When we have problems in life, it is always good to look to Jesus to see how he coped with challenges. The Lord had a confrontation with the Pharisees over the issue of hand washing:
“Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” (Mark 7:5).
This was far from a straightforward matter of hygiene; it had to do with the tradition of the elders and encompassed the wider application of: “…many other such like things ye do” (v 8). The Master identified the root of the problem:
“Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (v 9).
Throughout history, individuals have preferred to do their own thing, rather than follow the ways of God, and we would do well to pay attention to this subtle weakness in our human nature.
Looking carefully at the record, it appears that Jesus must have been very tired and emotionally drained after the lengthy session with the leaders of the Jews. He entered a house seeking respite from the tension of debate and the constant press of the people. Unfortunately, the disciples did not pick up on his body language and persisted in questioning him:
“And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.”
The Lord’s response was one of disappointment:
“Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive…?” (Mark7:17,18).
Is it any wonder then that Jesus left the area?
“And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it…” (v 24).
He desperately needed solitude, no doubt to find the counter balance to stress, in prayer, meditation and reflection.
Time alone, quiet time, was important to Jesus and so it is with us. Whether we slip away into another room, go for an evening stroll, or just step into the garden and reflect on the beauty of God’s creative work, we all need private time in order to reflect, meditate, pray and reassess our spiritual walk.
On the borders of Israel
Sometimes we are able to take a complete break and enjoy a peaceful holiday away from the area in which we live. In the case of Jesus, although he sought peace, he was so well known: “he could not be hid” (Mark 7:24). One is reminded of his own teaching: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt5:14). Indeed, it was for the furtherance of his Father’s purpose that Jesus Christ, the light of the world, shone forth from that place and was not hidden from a Gentile woman:
“For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter” (Mark 7:25,26).
Matthew’s gospel gives a little more information:
“And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil” Matt 15:22).
A Gentile asking for mercy from one she called the son of David! Presumably, she must have understood all the implications of that Messianic title; leading to the suggestion that she had Jewish connections, or was a proselyte to the faith. Interestingly, Jesus did not immediately respond to her request:
“But he answered her not a word” (Matt15:23).
Why the silence?
What conclusion can we draw from the Lord’s silence? Sometimes a question can be answered by silence, and a caring look can have a calming effect. On the other hand, he could have been testing her, as his following statements seem to indicate. Another suggestion is that Jesus offered a silent prayer to his heavenly Father. Up until this time, the main thrust of the work of Jesus had been to recover the lost sheep of the house ofIsrael. Here on the borders ofIsraelgross darkness lay in the Gentile lands beyond. With the appeal of this Canaanite woman came stirrings of the fulfillment of prophecy:
“I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).
In silence Jesus reflected on the conversion of the Gentiles and all that was necessary to bring it to fruition.
Prior to his death, Jesus commanded the disciples to limit their preaching to the Jews. The situation changed dramatically, however, once his sacrifice was accomplished. His role shifted from ministering solely toIsrael, to being the Savior of the whole world. The death and resurrection of the Lamb of God ratified the promise to Abraham:
“In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
Notice the last instructions to the disciples before Jesus the Christ ascended into heaven:
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matt 28:19).
A cry from the heart
The disciples, obviously perturbed by the woman’s persistent beseeching, misinterpreted their leader’s silence and tried to terminate the incident: “and his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.” Then Jesus answered the woman with words that, to a lesser person, might have been crushing:
“But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel“ (Matt15:24).
Far from being put off, the woman’s amazing response was to worship him. In common with Rahab and Ruth, she understood that the God of Israel was the only true God, and she longed to be associated with His purpose. Unlike the stubborn Jewish leaders who focused only on the washing of cups, this Gentile saw evidence of the Messiah in the miracles. “Help me, Lord!” was a cry for the way to be opened up whereby believing Gentiles could become part ofIsrael. How this plea must have encouraged Jesus to complete his task.
The Lord was very aware of his role as shepherd and knew that there were lost sheep outside the fold ofIsrael:
“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice: and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John10:14-16).
There was one more test for the woman:
“But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (Matt15:26,27).
Gratified and sustained by her faith, her Lord and ours replied, with words that echo down the centuries:
“O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour” (v 28).
The excursion to the area of Tyre and Sidon was a preparation for the extension of the gospel beyond the boundaries of Israel. In their obsession for the traditions of men, the descendants of the Israelites who had eaten manna in the wilderness spurned the antitype, whereas the Syrophenician woman recognized that Jesus was the life-sustaining ‘bread of life’. With remarkable humility, she was content with a few crumbs left over from the nourishment initially provided for the Jewish race. Figuratively, this woman represents all those Gentiles who, in faith, come to Jesus seeking healing from the effects of the ‘devil’ of sin. Mercifully, through God’s grace, Jesus condescends to consider us members of this class of people.
On a daily basis, we have to interact with people who are ungodly, often returning home feeling utterly drained and stressed. This in turn puts pressure on the interpersonal relationships with those we love. It could include a recalcitrant child refusing to wash his hands before eating. However, with patience and guidance, upon reaching maturity, that very offspring may well submit to the Lord’s commandment: that of total washing in the waters of baptism.
How blessed we are in the knowledge and hope that when Jesus comes again, he will look out from the borders of Israel and say to the faithful beyond:
“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).