Of all that is recorded about Jesus in the gospels, of everything He said and did, this story stands out as one of the most difficult for me to accept.
Matthew 15 and Mark 7 each record Jesus’ encounter with a Greek Syro-Phoenician woman who came to him in the region of Tyre and Sidon pleading with Him to heal her daughter.
The encounter is pretty straight forward. It’s just that I don’t like it. I don’t like what Jesus says to this woman.
“Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
Did Jesus just call this woman and her daughter little dogs? Wow. That doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say, especially about a woman in need. Maybe He would be harsh like this with the Pharisees. That I could accept. But this woman?
She was a Gentile. Jews referred to Gentiles as dogs, mangy mongrels. Jews despised Gentiles. In the presence of his disciples, isn’t Jesus just feeding into this hatred and prejudice?
The woman continues to plead. “Even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs which fall from the Master’s table.”
She shows great faith. Persistent faith. Jesus praises her for it and chooses to heal her daughter.
So the story ends up where I want it to. It just doesn’t go how I want it to, at least on the surface.
The word Jesus uses here is not the same name Jews would call Gentiles. Instead of the word for dog referring to mangy, vicious mongrels, Jesus uses the word “little dog.” This would be an affectionate term for a domesticated dog, a pet, one that you allow in the house. It’s the difference between our dog, Gizmo, and the mangy disease infested mutts I see roaming the streets in Haiti.
So that’s a little better, right? But Jesus still calls her a dog! When I look more closely, I see something else though.
Jesus says “let the children be filled first.” Children refers to Israel, the Jews. But the fact that he uses the term “first” means that there also must be a “second.” This is actually good news. The Jewish Messiah would also be for the Gentiles. While other Jews referred to them as mangy street dogs, Jesus gives them a place in the house. They’ll be included in his kingdom.
Jesus’ words for this woman and His message through this encounter for his disciples are profound.
What would they hear? Compassion. Jesus sees this woman differently than other Jews do. Jesus will treat her differently than other Jews would. And His disciples need to know that He did come for the Jew first, but He will also include the Gentiles.
This principle is illustrated once again as they leave Tyre and Sidon for the Decapolis, a Gentile region, where Jesus teaches, heals, casts out demons, and ultimately feeds the 4000. First, he feeds 5000 Jews up in Bethsaida. Now, he feeds 4000 Gentiles.
God is always at work. Maybe I don’t always see it, or maybe I wish He would work differently, the way I wanted Him to. But God is at work. His time. His ways. His will.
Father, forgive me for those times I look at how You’re at work, like with the Syro-Phoenician woman, and think You should have done it differently. Who am I to tell You how to do Your job 🙂
Father, I trust you!
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