Jesus—His Life and Message: Healing from a Distance (Part 2)

December 5, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

When Jesus healed the centurion’s servant,1 He not only performed a miracle from a distance, He also healed a foreigner—a rare thing in His ministry, which was for the most part confined to the Jewish people within Israel. His second healing from a distance also involved a foreigner, this time the daughter of a wise mother. There are similarities in both these events: the request for help didn’t come from the sick person, but from someone close to them who was concerned about their well-being; and those bringing their requests to Jesus were Gentiles (non-Jews). Significantly, in both accounts the faith of the Gentile involved was highly commended—more so than is recorded with any Jewish person in the Gospels. While both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell of this event, the focus here will be on Matthew’s account.

Jesus … withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”2

Just prior to this account, Jesus had a confrontation with some scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. After this, and perhaps because of it, He left Jewish territory and entered the Syrian territory of Tyre and Sidon. These two coastal cities controlled large areas of land, thus the area is described as the “district” of Tyre and Sidon. As the area was outside of Israel, a Gentile territory, Jesus knew that by going there He could get away from the Jewish opposition He had been encountering.

In Mark’s account, the reason for Jesus going outside of Israel seems to be His desire to have some time alone with His disciples. This is understandable, as we’re told 38 times within the Gospels about the crowds He ministered to and healed that were constantly following Him.

He arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.3

Word of His teachings and miracles had spread north, and a local woman approached Him, pleading for the healing of her daughter. In Mark she’s called a Syrophoenician,4 which would most likely refer to someone from the region of Tyre and Sidon, the coastal area of Syria near Israel (Lebanon today). In Matthew she’s called a Canaanite woman, which was an outdated term.5 Matthew may have used this ancient description to refer to this woman because the Canaanites were the traditional enemies of Israel throughout the Old Testament. They were the people the ancient Israelites drove out of the Promised Land, whose idolatrous religion continuously threatened the religious purity of Israel.6 He probably used this term to make the point that Jesus was willing to help Gentiles, even those who were, or had been, considered enemies of Israel.

Though Jesus hadn’t traveled to the area of Tyre and Sidon before, people from there were among the crowds who listened to and were healed by Him.

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.7

The Syrophoenician woman had apparently heard about Jesus, even though she was a Gentile living in a non-Jewish territory, and seems to have had some understanding of Judaism, as seen in her referring to Jesus as “Son of David.” We’re told that she was “crying” for mercy. The Greek word used for crying means to cry out or shout, and the form of the verb means that she was shouting out continually. She sought out Jesus and beseeched Him to heal her daughter, who was severely oppressed by a demon. But he did not answer her a word.8 Jesus’ initial response was consistent with how any Jewish teacher would have responded to a request from a foreigner.

His disciples were annoyed with her constant shouting and wanted Jesus to send her away.

His disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”

Most likely they could have told her to leave themselves, but the inference is that they were asking Jesus to grant her request. The Greek word used for “send her away” conveys the meaning of “sending her away satisfied.”

In response to the disciples’ request, Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”9 Jesus pointed out that the mission He was sent on was to Israel, and not to other nations and nationalities. He also made this point earlier in Matthew’s Gospel:

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.10

This woman’s request went outside the parameters of Jesus’ mission. The reason for Jesus going outside of Israel was likely to have time away, not to preach or do miracles. Author Leon Morris explains:

While Jesus came to make that atonement for sin which would mean salvation for people in any place throughout this whole wide world, he did not come to engage in a worldwide mission of healing or the like. His earthly mission was to the Israelites.11

While Jesus didn’t respond to the woman, neither did He send her away, which perhaps encouraged her to approach Him.

She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

In Mark’s Gospel it says she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.12

Jesus’ response was:

“It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.”13

In Mark, He responds with “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.”14 This response was certainly not complimentary. Dogs were unclean animals which most Jews didn’t keep as pets, though pet dogs would have been present in non-Jewish households. One author describes Jesus’ statement as a metaphor which in any culture would be demeaning to those depicted as dogs over against children, but which in that context also carried the force of Jewish invective which could use “dog” as a deliberately offensive term for Gentiles.15

The woman wasn’t put off by Jesus’ response, but cleverly retorted with:

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.16 

Jesus was clearly pleased with the woman’s response, so much so that He granted her desire and healed her daughter.

Now that we know the final outcome, let’s look back at the way Jesus addressed the woman earlier and why. To that end, it helps to look at the account of this story in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s account, Jesus said, Let the children be fed first.17 He wasn’t saying that the dogs should never be fed, but that the children were to be fed first; that it wasn’t right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs until after the children had eaten. Jesus was making the point that the Jews were to be offered salvation first, before the Gentiles. Jesus’ earthly ministry focused on Israel, and through that ministry, and His sacrificial death for all of humanity, the Gentiles of this world could also receive salvation.

The apostle Paul addresses the same point in the Epistle to the Romans:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.18

In the book of Acts, we read what Paul said to the unbelieving Jews:

“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.”19

Jesus’ initial response to the woman wasn’t a refusal; it was an explanation of priorities. It wasn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs because there was a temporal priority in the order of salvation. His ministry was first to the Jews, and after His death and resurrection, the Gentile world would receive the message of salvation.

This woman accepted what He said, because she knew she wasn’t part of Israel and therefore she had no claim on Israel’s blessing. She demonstrated her faith by acknowledging Israel came first in God’s plan of salvation, that they had a privileged place, and that as a Gentile she wasn’t trying to take their place, but was simply asking if she could at least have some of the “crumbs that fall from the table.” Like with the Gentile centurion, Jesus was highly impressed by this non-Jewish woman’s great faith, and because of that faith, He healed her daughter.

Jesus limited His ministry (with a few exceptions) to the Jewish people during His lifetime. However, He clearly envisioned other nationalities coming to the kingdom.

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” 20

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.21

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.22 

While His main ministry was to the Jewish people, Jesus was willing to step outside of the social and religious norms of His day to minister to Gentiles. Before His ascension into heaven, He instructed His disciples to “proclaim the gospel” to everyone. His particular calling was to minister to the Jews, but by His example and through the instructions He gave His disciples He made clear that salvation was available to all who would believe. When we read of Jesus’ willingness to help others who were ethnically, racially, socially, and religiously different from Him, we better understand our call to preach the gospel to those who we find different from ourselves. We are to remember that God looks beyond outward appearance and sees the heart, and following Jesus’ example, we are called to do the same.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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2 Matthew 15:21–22.

3 Mark 7:24.

4 Mark 7:26.

5 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 592.

6 Ibid., 592.

7 Luke 6:17–18.

8 Matthew 15:23.

9 Matthew 15:24.

10 Matthew 10:5–6.

11 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 403.

12 Matthew 15:25; Mark 7:26.

13 Matthew 15:26.

14 Mark 7:27.

15 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 594.

16 Matthew 15:27–28.

17 Mark 7:27.

18 Romans 1:16.

19 Act 13:46.

20 Matthew 8:11–12.

21 John 12:32.

22 Mark 16:15.