Jesus journeyed to Tyre and Sidon -- two towns in Phoenicia which was a part of Syria. In his public, ministry it was the only time he ventured beyond Palestine. He was in Gentile territory. It was there he encountered a Syro-Phoenecian woman. Listen in on our conversation.
O, nameless, faceless foreigner! How did you hear about Jesus? How did you know he was traveling on your turf? We read, "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know He was there." No doubt you never realized his need for retreat and replenishment. His life was depleted by the needs of his followers, and his death was plotted by the deeds of his enemies. He predicted his passion. He could see the scepter of the cross. This was the Master's final detour, woman, and once he set his face steadfastly south, nothing would deter him again.
You were obsessed with your daughter's healing! I can't blame you for that! You were a loyal and loving mother! Your begging, however, bordered on being brassy! You were doggedly determined all right, and you did not discourage easily -- that's for sure.
When you first broached Jesus you called him by his ancestral name -- "Son of David, have mercy on me." He never answered did he? Couldn't you take the hint? He heard you, I'm sure. He chose not to respond. Didn't common courtesy demand that you take your leave? And Syro-Phoenecian woman, if Jesus' silence did not dissuade you, then the censoring comments of his disciples would. Surely you heard them -- "Send her away for she is crying after us." Not very polite, but you have to admit, to the point!
And you would not let up or let go -- and then Jesus really put you in your place and put you down. He let you know you were not his priority -- remember -- "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." You had to realize you were outside the fold -- you were not blood -- a member of the chosen race. You were a Gentile, a Caananite, an enemy of the Jews. There had been bad blood between you. Why in God's name, were you so attracted to this foreigner? O Gentile woman, could you have somehow sensed that his Gospel was good news for all -- universal -- beyond any border? You were not put off when he put you in your place -- you would wait your turn. I can't believe his next insult! Did he really say those words woman? "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Jews called Gentiles dogs -- the ultimate insult. And Greeks called shameless women dogs -- the same horrible connotation to this day when someone calls a woman a bitch. In your time dogs were the scavengers of the streets -- diseased and dirty. They were always nosing around the garbage for anything to satisfy their scraggly bodies. Did you catch the inflection in his voice? Did you pick up on his humorous play on words? He did not use the word for stray dogs, did he? In Greek he used the diminutive term for little puppies, lap dogs, household pets. That isn't so insulting after all -- perhaps instructive. Pets are loved in a family, but our children have priority. You picked up on the distinction and responded so beautifully in your uniquely committed and creative way.
"Ah, yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table."
And Jesus, surely with a smile on his face, said in effect -- "touche" woman -- and then paid you the most touching tribute possible. "O woman, great is your faith -- be it done for you as you wish." The only other time he offered such high praise was for another Gentile -- a centurion soldier whose servant he healed as he did your daughter.
What was it about the faith of this foreigner that so moved the Master? It was a faith that challenged God! It was a faith that boldly believed God for healing! This woman stormed the power of Jesus -- she was proactive. Often we talk about faith in terms of submission, acceptance, acquiescence, and there are some realities we can neither change nor control. Sometimes faith must accept what is and deal with it as best we can.
There are other times, however, when God expects more of us. Prayers of resignation are not the only prayers that belong to faith. Alexander Pope in what he called the ninth beatitude said, "Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." That is unbelief! Expectation is a blood relative of hope and faith. Listen to Paul -- "I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me." When is the last time you believed God for something? What is fear but a lack of faith in God? In the 2lst Chapter of the book of Revelation the unbelievers are categorized -- the murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, liars -- but I purposely skipped over the first two -- the cowardly and the faithless. The Caananite woman was neither -- she challenged God for her daughter's healing. And her persistence was both encouraged and extolled. That is also the Biblical witness. I think of Jacob who wrestled all night with God and would not let go until he received a blessing. I think of the strange parable of Jesus of the importune widow who unmercifully nags a judge until he relents, and she is praised for her persistence. I think of the beatitude, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake." Do we really want it, can we taste it, for then and perhaps only then, shall we be satisfied. We often hear the words of Jesus -- "ask, and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you." That rendering is so misleading. In the original Greek the verbs are all the intensive tense and should be translated -- keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.
Unfortunately, we are living in a day based on the marketplace notions of unfettered choice, limited warranties, and contingent obligations -- a throwaway society. There seems to be little persistence and loyalty in the family, in the workplace, in professional sports. If something does not work out immediately we are all too ready to become free agents and go to plan B. When many of us watched baseball player Cal Ripken break the record for playing consecutive games with one team we sensed such loyalty and persistence marked the end of an era.
God, who is faithful, is calling us to faithfulness. God's love will not let us go -- it is persistent -- it is searching -- it is relentless -- and God is pleased when we respond in kind. The story of a Syro-Phoenician woman is our witness. May her feisty faith, and her dogged determination be ours as well. Amen.