Canaanite woman Matthew's Gospel

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that region came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” But Jesus did not answer her a word.
Matthew 15:21-23b
[1]

Silent and Distant

Every Christian experiences times when it is difficult to discern God’s will, activity, or presence. During these times, despite desperate and fervent prayers, we receive no guidance, help, or comfort. Instead, we may experience confusion, frustration, and even pain. It feels as though our prayers have failed to reach God. And God is silent.

The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s narrative was desperate. Every parent who has seen their child suffering and dangerously ill knows the anguish this woman was experiencing.

This woman must have heard about Jesus. She must have heard how he had mercifully healed many people and delivered others from demonic oppression, and this “hearing” had turned to faith (Rom. 10:9). As well as having faith, this woman truly knew who Jesus was: the Jewish Messiah, the “Son of David”.

This woman knew that Jesus could help her daughter. So, even though she was a Gentile (a non-Jew), she went to see Jesus and she begged him for mercy. But when she pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter, he ignored her. Despite her persistent cries, which were annoying his disciples, Jesus said nothing, not a word. He was silent.

Trials and Tests

When we are at school or college, the teachers are there to instruct and equip us. Much of this instruction is done by speaking during lessons and lectures, and by asking and answering questions. But there comes a time when the teacher does not speak. There is a time when we cannot ask the teacher a question . . . during a test.

A teacher is silent during an examination, and we are required to solve problems and answer questions on our own. It is during a test that we are given the opportunity to show what we have learnt and to prove ourselves.

Jesus was silent because this episode with the Gentile woman was a test. It was a test primarily for the disciples. Jesus wanted to see what his disciples had learnt from him and what they would do. I believe Jesus was testing their compassion and their understanding of the extent of God’s mercy and grace.

When Jesus did speak, he used the woman’s extraordinary faith, as well as her gender and race, to demonstrate to his disciples that God’s mercy is available to everyone who calls on him! It is interesting to note that this narrative in Matthew 15:21-28 is the only record of Jesus travelling beyond the borders of Israel. Jesus demonstrated that God’s mercy extends beyond Israel and the Jews.

Jesus may have come to the woman’s region especially to see this woman and to deliver her daughter and to test and teach the disciples.[2] Perhaps Jesus was also testing the woman’s faith. It is delightful to see that she was undeterred by both Jesus’ silence and his terse comments. Her faith was bold and tenacious, and she passed the test with flying colours!

“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. Matthew 15:28

Testing and Perfecting

Like Jesus’s silence, God also seems to be distant and silent sometimes. God seemed distant and silent when Jesus Christ was going through his greatest test. When Jesus was suffering on the Cross, in the midst of profound agony, he called out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

Jesus felt abandoned and alone. Yet, despite feeling forsaken, he chose to be obedient to his Father. Jesus could have removed himself from the situation, but he chose to suffer and remain on the Cross and complete his mission. Jesus passed his test.

Though he was [God’s] Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. Hebrews 5:8

The Bible tells us that Jesus was perfected through his suffering (Heb. 2:10). God’s purpose for us is that we become spiritually mature and perfected, and become like Jesus Christ. Spiritual maturity is often hastened by going through trials and tests.

Yet we are never really alone, even during our tests and trials. Because Jesus suffered when he was tested, he is able to help us who are being tested, whether we are aware of his help or not (Heb. 2:18).

Does God seem to be silent in your life at the moment? Is he silent in your church community?

My observation is that God seems to be a lot more “quiet” than usual in many Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches in the Western world. I believe this is because God is testing us. Will our devotion, faith, and service continue unabated? Will we do well in this test? Or will we lose interest and lose heart?

If God is not silent in your life and in your church, then make good use of this time to strengthen yourself in the Lord, because tests are coming.


Footnotes

[1] Matthew 15:21-28 continued:

So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 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.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. Matthew 15:23-28 (cf. Mark 7:24-30)

[2] It is interesting to compare Jesus’ journey to Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21) with Jesus being compelled to travel through Samaria to speak to another unnamed woman: the Samaritan women at the well (John 4). Both journeys seem to have been for the purpose of a divine appointment with women to demonstrate that the gospel was not just for respectable Jewish men. The gospel and grace of Jesus is for all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity or social class.

Postscript (March 26 2021)
Justa (AKA the Syrophoenician woman) and her daughter Bernice in the Clementine Homilies

The Clementine Homilies is a work of fiction with no historical merit. It is genuinely ancient and was written in Greek around 300-320 AD. It makes the spurious claim to have been written by Clement (bishop of Rome in the late first century), when it was actually written by an anonymous heterodox Christian living some 200 years after Clement.

The Clementine Homilies are a fictitious account of Peter’s doctrinal battle with Simon Magus (cf. Acts 8:9-24). Simon Magus became a huge figure in the early church. He is mentioned in texts by authors such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, who describe him as the founder of Gnosticism. (Most modern scholars think they exaggerate Simon’s influence.)

Simon had a female ministry partner named Helen who came from Tyre where the Syrophoenician woman lived.

In the homilies, the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter are given the names Justa and Bernice. (Early Jews and Christians loved to give names to unnamed biblical characters.) And I think it’s interesting that, according to the story, three men (all bishops or future bishops)* are sent by Peter to learn from a woman, a woman he has himself learned from. For this reason, I’m sharing these quotations.

According to the story, the apostle Peter tells Clement,

“If you wish to learn, it is in your power to know it from those from whom I also got accurate information on all points respecting him. There is amongst us one Justa, a Syro-Phœnician, by race a Canaanite, whose daughter was oppressed with a grievous disease. And she came to our Lord, crying out, and entreating that He would heal her daughter.” Homily 2:18-19 

Peter tells Clement, Aquila, and Nicetas,

“I wish you to go away this very day, and to lodge secretly with Bernice the Canaanite, the daughter of Justa, and to learn from her, and write accurately to me what Simon [Magus] is about.” Homily 3:73

The men do as Peter said:

Thus I, Clement, departing from Cæsarea Stratonis, together with Nicetas and Aquila, entered into Tyre of Phœnicia; and according to the injunction of Peter, who sent us, we lodged with Bernice, the daughter of Justa the Canaanitess. She received us most joyfully; and striving with much honour towards me, and with affection towards Aquila and Nicetas, and speaking freely as a friend, through joy she treated us courteously, and hospitably urged us to take bodily refreshment. Homily 4:1

And Bernice is given a speech beginning in paragraph 4 of homily 4:

“These things are indeed as you have heard; and I will tell you other things respecting this same Simon, which perhaps you do not know.”

Even though the Clementine Homilies is a work of fiction and written by someone at the fringes of the Christian church, it’s interesting that Bernice is given such a strong role, a teaching role. It also demonstrates a phenomenon I’ve seen in other Christian works written in the second-third centuries: men and women who knew Jesus or one of the apostles personally were treated as authoritative witnesses of apostolic and post-apostolic church-life and as minor celebrities.

*According to the late fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions 7.4, Aquila and Nicetas were the first bishops in Asia Minor. There may be some truth in this.

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Further Reading

Dog’s, Doggies, and Exegesis by Larry Hurtado
Children and Dogs: More on Mark 7:24-30 by Larry Hurtado
Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs: Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman by Kristen Rosser
IVP Commentary on Matthew 15:21-28 on Bible Gateway.
Epigram 1.109, by the famous first-century Latin poet Martial, is a poem about a beloved pet dog named Issa.

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