Shaming JesusBy Richard Beck
One of the more difficult passages in the gospels is Jesus’ exchange with the Syro-Phoenician woman. Specifically, many have puzzled over Jesus’ calling the Gentiles “dogs.” The story from Mark 7:24-30:
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
There is little doubt that Jesus privileges his mission to Israel. Jesus is, after all, the Messiah of Israel, the culmination of the story of Israel for the sake of the world. However, throughout Jesus’ ministry we see him bring the “kingdom” into the lives of Gentiles, a sign of Jesus’ vision of the universal vocation of the Messiah.
What grates in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman isn’t any of this but the racial epithet “dogs.” Did Jesus really consider the Gentiles “dogs”?
There have been a variety of responses to this query. Some point to Jesus’ use of the diminutive for dogs: “little dogs” or “puppies.” That softens things a bit. Which leads to perhaps the most common interpretation, that Jesus was being ironic or playful with the woman to test her and the assumptions of the onlooking disciples.
I’m OK with that interpretation, but I was struck the other day reading a different interpretation in Ched Myers’s commentary on Mark, Binding the Strong Man.
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