It is written:
“Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” 23 But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” 24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” 27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” (Matthew 15:21-28).
Some believe that Jesus was evidencing a spirit of racism and chauvinism in this text.
Why would the holy Son of God call this woman a dog?
First, we need only to carefully consider Jesus’ other encounters with Gentiles and women to see that He is neither chauvinist or racist.
“To give you the bigger picture, here are some important things to know about Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the whole world: • His disciple Matthew, in recording Yeshua’s ancestry through his adoptive father’s royal line, makes specific mention of two Gentile tile women who contributed to the royal line: Rahab, who was a Canaanite by birth, and Ruth, who was a Moabite by birth (Matt. 1:5). There was no genealogical need to mention either of these women, but he did so-in his very Jewish book!-for a specific theological reason (see also 1:3a). • In his first sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus drew attention to instances in the Tanakh in which God went out of his way to care for a Gentile widow and heal a Gentile general, thereby infuriating everyone in the synagogue (Luke 4:24-30). • After healing the servant of a Roman soldier, Yeshua said to those following him, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west [meaning the Gentiles!], and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom [meaning the Jews who did not believe] will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:11-12; see 8:5-13; note again that the very Jewish Matthew records these words). • In John 4, Jesus reached out to a Samaritan woman, despite the fact that the Samaritans were despised by other Jews as half-breeds, even staying in Samaria for two days to minister to the people there (John 4:42). • In the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, Yeshua made the hero of his parable a Samaritan, in contrast with a priest and a Levite, commending him as an example of a true neighbor (Luke 10:29-37). • Luke also records Jesus’ healing of ten lepers as they followed the Messiah’s instructions and made their way to the priest, noting that only one of the men returned to give him thanks-a Samaritan, whom the Lord then commended (Luke 17:11-19).” (Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections To Jesus: Volume Four-New Testament Objections, 170-172 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
Second, the word translated here as “dog” tells us a great deal about what is going on in this encounter.
“Second, the Greek word for “dog” is not the usual word for an unkempt street dog (Gk. kyōn), but a diminutive (Gk. kynarion), meaning a small dog that could be kept in the house as a pet. 14 In casting the word in the diminutive form Mark essentially empties it of opprobrium, for one feels entirely differently of a house pet than of an unclean street mongrel. The fact that the woman refers to her daughter and herself with the same term in her reply to Jesus shows that she does not take kynarion in a hostile or contemptuous sense. Third, “dog” signifies a traditional distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles that is important to the story. In the thought-world of the day, the Jews considered themselves “children” of God (Exod 4: 22; Deut 14: 1; Isa 1: 2). They differed from other nations because of their inclusion in the covenant of Abraham (Genesis 17) and because they possessed the Torah (Exodus 19). The issue at stake between Jesus and the woman is whether Jesus is sent to “the children” or “to the dogs.” The woman maintains the same distinction between “children” and “dogs” in her reply to Jesus, though with one slight change. Whereas Jesus refers to Israel as teknōn (” biological children”), the woman refers to Israel as paidiōn, which is more inclusive, implying both children and servants in a household. The change in terminology suggests that the woman understands the mercies of God to extend beyond ethnic Israel. The basic issue in the repartee between Jesus and the woman is not whether Gentiles have a claim on God’s mercies, but the relation of that claim to the Jewish claim. Jesus does not deny the woman’s request. “First let the children eat all they want” simply establishes a priority of mission; it does not exclude other hungry mouths. In the present context it implies the messianic priority of Jesus’ ministry to Israel to his ministry to the Gentiles, particularly, as we suggested earlier, with regard to teaching about the kingdom of God. But the priority of Israel in Jesus’ mission does not imply the exclusion of the Gentiles. The Servant of the Lord must first “restore the tribes of Jacob,” and then be “a light to the nations” (Isa 49: 6; also 42: 1; 61: 1-11). The choice of kynarion implies the dogs are house pets; that is, they belong to the household and will be fed along with the children. Indeed, the analogy of the children and dogs suggests a relationship to Jesus himself, for who might be the “father” who feeds the children —and their dogs —if not Jesus? The woman’s reply to Jesus in v. 28 shows her understanding and acceptance of Israel’s privilege. 15 Indeed, she appears to understand the purpose of Israel’s Messiah better than Israel does. Her pluck and persistence are a testimony to her trust in the sufficiency and surplus of Jesus: his provision for the disciples and Israel will be abundant enough to provide for one such as herself. Mark provides a clue to this understanding in the Gk. chortazō (NIV, “eat all they want”). This word occurs only twice elsewhere in Mark, in the feedings of the five thousand (6: 42) and four thousand (8: 4, 8). In its present location, the word bridges Jesus’ feeding of the Jews (6: 31-44) and his subsequent feeding of the Gentiles (8: 1-10). When dogs eat crumbs from the table they do not rob children of their food; they simply eat what is theirs from the surplus of the children.” (James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According To Mark, 4179-4205 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company)
The Jews sometimes referred to the Gentiles as “dogs” in the sense that they were in need of their guidance and provision. Jesus used this same description (which was clearly familiar and not considered offensive to this mother who was seeking Him).
Finally, the overall context of this passage shows us what is really happening. Brown so eloquently writes:
“Notice the opening phrase, “Leaving that place.” What place was this? That place was Gennesaret, where Jesus had been performing miraculous healings for the sick and hurting people (see Matt. 14:34-36; Mark 6:53-56). At that same time, “some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, `Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”‘ (Matt. 15:2). This triggered a lecture from Yeshua, including some rebuke for man-made traditions that got in the way of obedience to God’s Word….After this, Matthew and Mark both record that “Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon,” ostensibly to be alone (Matt. 15:21; Mark 7:24). It was here that Jesus encountered the Gentile woman and, after having spoken a word of healing and deliverance for her daughter, Matthew records, “Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee” (Matt. 15:29a; Mark 7:31, with more geographical details). This is highly significant, since, in retrospect this whole episode seemed quite intentional-we might say, the Messiah acted by divine premedi-tation310-and the end result of a round-trip journey of between 60 and 100 miles (on foot!) was the healing of this Gentile woman’s daughter. What was the divine lesson in all this?….In the same way here, Yeshua’s teaching about “clean” and “unclean,” about spiritual defilement coming ing from the inside and not the outside, about no food, in and of itself, being truly “unclean” (even if it carries that legal status), is now put into spiritual practice, as the Lord takes a long journey into a Gentile region and then reaches out in mercy to a needy “Canaanite.” Was there nowhere else where Jesus could get alone for a little while? The object lesson is indisputable: Jesus was pointing to the fact that the Gentiles were no longer to be considered “unclean” if they put their trust in him….With this perspective in mind, we now return to the verses in question. Note first that, while Mark identifies the woman as “a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia” (Mark 7:26), Matthew simply calls her a “Canaanite” (Matt. 15:22), probably to elicit a negative emotional response from a biased reader. The woman, quite amazingly, acknowledges Yeshua as Messiah, calling him “Son of David,” and pleading for mercy, since her daughter was “suffering terribly from demon-possession” (15:22b).312 Jesus, however, does not answer her. This was a test!….Now, there can be no question at all that: (1) Jesus put this woman through a test to draw out-and thereby demonstrate-her great faith, granting her request and, in the process, continuing to display his power to heal as the Messianic Son of David.314 (2) He went many miles out of his way to give a practical illustration of his teaching about “clean” and “unclean.” (3) Ultimately, he went many miles out of his way to heal a needy woman’s daughter. (Was it her cries of desperation that got God’s attention and drew Messiah there in the first place?) (4) He used the occasion to, once again, highlight “great faith” existing outside the people (or, borders) of Israel. In light of all this, it is preposterous to think that this narrative actually ally highlights a negative and derogatory attitude towards Gentiles on the part of Jesus. Absolutely not! How then do we explain his words, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs”? It is true that he says, “their dogs,” rather than just “dogs,” and it is true that the Greek word used can refer to “household dogs” as opposed to “wild dogs,” and this, to a degree, lessens the harshness. More importantly, however, it is clear that the woman grasped the spiritual point Yeshua was making by replying, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “I recognize that healing is the children’s bread and that your people are the covenant people, God’s children, to whom the promises of healing belong. And I recognize that they come first. But I can still get the leftovers!” What great faith, and what extraordinary insight, none of which would have become evident if not for the sequence of events which unfolded. And how often does God put us to the test, delaying an answer and even appearing aloof, before demonstrating his power and love (see, e.g., John 11:1-21; for a different dimension of divine “absence,” cf. 2 Chron. 32:3 1). Yeshua’s actions are certainly in harmony with those of his Father! As for the reference to “dogs,” it obviously was not a big deal to the woman or to the disciples, who faithfully recorded these words. (As I pointed out, above, it is both Matthew and Mark who recount this, the former primarily writing to Jews, the latter primarily writing to Gentiles. It was not a problem for either of them.) This could be argued against the backdrop of the Hebrew Scriptures, as Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern does, or against the backdrop of contemporary Jewish thought, as Jewish professor Samuel Tobias Lachs does.315 Either way, the words of Jesus, spoken in a very specific context for a very specific purpose, should not be an occasion for stumbling, especially when it is realized that he did not say to this woman, “You lousy Gentile dog! I will never help you.” Rather, he gave a vivid illustration that produced a dramatic and historic response, and I for one am blessed that this is part of the historical record. I’m sure this Gentile woman was blessed as well, as the story concludes: “And her daughter was healed from that very hour” (Matt. 15:28). Thank God for the Son of David!” (Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections To Jesus: Volume Four-New Testament Objections, 173-177 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
The great faith of this woman should serve as an example for us today. Do we have a faith that is willing to surrender and obey God, even when He seems unresponsive? This woman knew that Jesus is the Son of God, and that there was a reason for His seeming reluctance.
Will we follow in the steps of the faith of this godly woman?