Lent 2 — The Syrophenician Woman

Preached March 4, 2012

1st Thessolonians 4:1–8
St. Matthew 15:21–28

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This is the Second Sunday of Lent, and our Gospel lesson for today deals with Jesus’ miracle healing of the daughter of the Syrophenician woman who was troubled by a devil. You will recall that our Gospel lesson last week dealt with the devil himself, who tempted our Lord Jesus Christ in the desert at the end of His forty day fast. If we look ahead to next week, the Gospel lesson there is involved with Jesus casting out devils, and the question of by what authority does He do this is discussed. To some extent, all of this discussion of devils sits a bit strangely on modern ears.

It is popular in modern times to completely deny the existence of the devil, and certainly the devil himself does nothing at all to discourage this idea. The more people who believe that the devil does not exist, the easier it is for the devil to do his evil work. Beware! The devil and his evil angels are very real and are at work in the world day and night, seeking to destroy the souls of men today, just as they have from the beginning. Sometimes they take very subtle forms, forms almost unrecognizable as active beings, and simply become fixations within people. Basically, devils are wicked, unclean, perverse spiritual powers, or perverse spiritual principles and ideals, by which we are constantly tempted, and often governed. To be “vexed by a devil” means to have one’s will fixed and focused upon some spiritual perversion. It is to have one’s personality wholly absorbed with some worldly lust, some idle curiosity, some vain ambition. It is to have one’s will fixed upon any finite good, as though it were divine. Seen in this light, I think we can recognize that we definitely have devils at work in the world around us today.

Our Gospel lesson for today is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophenician woman.  It begins with a sentence that perhaps needs a bit of explanation, Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. We are all aware that Syria is to the north of the Holy Land, and you may also know that Phoenicia was the coastal region, probably what we now think of as Lebanon, as well as I can figure. Tyre and Sidon were two of the principal cities of this region, with Sidon roughly fifteen miles north of Tyre. This is completely outside the area inhabited by the Jews, an area where Greek was the language spoken, and where Baal was worshipped. This was the area of origin of the wicked Queen Jezebel of Old Testament infamy, so this was not an area favored by the Jews. Finally, the word coasts, is a bit strange to modern ears, but remember that our lesson was read from the Authorized Version of 1611. This usage of the word coast as used here appears to come from the Middle English and Old French word coste meaning the flank or side of something. Thus the statement means that Jesus went near the area of Tyre and Sidon, rather than into either particular city.

This same story is also recorded in St. Mark, where we find some additional information and a slightly different point of view. Let me read that so that we may compare the two of them:

Mark 7:24-30  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. For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet:  The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.  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. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

Now in order to account for some of the differences in the way the story is told, keep in mind the different readership to which each of these Gospels is addressed. Mark was written for a Roman readership, and for that reason, there would be no reason for him to include things that are of particularly Jewish significance, in particular, the religious friction involved here. Matthew, on the other hand, was written specifically to the Jews, and therefore it makes sense that this Gospel would emphasize aspects of the story that have uniquely Jewish significance.

Now look at the action. Jesus has gone into a foreign land, a land populated by people the Jews despised. The disciples are, no doubt, rather uncomfortable with the whole situation, wondering why they are there and when can they leave. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus, crying out to him for help, and the disciples are annoyed.

This is a charged situation. First of all, in the ancient Middle East, women did not approach strange men and talk to them, much as it is today. So we have a petitioner, of which there have been others previously, but this one is (1) a woman, (2) a Gentile woman, (3) a Gentile woman from this despised area. How could it possibly be any worse? And she is making a scene and a spectacle and calling attention to all of them! We read that Jesus had entered into an house, and would have no man know it meaning that he did not want his presence known, and now she is announcing Him to all the world! This just will not do, and at first glance, it would seem that Jesus response agrees with that reading, because He answered her not a word.

But she continues her entreaty, and finally He replies, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus appears, on the surface to be telling her that she is cut off, lost. But is that so?

Not really. Do you recall our Gospel lesson from a few Sundays back on Septuagesima, the parable of the workers hired at various times throughout the day to labor in the vineyard?
One interpretation of that parable is that those hired first represent the Jews, and those hired later represent the Gentiles to whom the message of salvation comes after it has first come to the Jews? This particularly makes sense when we think in terms of the ancient Jewish Patriarchs and the Prophets who led the people to the Lord, then being followed in our times by the Apostles, Martyrs, Bishops, and Priests of the Christian Church. And Jesus goes on to finish that parable by saying, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many are called but few are chosen” referring to the fact that being a Jew will not give anyone preference in the kingdom of heaven, and that many of the Jews will hear and not believe. But Jesus consistently says that the message of salvation has to be given first to the Jews.

The Canaanite woman has shown great religious insight in her initial cries to Jesus when she says, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David. Here we have this Greek speaking woman, not a Hebrew at all, who clearly recognizes that this is the Messiah, the Promised One, the descendant of David who would come to Israel. After what we might think of as a final rebuff, she still does not give up, but she comes and worships him because she has recognized who He is, and she says, Lord, help me. She is coming in complete humility and dependence, recognizing that this is the Messiah, the son of David.

But Jesus answer her and says, It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs. Once again, it appears that Jesus has rebuffed her. He has said that she, and by implication her people, are dogs. Now the word used here for dogs is the word for household dogs, the dogs that might be around the dinner table. It is definitely not the sort of wild dogs that may well be rabid, so we may infer that at least they are in some sense, members of the household, even though of the very lowest sort. He has told her that the bread, which is eternal salvation, belongs to the children, the Jews, and she and her kind are not worthy to be fed that which is intended for the children.

But the woman has a quick response. She says, Truth, Lord: yet even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Notice first that she does not argue with Jesus about her worthiness. She knows that she, like each of us, is completely unworthy to make any demand on Jesus. But she asks anyway because of her great need. She asks because she knows that in the Kingdom of heaven there is much more than enough; grace is not in short supply. All we have to do is to ask. So even after the Jews have had their fill of salvation, there will be more than enough left for all the world, if we will but ask for it. And so, in faith, she does ask.

She says that even the household dogs are fed with the scraps that fall from the table, and that there is enough for both the children and for the dogs. She is claiming salvation for us, the Gentiles, as well as for the Jews! She has not  in any way disagreed with Jesus characterization of her and her people as dogs, nor has she disagreed with the assertion that it is not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs. But she simply says that there is enough, and more than enough, for everyone. This is a profound insight in to the kingdom of heaven, an insight that escapes many even to this day, the vast abundance of the grace of God.

At this last, Jesus gives recognition to her faith and grants her request. He cures her daughter at that very moment. Jesus says to the woman that He is doing this because of the evidence of her great faith.

Notice how easy it would have been for her to give up at any point in this whole process. When Jesus simply does not seem to answer our prayers, many of us accept that as a negative response in our prayer lives. When Jesus said, I am sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel, most of us would be inclined to say, “well, I suppose that’s it; it makes sense and who am I to argue with Jesus?” When Jesus says, It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs, our natural response would probably be to let pride rise up and say, “well just who does He think He is, anyway? He can’t talk to me like that!” With any of these reactions, we fail in our Christian lives.

The Syrophenician woman is in many respects a excellent model for us as Christians for the way in which we should approach Christ. Notice what she did. First she recognized Him for who He was, and sought Him out. She urgently presented her petition. She worshipped Him. She was persistent in prayer. Because of her faith, her petition was granted, and so ours be as well if they are consistent with the will of God.

Let us pray again the Collect for the Day:

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Father D

I am a priest of the Continuing Anglican Church, the continuation of orthodox Anglicanism into the present 21st century. My theology is definitely that of a Reformed Catholic point of view, neither Roman nor Calvinist.
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