Jesus and the Syrophoenician Mother

In my post last month, I alluded to the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician mother and said that sometimes a woman following God in faith might be asked to submit to seemingly difficult, even offensive, standards. Almost immediately after publishing that post, I started to wonder how my audience would interpret my meaning. It takes a lot of wisdom and humility to discern when an offense is an invitation from God to be received with joy, or a snare of the enemy to be rejected, or simply the product of human brokenness.
In this month’s post, I would like to give some clarity as to what I mean when I talk about the offensiveness of God. The first offense happens when God’s holiness creates friction with our sinfulness. This is an invitation to repentance. The second offense happens when God’s wisdom and innovation creates friction with our weakness and limitation. This is an invitation to faith. There are many offenses in this world that do not come from God. Sometimes God asks us to submit to offensive standards because that submission tells the truth about his character. Other times, Christians are called to speak out against these offensive standards and fight to tell the truth about God’s character. As Christians, we need to humbly employ our discernment in order to distinguish which standards truly lead to life and godliness, and which standards only produce greater burdens and, ultimately, deadliness. It is my hope that this post will help us to see more clearly the heart of God, so that we can recognize him and respond properly when he extends his invitation.
The Invitation to Repentance
We’ll start by examining the invitation to repentance. There are many examples of this offense in scripture, but I’d like to take us to Genesis 4. Here, we read the story of two brothers, each bringing an offering to God. Cain had worked the earth and brought an offering of cultivated plants, but Abel was a shepherd and brought the firstborn of his flocks. We are told that God accepted Abel’s offering, but God rejected what Cain brought. We aren’t told if God had already given a standard for what was an appropriate offering, nor are we privy to the motivations of Cain’s heart in offering what he did. What we are told is that when God rejected Cain’s offering, Cain was very angry and his face fell. And this was the invitation from God:
“Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Is this the rebuke of an angry God who expected perfection? No. No, it is much the opposite. This is the gentle reasoning of a father who desires for his son to succeed. God is rooting for Cain. God wants Cain to receive his invitation to repentance. How do we know this is the heart of God? Proverbs 3 tells us:
“My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him who he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”
God loves Cain. He gives him this reproof so that he can succeed. God doesn’t want Cain to be subject to sin. As we know from the rest of Cain’s story, this was an encouragement Cain chose not to receive. He submitted to anger and jealousy and murdered his brother. But even then, even in the midst of Cain’s alienation from his family, from the ground he worked, from the rest of humanity, God covered Cain with his protection and let him go his way.
So if you’re feeling the offensiveness of God in your life, if God’s holiness is helping you see your own sin and that feels really uncomfortable, be encouraged. God loves you and wants you to succeed. God delights in you and is inviting you to repentance. Don’t despise his reproof.
The Invitation to Faith
Next is the invitation to faith. When dealing with a God who is infinitely wise and infinitely loving, we’re bound to realize the limitations of our own understanding and goodwill. This is no accusation of wrongdoing, this is just the reality that we aren’t God. The discerning Christian will be mindful that they have these limitations and joyfully expect God to innovate past their understanding and goodwill. God is inviting us to partake in his nature in a deeper way. We see this in the life of the apostle Barnabas.
We are first introduced to Barnabas in Acts 4, where we’re told he was called “son of encouragement” and that he sold a field he owned in order to provide for the needs of the church. Already, we see that he is willing to exchange his own prosperity and security for the encouragement of others. The next time we see Barnabas, he’s the first person in Jerusalem to vouch for the sincerity of Saul’s conversion, while the rest of the brotherhood was afraid of Saul because of his former persecutions of the church. Two chapters later, we’re told that the Christians who fled persecution had made converts of  Greeks in Antioch, and the church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas to evaluate what’s happening there. Acts 11 says:
“When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith…”
Barnabas was someone who was so caught up in the grace of God that he was always ready to recognize when God was moving in an unexpected way. Even Paul could lag behind Barnabas’s understanding of God’s grace at times, as was the case in the redemption story of John Mark. Barnabas’s trust in God led him into the places others were afraid to go, and the church was immensely strengthened because of it.
A Crisis of Faith
Obviously, there is a massive gap between the responses of Cain and Barnabas to God’s discipline and innovation. Most of us would probably say we feel somewhere in-between the two. Maybe we thought we’d have less of a struggle with certain sins by now. Maybe we’re having difficulty loving certain people or moving past certain pains. Maybe we’re confounded by why God would allow certain things to happen. The dissonance between what we hear from God and what we see in our lives can put us in a position to have a crisis of faith. And I want to tell you, if you feel like you are having a crisis of faith, take heart, God is giving you an invitation.
You’re in good company. Matthew 11 tells us that when John the Baptist was thrown in prison, and when he heard about what sort of ministry Jesus had been doing, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah or not. Jesus answered:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus’s answer is clear: the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are being fulfilled, Jesus is the Messiah, and John’s work hasn’t been in vain. John was in the midst of a crisis of faith because the ministry of Jesus didn’t look how he expected it to, but Jesus opens up the Word and proves himself to be the Messiah. We might expect Jesus to be disappointed in John’s lack of faith at this point, but that’s only because we aren’t good judges of God’s character. On the contrary, Jesus speaks to the crowds around him about John, telling them that John is the greatest man who had ever been born of a woman.
This vindication of John leads Jesus to expound on the hardness of heart he has found among the Jewish people – among the people who had always had a front-row seat to the innovation of God. For centuries, God had tried to lead the Hebrew people in righteousness. He sent them judges and prophets, prosperity and adversity, all to try and invite them to repentance and faith, but they were a stiff-necked people. They recognized God’s discipline and innovation, and they rejected him. Jesus says that if all the mighty works that had been done before their eyes had been done in pagan cities like Tyre and Sidon, those cities would have repented with sackcloth and ashes.
Jesus is proven correct only four chapters later, when he visits Tyre and Sidon and encounters the Syrophoenician mother (referred to as a “Canaanite woman” in Matthew). His seemingly brusque response to her request to heal her daughter could easily have sent her away angry and brokenhearted, in short, offended. But this mother refuses to be offended by Jesus and gives a sincerely humble but boldly feisty rebuttal. Jesus praises her faith and tells her that her request will be granted. Jesus was rooting for this mother. Jesus wanted her to succeed. And succeed she did.
This woman – who had probably only known pagan worship her whole life – discerned by faith what Cain despised, what Barnabas received with joy, and what John had to wrestle with. This woman discerned God’s heart. Back in Matthew 11, Jesus tells us God’s heart plainly. He says:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will… Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Brothers and sisters, let us trust God’s heart. Let us not be offended by him.

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