This entry is part 33 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
15:21-28 Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Mk 7:27 records Jesus’ response to this woman’s request in the following words: “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.”
Was Jesus a racist?
According to Austin Steelman, ‘this isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about. This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.’
Steelman argues that Jesus, being truly human, was a product of his own culture, along with its embedded prejudices. But he is able to listen, to learn, and to change his mind. The takeaway for us is that ‘inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.’
As Ian Paul notes, one of the ironies of this interpretation is that the real hero of the story is Mark, who could see clearly what he Master could not. Another irony is that Steelman is, in effect saying, ‘Don’t be like Jesus; be like me!’ Or, at least, ‘Don’t be like the benighted Jesus at the beginning of this story, but like the enlightened Jesus at the end of it.’
Ian Paul quotes David Henson:
Jesus uttered an ethnic slur. To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child…Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism…
Rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.
This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.
So don’t tell me you aren’t prejudice or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice. Even Jesus did that.
Racial slurs are one thing: accusing anyone (not least the Lord Jesus) of racial slur without good evidence is no better. To infer from Jesus’ humanity that he was sinfully prejudiced runs against the consistent witness of the entire New Testament (see Heb 4:15, for example).
Certain ‘progressive’ people who think that Jesus has to unlearn his racial prejudice from this woman seem to have forgotten (or perhaps they think that Jesus himself had forgotten, as had Mark), that he had already crossed ethnic boundaries, as in his dealings with the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5).
Indeed, ‘progressive’ readings of this text abound. The following comes from a law (not theology) undergraduate at Harvard:
It’s one of the most unsettling passages in the New Testament. This isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about. This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.
This story calls us to confront Jesus’ humanity. Being human means being embedded in a culture. It means growing up with a certain worldview. It means inheriting traditions and language and biases—biases that can be wrongheaded and hurtful and alienating. Biases like the exclusion of Gentiles from the community of faith and the circle of those deserving compassion…
You see, Jesus doesn’t cling to his prejudice. He listens…Jesus listens. And he changes his mind…The hero of this story is not Jesus, but the Syrophoenician woman…Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere. Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.
As Ian Paul shrewdly remarks:
It is not too difficult to read the agenda of this commentator: conservative Christians are like the ignorant, prejudiced Jesus at the beginning of the story, but progressive Christians like me are like the enlightened Jesus at the end of the story. The goal here is less for us to be like Jesus and more to be like the commentator.
Writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon does not suggest that Jesus has forgotten his previous encounters with Gentiles. Nevertheless, she presses on: ‘Their conversation is stunning. Even though Jesus has already exorcized demons from a Gentile and raised someone’s daughter from the dead, he refuses her request harshly: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). But the woman is dogged on behalf of her daughter: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28). Jesus commends her “word” (Gk. logos), her clever and pointed—and effective—saying, and the demon leaves her daughter. Mark seems to go out of the way to present Jesus learning from a Gentile woman in a Gentile place about the inclusivity of God’s realm.’
Also writing in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Amy-Jill Levine says that ‘the claim that Jesus’ response, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” was expressed with a smile on his lips is apologetic.’ Unfortunately, the author does not substantiate her assertion.
Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, tweeted that ‘It’s fear of Jesus’ humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man who changes his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person.’
Evan’s remark suffers from undue psychologising. Better to accept that Matthew’s Gospel, and the others too, is more interested in theology than psychology. The critics cited above fail to see an acceptance of Jesus’ humanity does not imply an acceptance of his sinfulness, which, in fact, is something that Scripture explicitly denies (see Heb 4:14, for example).
France recognises that this has been described as ‘an atrocious saying’, expressing ‘incredible insolence’ and based on ‘the worst kind of chauvinism’. It is certainly true that in referring to Gentiles as ‘dogs’ Jesus was employing a current Jewish term of abuse. But there is nothing in what we know otherwise about Jesus to suggest that he would resort to personal insults of this kind. But, says, France, ‘written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react.’
The truth is that the progressive readings, note above, are entirely blind to the sophistication of Jesus’ (and Mark’s) teaching method. As France (NICNT) notes: ‘Misunderstandings of the pericope spring largely from the failure to read it as a whole. It is a dialogue within which the individual sayings function only as part of the whole, and are not intended to carry the weight of independent exegesis on their own. The whole encounter builds up to the totally positive conclusion of verses 29 to 30, while the preceding dialogue serves to underline the radical nature of this new stage in Jesus’s ministry into which he has allowed himself to be ‘persuaded’ by the woman’s realism and wit. He appears like a wise teacher who allows, and indeed incites, his pupil to mount a victorious argument against the foil of his own reluctance. He functions as what in a different context might be called a ‘devil’s advocate’, and is not ‘disappointed’ to be defeated in argument. As a result the reader is left more vividly aware of the reality of the problem of Jew-gentile relations, and of the importance of the step Jesus here takes to overcome it.’
NBC similarly: ‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’
Ian Paul adds that the pattern which is apparent here: ‘”‘to the Jew first, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1.16) might have been critically important if Mark’s gospel was written in the context of Rome, where relations between Jew and gentile Christian might have been tense.’
It is certainly true that in referring to Gentiles as ‘dogs’ Jesus was employing a current Jewish term of abuse. But there is nothing in what we know otherwise about Jesus to suggest that he would resort to personal insults of this kind. But, says, France, ‘written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react.’
Here, as in many other places, we would love to have been able to hear our Lord’s tone of voice (teasing?) and see his facial expression (a twinkle in his eye?). But even though that is impossible, we can nevertheless infer these things from the context, and particularly from the fact that the women showed no signs of having felt offended.
NBC: ‘The language seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who had earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in future in the blessings of Israel. Perhaps cold print conceals an element of irony, even playfulness, in Jesus’ tone. At any rate, he was confronting her with the sort of language a Gentile could expect to hear from a Jew, and her faith rose to the test.’
Michael Bird‘s comment is worth quoting in full:-
‘Jesus’ ironic remark towards the woman concerns the focus of Israel in his mission and deliberately attempts to elicit a shrewd comeback. He acknowledges the validity of the woman’s reply that Israel’s blessings can, even in limited ways, extend to Gentiles, a theme found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition (e.g. Lk. 4.25-27). But the key issue is that such a blessing is available for Gentiles in the present. Rhoads paraphrases the woman’s response: ‘Even now I and my daughter at the margins (should) benefit from just one exorcism from among the many benefits for the Jews.’ This aspect has a direct bearing upon the argument that I am constructing. Whereas the salvation of the Gentiles was ordinarily programmed to occur at the eschaton, here the in-breaking of the kingdom and the gradual restoring of Israel was already bringing immediate results for Gentiles. Jesus’ ironic aside is met with recognition from the woman not merely of the priority of Israel, but the significance that Israel’s salvation holds for Gentiles in the present. As the children of Israel are being fed, crumbs are now falling for the dogs. As Israel’s restoration becomes more and more of a reality, it becomes more and more possible for Gentiles to experience the blessing of its fulfillment. In this sense, interpreting the pericope in terms of ‘Jew first and then Gentile’ fails to grapple with the significance that a partially realized restoration has for Gentiles. That is not to collapse the entire eschatological hope for the Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry since the full inclusion of Gentiles can only begin when Israel’s restoration is complete. What is important is that the restoration of Israel, in nascent form, carries with it incipient eschatological benefits for the Gentiles who find themselves confronted with God’s anointed prophet. As the children of Israel are fed, it is possible for the dogs (i.e. Gentiles) to be fed as a consequence of Israel’s dawning restoration.’
Ian Paul quotes a commenter: ‘To me it seems that in this passage Jesus uses a similar pedagogical method to Jahweh allowing/challenging Abraham (Gen 18:22-33) and Moses (Ex 32:7-14; Num 14:5-20) to be “obnoxious” and persistent intercessors. It seems at first reading that their patience and mercy is greater than God’s, and yet it is God stretching and shaping them to stand in the gap between himself and his people.’
France summarises: ‘A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!’
To summarise: Jesus’ comment is designed to draw the woman out and to explore what kind of faith she has in him as ‘Son of David’.