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Boldly Approaching Jesus: Faith Lessons from the Syrophoenician Woman

In this article, we will take a deep look into the story of the Syrophoenician Woman in the Bible and her interaction with Jesus. So, grab your Bible, and let’s dig in…

As we study the Bible, especially the gospels, it’s interesting to note that Jesus only commented on someone’s great faith twice:

  • With the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13)

  • With the Syrophoenician woman

Both were Gentiles, making it even more impressive that Jesus chose to commend these two people, particularly for their faith.

So, who was the Syrophoenician woman, and what made her faith so impressive?

These verses in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 may seem strange to us, but that’s because they contradict many of the teachings that we have come to believe about faith and how God works.

Let’s study the Syrophoenician woman, see who she was, and find out what we can learn from her to implement into our own spiritual lives.

the Syrophoenician Woman in the Bible

Who Is The Syrophoenician Woman?

We are introduced to the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Matthew 15:21-28 tells us about the same occurrence, but she is called the Canaanite woman there.

Mark 7 tells it as follows:

And from there He arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet He could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of Him and came and fell down at His feet. 

Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ 

But she answered Him, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’

And He said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.’ 

And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.”

Etching in color by Pietro del Po, The Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman
Colorized Version of Etching by Pietro del Po, The Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman

Who Were The Syrophoenicians?

According to historians, the Syrophoenicians were residents of Phoenicia when it was under the control of the Romans and part of the province of Syria.

The Phoenicians were descendants of the Canaanites, who inhabited the region before Israel started conquering the promised land.

God told Israel to destroy all the Canaanites and to remove them from the land, but Israel became complacent and did not do it, which is why the Phoenicians were still around in Jesus’ time.

The Phoenicians worshiped many different gods, varying from city to city.

In the region where we find Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, the towns of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24), the primary deities were Melqart and Eshmun.

In other words, it’s safe to say that the Syrophoenician woman was not a Jew or a believer in any way.

This is confirmed in verse 26, which calls her a gentile, and in the fact that Jesus basically compared helping her with throwing the children’s food to the dogs.

She had no covenant or “right” to come to Jesus and beg Him to heal her daughter and deliver her from the demon.

Jesus And The Syrophoenician Woman

Jesus and the Woman of Canaan
Jesus and the Woman of Canaan by Michael Angelo Immenraet (image source)

The first moment Jesus and the woman met, she fell at His feet and begged Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. According to Matthew 15, Jesus ignored her at first until His disciples started to get irritated with her begging.

That’s when Jesus said it would not be suitable for Him to do so. His words referred to the fact that He was sent primarily for Israel and that sharing His gifts with the Gentiles would be like throwing the children’s food to the dogs.

Jesus was saying “no” to her pleas, and He was doing so in a very graphical way!

If any of us started praying for something and heard God respond like that, we would immediately stop praying because it is “not the will of God.”

We would try to move on and make peace with the fact that God does not want to answer that particular prayer. Some of us may even lose our faith because of it.

But what did this woman, who probably worshiped idols, do?

She argued with Jesus. She pointed out that she did not want to take away what was Israel’s but that there was more than enough, even for the Gentiles. She knew God was BIG!

Here’s another contrast between her and modern believers: we don’t feel it’s right to argue with God.

Yet the Bible is full of situations where people debated (respectfully) with God, and He blessed them because of it – Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20, for example. Yet we often expect God to look the other way or get angry when we argue with Him.

But what was Jesus’ response?

For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”

According to Matthew 15:28, Jesus’ response was even more surprising:

O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”

Jesus not only did what she asked, but He also commended her for her great faith!

How amazing is that?

Lessons From The Syrophoenician Woman

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (Image Source)

Perhaps the most vital lesson we can learn from the Syrophoenician woman ties in with Jesus’ words in Luke 18:1-8.

He told the parable of a widow who kept nagging a judge daily to do justice to her. Eventually, the judge gave in and gave her what she asked for, even if only to get her to stop bothering him.

Then Jesus says in verses 7-8,

And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?

From the examples of the parable and the Syrophoenician woman, we can see that Jesus associates faith with the willingness not to stop praying and crying out to God about a situation.

Yet we often think it’s humility to stop asking God for something when He doesn’t answer because it must obviously not be His will.

God desires faith above all else, and while we are crying out to God, we show that we believe He can (and wants to) change our situation.

When we give up, what kind of faith are we demonstrating then?

Another critical point is that Jesus did not say He healed her daughter because of her faith.

He commended her great faith, but He never said it was the reason why He answered her prayer. Her faith demonstrated to Jesus that, despite her idolatrous upbringing, she was here, asking Jesus to heal her daughter instead of one of the Phoenician or Roman gods.

By arguing with Jesus, she showed an understanding of who Jesus was and His mission on earth. She knew He was sent to Israel but was powerful enough to spare some crumbs for the Gentiles as well.

And genuine faith should never be in the thing we’re praying for but in the Person we’re praying to.

For example, praying for healing does not mean I need faith for healing.

I need faith in Jehovah Rapha, God the Healer.

When I’m praying for provision, I don’t need faith for provision, but faith in Jehovah Jireh, God the Provider.

Throughout the Bible, God tells us who He wants to be for us, and we can have faith in Him for that.

The Syrophoenician woman had faith in Jesus, the Deliverer of all humanity, and she demonstrated that by taking action and not backing down, even when Jesus said no.

And because of that, she got what she prayed for and became one of only two people whom Jesus ever commended for their great faith.

The Syrophoenician woman changes a lot about the way we’ve been taught to understand God’s grace and relationship with us.

The fact that she, a gentile and unbeliever, was willing to come to Jesus and not take no for an answer shows that she had faith in Him and believed He could do what she asked.

We can learn so much from her, but most importantly that God expects us to keep praying for the things we are petitioning Him for.

Giving up is not a sign of humility but of unbelief. If we want to prove our faith in God and His goodness, we should never stop praying!

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