The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
THE ASCENT: FROM THE RIVER JORDAN TO THE MOUNT OF
JESUS AND THE SYRO-PHOENICIAN WOMAN
(St. Matthew 15:21-28; St. Mark
THE purpose of Christ to withdraw His disciples from the
excitement of Galilee, and from what might follow the execution of the Baptist,
had been interrupted by the events at Bethsaida-Julias, but it was not changed.
On the contrary, it must have been intensified. That wild, popular outburst,
which had almost forced upon Him a Jewish Messiah-Kingship; the discussion with
the Jerusalem Scribes about the washing of hands on the following day; the
Discourses of the Sabbath, and the spreading disaffection, defection, and
opposition which were its consequences - all pointed more than ever to the
necessity of a break in the publicity of His Work, and to withdrawal from that
part of Galilee. The nearness of the Sabbath, and the circumstance that the
Capernaum-boat lay moored on the shore of Bethsaida, had obliged Him, when
withdrawing from that neighbourhood, to return to Capernaum. And there the
Sabbath had to be spent - in what manner we know. But as soon as its sacred
rest was past, the journey was resumed. For the reasons already explained, it
extended much further than any other, and into regions which, we may venture to
suggest, would not have been traversed but for the peculiar circumstances of
A comparatively short journey would bring Jesus and His
companions from Capernaum 'into the parts,' or, as St. Mark more specifically
calls them, 'the borders of Tyre and Sidon.' At that time this district
extended, north of Galilee,1
from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. But the event about to be related
occurred, as all circumstances show, not within the territory of Tyre and
Sidon, but on its borders, and within the limits of the Land of Israel. If any
doubt could attach to the objects which determined Christ's journey to those
parts, it would be removed by the circumstance that St. Matthew2
tells us, He 'withdrew'3
thither, while St. Mark notes that He 'entered into an house, and would have no
man know it.' That house in which Jesus sought shelter and privacy would, of
course, be a Jewish home; and, that it was within the borders of Israel, is
further evidenced by the notice of St. Matthew, that 'the Canaanitish woman'
who sought His help 'came out from those borders' - that is, from out the
Tyro-Sidonian district - into that Galilean border where Jesus was.
1. Jos. War iii. 3. 1.
2. St. Matt. xv. 21.
3. So correctly rendered.
The whole circumstances seem to point to more than a night's
rest in that distant home. Possibly, the two first Passover-days may have been
spent here. If the Saviour had left Capernaum on the Sabbath evening, or the
Sunday morning, He may have reached that home on the borders before the Paschal
Eve, and the Monday and Tuesday4
may have been the festive Paschal days, on which sacred rest was enjoined. This
would also give an adequate motive for such a sojourn in that house, as seems
required by the narrative of St. Mark. According to that Evangelist, 'Jesus
would have no man know' His Presence in that place, 'but He could not be hid.'
Manifestly, this could not apply to the rest of one night in a house. According
to the same Evangelist, the fame of His Presence spread into the neighbouring
district of Tyre and Sidon, and reached the mother of the demonised child, upon
which she went from her home into Galilee to apply for help to Jesus. All this
implies a stay of two or three days. And with this also agrees the
after-complaint of the disciples: 'Send her away, for she crieth after us.'5
As the Saviour apparently received the woman in the house,6
it seems that she must have followed some of the disciples, entreating their
help or intercession in a manner that attracted the attention which, according
to the will of Jesus, they would fain have avoided, before, in her despair, she
ventured into the Presence of Christ within the house.
4. Or, the Passover-eve may have been Monday evening.
5. St. Matt. xv. 23.
6. St. Mark vii. 24, 25.
All this resolves into a higher harmony those small seeming
discrepancies, which negative criticism had tried to magnify into
contradictions. It also adds graphic details to the story. She who now sought
His help was, as St. Matthew calls her, from the Jewish standpoint, 'a
woman,' by which term a Jew would designate a native of Phoenicia, or, as St.
Mark calls her, a Syro-Phoenician (to distinguish her country from
Lybo-Phœnicia), and 'a Greek' - that is, a heathen. But, we can understand how
she who, as Bengel says, made the misery of her little child her own,
would, on hearing of the Christ and His mighty deed, seek His help with the
most intense earnestness, and that, in so doing, she would approach Him with
lowliest reverence, falling at His Feet.8
But what in the circumstances seems so peculiar, and, in our view, furnishes
the explanation of the Lord's bearing towards this woman, is her mode of
addressing Him: 'O Lord, Thou Son of David!' This was the most distinctively
Jewish appellation of the Messiah; and yet it is emphatically stated of her,
that she was a heathen. Tradition has preserved a few reported sayings of
Christ, of which that about to be quoted seems, at least, quite Christ-like. It
is reported that, 'having seen a man working on the Sabbath, He said: "O man,
if indeed thou knowest what thou doest, thou are blessed; but if thou knowest
not, thou are cursed, and art a transgressor of the Law."'9
The same principle applied to the address of this woman - only that, in what
followed, Christ imparted to her the knowledge needful to make her blessed.
7. Ezra ix. 1.
8. St. Mark vii. 25.
9. Comp. Cannon Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, Appendix C.
Spoken by a heathen, these words were an appeal, not to the
Messiah of Israel, but to an Israelitish Messiah - for David had never reigned
over her or her people. The title might be most rightfully used, if the
promises to David were fully and spiritually apprehended - not otherwise. If
used without that knowledge, it was an address by a stranger to a Jewish
Messiah, Whose works were only miracles, and not also and primarily signs. Now
this was exactly the error of the Jews which Jesus had encountered and
combated, alike when He resisted the attempt to make Him King, in His reply to
the Jerusalem Scribes, and in His Discourses at Capernaum. To have granted her
the help she so entreated, would have been, as it were, to reverse the whole of
His Teaching, and to make His works of healing merely works of power. For, it
will not be contended that this heathen woman had full spiritual knowledge of the
world-wide bearing of the Davidic promises, or of the world embracing
designation of the Messiah as the Son of David. In her mouth, then, it meant
something to which Christ could not have yielded. And yet He could not refuse
her petition. And so He first taught her, in such manner as she could
understand - that which she needed to know, before she could approach Him in
such manner - the relation of the heathen to the Jewish world, and of both to
the Messiah, and then He gave her what she asked.
It is this, we feel convinced, which explains all. It could not
have been, that from His human standpoint He first kept silence, His deep
tenderness and sympathy forbidding Him to speak, while the normal limitation of
His Mission forbade Him to act as she sought.10 Such limitations could not have existed
in His mind; nor can we suppose such an utter separation of His Human from His
Divine consciousness in His Messianic acting. And we recoil from the opposite
explanation, which supposes Christ to have either tried the faith of the woman,
or else spoken with a view to drawing it out. We shrink from the idea of
anything like an after-thought, even for a good purpose, on the part of the
Divine Saviour. All such afterthoughts are, to our thinking, incompatible with
His Divine Purity and absolute rectitude. God does not make us good by a device
- and that is a very wrong view of trials, or of delayed answers to prayer,
which men sometimes take. Nor can we imagine, that the Lord would have made
such cruel trial of the poor agonised woman, or played on her feelings, when
the issue would have been so unspeakable terrible, if in her weakness she had
failed. There is nothing analogous in the case of this poor heathen coming to
petition, and being tried by being told that she could not be heard, because
she belonged to the dogs, not the children, and the trial of Abraham, who was a
hero of faith, and had long walked with God. In any case, on any of the views
just combated, the Words of Jesus would bear a needless and inconceivable harshness,
which grates on all our feelings concerning Him. The Lord does not afflict
willingly, nor try needlessly, nor disguise His loving thoughts and purposes,
in order to bring about some effect in us. He needs not such means; and, with
reverence be it said, we cannot believe that He ever uses them.
10. This view is advocated by Dean Plumptre with remarkable beauty, tenderness, and reverence. It is also that of Meyer and of Ewald. The latter
remarks, that our Lord showed twofold greatness: First, in his calm limitation to His special mission, and then in His equally calm overstepping of it, when a
higher ground for so doing appeared.
But, viewed as the teaching of Christ to this heathen
concerning Israel's Messiah, all becomes clear, even in the very brief reports
of the Evangelists, of which that by St. Matthew reads like that of one present,
that of St. Mark rather like that of one who relates what he has heard from
another (St. Peter). She had spoken, but Jesus had answered her not a word.
When the disciples - in some measure, probably, still sharing the views of this
heathen, that he was the Jewish Messiah - without, indeed, interceding for her,
asked that she might be sent away, because she was troublesome to them, He
replied, that His Mission was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
This was absolutely true, as regarded His Work while upon earth; and true, in
every sense, as we keep in view the world-wide bearing of the Davidic reign and
promises, and the real relation between Israel and the world. Thus baffled, as
it might seem, she cried no longer 'Son of David,' but, 'Lord, help me.' It was
then that the special teaching came in the manner she could understand. If it
were as 'the Son of David' that He was entreated - if the heathen woman as such
applied to the Jewish Messiah as such, what, in the Jewish view, were the heathens
but 'dogs,' and what would be fellowship with them, but to cast to the dogs -
it may be - what should have been the children's bread? And, certainly, no
expression more common in the mouth of the Jews, than that which designated the
heathens as dogs.1213
Most harsh as it was, as the outcome of national pride and Jewish
self-assertion, yet in a sense it was true, that those within were the
children, and those 'without' 'dogs.'14
Only, who were they within and who they without? What made 'a child,' whose was
the bread - and what characterised 'the dog,' that was 'without'?
11. The term means 'little dogs,' or 'house - dogs.'
12. Midr. on Ps. iv. 8; Meg. 7 b.
13. Many passages might be quoted either similar, or based on this view of Gentiles.
14. Rev. xxii. 15.
Two lessons did she learn with that instinct-like rapidity
which Christ's personal Presence - and it alone - seemed ever and again to call
forth, just as the fire which fell from heaven consumed the sacrifice of
Elijah. 'Yea, Lord,' it is as Thou sayest: heathenism stands related to Judaism
as the house-dogs to the children, and it were not meet to rob the children of
their bread in order to give it to dogs. But Thine own words show, that such
would not now be the case. If they are house-dogs, then they are the Master's,
and under His table, and when He breaks the bread to the children, in the
breaking of it the crumbs must fall all around. As St. Matthew puts it: 'The
dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their Master's table;' as St. Mark puts
it: 'The dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.' Both versions
present different aspects of the same truth. Heathenism may be like the dogs,
when compared with the children's place and privileges; but He is their Master
still, and they under His table; and when He breaks the bread there is enough
and to spare for them - even under the table they eat of the children's crumbs.
But in so saying she was no longer 'under the table,' but had
sat down at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and was partaker of the
children's bread. He was no longer to her the Jewish Messiah, but truly 'the
Son of David.' She now understood what she prayed, and she was a
daughter of Abraham. And what had taught her all this was faith in His Person
and Work, as not only just enough for the Jews, but enough and to spare for all
- children at the table and dogs under it; that in and with Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob, and David, all nations were blessed in Israel's King and Messiah. And so
it was, that the Lord said it: 'O woman, great is thy faith: be it done unto
thee even as thou wilt.' Or, as St. Mark puts it, not quoting the very sound of
the Lord's words, but their impression upon Peter: 'For this saying go thy way;
the devil is gone out of thy daughter.'15
'And her daughter was healed from that hour.'16
'And she went away unto her house, and found her daughter prostrate [indeed]
upon the bed, and [but] the demon gone out.'
15. Canon Cook (Speaker's Comm. on St. Mark vii. 26) regards this 'as one of the very few instances in which our Lord's words really differ in the two accounts.' With all deference, I venture to think it is not so, but that St. Mark gives what St. Peter had received as the impression of Christ's words on his mind.
16. St. Matt. xv. 28.
To us there is in this history even more than the solemn
interest of Christ's compassion and mighty Messianic working, or the lessons of
His teaching. We view it in connection with the scenes of the previous few
days, and see how thoroughly it accords with them in spirit, thus recognising
the deep internal unity of Christ's Words and Works, where least, perhaps, we
might have looked for such harmony. And again we view it in its deeper bearing
upon, and lessons to, all times. To how many, not only of all nations and
conditions, but in all states of heart and mind, nay, in the very lowest depths
of conscious guilt and alienation from God, must this have brought unspeakable
comfort, the comfort of truth, and the comfort of His Teaching. Be it so, an
outcast, 'dog;' not at the table, but under the table. Still we are at His
Feet; it is our Master's Table; He is our Master; and, as He breaks the
children's bread, it is of necessity that 'the children's crumbs' fall to us,
enough, quite enough, and to spare. Never can we be outside His reach, nor of
that of His gracious care, and of sufficient provision to eternal life.
Yet this lesson also must we learn, that as 'heathens' we may
not call on Him as 'David's Son,' till we know why we so call Him. If there can
be no despair, no being cast out by Him, no absolute distance that hopelessly
separates from His Person and Provision, there must be no presumption, no
forgetfulness of the right relation, no expectancy of magic-miracles, no
viewing of Christ as a Jewish Messiah. We must learn it, and painfully, first
by His silence, then by this, that He is only sent to the lost sheep of the
house of Israel, what we are and where we are - that we may be prepared for the
grace of God and the gift of grace. All men - Jews and Gentiles, 'children' and
'dogs' - are as before Christ and God equally undeserving and equally sinners,
but those who have fallen deep can only learn that they are sinners by learning
that they are great sinners, and will only taste of the children's bread when
they have felt, 'Yea, Lord,' 'for even the dogs' 'under the table eat of the
children's crumbs,' 'which fall from their Master's table.'