Did Jesus insult the Syrophoenician woman?

Some stories about Jesus bother me, and Mark includes one of them in today’s passage.

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone (Mark 7:24-30).

Was Jesus mean-spirited? An initial reading of this text may point that way, but if we can get past the apparent harshness, there’s actually a nugget of rich, spiritual truth in this story.

But first, here are a couple of relevant facts:

  • The woman was a Gentile, and Jesus’ primary mission in His earthly ministry was to the Jews (Matthew 15:24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”) The church would take the gospel to the whole world after the resurrection.
  • The word “dog” was a common word used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. It was obviously not a term of endearment.
So it seems like Jesus treated the woman unkindly.

But there’s more to the story than what we see at first glance.

Jesus uses a diminutive form of the word “dogs,” which could be translated “puppies,” and it might “refer to house pets rather than the scavenger of the streets” (Brooks, NAC, 121). In other words, we shouldn’t necessarily take the word “dogs” as a strong insult.

We should also understand that Jesus would occasionally use a question or statement to test the genuineness of people’s faith. How badly did this woman want Jesus to help her daughter?

It seems to me here that Jesus merely reflects the well-known tension between Jews and Gentiles. He uses a common expression to test the Gentile woman’s faith, and it did not suggest that He believed the Gentiles were inferior to the Jews.

In fact, I think Jesus’ actions imply the opposite. In His healing the woman’s daughter, Jesus foreshadowed His concern for all the nations, not just for the Jews. This concern would be fully realized when the apostles obeyed the Great Commission and took the Lord’s message to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Here’s something to reflect on today: God wants salvation to go to every house, every class, and every people group.

We sometimes think—perhaps subconsciously—that a typical Christian looks a lot like us, whatever that is.

But we should remember that Jesus died for everyone—the peasant in Asia, the sultan in the Middle East, the farmer in Africa, and the factory worker in Detroit.
So don’t let Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman put you off. He actually treated her in a way that reflected an important undercurrent in Scripture: God offers salvation to everyone.

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