Here’s the first study in our series about unnamed—but not unimportant—people in the Bible.
Jesus took off from Gennesaret, on the Sea of Galilee, after a confrontation with the Pharisees (Matthew 14:34-15:20), and He headed west, away from his normal stomping grounds. He probably traveled through the mountains of Upper Galilee, passing Gischala and Mt. Meron before he reached the coastal city of Tyre in Syrian Phoenicia. (Can you tell I just bought a Bible atlas? Yay!) His disciples must have wondered what He was doing.
By Jesus’ time, Tyre and Sidon, two cities on the coast of Syrian Phoenicia, were thoroughly Greek and significantly wealthier than the nearby inland, pastoral regions. Historically, people from this area (Old Testament Caananites) excelled in architecture, arts, and sciences. They worshiped a broad pantheon of gods, some of which you would recognize from Old Testament descriptions. They were urbane, even modern (in the ancient way, from our point of view). (reference)
I imagine Tyre and Sidon were not the kind of place “good” rabbis went on vacation—more like Las Vegas than Petersburg, Kentucky (location of the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter). Jesus indirectly blasted Tyre and Sidon one time when he was frustrated with the lack of faith in his usual towns. Look at this:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. –Matthew 11:21-22
Tyre wasn’t the kind of
place Jesus was likely to
run into His opponents.
Maybe Jesus needed a break from the constant challenge of the Pharisees and the inundating requests for help from everyday people (See Mark 6:56). Tyre wasn’t the kind of place Jesus was likely to run into his opponents. But if Jesus was seeking anonymity in Tyre, it didn’t work.
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. –Mark 7:24b
A woman from the area somehow heard Jesus was in town. What did she know about him? How had she heard? I wish I knew. We can deduce, however, that this is not some beggarly widow woman with a sharp tongue. Being from Tyre, she was probably educated and possibly wealthy, but she was still desperate. Put her alongside the Centurion with a sick servant (Matthew 8:5-13) or Jairus and his near-death daughter (Luke 8:40-56).
I think Jesus went there on purpose to meet—and spar with—this woman.
She cried out to Jesus, making such a disturbance that His disciples asked Him to send her away. After all, they were trying to rest, trying to get away from it all.
Jesus’ answer—and I think He was looking directly at her—was cold!
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” –Matthew 15:24
It’s a challenge: a sarcastic statement designed to provoke her because we know Jesus was sent for all people, and He knew it too. I mean! There’s John 3:16 to start with, plus John 10:16, where He told the Pharisees, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.” Then there’s Matthew 28:19-20 and all His other Commissions.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… –Matthew 28:19a
…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. –Acts 1:8b
Her daughter’s suffering
Finally, Jesus had encountered someone (woman or man didn’t matter) who would push against the assumption that Yahweh and the Messiah were only for the Jews, that they had exclusive access to God. She could help Jesus make the point His disciples needed to understand: He came for far more than a Jewish, military/political victory. Her daughter’s suffering had significance.
Story Break: Are you okay with that idea? Can you accept that the thing God puts you (or your loved one) through may not even be about you but about those who are watching you? Or about those who will follow in your painful footsteps? Jesus said of a blind man, “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
The woman’s daughter was possessed by a demon and “suffering terribly” (Matthew 15:22). She was desperate. We can assume she had exhausted all other avenues, like the father who begged Jesus for the same kind of healing just a couple of chapters later (Matthew 17:14-21).
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” –Matthew 15:25-26
Ouch! Was she a dog? Was she undeserving even of food? If someone inferred I was a dog, I would be offended. In those days, Gentiles “associated dogs with dung, promiscuity, and the devouring of corpses” while Jews thought of dogs as “no better than rodents, and figuratively as hostile predators” (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, note on Matthew 15:26). But she swallows the insult and persists. Her quick response seems to have delighted Jesus.
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” –Matthew 15:27
She didn’t need to take His
power from someone else.
Who talks to Jesus like that?!? Correcting Him when she needs His help! I think she understood how little power it would take for Jesus to heal her child. She didn’t need to take His power from someone else. The children of Israel would still be fed. Jesus’ “scraps” would be sufficient.
Story Break: Do you find yourself with a scarcity mindset? As if there’s a limited amount of power for Jesus to spread around? Because we humans are so limited, it’s easy to think that way. But God…
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it. –Psalm 50:9-12
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! –Matthew 7:11
If you have a minute, read through this BibleGateway search of “how much more” in the New Testament. This woman knew Jesus had enough. Let’s maintain a plentiful point-of-view, confident that He can cover whatever we ask!
I wonder if Matthew and Mark left out Jesus’ “Ha!” before He says, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (Matthew 15:28). He healed her demon-possessed daughter immediately without even a flick of his wrist. It really was that easy for Him.
I’m sure Jesus stayed awhile longer in Tyre. I hope he and the people with Him took some time to rest…maybe watch the sunset on the Mediterranean…maybe eat some saltwater taffy. (Just kidding about the taffy.) But the Gospel writers don’t tell us anything else about that time. From our perspective Jesus walked 39 miles one-way (I googled it.) across mountainous terrain for eight verses in Matthew and seven in Mark. It must be important, so let’s not skip over it just because the exchange seems so out of character for Jesus.
There’s another reason I think Matthew and Mark included this story. Back in Gennesaret, the Pharisees and teachers of the law criticized Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands properly. Jesus got really frustrated with them for worrying more about their long list of laws than about treating people right (Mark 7:1-23). He said Isaiah had been right in his prophecy:
This woman in Tyre was every-
thing the Pharisees hated.
This woman in Tyre was everything the Pharisees hated: not a Jew, not living in a Jewish city, not pursuing Jewish righteousness. Yet she understood Who Jesus was/is better than the Pharisees ever would. Like the “tax collectors and sinners,” she was one of the people Jesus came to save.
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. –Mark 2:17
Her lack of a name doesn’t indicate a lack of importance. This Syro-Phoneician woman did something no Jewish person had done for Jesus. Looks like #namelessness is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)
If you read this far, wow and thank you! I hope you see this story in a fresh way. How does her faith challenge yours? I shared in the post, and I look forward to hearing your responses in the comments below.
Found Later: This is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus concedes an argument. And it’s to a Gentile woman. Love it!