Jesus Outside Galilee: The Syro-Phoenician Woman

This story in Mark 7:24-30 (par. Matt 15:22-28) stands in contrast to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  They have seen the miracles of Jesus and remain unconvinced, despite being the religious leaders of Israel.  They are the ones that ought to have understood that Jesus was the Messiah.  This is a surprise to the reader, that the good Jewish religious people (disciples and Pharisees) miss out on who Jesus is claiming to be, yet the Gentiles and demons seem to have no trouble in understanding he is Messiah, son of God, even God himself!

Why is Jesus staying in Tyre?  He instructed his disciples who avoid Gentile cities, yet here he is in Tyre.  It is possible that he is traveling alone, seeking a place where he can have some privacy from the crowds.  I doubt he is staying with Gentiles, rather, Jesus has entered the home of a supporting Jew with the hope of privately teaching his disciples, perhaps hearing their reports from their own mission in Galilee.  A woman approaches Jesus boldly and requests that Jesus heal her daughter of an evil spirit. This crosses several cultural boundaries:  man/woman, Jew/Gentile.  For a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish teacher and healer is incredibly bold!   We are told that the woman is Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.

There are some rather harsh comments by Jesus that it is not right to take the bread from the children (the Jews) and give it to the dogs (Gentiles)!  It is the usual practice of preachers to approach this passage by saying that Jesus isn’t really as harsh as he sounds.  The word for dog, for example, is a diminutive – a puppy.  Jesus is testing the woman’s faith, not telling her to get lost! The fact is that the words are harsh and exclusivist.  Jesus calls her a gentile dog.  This is not a cute puppy begging table scraps, but rather a filthy scavenger.  The diminutive is not used to make the dog a “cute” puppy, but rather a little rat-like dog that steals the scraps from the garbage.  Jesus is also using a diminutive (“little dogs”) to refer to the woman’s child.  Jesus essentially says that it is unethical to take food away from the true child and give it to the dogs.

Jesus does not deny that the dogs will get their food, but it is after the true children have eaten their fill that the dogs will receive their crumbs. This condition is deleted from the Matthew version of the story.  Many take this to mean that Gentiles will experience salvation, but the gospel goes first to the Jews, then to the gentiles (not unlike Paul in Romans 1:16-17).

Does this story indicate that Jesus’ ministry is being broadened to include Gentiles at this point? The thrust of this series of stories (including the blind man and the feeding of the 4000) is often described as an indication that the message of Jesus’ gospel was inclusive of the Gentiles, or at the very least was looking forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God.  Many commentators will often link these stories with the later Gentile mission.  There is some merit to this, since the Lord associates food laws with Gentile ministry in Acts 10 in Peter’s Vision in the rooftop.  If Peter is the source behind Mark, then there is certainly cause to think that he is reflecting on his own involvement in some kind of Gentile ministry.

This may not be the case, however.  As Samuel Sandmel notes, the references to Gentiles in Jesus ministry are not the norm, but exceptions.  Gentiles are not replacing Israel, but rather some Gentiles may join Israel.  That the Gentiles would come into the kingdom was an expected part of the Kingdom of God, so it not unusual that some Gentiles might come into the kingdom via Jesus’ ministry. If these stories are conversion stories, that is.  It is entirely possible that the Gentiles that experience miracles in this section are no more converted to Jesus mission than the Jews in the previous sections.  It is highly unlikely that they convert to Judaism at this point!.  However, it is possible that there are “seeds planted” in the ministry outside of Galilee that will be a harvest later when Paul preaches a gospel apart form the law.

The point of Mark’s narrative is not that Jesus has “gone over to the Gentiles” after being rejected by the Pharisees.  Tyre and Sidon have benefited from Jesus’ ministry already (see 3:8).  Mark is writing about 40 years after these events, well into a period of Gentile ministry (quite possibly after Paul’s death!)  There is no need to “comfort and encourage” gentiles, they are the dominate element in the Roman church by the time Mark writes.  These stories of Gentile ministry serve as an ironic contrast to the lack of faith in Israel, and as such stand along side the testimony of the demons as to the true identity of Jesus.  He came to his own (Israel) but his own did not know him.

The child is healed immediately.

Bibliography:  Gene R. Smillie “‘Even The Dogs’: Gentiles In The Gospel Of Matthew,”  JETS 45:1 (March 2002): 73-97.

15 thoughts on “Jesus Outside Galilee: The Syro-Phoenician Woman

  1. The reality of salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven being opened to the Gentiles is counter-cultural, to say the least, yet Jesus’ ministry seems to be different than teachers in the first century. It is helpful and quite eye-opening to see Jesus in a different light in this passage. He is not presented as a happy, go-lucky, peace for everyone kind of guy, but more an in your face, challenge your belief type of effective teacher. I have to believe that this is what attracted many to Him: the deep-seeded love that is manifested raw and powerful, he type that only a creator could have for His creation.

    Concerning the point at which Jesus “opened salvation” to the Gentiles, I am not entirely sure enough to answer that. It is quite subjective. I would like to say that just as Jesus’ ministry was initiating the Kingdom, it was beginning to extend to the gentiles, and that the two coincide with one another. Then there is evidence to point to the death of Christ as the extension of the offer of salvation to the Gentiles. For example, the veil is torn from the top to the bottom, which clearly symbolizes the end of Jewish tradition and could hint at the fact that Judaism did not matter anymore, only faith did. Then there is also the confession of the Roman centurion at the cross (Matthew 27). Whatever the time, however, all that matters is faith expressing itself through love.

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  2. I really enjoy this particular story in Jesus’ ministry because it does portray Him as a kind of “harsh” teacher. He didn’t just let everyone walk all over Him and use Him for His healing ministry. As we see Jesus is trying to “get away” it seems, He’s trying to have some quiet time and then this woman troubles Him in His hopeful “away time”. I can see why Jesus would be impatient with this woman, not because she’s a woman, or because she’s not a Jew, but because He was hoping for a mini vacation from it all. So I applaud Jesus’ response toward this woman because it goes to show that we all need time away.
    I find it interesting how Jesus does balance the two different mercy showing styles. Like with the woman caught in adultery He didn’t slam on her or question her as much as He did for the Syro-Phoenician Woman. They almost seem to show the two different sides of Jesus’ responses. I think we can learn from Jesus’ different responses and put them into practice within our own ministries today. To me it just goes to show that there is a time for mercy and a time for confronting. A time for forgiveness and a time for questioning and learning.

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    • I am not so sure Jesus’ need for relaxation is the point of the story, as much as the audacious nature of the woman’s faith, or her hope that Jesus is a sufficiently skilled Exorcist to help her daughter.

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  3. Jesus’ dealing with the Syro-Phonecian woman here follows the pattern of dealing first with the Jew and then with the Gentile. Romans 1:16 says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” On the other hand, Jesus’ calling the woman and her daughter “dogs” which seems much more plausible and likely than referring to them as “puppies”, still seems harsh to me. Blomberg suggests that “…if he is being more blunt, he may be wanting to test the woman’s faith and demonstrate her tenacity”. It makes sense to me that Jesus would test her true faith by how she would react to a comment like that, but I still have this feeling that there should have been some redeeming comment after the fact. Luckily for me, I don’t have to fully understand something for it to be right, and I have no doubt that how Jesus dealt with the Syro-Phonecian woman was the right way.

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  4. This is one of those stories in scripture that leaves me a little perplexed. Like Britalia has said, it’s hard to see Jesus speak to the woman in this way, without a redeeming comment after, and see it as being a comment without sin. Jesus’ reaction and words were prefect, and obviously a part of his ministry and getting across this idea of the Gentiles being allowed into the kingdom as well. This is definitely another example of Jesus being confrontational and challenging the faith of the person asking for a healing from him. In similar stories, (woman with bleeding and blind man) Jesus questions the person to get to the basis of their faith along with seeking out their intentions. It may seem harsh at times, but it’s never done in a demeaning way. I see it as more of a direct, get to the heart of the matter, question. It’s almost as if he is testing his disciples and the people around him in asking these questions. He is teaching a new way, and is showing the depth and make up of the kingdom.

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  5. It’s been great to uncover some truth and mystery to this passage. What side and attitude of Jesus was acted on when responding to this woman’s request? Was it the teacher-Jesus with the ever underlying kingdom theme, or the sometimes more instinctual Jesus, highly responsive to evil and sin, or something else completely different. Or is it just not right to divide Jesus like this? These just seem to be the first kind of questions my mind asks when discerning the theological/christological implications of an action of Jesus.

    It seems fitting that the purpose and significance of Jesus’ gentile encounters outside of Galilee are difficult to categorize. They seem to touch base with several characteristics of the life of Jesus. His upbringing and ministry were fully in the Jewish tradition, and so it seems was the aim of his ministry – the nation of Israel. At the same time, these accounts outside of Galilee seem to provide validity for future, all-inclusive ministries (Paul), without being removed from the central figure of Christianity. Not that God needed a carefully marked out plan for salvation; however, encounters like the Syro-Phoenician woman seem to be a great place to start for those contemplating the christological origins of gentile ministry in the pre/post-cross discussion.

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  6. Good thoughts. You guys are right, that Jesus is extremely harsh, and maybe even abrasive to this woman as an example. Her response to Jesus does indeed however set up an interesting dilemma which that the Gentiles don’t necessarily have a hard time accepting and seeing Jesus being the Messiah, while the Jews have difficulty in accepting that. The simple, pat answer to this I think is that the Jews were “blinded” to Jesus, with a veil over their eyes [like we discussed earlier in class discussions/posts], but further questioning and probing we have got to ask a question, why? Why would Jesus be proclaiming His message at this point in time, to an unbelieving generation? Doesn’t He not know that the Jews will not understand, that they have experienced a hardening of their hearts? [sorry, rabbit trail].

    I do think with the passages within Mark however, that Jesus was maybe showing them this reality that the Gospel is not tied down to cultural bounds. EVen though she was a Syro-Phoenician Woman, which had many implications [bold to come up to Jesus, unclean touching a rabbi [son of God actually], etc…], Jesus healed her anyways because her faith [in Him] made her child well. At the time, I’ve got to imagine the disciples have fallen over their chairs a bit… their own Rabbi healing an unclean woman because of her faith in their teacher?! This was unheard of.

    It’s interesting that many people [including myself] want to read this and say, alright, the gospel is being presented to the Gentiles now as well and be okay with that. Is Jesus turning his ministry to the Gentiles? Hm… I wonder if his ministry was never not to the Gentiles. Meaning, Jesus was about doing His Father’s will, testifying to the world at the time that He was indeed the Messiah, proclaiming that He was indeed God himself [John 1]. The Jews knew that the world would be saved through Israel, or in other words, God would use Israel as the means in which the world was saved. Working with this belief, why wouldn’t this be part of Jesus’ good, Jewish, ministry in claiming that He was Messiah?

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    • “I wonder if his ministry was never not to the Gentiles.” Well, taking Jesus at his word in this passage, the answer has to be no, it was not to the Gentiles, but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He came to his own, and his own did not know him, but there is no “turning to the Gentiles” like Paul in Acts 13. He continues to target Israel up until the final week of his life, in the Temple at Passover! If Jesus was intending to present himself as the Jewish Messiah, why would he go to the Gentiles with that message?

      Back to the post, these stories in the “withdrawal” section have more to do with a contrast between the lack of faith in Israel and remarkable faith among the Gentiles. But then, the Gentiles are not exactly flocking to join Jesus’ ministry either.

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  7. I would like to interject Isaiah 2:1-5 into the mix where it talks about all the nations of the earth coming to Zion to meet with God, to learn from Him and to sit at His throne. If the Prophet of old saw ALL nations being involved with the kingdom of God then it makes perfect sense that Jesus is extending his ministry out to the Gentiles. The Jews of Jesus’ time probably understood this passage in a negative interpretation be it as one who rules the nations with an iron fist or slavery in light of the anti-gentile sentiment of Jesus’ day. I would agree with Moses’ comments of Jesus’ controversial interaction with the gentile woman as shocking to Jesus’ disciples and would also like to reverberate Joe’s about Jesus using it as a teaching tool. However, I would also like to point out that nothing more is really said about this incident and moves right into another town and another miracle. I believe that what Jesus is doing is showing his Disciples that he is in fact fulfilling Isaiah 2:1-5 in a “there but not yet” kind of way. By “planting the seed” as P. Long states, Jesus may in fact be laying the foundations for the disciples to later move and reap the harvest come Acts.

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    • I agree- there are loads of verses that say that the Gentiles will find salvation in the coming kingdom. But is Jesus enacting that part of the prophecy by going to Tyre, staying in a private house, and refusing to heal a Gentile child? His own “mission statement” is to go to Israel to present himself as the messiah. Gentile salvation comes only after he completes his messianic mission.

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  8. This is a fascinating miracle and section in Jesus’ ministry. You guys have hit it well saying that Jesus does seem to be a bit harsh to the woman. However, when you look at what is going on culturally, all of it makes sense. It was not normal for the Gentile woman to approach Jesus at all. It was completely normal for Jesus to respond in the way that he did as well. Furthermore, if you look at what Jesus’ main ministry focus is, his reaction makes complete sense. Jesus clearly was sent to the Jews. He was focused on them and them alone. Yes, he did have encounters with Gentiles along the way, and yes, they did demonstrate much more faith than any of the Jews that he dealt with (Matt. 8:11). However, in each time the Gentiles seek out Jesus instead of him searching for them.

    I do not believe that Jesus is including the Gentiles in his offer of the kingdom just yet. As you see the progression of his ministry he keeps his focus on the Jews and the offer of the kingdom to them. Even the early church was focused on the Jews and that offer of the kingdom. Also, the inclusion of the Gentiles in these passages did not step out of the norm of the day. The Jews were supposed to be a light to the Gentiles around them. That mean that salvation went through the Jews rather than an equal offer that we now experience. That is exactly what Jesus is referencing to when he is talking to the syrophoenician woman.

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  9. I struggled with what Jesus would do for some and not for others for a long time. It didn’t make since to me that Jesus would skip over towns and people. Over the years I have learned that Jesus had a path set before Him. It is hard to fully understand the ways of God. In this passage (Mark 7) Jesus cast out a demon and heals a man. On both occasions He tells them not to tell anyone. A huge part of Jesus’ ministry on earth was to present the Kingdom to the Jews. Often the Gentiles tasted pieces of the Kingdom when Jesus performed miracles. I don’t think that Jesus overlooked the Gentiles at all. Throughout His ministry Jesus reached many who were lost both Jew and Gentiles. Maybe Jesus was telling the Gentiles not yet? God did convert Paul, and he was a pretty sweet teacher to the Gentiles.

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  10. I like the point that Joe P. made about Jesus acting the way Jesus did towards this woman because He wanted time to get away. Even if that isn’t truly the reason that Jesus acted as He did, I think it’s a great point that we all need our along time with God, and we shouldn’t let the business and craziness of the world take that away from us. When I read this passage, I feel as if Jesus is testing this woman’s faith. It could have been that the woman was just going to use Jesus’ miracle worker powers to have her daughter healed, but Jesus doesn’t allow for that. He tests her faith in a seemingly abrasive way. Some would just back down after they heard this comment from Jesus, but this woman showed tremendous faith in Jesus in not taking no for an answer basically, and knowing that He was capable of healing her daughter.

    As far as when Jesus opened salvation to the Gentiles, I’m not too sure based on the blog post and the amount of time I have spent reading. I would have to dig deeper to find a substantial answer to that question, but I agree with Joe Johnson, I think that this is something that is subjective. I don’t know whether there is a 100% fact concrete answer to that question.

    …Sorry about the jumping around in the post, pain pills make me scatter-brained : p

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  11. I like what This story because it really makes you think a bit. Jesus in some cases was really blunt in his teaching. I do not think he came off this way to be harsh but to really get his point across. I am encouraged by the tremendous faith this woman had in Jesus being able to heal her daughter of demons. Most people after hearing what Jesus said would just walk away and be mad but this woman still showed a tremendous amount of faith.

    I apologize for the tardiness of this post.. I tried posting earlier and the internet crapped out on me and I thought I sent it in time but realize I havent.

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