“The woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she was asking him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, because it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Serving in ministry can be tough in ways many other jobs simply aren’t. I don’t say that as a complaint. I love what I do. I say it merely as an observation. I have a friend who was serving a church many years ago and had gone on vacation with his family during the summer months. While they were gone, someone connected to one of the prominent members of the church passed away. The member called him to let him know about it and fully expected that he would leave his family on vacation (or else cut short their vacation entirely), fly back home, and perform the funeral service. There are a few other jobs where that kind of thing might happen, but not many. Getting away – really getting away – isn’t easy to do. Jesus was trying to get away with the disciples here and ministry came calling. How He handled it leads to one of the strangest and hardest stories about Jesus in all of the Gospels. Let’s take a look at it together.
This story gives interpreters fits. Trying to understand and make sense of Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman has a way of revealing our biases like few others stories in the Scriptures do. Why is this? Well, let’s review the story and then we’ll talk about it.
After having yet another run-in with the Pharisees and on the backside of a season that had been particularly stressful and busy, Jesus wanted to get away. He traveled with the group way up north out of Galilee into the much more heavily Gentile territory of Syria, to the city of Tyre. Tyre has an interesting history in the Old Testament. It had been a very wealthy place with rulers who tended to stay on pretty good terms with the Kings of Israel and Judah. King Hiram of Tyre was particularly close to David and provided much of the supplies and workers for the building of the Temple during Solomon’s tenure. The city was also the subject of incredibly scathing pronouncements of judgment in the prophets. Their sins appear to be more economic and justice-related than rank idolatry or violence, but God’s feelings toward them were pretty clear…and negative.
Jesus went to Tyre with the disciples, and as v. 24 makes clear, didn’t want anyone to know it. He had some contact there who was willing to furnish the group a place to stay, and His hope was to remain completely incognito. Much to His displeasure, though, “he could not escape notice.” While the group was hanging out one day, a woman came up to Him and started begging Him to heal her daughter. In other words, He got a work call while He was on vacation.
Now, if you knew only that much, how would you expect Jesus to react? With immediate compassion and healing, right? Instead, He says what I posted in the verse at the top of the page: “Let the children be fed first, because it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Wait, what?!? He really said that? Are we sure Peter didn’t get that wrong and He really said something else entirely less offensive and hard to deal with? Why would Jesus say something like that? I mean, sure, He goes on to eventually heal the woman’s daughter (of demon possession at a distance which is a pretty amazing miracle if you think about it) and praise her witty and tenacious response to what He said, but really? Why not just heal the girl and not give the mom such a hard time? Was this really giving her a hard time or are we missing something? What are we supposed to do with this?
The short and simple answer is this: We don’t really know. Mark’s telling here is, honestly, pretty hard to interpret. Matthew adds and edits a couple of details that give us a potential leg up on it (one that conservative commentators seize on with gusto because there really isn’t anything else to go on), but even with that we have to be pretty humble in our assessment. My take is that this story’s real worth is that it reminds us of an important principle of biblical interpretation that we dare not forget if we want to get any of it right.
There are three major options for understanding what was happening here. The first is that Jesus was trying to teach this woman a lesson about faith and tenacity with God. By giving her a bit of a hard time, He showed her (and by that, us) how to reach for the kind of faith that really makes a difference in our relationship with God. If we want God to lean in our direction and meet our needs, we have to really be willing to go after Him. We need to stay fervent and persistent in prayer just like this woman. If we do that, God will eventually grant our requests and along the way help us deepen our dependence on Him. The problem here is that it doesn’t seem like we should have to nag God to get Him to do something for us if He is really all good like we proclaim Him to be.
The second option is that this was a teaching moment for Jesus. Jesus, Son of God though He may have been, had been raised in a culture of explicit bias against the Gentiles and in His humanity had absorbed some of that into His thinking. Given that we are products of our culture, this shouldn’t surprise us at all. This Gentile woman’s tenacious faith woke Him up to the fact that the message God sent Him to proclaim was intended to be for more than just the children of Israel. This is an easier interpretation to sell from Mark’s telling of the story than it is from Matthew’s, and it tends to be favored by more liberal commentators. The problem here is in the underlying assumptions it makes about Jesus. It seems to lean too much into His humanity and downplays His equally full divinity. It views Jesus as gradually growing into His role as Messiah, learning as He went, rather than owning it fully from the start. While I understand how someone could read this passage and come to this conclusion, I don’t think it fits the broader picture of who Jesus was and how thoroughly He understood His identity that we are presented in the rest of the Gospels.
The third option is that this was a teaching moment for the disciples. In Matthew’s telling of the story, before He interacts with her, Jesus was basically ignoring the woman. She begged and pleaded for His help and He kept going on like nothing was happening. Her pleadings finally got to be too much for the disciples and they started pestering Jesus themselves, not to help her, but to just make her go away. It is at this moment that Jesus responds to her, challenges her a bit, lets her continue to demonstrate her tenacious faith in not only His ability, but His willingness to help her daughter, praises her for it, and heals the girl. The disciples get a lesson in the fact that maybe this whole Gospel thing really is for more than just Israel. In saying what He did here, Jesus was parroting their belief to her, not expressing His own. By healing the girl anyway, He lets them see that Gentiles are interested in buying the message He’s been selling too. This doesn’t change their hearts in the moment, but it lays a foundation that eventually provides the platform for real change a few years down the road.
Personally, if I was going to choose one of these three interpretations, I’d lean toward this last one. I can admit, though, that this is because of the biases I bring to the text when I read it. As for what those biases are, I believe that the text is accurate and true and that Jesus was perfect from day one, needing to learn things like knowledge of facts and such, but not how to love people or the equal value of different people groups. In other words, there was no prejudice in Jesus as the second option above alleges. I believe this because I am utterly convinced that Jesus was fully God from day one. There was no growing into it for Him. And I believe that because of what I see in the rest of the New Testament. In other words again, my approach to this one passage is profoundly shaped by my understanding of the whole picture of the Scriptures as well as my understanding of the character of God.
Do you want to know a secret? So is yours. We read Scripture through the lens of our understanding of God’s character whether we understand we are doing that or not. What you think about God (including whether or not you even think there is a God) is one of the most fundamental shapers of your outlook on life there is. If you don’t have the character of God right, much that you find in the Scriptures and in life is going to throw you for a loop. Reading individual stories like this is important to do, but making sure we understand the big story of Scripture and the God it reveals to us is perhaps even more important to have as a foundation point for our engagement with what we find in the Bible.
So then, what do you think about God? If you don’t have that clear – or if you have in your mind a picture of Him that isn’t consistent with the witness of the Scriptures – you’re going to have a hard time when it comes to both the Bible and with life. Much won’t make sense that otherwise will. And, where things still don’t make sense, your ability to move positively forward anyway is going to be hampered. So, read the Scriptures regularly; study them deeply; but make sure you know who God is when you do. It’ll make the going a whole lot easier.