The case of the Syro-Phoenician woman speaks to us on more than one level. Firstly, the woman is a pagan, a gentile, a Canaanite. Phoenicia, modern Lebanon, was outside the boundaries of Israel. Her case may be paired with that of the gentile Roman centurion, also in Matthew’s Gospel. Both these supplicants begged Jesus for a healing, and both asked with humble faith. Not only were both their wishes granted, but their attitude of persevering faith was praised, as they stood out in marked contrast to both, the disciples, “men of little faith”, and the Jewish establishment.
The woman is initially ignored by Jesus, but she persists in her pleas. The disciples are irritated by her persistence, and beg Jesus to ‘do something to get rid of her’. Jesus dismisses the woman’s right to a miracle, saying “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to them alone” and ridicules her petition. “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he says. This exchange of conversation doesn’t dishearten the woman; it only increases her faith. She comes back with the riposte: “even the dogs eat the scraps which fall from their master’s table”. The only recorded instance, I believe, of a woman having the last word with Jesus — and getting her way with him!
“Woman, what faith you have! Be it as you wish!” is Jesus’s final word of appreciation.
Scattered throughout the pages of the Gospel are these “one liners”, these prayers of faith, these prayers of the ‘plain men and women’ who encountered Jesus. What they ask comes straight from the heart. They are direct. They usually ask for a boon, or intercede for a dear one. Their cries are incessant, in spite of the shooing and booing of the passers by. The classic “plain man’s” prayer, repeated in this episode too, is that of the blind Bartimaeus, a great favourite of S. Francis Xavier: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
In our times of depression and sadness, in times of abject need, let us make these prayers our own.