have a soft spot for dogs as we do today. To them all dogs were dirty. And they would often call Gentiles “dogs” to show their disdain for them.
On the other hand, Greeks loved dogs and commonly had them as pets.
When Jesus calls this woman a dog (kynaria) he’s likely referring to how Greeks view dogs and not the Jews. And that’s clearly how this Greek woman interprets Jesus’ words.
She responds with humility and wit, “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27)
She doesn’t challenge Jesus. Rather she acknowledges the truth of what he said. Her words reveal a great faith and wisdom. She places herself at the mercy of Jesus knowing she doesn’t deserve what she’s asking.
And Jesus affirms her faith and persistence and heals her daughter. (Matthew 15:28)
Here’s how Mark Moore sums it up in The Chronological Life Of Christ: “Even so, it was still a slam. This woman’s humility is impressive. So also is her wit and persistence. She has now come to understand (a) that Jesus is her only hope, and (b) that she has a part in God’s “household.” She is now ready to receive God’s blessing through Jesus, and he is happy to give it.”
Lessons From The Canaanite Woman
So far we’ve looked at the more textbook interaction between Jesus and Syrophoenician woman. Now let’s switch gears and look at specific lessons from the Canaanite woman that we can apply to our lives today.
1. We Are All Hopelessly Lost
We like to think we have it together. But the reality is we don’t. We are more sinful than we ever dared think (Romans 3:23).
We are hopeless and stuck on this path that will eventually lead to eternal death. That is, unless a Savior comes to our rescue.
The Syrophoenician woman got that. She understood her condition and saw Jesus as her only hope. She was in a hopeless situation. But then she ran into Jesus and everything changed.
The message of the Gospel is that you and I are sinners damned, but yet dearly loved. We can have hope not in our own abilities, but in what Jesus has done for us. When we recognize our sinful, hopeless condition, it will make what Jesus has done for us even sweeter.
2. We Don’t Deserve God’s Grace
We are an entitled people. We walk around thinking life owes us. And this attitude bleeds into our faith. Many Christians act that it was God’s pleasure to die for us. We deserve it after all.
We actually deserve eternal separation from God. We don’t deserve God’s grace. We certainly didn’t earn it. We’ve screwed up, many times. We deserve death, not life.
But God doesn’t give us what we deserve. He gives us what we need. And that’s called grace.
The Canaanite woman understood this. She recognized that she didn’t deserve it, but God gave it anyway. She experienced grace first hand.
We need to let go of this mindset that we are deserving of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. We aren’t. But he went to the cross anyway. Why? Because of his deep love for us. When we understand that we aren’t deserving it elevates our understanding to a new level.
3. Our Problems Should Draw Us To God
This Syrophoenician woman was an outsider. She wasn’t a Jew or a follower of Jesus. And yet in her greatest need she was drawn to Jesus.
I don’t know about you but that’s not how I operate. In my problems I tend to try to fix them myself. It rarely works out, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. I doubt I’m alone in this.
This Canaanite woman shows us a better way. Bring your problems to Jesus. He cared for her and he will care for you too. His love for us is deep and he wants to care for his children.
When we try to solve our own problems we often end up more stuck. Go to Jesus instead. He’s a good father that wants to help his children. Your problems should draw you to God.
You might also like: 3 Powerful Truths From The Rich Young Ruler
Jesus and the Canaanite woman have a powerful interaction that still holds truth for us today. When we look at this passage in context we can put aside the absurd interpretations and learn a lot about how God cares for his children. It’s a powerful story and one that we should not soon forget.
I hope that you enjoyed this blog post on the Syrophoenician woman. And I hope that the interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman helped you rethink parts of your life and faith. If you did would you share it with a friend or on social media? That way more people can benefit from it as you have. I would love to hear from you! You can comment below or email me here: [email protected]
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