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The Healing of 
the Daughter of the Syrophonician Woman.
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 23 from The Miracles of our Lord
Matt. xv. 21-28;  Mark vii. 24-30
We have no reason to think that at any time during His earthly ministry our Lord overpassed the limits of the Holy Land; not even when He ‘departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.’  It was only ‘into the borders of Tyre and Sidon,’ as St. Mark expressly tells us (vii. 24), that He went; and even St. Matthew’s words need not, and certainly here do not, mean more than that He approached the confines of that heathen land.  The general fitness of things, and more this his own express words on this very occasion, ‘I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ combine to make it unlikely that He had now brought His healing presence to any other but the people of the Covenant; and, moreover, when St. Matthew speaks of the ‘woman of Canaan’ as coming out of that district, or ‘of the same coasts,’ he clearly shows that he did not intend to describe the Lord as having more than drawn close to the skirts of that profane land.

Being there, He ‘entered into a house, and would have no man know it:’ but, as ‘the ointment bewrayeth itself,’ so He whose ‘Name is like ointment poured out,’ on the present occasion ‘could not be hid;’ and among those attracted by its sweetness was a woman of that country—‘a woman of Canaan,’ as St. Matthew terms her, ‘a Greek, a Syrophoenician,’ as St. Mark has it, by the first term indicating her religion, that it was not Jewish, but heathen; by the second, the stock of which she came, being even that accursed race once doomed of God to a total excision, root and branch (Deut. vii. 2), but of which some branches had been spared by those first generations of Israel that should have destroyed all (Judges ii. 2, 3).  Everything, therefore, was against her; yet this everything did not prevent her from drawing nigh, from seeking, and, as we shall presently see, from obtaining, the boon that her soul longed after.  She had heard of the mighty works which the Saviour of Israel had done: for already His fame had gone through all Syria; so that they brought unto Him, besides others sick, ‘those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics, and He healed them’ (Matt. iv. 24).  And she has a boon to ask for her daughter,--or say rather for herself, so entirely has she made her daughter’s misery her own: ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil;’ just as on a later occasion the father of the lunatic child exclaims, ‘Have compassion on us, and help us’ (Mark ix. 22).

But she finds Him very different from that which report had described Him to her.  That had extolled Him as the merciful and gracious, not breaking the bruised reed, nor quenching the smoking flax, inviting every weary and afflicted soul to draw nigh and find rest in Him.  He, who of Himself had anticipated the need of others (John v. 6), withdrew Himself from hers; ‘He answered her not a word.’  ‘The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds his remedies’ (Chrysostom); until at last the disciples, wearied out with her persistent entreaties, and to all appearance more merciful than their Lord, themselves ‘came and besought Him, saying, Send her away.’  Yet was there in truth a root of selfishness out of which this compassion of theirs grew; for why is He to satisfy her and dismiss her?  ‘for she crieth after us;’ she is making a scene; she is drawing on them unwelcome observation.  Theirs is that heartless granting of a request, whereof most of us are conscious; when it is granted out of no love to the suppliant, but to leave undisturbed his selfish ease from whom at length it is extorted--a granting such as his who gave, but gave saying, ‘lest by her continual coming she weary me’ (Luke xviii. 5).  Here, as so often, behind a seeming severity lurks the real love, while under the mask of a greater easiness selfishness lies hid.

These intercessors meet with no better fortune than the suppliant herself; and Christ stops their mouths with words which might appear to set the seal of hopelessness on her suit: ‘I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (cf. Matt. x. 5, 6).  But in what sense was this true?  All prophecy which went before declared that in Him, the promised Seed, not one nation only, but all nations of the earth, should be blest (Rom. xv. 9-12).  He Himself declared, ‘Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold, them also must I bring, and they shall hear my voice’ (John x. 16).  It has happened before now with the founders of false religions that, as success beckoned them on, the circle of their vision has widened; and they who meant at first but to give a faith to their tribe or nations, have aspired at last to give one to the world.  But here all must have been always known; the world-embracing reach of His mission, and of the faith which He should found, was contemplated by Christ from the beginning.  In what sense, then, and under what limitations, could He say with truth, ‘I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel’?  Clearly it must be in His own personal ministry [Augustine (Sermon lxxvii. 2); Jerome (Commentary on Matthew)].  That ministry, for wise purposes in the counsels of God, should be confined to His own nation; and every departure from this, the prevailing rule of His whole earthly activity, was and was clearly marked as, an exception.  Here and there, indeed, there were preludes of the larger mercy which was in store [Calvin], first drops of that gracious shower which should one day water the whole earth.  Before, however, the Gentiles should glorify God for His mercy, He must first be ‘a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers’ (Rom. xv. 8, 9).  It was only, as it were, by a rebound from them that the grace was to light upon the heathen world; while yet that issue, which seemed thus accidental was laid deep in the deepest counsels of God (Acts xiii. 44-49; Rom. xi.).  In Christ’s reply, as St. Mark gives it, ‘Let the children first be filled,’ the refusal does not appear so absolute and final, and a glimpse is vouchsafed of the manner in which the blessing might yet pass on to others, when as many of these, ‘the children,’ as were willing, should have accepted it.  But there, too, the present repulse is absolute.  The time is not yet; others intermeddle not with the meal, till the children have had enough.

The woman hears the repulse which the disciples who had ventured to plead for her receive; but is not daunted or disheartened thereby.  Hitherto she had been crying after the Lord, and at a distance; but now, instead of being put still farther from Him, ‘came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me.’  On this He breaks the silence which hitherto He has maintained towards her; but it is with an answer more discomfortable than was even the silence itself: ‘He answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.’  ‘The children’ are, of course, the Jews, ‘the children of the kingdom’ (cf. Matt. viii. 12).  He who spoke so sharply to them, speaks thus honourably of them; nor is there any contradiction in this; for here He is speaking of the position which God has given them in His kingdom; there, of the manner in which they have realized that position.  On the other hand, extreme contempt was involved in the title of ‘dog’ given to any one, the nobler characteristics of this animal, although by no means unknown to antiquity, being never brought out in Scripture (see Deut. xxiii. 18; Job xxx. 1; I Sam. xvii. 43; xxiv. 14; II Sam iii.8; xvi. 9; II Kin. viii. 13; Matt. vii. 6; Phil. iii. 2; Rev. xxii. 15).

There are very few for whom this would not have been enough; few who, even if they had persevered thus far, would not now at length have turned away in anger or despair.  Not so, however, this heathen woman; she, like the centurion, and under circumstances more trying, is mighty in faith; and from the very word which seems to make most against her draws with the ready wit of faith an argument in her own behalf.  She entangles the Lord, Himself most willing to be so entangled, in His own speech; she takes the sword out of His own hand, with which to overcome Him; ‘Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’  Upon these words Luther, who has dwelt on all the circumstances of this little history with a peculiar love, and is never weary of extolling the mighty faith of this woman, exclaims, ‘Was not that a master stroke?  she snares Christ in His own words.’  And oftentimes he sets this Canaanitish woman before troubled and fainting hearts, that they may learn from her how to wring a Yea, from God’s Nay; or rather, to learn how to hear the deep-hidden Yea, which many times lurks under His seeming Nay.  ‘Like her, thou must give God right in all He says against thee, and yet must not stand off from praying, till thou overcomest as she overcame, till thou hast turned the very charges made against thee into arguments and proofs of thy need, till thou, too, hast taken Christ in His own words.’

The rendering of her answer in our Translation is not, however, altogether satisfactory.  For, indeed, she accepts the Lord’s declaration, not immediately to make exception against the conclusions which He draws from it, but to show how in that very declaration is involved the granting of her petition.  ‘Saidest Thou dogs?  it is well; I accept the title and the place; for the dogs have a portion of the meal,--not the first, not the children’s portion, but a portion still,--the crumbs which fall from the masters’ table.  In this very putting of the case, Thou bringest us heathen, Thou bringest me, within the circle of the blessings which God, the great householder, is ever dispensing to His family.  We also belong to His household, though we occupy but the lowest place therein.  According to Thine own showing, I am not wholly an alien, and therefore I will abide by this name, and will claim all which in it is included.’  By the ‘masters’ she does not intend the Jews, which is the mistake of Chrysostom and many more; for thus the whole image would be deranged and disturbed—they are ‘the children’—but the great Heavenly householder Himself.  She uses the plural ‘masters’ to correspond with the plural ‘dogs,’ which Christ had used just before; compare ‘sons’ to correspond with ‘kings’ at Matt. xvii. 26; while yet it is the one Son only, the Only-begotten of the Father, who is intended there.  He who fills all things living with plenteousness spreads a table for all flesh; and all that depend on Him are satisfied from it, each in his own order and place, the children at the table, and the dogs beneath it.  There lies in her statement something like the Prodigal’s petition, ‘Make me as one of thy hired servants—a recognition of diverse relations, some closer, some more distant, in which divers persons stand to God—yet all blest, who, whether in a nearer or remoter station, receive their meat from Him.

She has conquered at last.  She, who before heard only those words of a seeming contempt, now hears words of a most gracious commendation—words whose like are addressed but to one other in all the Gospel history: ‘O woman, great is thy faith!’  He who showed at first as though He would have denied her the smallest boon, now opens to her the full treasure-house of His grace, and bids her help herself, to carry away what she will: ‘Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.’  He had shown to her for a while, as Joseph showed to his brethren, the aspect of severity; but, like Joseph, He could not maintain it long; —or rather He would not maintain it an instant longer than was needful, and after that word of hers, that mighty word of an undaunted faith, it was needful no more: ‘For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.’

Like the centurion at Capernaum (Matt. viii. 13), like the nobleman at Cana (John iv. 53), she made proof that His word was as potent spoken far off, as near.  She offered in her faith a channel of communication between her distant child and Christ.  With one hand of that faith she laid hold of Him in whom all healing grace was stored, with the other on her suffering daughter—herself a living conductor by which the power of Christ might run, like an electric flash, from Him to the object of her love.  ‘And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed,’ weak and exhausted, as these last words would imply, from the paroxysms of the spirit’s going out—unless, indeed, they indicate that she was now taking that quiet rest, which hitherto the evil spirit had not allowed.  It will then answer to the ‘clothed and in his right mind’ (Luke viii. 35) of another who had been similarly tormented.

The question remains, Why this bitterness was not spared her, why the Lord should have presented Himself under so different an aspect to her, and to most other suppliants?  Sometimes He anticipated their needs, ‘Wilt thou be made whole?’ (John v. 6); or if not so, He who was waiting to be gracious required not to be twice asked for His blessings.  Why was it that in this case, to use the words of an old divine, Christ ‘stayed long, wrestling with her faith, and shaking and trying whether it were fast-rooted’ or no?  Doubtless because He knew that it was a faith which would stand the proof, and that she would come out victorious from this sore trial; and not only so, but with a stronger, mightier, purer faith than if she had borne away her blessing merely for the asking.  Now she has learned, as then she never could have learned, ‘that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;’ that when God delays a boon, He does not therefore deny it.  She has learned the lesson which Moses must have learned when ‘the Lord met him, and sought to kill him’ (Exodus iv. 24); she has won the strength which Jacob won from his wrestling, resemblance between this history and that of Jacob (Genesis xxxii. 24-32).  There, as here, we note the same persevering struggle on the one side, the same persevering refusal on the other; there, as here, the stronger is at last overcome by the weaker.  God Himself yields to the might of faith and prayer; for a later prophet, interpreting that mysterious struggle, tells us the weapons which the patriarch wielded: ‘he wept and made supplication unto Him,’ connecting with this the fact that ‘he had power over the angel, and prevailed’ (Hos. xii. 3, 4).  The two histories, indeed, only stand out in their full resemblance when we keep in mind that the Angel there, the Angel of the Covenant, was no other than that Word, who, now incarnate, ‘blest this woman at last, as He had blest at length Jacob at Peniel—in each case so rewarding a faith which had said, ‘I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me.’

Yet, when we thus speak of man overcoming God, we must never, of course, for an instant lose sight of this, that the power whereby he overcomes the resistance of God, is itself a power supplied by God.  All that is man’s is the faith, or the emptiness of self, with the hunger after God, which enable him to appropriate and make so largely his own the fulness and power of God; so that here also that word comes true, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’  Thus when St. Paul speaks of himself under an image which rested originally on Jacob’s struggle, if there was not a direct allusion to it in the Apostle’s mind, as striving for the Colossians (Col. i. 29), striving, that is, with God in prayer (see iv. 12), he immediately adds, ‘according to His working, which worketh in me mightily.’

We may observe, in conclusion, that we have three ascending degrees of faith, as it manifests itself in the breaking through hindrances which would keep from Christ, in the paralytic (Mark ii. 4); in the blind man at Jericho (Mark x. 48); and in this woman of Canaan.  The paralytic broke through the outward hindrances, the obstacles of things merely external; blind Bartimaeus through the hindrances opposed by his fellow-men; but this woman, more heroically than all, through apparent hindrances even from Christ Himself.  These, in all their seeming weaknesses, were yet three mighty ones, not of David, but of David’s Son and Lord, who broke through opposing hosts, until they could draw living water from wells of salvation (2 Sam. xxiii. 16).