Remember the story about the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter?
Have you ever wondered why Jesus was so incredibly inclusive of all types of people is in his ministry, people like the Syrophoenician woman?
I mean, think about it. Jesus talked to every sort of person there was to talk to: the rich, the poor, the holy, the humble, the sinner, the self-righteous. It didn’t matter to him if someone was of high or low social and religious status. What he cared about was if someone was receptive to who he was and his message of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus didn’t only minister to people of the Jewish faith. He often broke the social and religious boundaries by talking to non-Jewish people.
Most Jews of his day, even his disciples to some extent, had a fierce religious nationalism. They thought Israel was God’s chosen nation and they were eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come, to get rid of the Romans, and restore the kingdom of Israel to its glory days of Kings David and Solomon.
These earnest and faithful Jews did not realize there was a bigger plan of salvation that would include all mankind.
Which is kind of odd, given that some of the Messianic prophecies included the enlightenment and salvation of the Gentiles, in other words, the whole non-Jewish world.
Jesus was a light to the Gentiles
Here’s how God prophesies of the coming Messiah, giving very specific instructions for Christ:
He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6 NLT
All nations will come to your light;
mighty kings will come to see your radiance. Isaiah 60:3 NLT
These were prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures. Maybe it’s only with hindsight that we can look at these verses and realize the Messiah would be for all mankind and not just the Jews.
The Jews in Jesus’s day, for the most part, saw themselves as separate from other people. They weren’t supposed to associate with anyone who wasn’t Jewish. They weren’t even supposed to talk to them or go into their homes.
And even among the Jews themselves, the Pharisees for example, wouldn’t associate with anyone they deemed sinful or unclean. There was a very strict purity culture.
Jesus ate with sinners. Gasp!
In light of this attitude among the religious leaders, I find great delight when Jesus goes to have dinner with the tax collectors and sinners, the very people looked down on by the religious elite.
In fact when Jesus did this, it really bothered the Pharisees. They asked his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[Hosea 6:6] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:11-13 NLT
Jesus was ministering to the very people who needed him the most. The Pharisees then and the Pharisees today do not understand this.
Jesus ministered to non-Jews. Double gasp!
But Jesus didn’t just minster to Jews who were looked down on by the religious authorities. He also reached out to people who weren’t Jewish.
I won’t go into detail on some of these, but think of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. (See John 4)
In Episode 129: Worshiping God in Spirit and Truth, I talked about the conversation Jesus had with her.
Jesus was not supposed to talk to a woman, and certainly not a Samaritan woman of questionable social status. But he did.
Jews weren’t not supposed to talk to the Romans unless they had to, and certainly not go into their homes, but Jesus was willing to go the Roman Centurion’s home to heal his servant.
Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.” Matthew 8:7 NLT
The Roman officer declined and expressed his faith that Jesus didn’t need to come to his house and the boy was healed.
There’s another more example I want to talk about in more detail. Let me set the scene.
Jesus in Gentile territory
The Pharisees had given Jesus a hard time for breaking with Jewish traditions and he then rebuked them for honoring their traditions above the commandments of God. He felt their stern condemnation. So he left that hostile atmosphere and went, of all places, into the area around Tyre and Sidon. This was Gentile territory.
He wanted to be alone and went into someone’s home to get away from people. But it was not to be.
A Syrophoenician woman burst into the house pleading with Jesus to heal her daughter.
There are two accounts of this, Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. Both versions are below in the Bible References section so you can compare them. Each one gives details the other leaves out. It’s helpful to read them both to get a fuller picture of what’s going on.
Mark tells us Jesus was trying to keep his presence there a secret. Matthew tells us the woman appealed to him as the Son of David, which was an acknowledgement of his Messiahship.
A desperate mother
In any event, she was desperate. Her daughter was suffering terribly. She must have heard of Jesus somehow. Even in this non-Jewish country, news spread of the man who could heal people.
Put yourself in this woman’s place for a minute. She obviously loved her daughter enough to intrude upon Jesus because she believed he could heal her daughter.
Matthew tells us Jesus wouldn’t even respond to her at first. In fact his disciples asked him to send her away. They were bothered by her presence. They didn’t see it as an opportunity for healing, as Jesus did.
Jesus finally tells the woman he was only sent to the “lost sheep of Israel.”
Wait, what about those prophecies in Isaiah about the Christ being a light to the Gentiles! Did Jesus not know those Scriptures? Of course he did. And he knew he was going to heal this woman’s daughter. He wouldn’t have been talking to her if he wasn’t going to help her.
She falls at Jesus’s feet and pleads with him. Matthew tells us Jesus said,
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Matthew 15:26
But Mark adds an insight that gives us a little better picture of how this conversation may have gone.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Mark 7:27
Who gets bread?
Do you see the difference? If the children are to be fed first, it implies the “dogs” will be fed later and not go completely without anything to eat.
But is Jesus being a Jewish snob and calling this woman a dog? That’s how the Jews thought of all Gentiles.
It’s important here to know that the specific word for “dogs” in both Matthew and Mark is the Greek word kynarion.
It literally means little dog, lap dog, or a pet dog. It was a term of endearment, not an insult.
The woman picks up on this play of words and responds without hesitating,
“even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Mark 7:28
Then Jesus heals her daughter.
On the surface of this story, Jesus appears at first to be going along with the religious culture of the Pharisees, not to mention the opinions of his disciples present with him, in not wanting to deal with this woman.
But I believe Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do all along, heal her daughter. He wasn’t asking questions to get information for himself. He was giving her an opportunity to declare her faith.
How often are we like the Pharisees or Jesus’s disciples who want to get rid of an unseemly person or situation?
Opportunity for healing, do you see it?
Maybe a better question is: How was Jesus able to see this as an opportunity for healing?
And how can we see these kinds of things as opportunities for healing?
Jesus knew his message of the kingdom of heaven and salvation was for all mankind. What is he teaching us about heaven in this story?
What is he showing us about how his church should treat people who are rejected by social, cultural, and religious tradition?
This encounter is actually prophetic of how the Gospel would be shared with the non-Jewish world relatively soon after Jesus ascended.
The Syrophoenician woman’s culture didn’t stop Jesus from healing her daughter
The religious and cultural differences of the Syrophoenician woman did not prevent her from approaching Jesus, asking him to heal her daughter, or to be persistent in her request. And nothing could prevent Jesus from healing the girl when there was so much faith expressed by this ardent mother.
The power of Christ breaks down all barriers when there is a receptive, expectant heart, even if someone has come from a culture that is not Christlike, or has un-Christlike thoughts.
I think it’s interesting Jesus uses the metaphor of bread in this story to refer to the help he could offer the woman. Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life, the very sustenance of our spiritual existence. Would he withhold that from a hungry heart?
Sharing the bread of life
How ready and willing are you and I to share the bread of life with someone who is outside of our social, financial, educational, political, and religious comfort zone?
I am still surprised when I hear about Christians who live in their safe little Christian bubbles. They only associate with people who are like them. They may contribute to their churches missionaries in foreign countries, but their own lives do not show much evidence of reaching out to help the people, often in their own neighborhoods, who are hurting and need help.
Now there could be very good reasons for this. There’s no way to get involved in every righteous cause in your community.
But if we start thinking like the Pharisees, that we are better than others, or like the disciples who just wanted to avoid a messy situation, it means we really haven’t taken on the way Jesus looked at and loved people.
How could Jesus love the sinners?
How could Jesus love the sinners, the tax collectors, hey, we still have a certain feeling toward the tax collectors today, don’t we?
How could Jesus love the social outcasts, and even the foreigners who worshiped false gods?
What was he thinking?
Whatever it was, we need to think like he did. We need to love like he did. We need to, and can, see every situation as an opportunity to bear witness to the healing power of God. Even when it’s awkward, uncomfortable, or difficult.
Those are the times you need to let your light shine even more brightly than when everything is going smoothly in your life.
So how could Jesus love these outcasts, these non-believers, and heal them?
It’s because he could see that God loved them.
Can you see God loving everyone?
The next time you’re struggling with personalities you disagree with or you’re thrown together with someone who is radically and offensively different from you, instead of trying to justify yourself and how you feel about them, or run away from the situation, what if you just quietly prayed to see how much God loves them?
That doesn’t mean you should naively walk into harm’s way. We need to use wisdom and follow God’s guidance at all times. But even if you’re led to not be involved in a particular situation, you can still bear witness to the fact that God loves everyone involved.
You can’t do this with the love that comes from the human heart. That love only goes so far. It’s loving with God’s love that brings healing.
And don’t let others talk you out of loving this way.
Don’t let someone else stop you from loving
My first job after college was in Boston on the Security staff of a large organization with several buildings. We were in charge of making sure things were safe for the employees and the hundreds of pedestrians who were always walking by.
One day I met a woman who was quite distraught. Her name was Edna. I tried to comfort her. Over the weeks she returned and we often chatted. She had a pretty troubled past and was dealing with, what today we would call, trauma in her life.
I befriended her and often shared Bible verses to encourage her. At one point, after several months, my supervisor told me to quit spending time with her, it wasn’t worth it. She was never going to change. He thought I was casting my pearls before the swine. He didn’t use that phrase, but that was his meaning.
The funny thing was, I knew from talking to her that she had just had some major spiritual breakthroughs in her life. My supervisor didn’t know that and didn’t believe it when I told him.
But I had to be true to my heart to love that woman the way Jesus would, at least to the best of my ability. And she always appreciated my friendship.
Don’t let other people, and it’s hard when it’s someone close to you, or your supervisor, as in my case, tell you who, how, or when to love or not love. Let Jesus be your model. Only Jesus.
Will you help the Syrophoenician woman of today?
I say this often on the podcast, “We have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16) That means we can love the way Jesus did under every circumstance.
So would you, will you, help the Syrophoenician woman of today, whoever it may be? There are lots of them out there, men, women, and children. Will you love those whom others have decided are unlovable or unworthy of love and respect?
Of course you will. Christ not only gives you the ability to do so, but also creates the desire in your heart to follow his example. Christ reveals to you the infinite love God has for all mankind. You won’t be able to do anything but love them.
Photo credit: FreeBibleImages.org
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Isaiah 49:6 NLT
6 He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Isaiah 60:3 NLT
3 All nations will come to your light;
mighty kings will come to see your radiance.
Matthew 9:11-13 NLT
11 Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[Hosea 6:6] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Hosea 6:6 NIV
6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Matthew 8:7 NLT
7 Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”
Matthew 15:21-28 NIV
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Mark 7:24-30 NIV
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.
25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet.
26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
1 Corinthians 2:16 KJV
16 “We have the mind of Christ.”