Did Jesus just call that woman a dog?
But there’s more to the story.
If you’re curious, read on.
(Blog based on The Gospel of Matthew 15:21-28 & The Gospel of Mark 7:24-30).
The woman with the demonized daughter
Like many of the stories of Jesus, what seemed like a chance meeting turned out to be a bit more.
After a series of events including miracles, healings and arguments with the religious leaders, the Gospel writers tell us Jesus got away for (what was very likely some much needed) rest. He ended up in a city called Tyre.
Tyre was just outside of the land of Israel to the north. Like Israel, it was technically under Roman occupation and control but it was traditionally very much non-Jewish territory. One, it’s interesting Jesus would go there, and two, it’s interesting he would go there to rest.
But as you can imagine, a guy like Jesus can’t go far (even in non-Israelite territory) without catching some attention. Not long after arriving, a local woman wanted to meet Jesus. She had a demonized daughter and hoped Jesus could deliver her.
Mark described her as a “Greek Syrophoenician.” Matthew calls her a “Canaanite.”
There was a stigma about Greeks and Canaanites.
“Canaanites among us, shoot me now”
In the Old Testament story, the six to eight tribal groups of people living in the land of Canaan were considered cursed by God. According to the ancient Hebrews, Canaanites were the worst of humanity, hated by God and all of Israel.
“Greeks, because of you, the world has gone to hell in a hand basket”
In more recent Jewish history, just prior to Roman domination, the Greeks, under the direction and influence of Alexander the Great, had brought to Israel many of their Greek customs and culture (some would suggest forced), including their language. Over the last couple hundred years, this had concerned the religious leadership who largely believed that the Greek influence would contaminate Israel’s worship of Yahweh.
The point: for 1st century Jews, Greeks and Canaanites are bad news and will lead you to compromise your faith.
“You Gentile dogs”
The larger point that Mark and Matthew is making in describing this Greek Canaanite woman was that she was non-Jewish. The broader Jewish culture (especially the most religious fundamentalists) referred to non-Jewish persons as “Gentiles” or “dogs.”
Those two words were basically synonymous derogatory terms, each indicating repulsion and distain toward non-Jewish outsiders.
The chance meeting
So this Greek Syrophoenician Canaanite Gentile woman with a demonized daughter discovered that the great Jewish healer she’d been hearing about had come to town. When she found out where he was staying, she went up to Jesus and threw herself down at his feet, and pleaded with him to heal her daughter.
Jesus looked at the woman (who is now on the ground at his feet) and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Let the children eat what they want first. It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Not only does Jesus seem to be claiming his mission is exclusively to his people, but uses the common derogatory term dogs that people in his community used to show spite toward non-Jews.
Her response is critical for understanding the passage: She said, “Well, master, even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs that the children drop.” This audacious statement suggests she quickly moved passed the obvious offense while still hoping this Jesus is the answer for her daughter.
Jesus responds, “You’ve got great faith, my friend! All right; let it be as you wish. The demon has left your daughter.” The passage continues, “So she went home, and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.”
What just happened?
On the one hand, a first read through suggests Jesus is not beyond racial bigotry. On the other hand, he did heal woman’s daughter. Something that had once controlled her no longer controlled her because of the word Jesus spoke to her mom.
Again, what’s really going on here?
According to Jesus, and the whole thrust of the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus’ primary mission was to his own people, the Jewish people, who are descendants of the ancient Hebrews/Israelites. It’s not that salvation and the good news of Jesus was or is only for Jewish people. It’s that Jesus’ mission was for his own people.
The arc of the Biblical narrative is that in bringing solution to sins of humanity, God chose a people out of all the peoples and nations of the earth to be messengers to call the rest of humanity back to God.
That people God chose, according to the Bible, was Israel.
Called to be a light and point people forward.
The problem was that, just like the rest of humanity, Israel was just as much part of the problem.
Israel had lost their way. Israel had sinned and fallen short of the glory God had destined for them.
So God, in the person of Jesus, a Jewish man, came to turn Israel back to God so that Israel might again be the light of the world sharing with the world the good news of the love and grace and mercy of God.
So what about the dog comment?
The passage simply won’t work if your conclusion is that Jesus is simply claiming that Gentiles are in the end “dogs” and should be treated as such.
My suggestion is that more is going on here. Jesus was using the sharp derogatory term “dogs” that his own people used not to suggest it was perfectly ok to be a bigot, but in order to demonstrate how entirely useless and contrary to the goodness of God that term (and all that comes with it) was.
Call it sarcasm if you like.
Call it using bigoted derogatory language and turning it on its head by using it in such a way so as to expose it for what it is.
First of all, the woman would have known that Jews referred to non-Jewish persons as Gentiles and dogs. The disciples would have known also. Not new news to them. New to some of us, but not them.
What I’m getting at is this: if all Jesus wanted to do was criticize her for being a Gentile dog, he would have ended it there. But her response and his response to heal indicates he anticipated the outcome that did happen.
On the one hand, he was acknowledging in front of the disciples and her what his primary mission was. On the other hand, he was acknowledging in front of the disciples and the woman that the “dogs” are worthy of God’s attention too. And that ultimately the good news is for them as well.
It was just that Jesus’ priority was to help his people get back on track first.
By healing and delivering that Gentile woman’s daughter, Jesus was saying something loud and clear:
- The people who Israel believed did not deserve to have God’s attention or saving grace actually did.
- And that the good news of Jesus will (in time) extend beyond the community of Israel and reach the world.
- If you want to follow Jesus, Gentiles and Canaanites are included in God’s expansive love too. So get on board and adjust your attitude accordingly.
By pressing Jesus further, by leaning in to her dogged hope, the woman whose daughter had a demon was saying loud and clear what she believed about Jesus.
That Jesus is for her and cares for her.
And by extension, Israel’s God.
To heal the woman’s daughter had the effect of demonstrating the absolute absurdity of the derogatory language to begin with. God is actually for people. Shocker, I know.
God is for people we are not always for.
God is for Jews and Gentiles.
God is for Canaanites and Greeks.
God is for people from the wrong side of town.
God is for people with diseases and demons and can’t leave their homes.
God is for you and I.
God is for people. Beginning, middle and end of story.
Jesus was calling his disciples then, just like he is calling us now, forward.
And as we allow his life and words to have their healing affect in our lives, making us whole, we can then share God’s love and healing with others in chance meetings that turn out to be so much more.