This has always been, to me, one of the most tender and moving passages in the Gospels. The young mother, desperate to get help for her dearly loved little girl, comes and falls to the floor at Jesus’ feet. Jesus escaped from the crowds in Galilee in search of quiet and rest in this Gentile territory on the Mediterranean coast, but the word about him got here first. And so this pitiful young mother comes empty handed to beg for the famous healer’s help.
To many readers, Jesus’ answer is a rebuff: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Is he saying she’s a dog? Is her suffering little daughter no more than a dog to him? Doesn’t Jesus care?
No, it’s not an insult, and he’s not saying she’s a dog. It’s a statement about priority: first things first. Jesus has come here seeking a little rest, leaving behind many people in Galilee still suffering for now. But he will go back to them, and, at the right time, when God’s people are reconciled and healed, he will send them out to be God’s messengers of salvation, peace, and healing to the rest of the world. First the children, the people chosen and called by God’s name. After the children have had their fill, there will be plenty left for everyone else (remember the loaves and fishes—there is more than enough to go around and always will be).
The woman’s response is just as surprising as Jesus’. She doesn’t take offense or show disrespect. Not only does she understand what Jesus is saying, her response shows that she agrees and submits to his decision—and yet, she presses him on the basis of what he has just said. Her response isn’t a contradictory “no, but,” it’s a submissive “yes, and … .” This is the faith of one who, like the psalmist in Psalm 82:8 (“Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!”), argues boldly with God on the basis of his own perfect character and unfailing word.
“Yes,” the woman says, “the children must be fed first. But even while they are being fed, the dogs eat what crumbs may fall. Would it be any more than a crumb for you to heal my precious child? Please, Lord, just my one little girl.”
Some applications. God’s timing often isn’t as fast, and God’s ways often aren’t as direct, as we would want them to be. Let’s pray for the grace to submit to God as the Syrophoenician woman did here. Let’s also learn to plead with God in prayer on the basis of his promises and attributes revealed in the Bible. Finally, as the adopted children of God, who have been reconciled and healed, this is now the time for us to be his agents of grace and healing to those all around us.