For whatever reason – to escape the meddling harassment of King Herod and the Pharisees or to find time to be with his disciples alone (cf. 9:31) – the Lord left Galilee and walked through what are now parts of Lebanon and Syria. He was, we read in v. 24, looking for some peace and quiet. He found himself among Gentiles as a result. It appears that, though he did perform some miracles on behalf of Gentiles, he did not preach and teach among them. His ministry, as he himself said, was to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel, but, anticipating the later ministry of his apostles to the Gentile world after his ascension, the Lord did not scruple to walk among them and reveal himself to them. And Mark makes a point of showing us that these Gentiles responded in faith to Jesus. The official church repudiated him; the people the Jews thought unclean received him gladly.
Tyre had a long history of antagonism toward Israel. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the inhabitants of Tyre were “notoriously our bitterest enemies.” [Ag. Ap. 1.13] One thing the Jews very much did not expect was that the Messiah, when he came, would associate with the pagans of Tyre and Sidon and bless them.
But even in pagan Tyre he could not keep his presence a secret. His reputation had preceded him.
Of all people who approach Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, this woman had the most against her from a Jewish perspective: a woman, a Greek Gentile, from infamously pagan Tyre. [Edwards, 218] But she had what others had, a great need, and she had the faith to bring that need to Jesus. Any reader of the Bible immediately recognizes the similarity between this woman and another woman from Syro-Phoenicia, the widow of Zarephath whom Elijah helped, also by healing her child. [1 Kgs. 17:9-10]
The Lord’s reply to this desperate woman seems to be nothing short of an insult, calling her a dog, as Jews often called Gentiles. It was precisely the sort of language a Gentile might expect from a Jew, but it jars us to hear it on Jesus’ lips. Now, there are considerations that may mitigate the insult. We don’t know, for example, in what tone of voice the Lord’s remark was made. What is more the “First…” with which the sentence begins indicates that he did expect that the blessings of his reign would eventually come to Gentiles such as herself. Nevertheless, they stood at the end of the line. There is no getting round the fact, however, that he put the woman off and did so in a way that compared her unfavorably with Jews. He clearly did not encourage the woman to expect any help.
This seemingly rude reply to this heart-broken and desperate woman has often unsettled readers of the Bible. “This was a time when Jesus was not a Christian,” observed George Bernard Shaw. To which John Gerstner replied in his raspy voice: “Jesus wasn’t a Christian, he makes people Christians!” And, as we will see, that is the idea!
We have already encountered in the Gospel the use of bread to describe the blessings of the Messiah’s reign and have already heard that the Lord’s disciples did not understand about the loaves. This woman, we will find, understood more than the Twelve did!
This plucky, witty woman, in a most amazing way, accepts Israel’s privilege. She even accepts the epithet “dogs,” but then shrewdly reminds the Lord that even the dogs must have their day. [France, 299] If she may only have the crumbs, she believes his crumbs will be enough. “Indeed, she seems to understand the purpose of Israel’s Messiah better than Israel does.” [Edwards, 221] Matthew’s account of this same incident is more explicit: “Woman,” Jesus said to her, “You have great faith.” Mark simply shows her great faith. Matthew says that she actually addressed the Lord as “Lord, Son of David.” She had some understanding of who he was and what he was. She greeted him as the Messiah, again what the Jews in their unbelief did not know to do, religious as they were.
We have noted already that the Gospel of Mark is concerned with the very two things that the rest of the New Testament is concerned with: the revelation of Jesus Christ and the proper response of the human heart to that revelation. Mark is concerned that we know who Jesus is and what he has done and that we understand what it means to believe in him and follow him. And Jesus, of course, was concerned with the very same things. He was after faith in those who came to him, living faith in the Son of God, faith that saw salvation in him and so refused to let him go.
I know that many of you parents have done as I did when my children were little. I often found myself in contests with them whether playing red light/green light in the car or having a wrestling match on the living room floor. The wrestling matches would often determine whether they got a shorter or longer story before bed. Now you fathers know how it is in such cases. I almost always lost! Oh, sometimes I would win; when, for example, I promised them that if I should lose they would never have to go to bed on time for the rest of their lives or they could have ice cream or candy whenever they wanted it. But usually I would put on a show and make it close before finally being beaten. I wanted them to win. I wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to taste the satisfaction of working hard and gaining the victory as a result. I never felt at all discouraged by my record of nearly universal failure in contests with my children. I intended to lose; I wanted them to win. I suspect they knew virtually from the beginning that I was letting them win but that didn’t diminish their fun in winning.
It is something very like this that we have before us in this memorable incident in the Gospel. The Lord enters into a kind of contest with this woman. He tries her, quite severely as a matter of fact, but happily acknowledges her faith in the end and gives her, wonderfully, what she was so desperate to have. He functions in this short conversation with this Syro-Phoenician woman as something like a devil’s advocate and it is perfectly plain that he wanted her to defeat him and was delighted when she did. [France, 296]
She is in her persistence, her refusal to take “No” for an answer, her humility, and her determination to have the blessing of God, very much a mirror of Jacob at Peniel. You remember that incident recorded for us in the second half of Genesis 32. Jacob was also in need. He had to face his brother Esau the next day, a man he assumed would be waiting for him with murderous intent. He feared for the life of his wives and children and for his own life, just as this woman feared for the life of her daughter. And that night the Lord appeared to Jacob as a man and wrestled with him through the night. This too was a kind of contrivance on the Lord’s part, wrestling with a man he could have destroyed with a mere look. The Lord was wrestling with Jacob in something like the same way I wrestled with my children on the living room floor though, to be sure, it was a much more serious moment with much more serious implications than a story at bedtime. When the man realized that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched his hip so that it was wrenched in its socket. As the day was breaking the man tried to get free but Jacob wouldn’t let him go: “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he said. The man then asked Jacob for his name. “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he replied, “but Israel, because you have struggled with God…and have overcome.” Israel, you know, means “he struggles with God.” You know how important the name “Israel” is throughout the Bible. We today here gathered for worship are, the Scripture says, the Israel of God. It will be the names of the 12 tribes of Israel that will grace the twelve gates of the City of God at the end of history. It is there, in Genesis 32 and its record of Jacob’s struggle with the Lord, that the name “Israel” is born.
In other words, that dramatic incident in the life of Jacob was a great picture of true and living faith. The very name Israel would forever remind the people of God that they were people who were to take God’s word, his promise, his covenant, his gospel so seriously that they would struggle with God rather than let any part of it slip from their hands. It is not too much to say that Jacob struggling with God and refusing to let him go is the Old Testament’s quintessential depiction of true and living faith. Faith, in such a picture, is not a bloodless, flaccid, distracted, half-hearted acceptance of certain propositions about God and salvation. It is a driven, determined, unyielding grip upon the Lord himself, animated by the fear of what must be if he will not bless, will not save, will not accept, and will not forgive. We see faith to be such throughout the Bible but Jacob at Peniel is one of faith’s most memorable portraits. And so it has always been taken to be. Charles Wesley’s account of faith in Jesus is built upon it.
In vain thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold;
Art thou the man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold,
Wrestling, I will not let thee go,
Till I thy name, thy nature know.
Well, this Syro-Phoenician woman was a female Jacob. She fulfilled Israel’s vocation – she wrestled with God and would not let him go – when Israel would not. For this woman, Jesus was the most important thing in her life. Everything she craved, everything she needed she knew he and he alone could give her. She was in earnest and she was determined precisely because she knew Jesus could act on her behalf. She let nothing stand in the way, even a remark of his that would have sent countless others away in a huff, too proud to accept help from a man who would call her a dog. And, as Luther puts it, “She took Christ at his own words. He then treated her not as a dog but as a child of Israel.” She contended with the Lord and she overcame him, happy as he was to be overcome by her faith.
In the same way that the account of Jacob’s encounter with the Lord at Peniel has long been taken and preached as a paradigm of true faith, so this encounter between the Lord and the Syro-Phoenician woman. One of the greatest works ever published on the life of faith in Jesus Christ is Samuel Rutherford’s The Trial and Triumph of Faith and that work is nothing else but a lengthy interpretation of this conversation between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman.
We have said that Mark is interested in showing his readers, Gentiles living in the middle of the first century, what it means to believe in and follow Jesus. Accounts like this one were very important to his purpose. Here was a Gentile woman and what faith she had! Mark clearly wanted all his readers, mostly Gentiles themselves, to imitate her in her holding onto Jesus.
And what is her faith but a conviction so certain that Jesus was the answer to her need that she would not be put off. Jesus mentioned dogs. You know greyhounds hunt by sight. They have to see the rabbit. If they lose sight of their prey, they stop chasing it. But not the hound. He won’t stop so long as he can catch the slightest whiff of his prey. Over hedges, through ditches, crossing streams, he pursues all day long and won’t give up. This woman was like that, refusing to give up. She had caught a whiff of God’s presence, love, and power in Jesus of Nazareth and she kept after him even when first rebuffed and given no encouragement. There was nothing in this woman of John Bunyan’s Mr. Badman, whose “religion hangs by in his house as his cloak does, and he seldom in it except he be abroad.” This woman was dominated by her faith, it humbled her in a way most people would never have consented to be humbled, it was so strong a principle in her heart that it led her into argument with the Son of God himself! She wouldn’t back down until he had relented. She wouldn’t let go until she had the blessing she had come to him for.
So many, even in the church, are not like this. They just can’t get over that the Lord called them dogs. How dare he! And now that is all they can think of. The fact that he has the power of God at his disposal, the fact that he alone can give them what they need so desperately and that he is willing to give it to them, all of that is forgotten in what they take to have been an insult. He put an impediment in their way and it stopped them cold. Not so this woman. As Rutherford says of this woman in his great work, the fact that she was not among the children did not put her off, “knowing that the very refuse of Christ is more excellent than ten worlds.” 
There are people aplenty who will ask the Lord for this or that and be happy enough if he should give it to them, but he had better not say anything bad about them or they will get into a snit and have no more to do with him. Dogs they are, for all of their sin and their unworthiness. Dog is a compliment to human beings in their rebellion against God, but let anyone call them dogs and they are immediately up in arms. “I’ll take his help,” they say, “but I’ll not grovel; no one can make me beg.” But not this woman. “Let me be a dog,” she said. “I’ll accept that I am; but even a dog has his day.” And for that humble spirit that would not be put off the Son of God gave her the life of her daughter and, no doubt, entrance into eternal life for the both of them. Pride didn’t stop her; the Lord’s apparent disinterest didn’t stop her. She filled her mouth with arguments and pressed her case. Is this not faith, true faith. A refusal to let the Lord go until he gives his blessing.
Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century London preacher, in a sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1871, told of a time in his life when he was like this Syro-Phoenician woman, wrestling with him in prayer and prevailing upon him.
“I have found it a blessed thing, in my own experience, to plead before God that I am His child. When, some months ago, I was racked with pain to an extreme degree, so that I could no longer bear it without crying out, I asked all to go from the room, and leave me alone; and then I had nothing I could say to God but this, “Thou art my Father, and I am thy child; and Thou, as a father, art tender and full of mercy. I could not bear to see my child suffer as thou makest me suffer; and if I saw him tormented as I am now, I would do what I could to help him and put my arms under him to sustain him. Wilt Thou hide Thy face from me, my Father? Wilt Thou still lay on me Thy heavy hand, and not give me a smile from Thy countenance?” I talked to the Lord as Luther would have done, and pleaded his Fatherhood in real earnest. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” If He be a father, let him show himself a father – so I pleaded; and I ventured to say, when they came back who watched me, “I shall never have such agony again from this moment, for God has heard my prayer.” I bless God that ease came, and the racking pain never returned. Faith mastered it by laying hold upon God in His own revealed character – that character in which, in our darkest hour, we are best able to appreciate him…
“This experience made so deep an impression upon Spurgeon’s mind and heart that he never forgot it. Those familiar with his writings know how often he referred to it, and how often he urged others tried believers to do as he had done.” [Autobiography, ii, “The Full Harvest,” 197]
It is interesting to me that the Bible shows us this true faith in action, more than it explains it to us. Incidents like these present us with a faith so beautiful and so arresting, so clear and convincing; we know just what it would be for us to do as they did. Whether Jacob wrestling with the Lord at Peniel or this woman pleading her case and refusing to take no for an answer, each of us can apply the lesson to a thousand different situations in our own lives. And each of us is called to do just that. Mark isn’t just telling us an interesting story; he is explaining to us what it means to believe in Jesus, especially in times of crisis; how that is done, and what such faith accomplishes. For Jesus is as surely with us – the very same Son of David that met this woman that day – he is with us today and every day. But are we laying hold of him, getting a grip and refusing to let go, as she did?
Taking the Bible’s teaching together – all that it says about the Lord’s involvement in the life of his people – each one of our lives is as fully supernatural, full of divine encounters, as if it were a page out of the Old Testament. But we are often unaware. Our days and nights pass with too little thought that God is near us, that he stands ready to engage us, that we can turn to him just as this woman did and can prevail upon him just as she did.
Like so many other incidents in Holy Scripture what we find here is a person in her individuality before the Lord: person to person. Surprisingly in our highly individualistic day, we are perhaps more often lost in the crowd and find ourselves genuinely alone less often than any previous generation of people. I was reminded of this on a recent trip. Try as you might, you cannot find solitude in an airport. Even if you are sitting by yourself; the television continues to fill the air with the sounds of others. It is as if we believe that no one ever really wishes to be alone, perhaps especially alone with God. And for believers this noisy world in which we live makes it even more difficult for us to find ourselves entirely isolated with the Lord himself, to speak with him face to face, conscious of our individuality before him. We get lost in our family, in our busy working environment, others around us all the time; we are absorbed by the people we watch on television; we listen to music when we are not doing something else, and now can carry that music with us wherever we go at any time of the day or night, and, perhaps especially, we lose ourselves in the hectic routine of daily life. We are comfortable in the crowd, and in the routine. The thought that I am and so may be by myself, alone before the Lord God, just he and myself, that there is suddenly this possibility of an encounter between him and myself: that realization comes upon us far too rarely and too weakly.
This woman was not alone with Jesus in a physical sense. The disciples were there; perhaps their hosts, whomever it was that extended the hospitality of that home to Jesus and his disciples. But that conversation took place as if there were no one else present. Jesus and this woman, the two of them, eye to eye and heart to heart, two luminously self-evident beings, and two only. And it is in that isolation, that moment when a man or woman realizes that he or she has the attention, the sole attention of the Son of God, that true faith finds its opportunity.
Those opportunities occur every day of our lives, but rarely do we really grasp them. It is often, certainly the Bible suggests this, it is often only in times of great need, great fear, or great distress that we are likely to seize the opportunity to lay hold of Christ and then refuse to let him go until he has blessed us, filling our mouths with arguments, pressing our case, demanding to be heard. Some of you know very well what it was like when you first met the Lord, the terrible and wonderful impression you had that you were face to face with the living God and speaking to him. And many of you can think of other times in your life when you pleaded with the Lord as this woman did or wrestled with him as Jacob did. Yo
u couldn’t see the Lord as this woman did, standing in front of him as she was; you couldn’t hear his voice as she did. But you were in no doubt that he was before you and you were engaged with him as surely as she was and with the same purpose. By some means the Lord had isolated you with him and brought you to speak to him as this woman did.
This woman is set before us as an example to emulate: Mark set her before his readers precisely because he wanted them to believe as she did, to come to Christ with the same determination with which she came to him, to wrestle with him as she did, and to prevail as she did.
Imagine that woman’s happy life from this point onward. If she never got another remarkable blessing again in all her days in this world, she had her daughter back from under the cruel yoke of the Devil, and she had spoken with the Son of God and had prevailed upon him. How do you suppose she prayed for the rest of her life? With what confidence? How do you think she reckoned with the unseen world? With what expectation of things to come do you imagine that she died when it came time for her to leave this world? She had spoken with the Son of God and had prevailed upon him.
Mark is telling us, by reporting this incident as he does, that faith is taking Christ to be so real, so present, so able to help, and so willing that it lays hold of him and refuses to be denied. It pleads, it won’t take “no” for an answer, and it prevails.
Mark knew that everyone of his readers would always have something that was equivalent to this dear woman’s plight, something like her daughter possessed by a demon. What that is for you I cannot say, but the entire Bible makes it clear that there is in every life enough to bring us in great need to fall at Christ’s feet and to beg help from him. You have the need; of that there can be no question. The question is whether you will lay hold of Christ and wrestle with him with the same confidence, the same determination, the same humility with which this woman did who prevailed in the most amazing and wonderful way.
“Woman, you have great faith,” Jesus said to her. So Matthew tells us. Well, we can see that without having to be told. This woman had the sort of faith we all wish we had. Would that we prevailed with Christ as she did. But Mark would not have placed this in his Gospel if he did not want us to take encouragement from this woman’s example, to see ourselves in the same situation, and to determine to do as she did. It is so easy to live our lives day by day actually believing God for very little. Christianity becomes merely a system of beliefs, a way of life. But what a pale shadow of the Christian life results. It is ours to believe him, to do so personally, and then laying hold of him, refuse to let go. Let him then show us what faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed, what faith can accomplish in this world. This woman had no qualifications but her faith, and her faith moved a mountain. And Jesus said ours would too! He wants you to wrestle with him and he wants you to prevail.
“Peace and mercy…to the Israel of God,” Paul would later write to a largely Gentile congregation. Peace and mercy that is to those who wrestle with God and prevail!