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§ 184. The Syro-Phoenician Woman. (Matt., xv., 21; Mark, vii., 24.)—(1.) Her Prayer.—(2.) Her Repulse.—(3.) Her Faith.—(4.) The Result.


Christ, having passed beyond the northern border bf Galilee, reached a place where he wished to remain unknown. But the fame of his miracles had preceded his arrival. A heathen woman of the neighbourhood (a Canaanite or Phoenician), whose daughter was a demoniac, hastened to seek help from the Saviour. As he went out with the disciples, she ran and cried to him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord! thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.”


But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.” Taking this reply alone, apart from the circumstances under which Christ uttered it, it appears mysterious, indeed, that he should so emphatically restrict his mission to the Jews, that he should speak of the heathen in such a tone of contempt; and repel the prayer of the woman with so much severity. But although we may not be able, from the close and abridged narrative, to obtain a clear view of the matter, we can yet remove its difficulties to a great extent by considering it in its proper historical connexion.501501   The attempt to remove these difficulties by the theory that Christ altered his plan at different periods cannot be made to harmonize with the attendant circumstances of this case, as related by Mark as well as Matthew; for these circumstances (the journey into North Galilee, &c.) prove that this case must be placed chronologically after other cases in which Christ had assisted individual heathens.

We have before said that the restriction of Christ’s mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel was not inconsistent with his purpose of establishing a universal kingdom. This restriction referred to his personal agency, which in fact belonged to the Jewish people; not, however (as he himself said), but that he had “other sheep not belonging to this fold,” which were at some time to be brought into the same fold, and under the same shepherd, with the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But in other cases, also (as we have seen), he afforded his personal assistance to individual heathens. We must, therefore, seek the reasons of Christ’s conduct in the peculiar circumstances of the case, and of the time at which it occurred.

In the first place, it is clear that he wished, at that juncture, to remain hidden, and therefore to avoid public labours (Mark, vii., 24). In 280the previous cases in which he had assisted individual pagans, no further consequences were likely to follow; but his agency in this case was likely to draw multitudes around him, and to extend his ministry among the heathen, in opposition to his general plan. His action, therefore, was directed only to the Apostles and to the woman; the latter he wished to relieve after she had proved her faith and poured out her whole heart before him; to the former the case afforded an example of pagan faith that might shame the Jews, and teach the Apostles that the heathen would yet believe in him, and share, through their faith, in the blessings of his kingdom. It may be a question whether this was Christ’s intention from the beginning, or whether the woman’s fervent prayer and believing importunity overcame his first purpose to send her away. There is nothing in the latter supposition inconsistent with the character of Jesus, since, in his purely human being, he was differently determined by different circumstances.

And again, hard as the words “one ought not to cast the children’s bread to the dogs” may sound to us, we must remember that it was a figurative expression, meaning nothing more than that the mercies destined for the Theocratic people could not as yet be extended to a people at that time far from the kingdom of God, and by no means excluding the expectation that this relation should be so changed as that all should become “children.”


The woman doubtless felt that these words, severe as they were, came from a heart overflowing with love, and she continued her prayer with trustful importunity, herself entering into the words of Christ and acknowledging their truth. “Yes, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”

Now if this total abasement before a man of another nation be regarded merely as an outward and human submission for the sake of a bodily blessing, it must appear abject indeed; nor could Christ have praised it and granted the favour so earnestly yet basely sought. But it was not of such a character; the pagan woman felt herself unworthy of the kingdom of God, and therefore was not degraded by her sense of inferiority to the Theocratic nation; she humbled herself, not before a man, but before one in whom (whatever conception she had of his person) God revealed himself to her heart; it was to a Divine power, not a human, that she gave so lowly a submission. It is precisely this sense of unworthiness and unconditional submission to God, when revealed in his omnipotence and mercy; it is precisely Faith, in this peculiarly Christian sense, which is made, throughout the New Testament, the condition of all manifestations of the grace of God. The act of Christ in the case illustrated his own saying, “He that humbleth 281himself shall be exalted;” he answered the woman, commending her as he would not commend the Jews, “O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” He set up the believing woman as a pattern of that faith which was to become, among the pagans, the foundation of the kingdom of God.

Thus, again and again, under the most varied circumstances, did Christ set forth the value in which he held a spirit of humble, self-denying devotion to God and submission to his revelation in Christ; this spirit, so irreconcilably opposed to the pride of natural Reason which, in the ancient world, was held to be man’s highest dignity, was made by Christ the essential condition of participation in his kingdom. Idle, indeed, and vain, therefore, must be all attempts to make Christianity, in this sense, a religion of reason, or to make Christian ethics a morality of reason.

The transaction affords another lesson, also. The Christian may comfort himself under the hardest trials and severest struggles—nay, even when his most ardent prayers appear to be unheard and unanswered—with the consoling belief that behind the veil of harshness the Father’s love conceals itself:

[Behind the frowning Providence
He hides a smiling face.]

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