Speaking the Truth in Love

The Syrophoenician’s Sick Child

The Syrophoenician’s Sick Child

By David Wright


Grace Tillery was born in Montgomery, Alabama, a few months before the great stock market crash of 1929. In the fall of 1952, when she was 23, Grace met her future husband. Doyle knew almost immediately that he wanted to marry her. She was a tall, slim, beautiful young woman with hazel eyes and dark auburn hair. But her faith, character, and demeanor impressed Doyle more than her physical appearance. Grace deeply loved the Lord and his church, lived an exemplary life, and treated others with the kindness her name suggested.
On February 5, 1953, Grace and Doyle exchanged vows in her parents’ living room. They happily established their own home and soon began filling it with children. The first three children were boys. The fourth and fifth children were girls. All five of these little ones were perfectly healthy.
In 1964, Grace gave birth to her sixth child, another son. At first, the baby seemed as healthy as his older siblings. About three months later, though, both Grace and the baby suffered a bout with German measles. It was at this time, on a Sunday morning, that Grace noticed a gray film over her son’s left eye. The next day a local optometrist examined the baby’s eyes. His conclusion relieved none of Grace’s growing anxieties. He said that the child had apparently been born with glaucoma.
On Tuesday Grace and Doyle carried the baby to a university hospital for a more expert opinion. Ophthalmologists there confirmed the initial diagnosis. The baby had congenital glaucoma. The doctors refrained from mentioning the possibility that the child might one day be totally blind, but Grace was an intelligent young woman and could see the risk herself.

The news was devastating. Grace wept for her son, agonizing over the pain the future might bring him. And she prayed. She prayed fervently and often. She pleaded with the Lord to have mercy, to bring about a medical advancement that would restore the vision in the baby’s failing left eye and to spare the good vision yet remaining in his right eye.
Surgery followed surgery, prayer followed prayer, and tears followed tears. But Grace saw no improvement in her son’s vision. In fact, it continued to deteriorate. And she continued to hope, trust in God, and pray.
The child of a certain Syrophoenician woman had an affliction far more serious than blindness. Almost 20 centuries before Grace Tillery was born, this Gentile mother threw herself at Jesus’ feet and begged for help. His initial response would have turned many mothers away, but not this woman. She simply refused to take no for an answer.

The Syrophoenician’s Daughter

Jesus was so popular during his Galilean ministry, so many “were coming and going,” that he and his disciples “did not even have time to eat” (Mark 6:31). Toward the end of this period, Christ began to withdraw from the crowds to spend special time with his closest followers, the men who would establish his church and carry the gospel to the world. These times enabled Jesus and the apostles to rest and eat, and provided the Lord with opportunities to give the Twelve additional attention and instruction.
One of these retreats took Jesus into the region of Tyre and Sidon, modern Lebanon. In this Gentile area Jesus was safe from the demands of the crowds thronging him in Galilee, but a determined mother gave Christ and his followers less peace than the apostles wanted. This woman “was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26). Greek, not Aramaic, was her native language, and her culture was Greek rather than Jewish.
This woman’s “young daughter” has “an unclean spirit” (Mark 7:25). Determining the exact age of this child is impossible. The Greek noun translated “young daughter” appears on the lips of Jairus as he pleads for his dying child. “My little daughter lies at the point of death,” he cries. “Come and lay your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live” (5:23). This “little daughter,” it turns out, is “twelve years of age” (v. 42). Perhaps the Syrophoenician’s daughter is 12 also—or nine, or seven. The only certainty is that she is too young to be independent of her mother, even if healthy.
But well she certainly was not. The “demons” of the New Testament were probably fallen angels permitted for a time to possess some people – perhaps so that Jesus might demonstrate his power over satanic forces. Demon-possession manifested itself in horrifying ways. “Possession” implied loss of personal control. The Syrophoenician’s daughter no longer had the ability to make her own decisions. No doubt, her personality underwent dramatic and alarming changes. Quite literally, the girl’s behavior was dictated by an agent of Satan himself.
Some demon-possessed people suffered violent convulsions (Mark 1:26), foaming at the mouth (9:20), and self-inflicted injury. The demon-possessed man living among the tombs screamed and cut himself with sharp stones (5:5). The demon possessing the boy brought to Jesus as he descended the Mount of Transfiguration often cast the child “both into the fire and into the water to destroy him” (9:22). In addition to the insanity often characterizing demon-possession were physical disabilities. This boy, for instance, had a “mute spirit” (v. 17). Another demon-possessed person healed by Jesus was both “blind and mute” (Matt. 12:22).
In what ways did demon-possession affect the Syrophoenician’s daughter? Was the child blind, deaf, mute? Did she scream and cut herself with sharp household objects? Did she have convulsions and foam at the mouth? Did she throw herself into the fire? Although the Gospel writers omitted any description of the girl’s symptoms, they left no doubt as to the seriousness of her condition. The mother herself told Jesus that “my daughter is severely demon-possessed” (Matt. 15:22).

The Syrophoenician’s Desperation

This Greek woman endured a terrible ordeal. Yes, her daughter was the one demon-possessed, but the Syrophoenician suffered affliction too. Exhaustion slowed her step and made her feel old. Caring for the child meant constant vigilance and extra work. Perhaps it also meant nights of sleep interrupted by screaming, frightening convulsions, and soiled bedding. No doubt, the demon-possession afflicting the child pushed her mother to the edge of her physical limitations.
Emotional distress accompanied the fatigue. Probably, the woman experienced false guilt. She would naturally look for some reason to blame herself for her daughter’s condition—even though no rational reason for doing so presented itself. She was anxious also. How could she go on like this? How could she protect the girl from permanently injuring or killing herself? How was the child’s situation affecting others in the family? Was her mother devoting so much time and energy to the demon-possessed girl that everyone else felt cheated? Surely, the apparent hopelessness of the situation led to bouts of depression.
If the Syrophoenician woman has a husband (which is likely), her distress is particularly difficult for her marriage. A woman responds well to her husband only when she feels safe and relaxed. The turmoil caused by the demon living in the home makes peace impossible.
Grave illness in a child tends to create spiritual problems too. Typically, the mother asks herself some painful questions about God. She wonders why the Lord is letting this happen. She questions whether he truly loves her and whether he is listening to her prayers. If the Syrophoenician woman is struggling with such questions, Jesus’ initial response relieves none of her doubts. When she cries out to him for help, he answers “her not a word” (Matt. 15:23).

The Syrophoenician’s Determination

The wording of this Greek woman’s appeal to Jesus revealed her faith in him. She said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” (Matt. 15:22). The designation “Son of David” indicated her belief that Jesus was the Messiah expected by the Jews
The Hebrew prophets portrayed the coming of the Christ in terms of a second David. Isaiah, for example said that “unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom” (Isa. 9:6-7). And the prophet Ezekiel predicted that God would “establish one shepherd” over his flock, “and he shall feed them—My servant David. […] And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them” (Ezek. 34:23-24).
The Pharisees, men well versed in the scriptures, definitely understood this David-Messiah connection. Jesus once asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” They replied, “The Son of David” (Matt. 22:41-42). In fact, the Jewish authorities rejected the possibility that Jesus was the Christ on the basis of his roots in Galilean Nazareth. The Christ, they well knew, was to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David (John 7:52; Matt. 2:4-6).
However, the teachers of the law were not the only ones anticipating a second David. Plainly, the common people also expected this. For instance, two blind men followed Jesus, crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” (Matt. 9:27). Probably, these men had never been educated, and yet they were aware of the Davidic expectation in prophetic scripture. The crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem were aware of it too. Jesus made his triumphal entry into the holy city shortly before his crucifixion. He came as a humble king, mounted on the back of a lowly donkey. But the people received him exuberantly. Spreading clothes and leafy branches on the road before him, they filled the air with shouts of praise: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (21:9). Even the little children in the temple courts honored Jesus with these words (v. 15).
The Syrophoenician woman, of course, was no Jew. Nor was it likely that a Jewish acquaintance would trouble herself to share Messianic hope with a Greek. However, the woman’s home was close to Jewish territory, and she had “heard about Him” (Mark 7:25). What, exactly, had she heard? Exciting rumors about the amazing Galilean were spreading throughout the region where she lived. Jesus was opening blind eyes and deaf ears. He was removing speech impediments, cleansing leprosy, even raising the dead. But most intriguing were the reports of his power to cast out demons.
Diligent inquiries led the Syrophoenician woman to the conviction that Jesus truly had these incredible powers. She also learned that many of the Jewish people believed he was the long-awaited Christ. Clearly, she came to believe this herself. So when Jesus came into the region of Tyre and Sidon for a brief period of rest with his disciples, she decided to go to him and ask for the blessing her little daughter so desperately needed
But Jesus responded in a manner calculated to push this mother away. He completely ignored her. She fell at his feet and begged for compassion. He said nothing. She asked again – and again. The author of the second Gospel chose a Greek verb tense indicating repeated requests: “And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:26). He continued to ignore her.
Perhaps this went on for an hour or more. The apostles grew weary of her pleas and begged Jesus to send her away (Matt. 15:23). Finally, Jesus spoke but there was nothing in his words to inspire hope. “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he said (v. 24). Still undeterred, the woman threw herself at Jesus’ feet once more and implored the Lord to help her.
Now for the first time Jesus directly addressed the woman. It is not right, he said, “to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (Matt. 15:26). The racial tension between the Jews and the Greeks made this remark sound insulting. Was Jesus suggesting that this woman was less worthy than the people of Israel? It certainly seemed so.
The Gentile mother humbly overlooked the offense. Yes, the woman admitted, she was a little dog. And yet “even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27). Jesus responded with a high compliment. “O woman,” he said, “great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire” (v. 28).
The healing was instantaneous. Jesus said, “Go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter” (Mark 7:29). After hurrying home, this mother saw a beautiful thing. The little girl who had unnerved the entire family with her frightening behavior was resting peacefully in bed.
Any loving mother can easily imagine the scene that followed. Emotion overwhelmed the Syrophoenician woman. She shouted with joy and hugged her healed daughter. She clung to her, weeping and laughing at the same time. She smothered the girl’s face with kisses, showering her with words of love and affection.
In the days and months that followed, perhaps this good mother wondered why Jesus had initially refused her. Why did he speak of her race in a derogatory manner? Possibly, she never quite understood.
From the first Jesus loved the Syrophoenician woman and fully intended to heal her demon-possessed child. However, in this mother’s heart was a beauty Jesus wanted all disciples to see. He rebuffed her with silence and made the “little dogs” remark to reveal her great humility, faith, and astonishing persistence. This woman simply refused to give up. Knowing that Jesus had the power to heal her child, she pursued him until he said yes.


Grace Tillery of Montgomery, Alabama, married Doyle in 1953. Her sixth child, a son born 11 years later, was afflicted with congenital glaucoma. Surgery followed surgery, prayer followed prayer, and tears followed tears. But the boy’s sight continued to fail.
The child learned to read in kindergarten, but his vision became so poor in first grade that he struggled to see the large print in his books—even with the aid of a lighted magnifying glass. Soon he began to fall behind other classmates. Since excelling in school was important to him, he cried when he could no longer keep up with sighted peers. His mother mourned too, but she tried to conceal her pain from him.
In the summer after his frustrating first grade year, the boy underwent a then-new procedure called a “trabeculectomy.” It was his eighth operation. And it was effective in controlling the pressure damaging his eyesight. It reversed none of the extensive vision loss he had already suffered, though. It was at this point that Grace at last accepted the reality of her son’s situation. He was nearly blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. He had no peripheral vision and, even with the aid of a corrective lens, struggled to see the giant E at the top of the ophthalmologist’s chart.
Grace now realized that her blind son could no longer receive an adequate education in the local public elementary school. His teachers had neither the time nor the training to give him specialized instruction. Furthermore, in the early ’70s, the federal government had not yet passed legislation requiring schools to hire resource teachers for disabled students. Grace’s seven-year-old boy would therefore need to go 140 miles away to a residential school for blind children. There he could learn to read braille and navigate with a white cane. Sending him off was one of the most trying things Grace ever did. For the first time in his life, the boy was feeling the pain of his disability. Blindness was forcing him to leave the safe and loving environment of a good Christian home and live with strangers two and a half hours away. Leaving home broke the little boy’s heart – and his mother’s.
For four years Grace’s son attended the state school for blind children in Vinton, Iowa, coming home only on weekends and for summer breaks. At first homesickness overwhelmed him. Gradually, though, he adjusted to his circumstances and began to excel.
After finishing fifth grade, the boy was able to return home and reenter the public school system. He received some textbooks in braille and others on tape. He took all of his tests orally.
After high school graduation, Grace’s blind son again left home to further his education. This time he was excited about moving on. He had enrolled as a student at Alabama Christian College, the very school his father was attending when he met Grace three decades earlier.
Four years later, in 1985, Grace had the pleasure of seeing several of her son’s dreams come true. In May of that year, he graduated at the top of his class with a B.A. in Bible. In June he married Carolyn, a beautiful girl who had dedicated her life to following Jesus and serving others. In August a congregation of the Lord’s church near Decatur, Alabama, hired him to preach the gospel.
Grace is 88 now. She continues to pray. Like the Syrophoenician woman, she refuses to give up. Every day she asks the Lord to protect and bless her son. She still prays for a medical discovery that would reverse optical nerve damage.
Although her son is still blind, Grace firmly believes that God has answered the longing of her heart. All that a godly mother wants for her child is what is best for him. So whenever Grace thinks of her blind son’s many blessings—his lovely wife and children, his positive experience as an evangelist, his joy in the Lord—she knows that God has done what is best for her son.
I interviewed Grace by phone before writing her story. I have her number memorized. Grace Tillery married my father, Doyle Wright. I am their blind son. And I consider myself richly blessed to have such a godly mother, a woman who simply refuses to interpret the Lord’s silence as a no.

The Syrophoenician’s Sick Child

Discussion Questions

The demon-possession afflicting the Syrophoenician’s daughter probably produced some bizarre behavior in the child. Discuss how insensitive neighbors might have made the situation even more unbearable for the mother. If you were the mother of an extremely sick child, what comments and attitudes would hurt your feelings and add to your burden?

2. The Syrophoenician was probably a married woman. If you have ever had a seriously ill child, describe how the sickness affected your marriage. When a woman gives birth to a disabled child, how likely is it that her marriage will end in divorce? How can the godly mother of a disabled child protect her relationship with her husband?

3. How well does the typical congregation meet the needs of mothers with disabled children? Does your church building have a wheelchair ramp? In what ways is the church willing to accommodate the special needs of disabled children who want to come to Bible classes? If Christians were more eager to help mothers with disabled children, how would evangelistic outreach be affected?

4. Caring for a severely disabled child is physically and emotionally exhausting. What can Christian women do to give some relief to an overwhelmed mother? Should they offer to babysit so that she can have a date with her husband? Should they volunteer to care for her child during worship so that she can be more refreshed by the service?

5. Giving birth to a sick baby tempts mothers to question God’s love. How would you feel toward the Lord if he allowed such a calamity to befall your family? How does a Christian woman accept God’s “no” without becoming bitter? In what ways might God draw a mother closer to himself through the suffering of her child?

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