Images of the Savior (29 â€“ His Answering the Syro-Phoenician Woman)
Of the many lessons we may learn about the Savior from this account, the most notable is his utter resignation to the will of the Father, and his firm resolve not to do anything related to the work of redemption except in its own proper time; from which circumstance we may learn that all the acts of mercy and grace from the beginning of the world are indeed planned out by the sovereign counsel of the Father, and minutely executed by the Son. In this account, we may see this truth borne out, first, by Jesus' unswerving commitment to the temporal priority of the children of Israel to the nations, in God's redemptive design; and second, by his manner in responding to the personal request of a woman whose daughter he knew from the beginning that he should heal. In this latter circumstance we may find much that is well-suited to personal application, and so we will spend the greater part of our time on that point. But first, let us note what Jesus intended by his saying, â€œI am not sent except to the lost sheep of the House of Israelâ€ (Matthew 15:24).
It is at once apparent from this phrase that Israel had a very definite temporal priority to the rest of the nations, in the redemptive design. For although Jesus had in fact been sent to be â€œthe Savior of all men everywhereâ€ (I Timothy 4:10), just as had been prophesied of old (e.g. Isaiah 42:1-9), and even though he had often foreshadowed this universal grace in his dealings with certain Samaritans and Gentiles (e.g. John 4:1-45; Luke 7:1-10); still, the time for God's grace to be poured out in mighty floods upon the nations had not yet come, and Jesus, who could do nothing apart from the Father's will (see John 5:19-20), knew full well that it had not come, and acted most appropriately therefore. For in his public ministry, he poured himself out to the Jewish people, and did not at all go to the Gentile regions, save in exceptional circumstances. Even in this account, it would appear that he had only gone to the border of the regions of Tyre and Sidon, and that the woman had come there to him, having heard of his proximity (Matthew 15:21-22). Now, this time of the Jewish nation did not involve an utter cutting off of the Gentile peoples from the mercy of God, as we may learn from the account of Elijah's visit to the Sidonian widow (I Kings 17:8-24), and Elisha's healing of Naaman the Syrian (II Kings 5); but so rare and scattered were these acts of mercy, in the times of the prophets and likewise the time of Jesus' public ministry, that they may well be compared to the scraps of the table, which are thrown to the dogs when once the children have had their fill. It was only after the resurrection, and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, that the time of the Gentiles would be fully ushered in; and even then, Jesus through his Spirit governed the times and manners in which the gospel would spread to the various nations, in exact accordance with the Father's design, as we may learn from the Spirit's forbidding the gospel to be preached in Asia, so that it might spread first to Europe (Acts 16:6-10). In all of these ways, we may see Jesus' exact obedience to the Father's pre-determined plan, in the accomplishment of the monumental work of redemption, and the securing of all its great effects.
What we have so far observed is that, there was a sense in which God's redemptive work was centered on the nation of Israel, during the times of antiquity and extending through Jesus' public ministry; but that this general design was accented by certain specific exceptions which marvelously foreshadowed a mighty future expansion. We must be sure that Jesus himself was well aware of each of these typical exceptions, being fully instructed in the divine counsel, and that he was, therefore, aware of the mercy which the Father had planned to be shown to this Syro-Phoenician woman. What, then, was his purpose in placing before her so many obstacles to the granting of her request, before he finally heard her pleas? We must acknowledge that, just as Jesus follows the Father's exact will in the redemptive design as a whole, which we have just demonstrated, so he follows exactly the Father's will in the application of that redemptive work to each person individually. Even as the Father has a broad plan, by which redemptive effects will be made to flourish in one region before another; so he has for each of his people a narrow plan, in which the specific mercies he has designed for that person will flow to him in their proper time. This plan is marvelously designed for each one of us to increase our faith and dependence upon the Son of God, and to cause our worship and gratitude to grow. Let us consider the case of this woman, and observe how many times God works in similar ways in our lives.
First, Jesus ignored her, although she called upon him in faith as the true Messiah, the Son of David, who is able to heal with a word. How she flooded his ears with her sincere and passionate pleas, overflowing from the depths of her soul with the faith that few of the children of Israel truly possessed, showing herself more truly a child of believing Abraham than they all. But Jesus, in response, simply does nothing. He does not answer her yes or no, but for all practical intents, he might not even had heard her. O believer, does he not often do the same with you? How many times have you come before him with a heavy heart, yearning for a renewed taste of his beauty and grace, heartbroken over a wayward child or a physical affliction, desiring to be freed from a besetting sin, and cry out as you may, he turns a deaf ear, and the heavens remain stony and silent? If this is the case with you now, do not lose heart, but be instructed by the case of this woman: Jesus does not delay to answer you for lack of love and compassion, but truest love, which understands fully the Father's plan to work in you that which is eternally good, holds back his hand of tender help for a time, although his bowels greatly yearn to touch you, so that something better may fall out in the end. Do not doubt that the Father loves you, when he delays for a time to answer your prayer, but know that that very delay is divine love, working in you a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
We find, next, that this woman persisted in her request so fervently that the disciples wearied of her and desired Jesus to grant her petition so that they might have some rest. If even Jesus' disciples are moved by persistent prayer, must not Jesus himself be more so, whose infinite depths of compassion desire to work good for everyone who calls upon his name? If even the unjust judge will avenge the importunate victim, will not the Father, who is the very essence of Goodness, give the Spirit to those who persistently ask him (Luke 18:1-8)? Is it not necessary for us, as well, â€œalways to pray and not to faintâ€ (Luke 18:1), knowing that God is a God of grace and compassion, and that â€œthe effectual prayer of a righteous man avails muchâ€ (James 5:16)?
And then, in response to the disciples' request, Jesus gives the reasons why he should not respond to this woman, since she was a Gentile, and he was at that time sent to the House of Israel. But is this not a necessary truth to bring into full relief the greatness and deep meaning of this act of mercy, when it had later been accomplished? If no one considered beforehand how exceptional and merciful an act it should be to extend grace to one who was not born into the covenant of Abraham, it should not be so great a cause for marvel than if the lack of basis were fully established ahead of time. Does this method of proceeding not glorify the freeness of God's grace? This woman had no claim whatsoever that should entitle her to the fulfillment of her request, she had no basis on which she might confidently approach the King and ask of him her boon. Now, let us ask ourselves if this is not the same in our lives. Before we were made to seek the grace of the Savior, did he not impress upon us through the terrors of his law, the fury of his wrath, and the weight of our deep sinfulness, how utterly unworthy we were to come before him on any merit or supposed basis of our own, did he not show us how extraordinary an act of condescension it should be if he granted our plea for mercy, and did he not thereby glorify the freeness of his grace by taking away any basis we had for approaching him? Let us learn well from this example.
Next, we see how this rough dispensation of turning to this woman a deaf ear, as it were, turns out to the growth of her faith. For before, she called upon him as the Son of David; and now, growing ever more desperate, she not only calls upon him, but casts herself down at his feet to worship him. Thus through the heavy means of unanswered prayer, a truer worship and a deeper dependence spring up, as faith grows from one degree to another. I ask you again, dear believer, is it not the same with you? Then do not despise the hard times of soul-deep barenness, as you cry out to your Savior, but can see no opening in the irony heavens. Even this heavy hand of Providence is working for your good.
Now we see how this woman is driven to plead with her Savior on the basis of his revealed mercies. For it is true, she grants, that she is but a dog, unworthy of any mercy; and yet, she eloquently reasons that the crumbs of God's mercy have ever descended upon the believing remnant of the nations; and that these crumbs of mercy were therefore most appropriate for her. Ah, this is where God's temporary refusal to hear us must lead: to the true foundations for our hope and expectation of something good from his hand. When God reminds you, â€œWhat are you or what have you that I should deal leniently with you,â€ do not dare to suggest that you deserve his goodness after all, even as this woman did not deny that she was but a dog before him. Instead, say, â€œIt is true that I am nothing, and I have no price in my hand; but I thirst, and is it not fitting that the thirsty should drink from the Spring of Life? Did you not exhort us, 'Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and he who has no money, come, buy and eat, come buy wine and milk without money and without price' (Isaiah 55:1)? Ah, Jesus, did you not call out, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink' (John 5:37)? I thirst for you, my Savior and my God, and with no money in my hand, and no plea save your mercies and your promises, I approach you in desperation and confident hope.â€ When this woman, persevering through all obstacles, made her plea on the basis of her own unworthiness and the merciful acts of God, he did not finally turn her away. How much less will he turn us away, who live in the times of the outpouring of God's Spirit and grace upon all the nations?