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TEXT: Matthew 15:21-28
SUBJECT: Women of the New Testament #10: The Syrophenician
Tonight's study brings us to another of the New Testament's unnamed women. She appears--it seems--for only a few minutes, and is never heard from again. But what an appearance it was! She has much to teach us.
About this woman's background, we know more than you'd think. In Mark's Gospel, she is called "a woman of Canaan". This means that she descended from a cursed people. Not long after the flood, Noah called down a fearful malediction against Canaan and his offspring--including this woman. This race, fit only for slavery, would be largely unwelcome in God's presence. And the ancient curse was verified by subsequent history. The Canaanites were bad--even by the standards of heathendom. Most of them were consigned to the sword. Why, even the land "vomited them up".
And so, this woman was a Canaanite. But worse yet, she hailed from Canaan's most vicious region: Tyre, Sidon, or thereabouts. It was the merchants of Tyre who tempted Israel to defile the Sabbath. Sidon was the hometown of Jezebel. And the Phonecians, in general, were known for their idolatry and love of money.
This is the kind of people from which our subject sprang. And there is no reason to doubt that she fully shared in their guilt.
But God was working in her, changing this daughter of wrath into a woman of excellence. For the Man who cannot be deceived cried for all to hear: "O woman! great is your faith".
Of the many good things we might say about her, one in particular, demands our attention. And that is her prayer life. I wonder if any of Israel's saints and martyrs, rabbis and heroes had ever prayed as nobly as this unwashed Gentile. Her plea stands in marked contrast for what passed as "prayer" in their day--and ours.
About her prayer, we can only state the obvious:
It was persistent. Her first prayer was frankly ignored. "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed". Who could be unmoved by the sight? A sobbing mother, pleading for her child; a young girl, racked by evil spirits. "But He answered her not a word".
Could anything be more discouraging? She's crying, pleading, begging--and He doesn't so much as notice her! But this neglect only excites her to greater effort, as she renews her plea. But again, she gets the cold shoulder--and worse--the disciples urge Him to be rid of the pest.
But continue she must. At last, she secures His attention--but only to be rebuffed: "I was not sent, except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Who would blame her if she now sank in despair? But she cannot. Her grit is such that she all but tackles Jesus to beg His favor. "Lord, help me!" is the shriek. But this time, He answers with words "like the piercings of a sword". "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs".
The verdict is in. Jesus will not help her. This is apparent to everyone involved. Everyone, that is, but her! She continues. "True, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters' table".
That is persistence in prayer. And how her example puts us to shame! Nothing could discourage her. Not the Lord's silence. Not the Apostles' advice. Not her sense of unworthiness. Nothing! She would pray and pray and pray some more. Like the hymnwriter, she could say,
"I would not be denied,
I would not be denied;
Till Jesus came and made me whole,
I would not be denied".
This patience, this moral energy, is what we must have if our prayer lives would be successful. It is not every prayer that is answered; but only "the effectual, fervent prayer...that avails much".
The parable of the Importunate Widow illustrates this. Her judge neither "feared God or regarded men"--but out of mere exhaustion--acceded to her request. Jesus urged us to pray in this manner.
But perhaps the clearest word on the subject comes from the Sermon on the Mount:
"Keep on asking, and you shall receive,
keep on seeking, and you shall find,
keep on knocking, and it shall be opened to you".
Our dear lady, then, was persistent in her prayers. But this should not be confused with pride, stubbornness, or presumption. For her prayers were remarkably humble. Except for our Lord Jesus, I wonder if anyone was ever meeker?
Christ's response to her prayer is unsettling. "It is not good to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs". This is not ridicule or name-calling. He was simply informing her that she had no claim on His favor. No more than a dog does on the food of his owner's children!
Nothing made her worthy of His grace. Her need could not command it. Her fervor did not earn it. Her faith could bring Him under no obligation. Christ owes the sinner nothing! We are all "dogs", yapping for table-scraps, but not deserving them.
And the Syrophonecian knew this. "True, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from the master's table". That is humility!
She agreed with His assessment. She had no claim on His favor; she deserved nothing. But still--she wondered--might she have a crumb or two? A man will occasionally toss his dog a bite of his food. "Will You, Lord, do as much for me?"
"God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble". Thus, if we're to pray well, we must shun the Pharisee's example, and draw near like the Publican, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
Finally, the woman's prayer was full of faith. That, after all, is what our Lord singled out: "O woman, great is your faith!"
She believed that Christ was able to help her poor daughter. Had He not cast out other devils? Had He not freed the Gadarene from his infernal legions? If He was able to help others, then, who knows? Maybe He would help her too.
She believed that Christ was willing to help her unhappy daughter. He had refused no one. A Samaritan woman had found favor with Him; a Roman Centurion; Publicans and harlots were not turned away. Some said, "He is a friend of sinners". And so, maybe He could be prevailed upon to meet the need of a vile Canaanite.
Her hope "made not ashamed". The good word comes at last: "Let it be to you as you desire". The epilogue: "And her daughter was healed from that very hour".
The Syrophonecian, therefore, was a woman of prayer. But not just any kind of prayer, but the kind Christ answers: persevering, humble, and in faith.
And the most amazing thing about her example remains: she was a semi-pagan! Her knowledge of the Bible was--at best--limited; her acquaintance with Christ, but slight. She had no support from her fellow believers. Yet, stirred by God's Spirit, look how she prayed! Better than the Pharisee! Better than the Apostles! Better than we!
But it needn't remain this way. "These things were written for our instruction". Thus, we ought to "mark those who so walk, knowing that we have them for an example".
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