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JESUS AND THE SYRO-PHOENICIAN WOMAN
THE purpose of Christ to withdraw His disciples from the excitement of Galilee, and from what might follow the execution of the Baptist, had been interrupted by the events at Bethsaida-Julias, but it was not changed. On the contrary, it must have been intensified. That wild, popular outburst, which had almost forced upon Him a Jewish Messiah-Kingship; the discussion with the Jerusalem Scribes about the washing of hands on the following day; the Discourses of the Sabbath, and the spreading disaffection, defection, and opposition which were its consequences - all pointed more than ever to the necessity of a break in the publicity of His Work, and to withdrawal from that part of Galilee. The nearness of the Sabbath, and the circumstance that the Capernaum-boat lay moored on the shore of Bethsaida, had obliged Him, when withdrawing from that neighbourhood, to return to Capernaum. And there the Sabbath had to be spent - in what manner we know. But as soon as its sacred rest was past, the journey was resumed. For the reasons already explained, it extended much further than any other, and into regions which, we may venture to suggest, would not have been traversed but for the peculiar circumstances of the moment.
A comparatively short journey would bring Jesus and His companions from Capernaum ‘into the parts,’ or, as St. Mark more specifically calls them, ‘the borders of Tyre and Sidon.’ At that time this district extended, north of Galilee,34823482 Jos. War iii. 3. 1. from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. But the event about to be related occurred, as all circumstances show, not within the territory of Tyre and Sidon, but on its borders, and within the limits of the Land of Israel. If any doubt could attach to the objects which determined Christ’s journey to those parts, it would be removed by the circumstance that St. Matthew34833483 St. Matt. xv. 21. tells us, He ‘withdrew’34843484 So correctly rendered. thither, while St. Mark notes that He ‘entered into an house, and would have no man know it.’ That house in which Jesus sought shelter and privacy would, of course, be a Jewish home; and, that it was within the borders of Israel, is further evidenced by the notice of St. Matthew, that ‘the Canaanitish woman’ who sought His help ‘came out from those borders’ - that is, from out the Tyro-Sidonian district - into that Galilean border where Jesus was.
The whole circumstances seem to point to more than a night’s rest in that distant home. Possibly, the two first Passover-days may have been spent here. If the Saviour had left Capernaum on the Sabbath evening, or the Sunday morning, He may have reached that home on the borders before the Paschal Eve, and the Monday and Tuesday34853485 Or, the Passover-eve may have been Monday evening. may have been the festive Paschal days, on which sacred rest was enjoined. This would also give an adequate motive for such a sojourn in that house, as seems required by the narrative of St. Mark. According to that Evangelist, ‘Jesus would have no man know’ His Presence in that place, ‘but He could not be hid.’ Manifestly, this could not apply to the rest of one night in a house. According to the same Evangelist, the fame of His Presence spread into the neighbouring district of Tyre and Sidon, and reached the mother of the demonised child, upon which she went from her home into Galilee to apply for help to Jesus. All this implies a stay of two or three days. And with this also agrees the after-complaint of the disciples: ‘Send her away, for she crieth after us.’34863486 St. Matt. xv. 23. As the Saviour apparently received the woman in the house,34873487 St. Mark vii. 24, 25. it seems that she must have followed some of the disciples, entreating their help or intercession in a manner that attracted the attention which, according to the will of Jesus, they would fain have avoided, before, in her despair, she ventured into the Presence of Christ within the house.
All this resolves into a higher harmony those small seeming discrepancies, which negative criticism had tried to magnify into contradictions. It also adds graphic details to the story. She who now sought His help was, as St. Matthew calls her, from the Jewish standpoint, ‘a Canaanitish34883488 Ezra ix. 1. woman,’ by which term a Jew would designate a native of Phoenicia, or, as St. Mark calls her, a Syro-Phoenician (to distinguish her country from Lybo-Phœnicia), and ‘a Greek’ - that is, a heathen. But, we can understand how she who, as Bengel says, made the misery of her little child her own, would, on hearing of the Christ and His mighty deed, seek His help with the most intense earnestness, and that, in so doing, she would approach Him with lowliest reverence, falling at His Feet.34893489 St. Mark vii. 25. But what in the circumstances seems so peculiar, and, in our view, furnishes the explanation of the Lord’s bearing towards this woman, is her mode of addressing Him: ‘O Lord, Thou Son of David!’ This was the most distinctively Jewish appellation of the Messiah; and yet it is emphatically stated of her, that she was a heathen. Tradition has preserved a few reported sayings of Christ, of which that about to be quoted seems, at least, quite Christ-like. It is reported that, ‘having seen a man working on the Sabbath, He said: “O man, if indeed thou knowest what thou doest, thou are blessed; but if thou knowest not, thou are cursed, and art a transgressor of the Law.”’34903490 Comp. Cannon Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, Appendix C. The same principle applied to the address of this woman - only that, in what followed, Christ imparted to her the knowledge needful to make her blessed.
Spoken by a heathen, these words were an appeal, not to the Messiah of Israel, but to an Israelitish Messiah - for David had never reigned over her or her people. The title might be most rightfully used, if the promises to David were fully and spiritually apprehended - not otherwise. If used without that knowledge, it was an address by a stranger to a Jewish Messiah, Whose works were only miracles, and not also and primarily signs. Now this was exactly the error of the Jews which Jesus had encountered and combated, alike when He resisted the attempt to make Him King, in His reply to the Jerusalem Scribes, and in His Discourses at Capernaum. To have granted her the help she so entreated, would have been, as it were, to reverse the whole of His Teaching, and to make His works of healing merely works of power. For, it will not be contended that this heathen woman had full spiritual knowledge of the world-wide bearing of the Davidic promises, or of the world embracing designation of the Messiah as the Son of David. In her mouth, then, it meant something to which Christ could not have yielded. And yet He could not refuse her petition. And so He first taught her, in such manner as she could understand - that which she needed to know, before she could approach Him in such manner - the relation of the heathen to the Jewish world, and of both to the Messiah, and then He gave her what she asked.
It is this, we feel convinced, which explains all. It could not have been, that from His human standpoint He first kept silence, His deep tenderness and sympathy forbidding Him to speak, while the normal limitation of His Mission forbade Him to act as she sought.34913491 This view is advocated by Dean Plumptre with remarkable beauty, tenderness, and reverence. It is also that of Meyer and of Ewald. The latter remarks, that our Lord showed twofold greatness: First, in his calm limitation to His special mission, and then in His equally calm overstepping of it, when a higher ground for so doing appeared. Such limitations could not have existed in His mind; nor can we suppose such an utter separation of His Human from His Divine consciousness in His Messianic acting. And we recoil from the opposite explanation, which supposes Christ to have either tried the faith of the woman, or else spoken with a view to drawing it out. We shrink from the idea of anything like an after-thought, even for a good purpose, on the part of the Divine Saviour. All such afterthoughts are, to our thinking, incompatible with His Divine Purity and absolute rectitude. God does not make us good by a device - and that is a very wrong view of trials, or of delayed answers to prayer, which men sometimes take. Nor can we imagine, that the Lord would have made such cruel trial of the poor agonised woman, or played on her feelings, when the issue would have been so unspeakable terrible, if in her weakness she had failed. There is nothing analogous in the case of this poor heathen coming to petition, and being tried by being told that she could not be heard, because she belonged to the dogs, not the children, and the trial of Abraham, who was a hero of faith, and had long walked with God. In any case, on any of the views just combated, the Words of Jesus would bear a needless and inconceivable harshness, which grates on all our feelings concerning Him. The Lord does not afflict willingly, nor try needlessly, nor disguise His loving thoughts and purposes, in order to bring about some effect in us. He needs not such means; and, with reverence be it said, we cannot believe that He ever uses them.
But, viewed as the teaching of Christ to this heathen concerning Israel’s Messiah, all becomes clear, even in the very brief reports of the Evangelists, of which that by St. Matthew reads like that of one present, that of St. Mark rather like that of one who relates what he has heard from another (St. Peter). She had spoken, but Jesus had answered her not a word. When the disciples - in some measure, probably, still sharing the views of this heathen, that he was the Jewish Messiah - without, indeed, interceding for her, asked that she might be sent away, because she was troublesome to them, He replied, that His Mission was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This was absolutely true, as regarded His Work while upon earth; and true, in every sense, as we keep in view the world-wide bearing of the Davidic reign and promises, and the real relation between Israel and the world. Thus baffled, as it might seem, she cried no longer ‘Son of David,’ but, ‘Lord, help me.’ It was then that the special teaching came in the manner she could understand. If it were as ‘the Son of David’ that He was entreated - if the heathen woman as such applied to the Jewish Messiah as such, what, in the Jewish view, were the heathens but ‘dogs,’ and what would be fellowship with them, but to cast to the dogs - house-dogs, 34923492 The term means ‘little dogs,’ or ‘house - dogs.’ it may be - what should have been the children’s bread? And, certainly, no expression more common in the mouth of the Jews, than that which designated the heathens as dogs.34933493 Midr. on Ps. iv. 8; Meg. 7 b. 34943494 Many passages might be quoted either similar, or based on this view of Gentiles. Most harsh as it was, as the outcome of national pride and Jewish self-assertion, yet in a sense it was true, that those within were the children, and those ‘without’ ‘dogs.’34953495 Rev. xxii. 15. Only, who were they within and who they without? What made ‘a child,’ whose was the bread - and what characterised ‘the dog,’ that was ‘without’?
Two lessons did she learn with that instinct-like rapidity which Christ’s personal Presence - and it alone - seemed ever and again to call forth, just as the fire which fell from heaven consumed the sacrifice of Elijah. ‘Yea, Lord,’ it is as Thou sayest: heathenism stands related to Judaism as the house-dogs to the children, and it were not meet to rob the children of their bread in order to give it to dogs. But Thine own words show, that such would not now be the case. If they are house-dogs, then they are the Master’s, and under His table, and when He breaks the bread to the children, in the breaking of it the crumbs must fall all around. As St. Matthew puts it: ‘The dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their Master’s table;’ as St. Mark puts it: ‘The dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.’ Both versions present different aspects of the same truth. Heathenism may be like the dogs, when compared with the children’s place and privileges; but He is their Master still, and they under His table; and when He breaks the bread there is enough and to spare for them - even under the table they eat of the children’s crumbs.
But in so saying she was no longer ‘under the table,’ but had sat down at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and was partaker of the children’s bread. He was no longer to her the Jewish Messiah, but truly ‘the Son of David.’ She now understood what she prayed, and she was a daughter of Abraham. And what had taught her all this was faith in His Person and Work, as not only just enough for the Jews, but enough and to spare for all - children at the table and dogs under it; that in and with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, all nations were blessed in Israel’s King and Messiah. And so it was, that the Lord said it: ‘O woman, great is thy faith: be it done unto thee even as thou wilt.’ Or, as St. Mark puts it, not quoting the very sound of the Lord’s words, but their impression upon Peter: ‘For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.’34963496 Canon Cook (Speaker’s Comm. on St. Mark vii. 26) regards this ‘as one of the very few instances in which our Lord’s words really differ in the two accounts.’ With all deference, I venture to think it is not so, but that St. Mark gives what St. Peter had received as the impression of Christ’s words on his mind. ‘And her daughter was healed from that hour.’34973497 St. Matt. xv. 28. ‘And she went away unto her house, and found her daughter prostrate [indeed] upon the bed, and [but] the demon gone out.’
To us there is in this history even more than the solemn interest of Christ’s compassion and mighty Messianic working, or the lessons of His teaching. We view it in connection with the scenes of the previous few days, and see how thoroughly it accords with them in spirit, thus recognising the deep internal unity of Christ’s Words and Works, where least, perhaps, we might have looked for such harmony. And again we view it in its deeper bearing upon, and lessons to, all times. To how many, not only of all nations and conditions, but in all states of heart and mind, nay, in the very lowest depths of conscious guilt and alienation from God, must this have brought unspeakable comfort, the comfort of truth, and the comfort of His Teaching. Be it so, an outcast, ‘dog;’ not at the table, but under the table. Still we are at His Feet; it is our Master’s Table; He is our Master; and, as He breaks the children’s bread, it is of necessity that ‘the children’s crumbs’ fall to us, enough, quite enough, and to spare. Never can we be outside His reach, nor of that of His gracious care, and of sufficient provision to eternal life.
Yet this lesson also must we learn, that as ‘heathens’ we may not call on Him as ‘David’s Son,’ till we know why we so call Him. If there can be no despair, no being cast out by Him, no absolute distance that hopelessly separates from His Person and Provision, there must be no presumption, no forgetfulness of the right relation, no expectancy of magic-miracles, no viewing of Christ as a Jewish Messiah. We must learn it, and painfully, first by His silence, then by this, that He is only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, what we are and where we are - that we may be prepared for the grace of God and the gift of grace. All men - Jews and Gentiles, ‘children’ and ‘dogs’ - are as before Christ and God equally undeserving and equally sinners, but those who have fallen deep can only learn that they are sinners by learning that they are great sinners, and will only taste of the children’s bread when they have felt, ‘Yea, Lord,’ ‘for even the dogs’ ‘under the table eat of the children’s crumbs,’ ‘which fall from their Master’s table.’
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