Despite his best efforts, she discovered that he was hiding out in a private home near by. Greek herself, living in Syrian Phoenicia, she nonetheless determined to seek help for her daughter from the Jewish teacher.

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.

In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet.The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.—Mark 7:24-28a.

This episode occurs in both Matthew and Mark, in the same context: Jesus has just had an encounter with the Pharisees in Jerusalem over ceremonial uncleanliness. At least in partial response, he withdraws northward through Galilee, into Phoenicia. But he finds his reputation has spread well beyond Judea and Galilee, and this gentile—and therefore ‘unclean’—woman seeks him out.

Some modern commentators see what follows in this episode as evidence that Jesus himself possessed ethnic prejudice.

This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.

Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind (or ethnicity blind as it were). And neither can we.

David R. Henson,

“Crumbs: Jesus and the Ethnic Slur”

This conclusion reveals a number of interesting things. But can it possibly be valid? Can “the Incarnation himself” get “caught up in systems of oppression?” If it is true that “Jesus . . . could not be colorblind,” why did that not show up in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well? Perhaps, in his zeal to correct what he saw as a contemporary evil, the blogger failed to notice that he had inadvertently made himself more discerning than “the Incarnation himself.” It is a temptation we all recognize.

But let’s look at the text again, keeping in mind the context: the previous episode in the narrative is a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over what makes a person unclean. Here comes an ‘unclean’ woman.

“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word.

So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”—Matthew 15:22b-23.

Jesus did not answer a word. He did not utter an ethnic slur. Why his silence? It is because he realizes his disciples have not absorbed the lesson from the previous episode, namely, that spiritual ‘uncleanness’ is not about things outside—whether ethnicity or hygiene or diet—but about what is within, that which “comes out of a person.” He had to explain it several ways, and the disciples still did not get it. So here’s a real-life example. That’s why he did not answer a word.

Rather than tell them what to think, he waited for them to speak, to reveal what was in their hearts. For them, this gentile woman was an annoyance, and they tell him to send her away. But he does not. They see her as a gentile; he sees her as possessing great faith. In fact given that she understands how the typical Jew of her day regards her, it has taken significant courage—fueled by faith and need—for her even to approach him. But of course, there were always those who sought him because of his notoriety rather than faith. So he proceeds to test both her, and his disciples.

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”—Matthew 15:24.

This is not an ethnic slur, though it could be interpreted as one. When Jesus sent the disciples out in Matthew 10, it was:

“. . . with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”—Matthew 10:5b, 6.

Jesus’ ministry begins with Israel, because judgment will begin with them (see 1 Peter 4:17), so this statement describes the focus of his ministry, not the limit or extent. But it could be understood as, “You’re not included,” which would have matched the understanding of both the disciples and the woman. She may well have expected it. In any case, it does not deter her.

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”—Matthew 15:25, 26.

No doubt the disciples resonated with equating gentiles with dogs. Dogs, since they scavenged, eating all sorts of dead and decaying animals, were considered ceremonially unclean—as were gentiles. But the woman remained resolute, even after this stinging rebuke.

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”—v. 27.

She handles this third rebuke with wit and humility. She doesn’t mind being called a dog, if it means help for her suffering child. Whether this display of character rebuked the disciples, we are not told. But Jesus can no longer hold up the pretense; he cannot prolong her disappointment.

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
And her daughter was healed at that moment.

That’s the end of this brief episode. We do not hear of this woman or her daughter again. Yet she left a significant impression. Hearing of Jesus presence nearby, well aware of the censure she might encounter, she nonetheless took the initiative to seek him out. Having found him, she did not let his silence, the scorn of his disciples, nor his repeated apparent rebukes dissuade her.

There is no textual link between this episode and anything in the Old Testament, but it brings to my mind the image of Jacob, wrestling with Angel all night, even after painful injury vowing not to let go without a blessing. For that, he earned the name Israel, for he struggled and prevailed. And so this unnamed Greek woman from Phoenicia verbally wrestled with the savior, and even after suffering painful words, she prevailed as well.


Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.