The problem of unanswered prayer is one that has caused a lot of people to struggle with faith. It’s hard to see a need, to ask God to help and then to see no change. It’s natural to assume that God is not listening and to lose heart. We only see what is going on from our own limited perspective; we cannot hope to see the big picture as God does. The fact that we are not answered immediately or perhaps apparently not at all, is a huge test of faith but does not necessarily prove that God does not love us or want the best for us. In the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman, Jesus seemed to test her faith before giving her what she asked for.
The reflection from Thursday follows. The readings were 1 Kings 11:4-13, Psalm 106: 3, 35-41, Mark 7:24-30.
I suppose we all have our favourite parts of the Bible, favourite stories or parables, or maybe a much loved psalm. I certainly think if I had to pick out favourites, this story of the Syro-Phoenician woman would be listed there. I’ve got a really soft spot for this mother who lived 2000 years ago. The passage of time does not stop me, as a mother myself, relating to her need and her way of satisfying it.
This story comes at a time when Jesus seemed to skirt around the areas where he was becoming increasingly popular. Mark suggests he was looking for some peace and quiet in the midst of a very busy life of ministry.
Jesus had been in Galilee, facing the criticism of the Pharisees and then set off to the region of Tyre and Sidon, or Phoenicia, which was on the north-west border of Galilee. Phoenicia is in modern day Lebanon but at that time was administratively in Syria. The port of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast was about 30 miles (50 km) from Capernaum. Sidon was about another 25 miles (40km) north of Tyre. Tyre had originally been an island but it was joined to the mainland during a siege in the time of Alexander the Great, 4th Century BC.
Tyre is mentioned many times in the Bible. In the time of King David, Tyre and Israel were on good terms. King Hiram even sent cedars, carpenters and masons to build a house for David. Not long after this the city was noted for its wickedness. The king, Ethbaal, claimed to be a god and Ezekiel was given a prophecy against him. When Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC it was a cause of rejoicing in Tyre as the competition for trade no longer came from Israel, allowing Tyre to grow richer.
The region was influenced by Greek culture and architecture. It was also proud of its history as a centre of Canaanite paganism. There were tombs to be found of the ancient kings and there were also temples to the pagan gods: Melqart, Astarte and others. As in the past, in Jesus’ time the ports of Tyre and Sidon had flourishing trade and were very wealthy.
The woman is called a Canaanite by Matthew, to relate her to her ancestry which would make sense to the Jews for whom he was writing. Mark calls her a Syro-Phoenician to locate her in a political region which would make it easier for Romans to understand. He may also have wanted to be careful to distinguish between her and the Libyan-Phoenicians of North Africa.
Although Jesus had headed to a Gentile region in search of peace, he would not have been unknown in the region. Mark referred earlier in his gospel to a great crowd which followed Jesus after he had healed a man in a synagogue who had a withered hand. Among those in the crowd he listed people from Tyre and Sidon, who might well have been resettled Jews. While Jesus was teaching the crowd, Mark tells us that unclean spirits saw him and fell down, saying he was the Son of God.
The stories which had reached Tyre would have been of direct relevance to this woman as her daughter was possessed by an evil spirit. It seems she wasted no time in seeking Jesus out to ask for his help. The news of Jesus’ arrival had spread fast and she acted on it.
I have great admiration for this woman. She must have known how the Jews looked on Gentiles. She was by no means certain that Jesus would help her but her love for her little daughter drove her to take the risk. What she may well not have done for herself she would do for the sake of her child.
Jesus didn’t seem inclined to help the woman, explaining what his mission was. It’s possible that Jesus was quoting a popular proverb when he spoke of dogs taking the children’s bread although it was common for the Jews to call the Gentiles dogs as they considered that Gentiles were no more likely than dogs to receive the blessings of God. Whether or not it was a proverb, Jesus was making three comparisons: the bread with his message, the children with the Jews and the dogs with the Gentiles. In a pictorial way he was saying that his mission was to the Jews first of all.
At that point the woman might have decided that she was wasting her time and have gone on her way as Jesus would not listen to what she needed. Often I have heard people express the belief that God is not listening to them. It’s understandable if they have been suffering over a long period of time and no change comes about. We know that God loves us and we know that we as fallible human beings would not refuse to listen to someone we loved asking for help. God is a great deal better at loving than we are so we can be sure he listens.
We can’t see the greater view of things; we can only see our little part of life. In the film Bruce Almighty, Bruce gets overwhelmed by listening to all the many prayer requests while he is standing in for God. He hits on a great plan: say ‘Yes’ to everyone. That’s when the trouble began. For instance, everyone won the lottery and no one could then win a big prize. There was disgruntlement and chaos. God’s way of doing things is to treat us as individuals and tailor his answer accordingly. That might mean saying ‘Yes’ immediately to one person but not to another which is very hard for us to understand from our limited perspective.
Jesus may have been saying that he had come for the Jews first but we know that he healed the centurion’s servant. The centurion was a Roman and not a Jew. Why make this woman hear such a disappointing response and yet give the centurion what he wanted? Like God, he was treating each person as an individual. Perhaps Jesus could see that a little testing would develop this woman’s faith further. Maybe he could see that she had the courage to take on the challenge and grow further in her trust in God.
The woman was obviously not only courageous but quick witted. She turned Jesus’ picture back on him reminding him of what she must have seen many times: a dog watching for any item of food dropped by a child and wolfing it down before anyone could stop it. She didn’t waste time in taking offence at being referred to as a dog but in humility was prepared to persist in her request for the sake of her daughter’s health. Jesus honoured her faith by healing her daughter at that moment and in the process demonstrated to her the extent of his power that meant he didn’t have to see her daughter to heal her.
It is easy to forget that most of us are Gentiles like that woman and instead take our position as Christians for granted. We have been enabled to share in the same inheritance that God promised to Israel, through his grace. We need have no fear of approaching God with our needs. We can have confidence that we are always heard by our heavenly Father and he will answer.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor