THE SYROPHENICIAN WOMAN
REV. EDMUND NEVILLE, D.D.
Jesus had “departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon;” (Mat 15:21) that is, he had gone to the boundary line of the country in which those maritime towns were situated. The country referred to is Syro‐Phenicia, due north of Capernaum. Our Lord, consistently with his declaration that he was “not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Mat 15:24) kept on the Jewish side of the line separating the two countries, but went as far as he could without crossing it, showing us how ardently he anticipated the time when the partition wall between Jew and Gentile being broken down, the great work should begin of bringing in his “other sheep also,” making thus but “one fold and one Shepherd.” (Jhn 10:16.) Oh! it is a beautiful idea, that of Jesus going thus to the partition wall and looking over it, as it were, upon the Gentile world, casting his eye across that wilderness where so many lost sheep were wandering, and whence so many of them were to be reclaimed. It was thus that this poor woman was brought to Jesus. He wished to have his presence kept secret, but by some means or other it became known, and as soon as this woman heard of it she repaired to him. Oh! what a character for generosity and compassion was that which our Saviour had acquired by his many kindnesses to the poor and suffering, since it encouraged this poor heathen to entertain the hope that neither Jewish prejudices nor any other obstacle would hinder him from affording her relief. And yet, had she only heard of the Saviour’s excellence, this meeting would never have taken place. How many are there whom the report of the matchless virtues of his character has reached without exciting in their minds a wish for his acquaintance! It is not hearing but feeling our need of Jesus that brings us to him. Her troubles, her distress, her affliction, made this woman of Canaan seek his help, and profitable indeed are the afflictions that result in this. “The pain of them is but the piercing the ears of a maiden in order to hang jewels in the wound.”
But what was the peculiar character of her affliction? We read of a father coming to Christ in behalf of his child, but here is a mother on the same errand, and therefore it is probable that her child was fatherless and herself a widow. Her child too, we are informed, was young, which makes it likely that she had not long been left alone in the world, and loved this child the more as the only reflection of his image from whom she had been so early sundered. And this daughter was “grievously vexed with a devil.” (Mat 15:22.) She was suffering from the malice and cruelty of Satan. He had sunk so low in sin and malignity (and it shows what an accursed thing sin is), that although he once enjoyed and delighted in the employments of heaven, he now takes pleasure in torturing and tormenting a little child. Such was the case of this Canaanitish woman; humanly speaking it was a hopeless case, and nothing but absolute despair of help from any other quarter drove her to Christ. She had found that man has neither power nor divination against Satan, and so she applies to Him who came on purpose “to destroy his works.” (1Jo 3:8.)
The terms in which she made application to Christ are very remarkable. “She cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David.” (Mat 15:22.) “Have mercy on me,” she says, making her child’s trouble her own, showing how her maternal heart identified the interests of her child with her interests, and its sufferings with her sufferings. She said these words standing afar off, for she was a poor Gentile woman, sensible of the immense distance between her and Jesus, deeply sensible of her own unworthiness and of his majesty. It is the cry of all who feel as she did. It was that of the Publican; all he said whilst smiting on his breast was, “God have mercy upon me, a sinner.” (Luk 18:13.) It was that of the thief on the cross; he said “Lord, remember me.” (Luk 23:42.) Neither should any one be surprised that with such mean thoughts of herself, this woman could presume to apply to Jesus. It was because Christ was as high in her estimation as she was low. It was because whilst she had a mean opinion of herself, she had the most exalted opinion of Christ. Her language is, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David,” acknowledging him to be the true Messiah and the incarnate God, and it was the power, grace, and compassion which belong to Christ in these characters that emboldened her to seek his assistance. How mistaken are they, then, who excuse themselves on the ground of unworthiness from coming to Christ! If this woman, if the publican, if the thief on the cross were not deterred by this feeling from seeking mercy, why should any sinner be deterred? Oh! it is not a sense of their lost and helpless and miserable condition that would keep such persons away from Christ, if they entertained the honourable views of him that this woman did; if they believed him to be the mighty God the Saviour, and therefore both able and willing to remedy their distress, however deep and seemingly desperate. It is not presumption but faith to apply to Jesus, and the deeper is our sense of guilt, the stronger is our faith in making the application. It shows how honourable, how exalted are our views of Christ, when, notwithstanding the deep despondency of our minds, we can cast ourselves at his feet in the firm belief that he can take it away.
But to return to our narrative. This woman’s application seemed at first to be unfavourably received. Christ “answered her not a word.” (Mat 15:23.) How disheartening! Had she then been imposed upon? Were the accounts she had received of his humanity and compassion untrue? His silence, one would think, would make her fear so, and lead her to say, “Well then, my hopes are at an end, my expectations even from this quarter are disappointed, my prayer, my distress, the misery of my poor child make no impression on his heart; I must go back in despair to my afflicted daughter.” Not so, however. She continued her cry, she retained her distant and humble posture, but she still lifted up her voice, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David.” Jesus was silent, the disciples were silent, the bystanders were silent, and nothing was heard but the importunate prayer of this poor woman for mercy. If any of our readers have ever said to themselves, “God seems to take no notice of our prayers, and therefore we will pray no longer,” let them learn from this woman “that we should always pray and not faint.” (Luk 18:1.) Let them learn that “delays are not denials.” If she had been forbidden to pray, her case would indeed have been desperate, but the silence of Christ implied no prohibition of that sort; it was only designed to draw out her faith in order to the instruction of future ages. Thank God, the command which he has given us to offer prayer is equivalent to a promise that prayer shall be answered; but in his own time, for as yet this woman was disregarded. “The Word for her seems to have no word, the Fountain to be sealed, and the Physician to withhold his remedies.”
And now the affecting sight of this poor suppliant for mercy was more than the disciples could bear. Ignorant of our Lord’s reason for holding her in suspense, and deeply wrought upon by the spectacle of her misery, “they came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.” (Mat 15:23.) “Send her away,” as if her detention were without an object, and only served to prolong her sufferings. Not understanding the design he had in view, they thought it cruel to treat her passionate entreaties with seeming indifference, and became her advocates. They had yet to learn from Christ’s conduct to this Gentile, that God often hides love beneath severity, and that the blow which seems to be inflicted by wrath is in reality the result of affection. Their kind intercession, however, must have greatly encouraged its weeping object. “Their prayers united with mine,” she would say, “will insure success. If, because I am a poor Gentile, he is less disposed to give me assistance, he will not refuse the request of his own disciples.” Such perhaps were her thoughts as she heard them plead for her, and not without reason, for we are told that the “prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” (Jam 5:16) and that the united supplications of God’s people are more effectual than individual entreaty. But even to the prayers of the whole church concentrated upon one point, nothing is conceded except in the time which seems best to God; and powerful as were the supplications of this woman and her friends, that time in her case was yet future, and although no longer silent, our Lord still maintained the appearance of hesitation. “He answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mat 15:24.) His personal ministry on earth was to be exercised among the Jewish people, and, as a general rule, among them only. It was in his power indeed to make exceptions to this rule, but nothing is said to her of that circumstance, in order still further to try her faith and to encourage ours. No, he speaks as though the Gentile character of this woman had put an impassable barrier to his giving her assistance. And so here she met apparently with another repulse, which one would think was enough to make her relinquish all hope and desist from further efforts as useless. But we are mistaken; for in place of losing all heart she redoubles her importunities, and leaving the comparatively distant spot from which she had hitherto addressed the Saviour, she went close up to him, and falling down upon her knees, cries, “Lord, help me.” (Mat 15:25.) And now that she has manifested unabated earnestness, and unshaken confidence in his power, surely her faith has not to undergo any further trial. We are wrong again. Not even yet is our Lord’s design in keeping her in suspense accomplished. The only answer Christ returned to the cry of “Lord help me,” was this: “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.” (Mat 15:26.) The Jews called the Gentiles dogs. They likened themselves to the children of a family, and all the rest of the world to the slaves, outcasts, or even to the dogs who had no part in the privileges of the household; and our Saviour, in order more distinctly to bring out her faith, reminded this woman of the saying. But not even this painful answer, couched as it was in apparently reproachful terms, could repel his suppliant. Instead of taking umbrage at this reflection on her birth and origin, she fastens upon his words, and finds in them an argument in her own behalf. “I admit,” she says, “that the children should have their portion; I lay no claim to interfere with or to put myself upon an equality with the Jewish people. I am a poor Gentile, and they are the children. I am no better than the dogs in comparison; but yet, Lord, the same master who feeds his children feeds his dogs too; they have each their portion and eat of the same food; for do not ‘the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from the children’s table?’ (Mat 15:27.) I ask but a crumb, Lord help me!” Such was her language. She argued that by Christ’s own admission she held a place, though the lowest place, in the great household of God, and so was entitled to look to him for succour. Thus she converted his own words into a reason why he should help instead of turn her away.
And now at length when she had thus manifested her faith, her irresistible faith, she met with her reward. “Then Jesus answered”—and who can conceive the compassion with which he spake these words—“Go thy way!”—Honoured woman! Happy woman! Successful woman! Who can tell thy feelings as he said unto thee, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” (Mat 15:28.) He did not say unto her, “O woman, great is thy affliction;”—a great affliction it was, and she felt it. He did not say unto her, “O woman, great have been thy discouragements;”–her discouragements and difficulties were great enough. He did not say unto her, “O woman, great is thy humility;”—though her humility was put to a severe test. Nor did he say to her, “O woman, great is thy perseverance;”—although her perseverance was most extraordinary. No;—but he said unto her, “O woman, great is thy faith!” It is this which gives efficacy to prayer; it is this which gives power to silent tears and soul‐breathed sighs; it is this, my readers, which will make your supplications at a throne of grace acceptable to God, and bring upon you, as it did upon the Syrophenician woman, his richest blessing.