Sermon: The Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman

The Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman
Mark 7:24-30
RUMC 13 Sept 2015

There is the story of how an old dog fell into a farmer’s well.  After the farmer assessed the situation, he decided that the best course of action was to shovel dirt into the well.  And as the farmer shoveled, the dog would become hysterical and would howl and bark, but as each shovel load of dirt hit the dog’s back, he would shake it off and step up.  This went on for hours.  Finally, the exhausted and dirty looking dog, stepped over the wall of that well.  To the dog, the dirt was the adversary, but in reality it was his deliverance.  And it was through the farmer’s persistency and the willingness of the dog to cooperate, that there was a happy ending.

This story of the dog in the well is similar to our scripture text.  This was the incident of the Syrophoenician woman who was desperate for healing for her daughter.  It was her persistent faith that got her the answer.  My text is Mark 7:24-30 shown below:

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.[a] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir,[b] even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
This is the Word of God. 
Thanks be to God.

In Biblical times, there was this prevailing attitude among Jews, that as God’s chosen people, they were superior to all others.  They were the ones to whom the covenants, the law and ultimately the land belonged.  Because of this special status, they looked down on those who did not have Jewish blood flowing through their veins.  So it is no surprise that there is already a deep seated prejudice against the main character, the Syrophoenician woman.  We understand that, we get it.

However when we read the words of Jesus, it sort of makes us scratch our heads and ask why he alluded to her as a dog?  Jesus is the Son of God.  He cares for the fallen sparrow.  He loves everyone.  He is just.  He is impartial.  So why did he say this?  The answer may involve a trip into a time machine where we could see the actual conversation between Jesus and the woman.  Then we would be able to see the look in Jesus’ eyes, the tone of his voice and the expression on his face, that all he was doing was using a humorous play on words to draw out her faith.

The Bible does not tell us the names of the mother and daughter, but church tradition does.  The mother’s name was Justa and the daughter was Bernice.  With regard to Bernice, she had what we would call an unclean spirit or some type of demonic stranglehold.  Other than that, we are given no additional information, but for Justa to seek out Jesus and fall at his feet and plead for help, things must have been real bad.  I suspect life in their home was a living nightmare.

All of us know someone who is troubled.  Their suffering may stem from something physical, a chemical imbalance, a psychological disorder, etc.  There might be the influence of drugs, genetics, or something unknown.  Then there is the remote possibility that it could be demonic.  But whatever it is, that person needs our prayers and support.

I do see a life lesson in today’s scripture and that is when we are faced with obstacles or insurmountable difficulties, we need to go to the Lord with our needs and trust that He will work in our situation.  More times than not, our healing and deliverance involves others; it is often the combination of family, medicine, therapists, clergy, friends, and church.

The legacy of the Syrophoenician woman was this.  She had what I would call feisty faith and dogged determination.  And when it comes to the high mountains and valleys and rivers of our lives, we may need to do the same. I have seen this bumper sticker and it has made me think: “Jesus is the answer, what is the question?”  Normally we talk about our faith in terms of submission or acceptance.  But what the Syrophoenician woman did was something new.  She challenged.  She was bold.  She stormed heaven for help.

And it is with this type of faith that the following passages come to mind:

  • I think of the OT patriarch, Jacob who in Genesis 32 wrestled all night with a mysterious angel. He persevered and would not let go until he received a blessing.
  • In Luke 18: 1-8, Jesus spoke of how a poor widow who went before a corrupt judge over and over and over until she received justice.   
  • Jesus said in Mathew 7:7 “Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find.  Knock and the door will be opened.”  But while we ask, seek and knock, we need to find out what God’s will is for us.  That will save us a lot of trouble.
  • I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I have several quotes to pertain to this.

  • We have to pray with our eyes on God not our difficulties.
  • Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them. Rabindrath Tagore
  • The value of persistent prayer is not that he will hear us, but that we will finally hear him.

So how do we put this into action?  In difficult situations, we need to pray and ask others to pray with and for us.  Do what we can to fix the situation.  And like I mentioned before, the Lord often uses other people to bring answers, deliverance, and relief.  So let us be open to his ways.

I see a similarity of how this applies to AA or Narcotics Anonymous.  Through a variety of circumstances, men and women become hooked or addicted to alcohol or drugs.  In the process their lives become ruined and they hit rock bottom.  In their desperation they look to God or as some say their Higher Power.  They pray to be delivered, they get right with God, find a sponsor; they attend meetings, stay in the program and develop their spiritual life.  That is it in a nutshell and it ties in with the theme of persistent prayer and deliverance.

Let me close.

  • May we be like the poor dog in the well, who never gave up, but shook off the dirt of adversity and stepped up.
  • May we be like the SF woman, who in her persistency was able to get help for her child.
  • May we be like the OT patriarch Jacob, who wrestled the angel to daybreak and received the blessing.
  • May we be like the widow who kept going back to the unjust judge until he ruled in her favor.
  • May we continue to ask, seek, and knock.
  • May we be patient and do our part as God does his.
  • May we not be afraid to ask God and others for help.