Skip to content

Women in the World of Jesus: Two Distraught Mothers

March 4, 2007

Matthew 15:21-28; Luke 7:11-17

As I was preparing for this series, Women in the World of Jesus, it seemed to me wise to put the stories of two mothers together. Thursday night as I was working on this sermon, however, I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Each passage deserves a sermon in and of itself. Each woman experiences great distress, a feeling familiar to mothers. I want us to look at each story in turn, and then I would like us to put the passages side-by-side and see what we can glean from God’s Word as revealed in the lives of these two women.

Matthew’s gospel records a trip Jesus makes to Sidon and Tyre, two of the five major Philistine cities in the land of the Phoenicians. The account is unusual because this is the only time Matthew records Jesus traveling outside of the territory of the Jews. We know this land best as the land of the Philistines, traditional enemies of the Jewish people. Jesus goes into this part of the land of Palestine and encounters a woman Mark calls a Syrophonecian. He uses the word saying that she was Greek, which is probably a general term for a Gentile. Matthew calls her a Canaanite. It does not matter if the writer calls the woman a Syrophonecian, a Greek, or a Canaanite. In any case, she is not Jewish.

Years ago as a young boy, I waited on a man who came into the lumberyard, taking his order and loading his truck. When he left, another customer in the lumberyard asked, “Did you help that Yankee get what he wanted?” I answered, “He was not a Yankee. He was from Virginia.” The fellow answered, “All I know is he ain’t from around here!”

When I read this account in Matthew, I just shake my head because I do not understand many parts of this story. First, the conversation seems startling. This woman has heard about Jesus. She has heard that he is the Jewish Messiah, and she knows of his miracles of healing. Almost anyone who has ever been a parent understands the desperation, distress, and apprehension of this mother. She needs a miracle for her daughter, described as being demon-possessed. We honestly do not know every condition that term could refer to in biblical times, but it very well could mean that the daughter had epilepsy. We do know that those living in the first century referred to epilepsy as demon possession. Jesus is here at hand in her territory, and she begs him, “Something is wrong with my child. Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” What a remarkable comment for a Canaanite woman to make! “The Son of David” is a Jewish term. Jesus might have responded, “Daughter of Goliath…” or “Daughter of Delilah…” Knowing Jesus as “Son of David” was improbable; but three times in this story, she repeats, “Lord…Lord…Lord.” “Lord” is a term only believers in Matthew’s gospel used.

Second, Jesus initially seems to ignore this mother, a reaction I do expect for from him. I assume Jesus will respond with overflowing compassion, but he does not. Even the disciples want nothing to do with her. They actually compel Jesus to send her away. The woman, persistent in asking for help, kneels before Jesus in the attitude of prayer and beseeches him, “Lord, my daughter…please help us.”

Jesus’ use of a crude analogy when addressing this woman surprises me. He has already told the disciples, “I have come for the lost sheep for the house of Israel. I have not come for Gentiles” (Matthew 25:24). He answers this woman, “The children of the house have to be fed first. You do not take the food to be given to the children and give it to the dogs.” Those in the Jewish culture did not allow dogs in their house. They did not have a Judean Kennel Club in Jerusalem. A Jew’s view of dogs was very different from our view. To them, dogs were not pets; they were half-wild scavengers that lived on the streets. Our language contains a similar word to refer to dogs. What an insult to this woman! Jesus, however, does soften the analogy here by using a diminutive form of the word for dog. The Canaanites did have household animals, so his reference was actually to a household pet, rather than a wild animal. Still, we do not expect this insult from Jesus. Regardless of the offensive language, the mother perseveres in requesting aid.

In 1960, I attended the National Scout Jamboree in Colorado Springs. At the end of the jamboree, I left Colorado Springs on a train a little congested. I slept during the trip as the train traveled from Colorado into Dallas, Texas, where we planned to tour the Dr. Pepper plant, with Miss Texas as our guide. When I woke up on that train, I had a horrible earache. I decided to forego my opportunity to visit the Dr. Pepper plant, get free Dr. Pepper, and see Miss Texas. I was sixteen at the time. I needed to find a doctor because my ear was throbbing with pain.

On this Saturday morning, I went into a large office building, looked at the board by the elevator, and saw a name followed by the initials M.D. I rode up several floors and went to this office but found the door locked. I knocked on it anyway, and a doctor with his shirtsleeves rolled up came to the door. He was there completing some paperwork, maybe some dictation. I asked, “Are you a doctor? I have a terrible earache and need some help.” He answered, “We are closed, but come in and let me see what I can do.” I did not care what day it was. I did not care what his office hours were. I needed immediate help.

He took me into an examining room, which looked rather strange. I asked, “What is your specialty?” and he answered, “I am an OB-GYN. It has been a long time since I looked in an ear.” I did not care what this doctor’s specialty was. I needed immediate help. He got out his scope, checked my ear, and gave me an antibiotic. By the time I arrived in Spartanburg, I felt much better.

The woman in this scripture passage needs immediate help. She says, “You may be the Jewish Messiah, but you are supposed to be the Savior of the world. I need help. You may be out of your territory and in a strange place, but my daughter has demons. I need help.” Then we see the compassion of Jesus as he responds to this woman’s faith and heals her daughter.

The truth is that we have difficulty interpreting some aspects of this story. It seems as if Jesus does not meet our expectations in this passage. I have read a number of commentaries this week, one by Sharon Ringe included in The Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Ringe says that Jesus initially responds to this mother with what seems an insulting response, one that shows his Jewish-gender bias. She implies that Jesus is a male chauvinist prejudiced against people not Jewish, and she and goes on to say this mother wins the debate by confronting the rabbi and tripping him. I do not buy that interpretation for a moment. I do not think you do either. Other commentators explain Jesus’ initial response with, “Oh, we cannot hear the tone in Jesus’ voice. If we could just hear his tone, we would hear him speaking tenderly, teasingly challenging this woman. We would see his jocular manner, his smile, his twinkling eye. The text does not allow us to see that aspect.” That interpretation is also offensive. The bottom line is that Jesus heals this daughter because of her mother’s faith.

The passage in Luke’s gospel includes the remarkable story about the widow of Nain, a word that means “beautiful.” The story is beautiful. Jesus comes into the city, sees a funeral procession, and realizes that a widow’s only son has died. We do not know the age of the son, but recall just for a moment some of the facts we learned last week. A woman without a husband cannot own property. She has no rights. If she has an adult son, he becomes her provider. Otherwise, the system of levirate marriage determines her fate. Because this woman’s one son has died, her source of provision and hope is gone.

Jesus’ reaction in this story contrasts with his reaction in the previous story. The mother’s anguish, not any pleas, moves Jesus to compassion. He touches the coffin and tells the mother, “Do not cry.” We see the miraculous resurrection of the dead son. Interestingly enough, Nain is in that very part of the country where Elijah and Elisha lived and worked. The story follows closely the account of how Elijah and Elisha participated in the resuscitations, the resurrections of young men, also only sons of widowed mothers in that region. This parallel in Luke’s gospel does not seem to be a coincidence at all. We see the point of this story in the response of the people who witness the miracle: “A great prophet has come among us, and God has showed his favor on his people.”

I saw a program recently about George Washington. One segment included a comparison of portraits made early in Washington’s life with portraits made later in his life. He did not look exactly like the same person. The contour of his face had changed. You know that he had false teeth at the end of his life. Age and gravity had done their work by that time. The changes in appearance, as evident in those portraits, also occur in the lives of people. Think about photographs of you, photographs taken in your teens or twenties and those taken recently. Do they look the same?

Let us move these stories of two women side-by-side and look at them together. Because Jewish people would not make a graven image, we have no photographs and no portraits of Jesus. The gospels, though, do give us portraits of him in words. Both gospel accounts, in the stories of these two women, make a theological point, “Don’t narrow Jesus down to a particular limiting point of view. Go beyond that.” It is a challenge to the hearers of the gospel. It is a challenge to us.

I want to remind you of a very important point when we study the four gospels. The earliest gospel, Mark, was written about thirty-five years after the death of Jesus, Matthew written about five years later, Luke perhaps written five years after that, and John maybe written fifteen to twenty years after Luke. The gospels, beginning with the death of Jesus and continuing through the gospel of John cover a span of about fifty years. Each gospel has its own particular point of view.

Matthew writes for the Jews. He sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and the prophets. He shows Jesus as the Christ, the Son of David. When you look at these two stories, you would expect Matthew’s story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman to be in the gospel of Luke since it is a story about Jesus’ encounter with someone who is not Jewish. As the story unfolds, you can clearly see the Jewish frame of reference. I can almost hear the Jewish men listening to Jesus and talking about dogs and crumbs from the table. I can hear them saying, “That’s right. She’s not one of us. Don’t do anything for her.” The surprising twist in the story is that the woman’s faith prompts Jesus to heal her daughter. We have here a prelude to the idea that Jesus really is the Savior of the whole world. This story is a prelude to the Great Commission presented in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go in and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Luke’s point of view, on the other hand, is quite different. The only Gentile writer in the New Testament, Luke views Jesus as the Savior of the world, the Messiah for everyone, not just the Jews. We might think Luke’s story of the widow of Nain would fit better in the gospel of Matthew. It is a story of Jesus healing a woman’s son and the people declaring that a great prophet was among them. The fact that Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets seems to fit Matthew’s theme. God has shown favor on His people, the Jewish people. In his concern about presenting the gospel for the whole world, Luke says, “Don’t forget that this man, a Jew, is the Messiah. He is one in the succession of the prophets.”

Our son Scott traveled in Haiti, working with villagers. When he was ready to return home, he made his way down from the mountains and caught a cab to the airport. He rode with a Roman Catholic nun who happened to have a ticket on his same flight. They got within sight of the airport but became involved in a terrible traffic jam that slowed their attempt to reach the airport. The nun suggested that they get out of the cab and walk the rest of the way. Torrential rains had fallen recently, so, Scott, with his backpack, helped this nun, with her luggage, slog through the mud-covered road. Of course, they were late for their flight.

When Scott presented his ticket at the counter, the clerk said, “I’m sorry. The passengers have already boarded this plane. You missed your flight.” Before he could say anything, the nun stepped in front of him and told the clerk, “That is the plane that we are supposed to be on. Here are our tickets. We are getting on that plane, and we are going to the United States.” The clerk again responded, “The plane has already boarded.” The nun again told the clerk, “Open the door, and let us on the plane.” The clerk replied, “Yes, ma’am.” Once on board the plane and seated, the nun turned to Scott and said, “Sometimes, no is not an acceptable answer.”

Both of the women in the gospel accounts are in distress. Only one though takes a high level of initiative. The Canaanite woman was very persistent. Jesus is nearby. Her daughter is demon-possessed. She will not take no for an answer. She goes to Jesus and uses the word Lord three times, beseeching his help. In the second story involving a mother who never speaks, Jesus takes the initiative. Whereas the Canaanite woman knelt before him beseeching his help, this woman cried. Her tears are her prayers, as in Psalm 6: “My eyes are swollen from my weeping. My pillow was soaked with tears, but the Lord has heard my weeping. He has listened to my cry for help.” Jesus hears her cries and responds.

I have performed many funerals in my forty-one years of ministry, but I have never seen anything like this incident happen. Try to imagine this scene at Greenlawn. As pallbearers carry the casket, somebody steps out of the crowd, touches it, and speaks a few words. The lid lifts, and the deceased sits up in the coffin. The Scripture says a remarkable resurrection happened as Jesus returned this son to his mother.

Our son Erik started having seizures when he was six years old. I held him in my arms one night and counted nearly fifty seizures. When something is wrong with your child, you want immediate help. I took Erik for help. We received excellent care in Boston, Winston-Salem, and Spartanburg. Six years ago, we watched as Erik’s casket was lowered into a grave on a cold, snowy day in November. No one came out of the crowd and touched his casket. Erik did not return to us. His body was buried in Greenlawn.

Just as surely as the Lord Jesus resurrected that young man in the city of Nain, he has resurrected our son. Erik was not to be returned to us in this life, but our son has new life. The essence of Lent is the resurrection, new life. We need help. We need help in many ways, and our prayers need to be ceaseless. God will respond. God will always respond though sometimes He does not respond the way we would like. The power of the resurrection is revealed in Jesus Christ, not just in the story of the widow of Nain, not just in the story of the Syrophonecian woman, not just in the story of Lazarus, but from the cross of Calvary where love is written in red. Because he lives, we can face tomorrow and we can face today.

Every parent I know can identify with one of these two mothers, maybe both of these mothers. Every person needs the touch of the Lord Jesus in our lives. If you have never experienced that, we invite you today to accept Christ as your Savior. Allow him to come into your life and make that significant difference that only he can make. Some have other decisions to make, perhaps a decision about church membership. We invite your response as we stand and sing together a beautiful hymn, “Trusting Jesus.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: