When Jesus calls a desperate mom a dog

Mar 2, 2016 by

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Most Christians I know are uncomfortable with Jesus’ response to the mom in Mark 7:24 – 30. For those who don’t know the story, here it is…

Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”


But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.”


Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep — the people of Israel.”


But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!”


Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”


She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”


“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.

I really want to rescue Jesus in this story. I want to come up with some reason why this is not what it appears to be. Yes, the story ends well. However, it is ugly in the middle, and Jesus doesn’t look too good. He calls a desperate mom a dog because of her race and religion. What is Jesus up to here?

I believe that one responsibility I have when I engage others is to give voice to uncomfortable positions that hold power in our engagement. I do not believe that I need to hold or own the positions I raise in order to raise them. However, they need to be raised or they will undermine what is going on.

For example, once I was in a worship planning meeting. In my denomination (Mennonite Church USA), ordained ministry is related to giftedness, not gender. Of course, not everyone agrees with this position. In this meeting, I was aware that two persons did not believe women should preach. There came a time in our planning when it seemed clear to most that a particular woman needed to be invited to preach. She was gifted and the topic was something a woman should speak to. It was tense but nobody was speaking directly about the underlying issue. So I said, with a glint of humor and a sprinkle of sarcasm, “You know that women aren’t allowed to preach in the church, right?”

I don’t believe that. Everyone who knows me knows I don’t believe that. So why did I say it? I said it (1) to give voice to the unspoken position that held power in the room, (2) to make it clear that our decisions were being made in this wider context, and (3) to invite the group to intentionally consider what values, Biblical commitments, past discernments and so on would drive our current decision.

My comment created space for the group to talk about what needed to be talked about. In the end, the entire group decided to invite the woman to speak. Why? Because even though two members had questions, the larger discernments of denomination, conference and congregation, and the Biblical and theological work that undergirded those discernments, called forth that response.

Is it possible that Jesus is doing something similar? I believe that Jesus is giving voice to a world-view that held power in their encounter — even though it wasn’t initially spoken. I don’t believe Jesus bought into this world-view. In reality, I believe Jesus came to subvert that world-view. However, a great many people did hold that world-view, including some of his disciples. By calling the gentile woman a dog, he was enacting the popular world-view that held power in their encounter. He was a Jewish man; she was a gentile woman; her daughter was a female gentile, game over.

That wasn’t all he was doing. He was also creating a space where that world-view could be countered by the woman. After all, just approaching Jesus took nerve and something had to give rise to that nerve. What was it? As the gentile woman stepped boldly into that space, she revealed what gave rise to her nerve. She revealed her view of God which stood in stark contrast to the narrow view that held that God’s provision is only for the Israelites. She basically said God is powerful enough to take care of Israel with enough left over to meet her needs as well. I’m unsure of how aware she was of what she was doing, but in her response she actually tapped into God’s wider shalom vision for the world. God’s desire was always to bless the nations, not just the Israelites. She answered well, with a wider view of God than that narrow view held by many in Jesus’ day.

I wasn’t there, but I always imagine a warm smile spreading across Jesus’ face. Yes! You get it. Then I imagine him turning to his disciples, “Did you guys hear that? Do you understand? Can your eyes see? Can your ears hear? God’s shalom is for all people!” She gets it.

In this encounter, Jesus’ response to the women created a space for a number of things to happen. First, he gave voice to a common division rooted in religious/ideological antagonism. Not because he agreed with it, but because it was present in the space between Jesus and the women. Second, he created a new space whereby the woman could offer a counter-narrative. A counter-narrative that Jesus also valued. Third, he demonstrated that the narrow view — which was the status quo and believed to represent God’s faithfulness — was being subverted by a deeper understanding of what God has been up to all along — the restoration of all things under the lordship of Jesus, who destroys dividing walls and makes one new humanity!

Michael Danner lives in Morton, Ill., with his wife, Melissa. He serves as Conference Executive Minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference and blogs at Provoke+Love, where this post first appeared.

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