The vicinity of Tyre was Gentile territory, where Jesus could reasonably expect to be incognito. He was on holiday! It seems he was not in the city itself, but in one of the outlying villages – and, not surprisingly, it seems that it was a place where nothing could be kept secret for long! So when one of the local women who had a daughter suffering from an ‘impure spirit’ heard about him, she determined to seize the opportunity for getting help.
Matthew 15 gives a few more details about this story. Mark contents himself with the bare bones: Jesus’ initial off-putting reply, the woman’s answer, and Jesus’ response. Yet these bare bones give us much to think about.
Why did Jesus try to put the woman off? Was it simply that he was on holiday? On another occasion, when he was tired, Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman and was refreshed through the conversation (John 4:31-34). So was it as he said to her – she was a Gentile, not one of God’s covenant people to whom Jesus had been sent? Yet Jesus was happy to minister to Samaritans and in the Decapolis which was also Gentile territory. So was there something else going on?
Often in Jesus’ ministry we find him challenging people – especially his disciples. The passage that follows this one is the story of the feeding of the four thousand, where Jesus points out to his disciples the need for food and they haven’t a clue what to do (even though they’d seen him feed five thousand). Also, the whole idea of teaching in parables was a challenge: the listeners had to listen carefully and think about what he was getting at. And at times, such as when his friend Lazarus was dying, Jesus deliberately did nothing until after he was dead. Many people imagine that whenever he saw a need or was asked to help, he would act immediately – and they wonder why he does not do so today. But this passage shows that he was not at people’s beck and call, and at times acted in ways that we find difficult to understand.
Why did Jesus respond so harshly? To imply that she was a ‘dog’ was not very loving! We are not told his motive. I suspect that here – as at other times – Jesus is deliberately putting obstacles in the way in order that they may be overcome. As difficulties are conquered, so a person’s faith and character are strengthened and/or displayed. As Paul tells us, ‘God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted (or tested – same word) beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.’ (1 Corinthians 10:13.)
The woman’s response was amazing. Whatever she felt, she replied with humility and imagination. She was not put off by Jesus’ apparent reluctance to help. She did not get onto her high horse, or give up in despair. And the result was all that she hoped for.
After his holiday Jesus went into the Decapolis, an area of strong Greek culture and opposition to Jewish ambitions. This time, dealing with the deaf man, there is no delay except to provide privacy. Jesus sensitively used words and actions which would have communicated fully what he was doing.
1) When are we tempted to give up on Jesus? What keeps us going?
2) What do we learn here about Jesus?