In today’s Gospel, we see the famous account of Jesus healing the daughter of the Syrophoenician Woman. Often misinterpreted, this passage can be problematic for some modern readers. However, if we remember to have the same humility and faith as the Syrophoenician Woman, we can understand the truth that scriptures are revealing to us.
Jesus is in a gentile region, and a gentile woman calls out to him to expel a demon from her daughter. At first Jesus is silent, but she is persistent. It causes the disciples of Jesus to urge Him to send her away, and Jesus tells her that He has only come to call the Israelites in the region. She persists and again asks for His help. Jesus speaks to her in a metaphor, “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs.” In doing so, Jesus is not insulting this woman. Rather, he is speaking to her the way a Rabbi would to his student, speaking in a parable to see if she could answer in understanding. The woman with great humility and faith responds, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus praises her faith, and heals her daughter.
There are only a few times that in the Gospels that Jesus heals a gentile. Most notably, the Centurion’s servant and the Syrophoenician Woman. Each time this happens, Jesus praises the faith of the gentile and consents to the healing. This serves as a foreshadowing of the mission of the early church and specifically Paul’s mission to the gentiles. It also reveals to us God’s plan for salvation of the whole world.
From the time of Abraham, God set apart Abraham’s descendants (the nation of Israel) to be his first born son among the nations. It was through them that the world would be converted and brought back into God’s family. Unfortunately, throughout Israel’s history, instead of bringing nations to God, the nations pulled Israel away from their love and trust in God which resulted in the fracturing and scattering of Israel. Jesus the son of God comes, and not only lives out what the nation of Israel couldn’t in staying devoted to God, but also comes to gather the nation of Israel back into God’s sonship. So in His mission on Earth, Jesus is mainly seen interacting with the Jews.
The mission of Jesus is to heal the division of Israel so that Israel could go out to the Gentiles and bring them to God. Despite the infidelity of Israel throughout its history, they have been prepared by God through all of their trials to have the requisite faith. Not all responded to the call, but the fullness of time had come and God determined that Israel was ready to receive Jesus.
The gentiles had not had this preparation. This is why we hear Jesus have conversations like this with the gentile woman, or make statements like ‘you should not throw your pearls before swine.’ The gentiles had not received the preparation to receive Jesus as he should be received. This preparation is having faith in the true and living God. Yet, we see that the gift of faith is granted to a certain few gentiles as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Holy Spirit which will grant faith to all who cooperate with It, regardless of race.
So the Syrophoenician Woman’s words are a revelation of the Holy Spirit. She is granted understanding to know the mission of Jesus and have faith in who she is (and who we are) in relation to Him. According to social norms of the time, Jesus is treating her with honor not only by speaking to her, but also in treating her like His student in questioning her as a Rabbi. While she accepts herself as the lowest position of the table (the dog asking for scraps), she is then through faith elevated to the highest place by receiving the gift of healing/exorcism that a son or daughter of Israel would receive. As we journey toward our heavenly banquet, let us remember that we are now the new Israel through faith and the Holy Spirit. We are meant to search out those who need Jesus and have not received Him yet to bring them into His family, but this can only be done through faith and humility.