Faith in Unlikely Places
Great Faith in an Unlikely Person
“Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.”
When we read the story of the Syrophoenician woman, we are perplexed. When the woman comes to Jesus, he seems uncaring and indifferent to the woman’s heartache. This does not seem to fit the compassionate Jesus presented throughout the gospel. How could Jesus, who came to demonstrate the love of God to a lost world, be cold and indifferent to the heartbreaking plea of a loving mother? The woman followed Jesus, imploring him for mercy, yet Christ completely ignored her. So insistent was her cry that the disciples became annoyed at her persistence, begging Jesus to send her away. His response seems out of character.
If there is one thing we know of Jesus, he deeply loved people who were outcasts of society and broken by the ravenous effects of sin. He went out of his way to bring hope and salvation to a Samaritan woman who was not only despised by the Jews but even despised by her people. He responded to the pleas of a Roman Centurion who requested healing for his servant. The one thing we know about Jesus is that he cared deeply for broken people. Consequently, we know that he was not uncaring.
We must look at the context to understand why he was ignoring her. In the previous verses, Christ pointed out the lack of faith in the Jewish religious leaders. Instead of being promoters of righteousness, they were tolerant of sin and demonstrated a lack of faith in the Messiah. They were the ones who were regarded as the religious elite, but they were the most unbelieving.
This brings us to this Canaanite woman. Like the Samaritan woman, she also was despised and considered “unredeemable” by the Jews. A devout Jew would not have considered even entering into her home. So when Jesus ignored the woman, the people with Jesus, including the disciples, would have thought nothing of it. They would have ignored her as well. But the silence of Jesus was deafening. By remaining silent, he highlighted the contrast between the woman's deep faith and the unbelief of Israel. For in her persistence, she demonstrated her unwavering faith. Jesus remained silent, not because he did not care, but because he sought to demonstrate the depth of her faith in contrast to the shallowness of the Jewish leaders.
When Jesus does respond, instead of affirming her faith, he appears to give a reason why he should not honor her plea; she was not part of the covenant. The disciples and those around Jesus knew the implications of God's covenant with Israel. They were people of the covenant, but they did not receive the benefits of the covenant because of their lack of faith. In the woman's response that the dogs could eat the crumbs, she revealed a greater understanding of the covenant than the Jews, namely that the covenant was not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. By remaining quiet, Jesus was providing the opportunity for this woman to demonstrate the depth of her faith that would further contrast the unbelief of the religious leaders.
When Jesus finally responds, he points to her faith. It is significant that in the Gospel of Matthew, the two people Jesus commends for their “great faith” were both Gentiles: this Canaanite woman and the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:5-12), and in both cases, he healed the one in need from a distance. Great faith was not found in the Jews but in those whom the Jews viewed as unclean.
Sometimes, heaven seems silent to our cries, and our prayers seem unheard. In those times, we question God and his concern for us. We question our faith. Yet God is never indifferent. The silence of heaven is not because God is uncaring, nor is it because we lack the necessary faith. Instead, God is highlighting our faith to those around us, for our hope comes not in the answer to our prayer but in trusting in God even when we do not understand his ways. In the depth of our struggles is revealed the depth of our faith. Then we become a witness to others around us.