Today’s reading: Mark 6-7.
“Why did Jesus sometimes seem rude?”
…as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil 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 their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but 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. Mark 7:25-30
A Gentile woman asked Jesus to help her daughter. Jesus had brought his disciples into her country to escape the crowds and take some needed rest. Word of Jesus’ arrival spread quickly, however, and soon the woman was at his house asking for help. In response, he told her it wasn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. His answer sounds awfully rude and heartless. Wasn’t he saying that she was like a dog?
This passage helps illustrate several points about Bible study in addition to the underlying faith lesson.
- Words sometimes lose their meaning in translation. In this case it’s helpful to study the original Greek word for dog used in this verse.
- Context is very important. Think about what’s going on around this passage as well as what’s in it. The context of this story is that Jesus, the Messiah to the Jews, and his Jewish disciples, have left the Jewish territories and are spending a few days in neighboring non-Jewish Tyre in order to find some quiet and rest.
- You begin by reading what the passage says, but then you must move on to what the passage means. What does it mean that Jesus initially denied her request and then granted it? Why was he making this distinction about nationality or religion?
The Greek word for dog used in the original writing meant a little dog like a house dog or puppy – a pet, not a stray dog roaming the streets. In the context of the passage Jesus wasn’t demeaning the woman but saying her needs were secondary in importance to the needs of the “children,” his disciples, who badly needed rest. He may also have been speaking about the primary purpose of his ministry, salvation of the Jewish nation, while educating her and the disciples that winning the Gentile world was a secondary goal.
Jesus was a very effective teacher. He used many more techniques than parables to reach his students. Sometimes he used silence, as in the case of the woman caught in adultery. Sometimes he exaggerated for effect (think camel and needle’s eye). In the interaction with the Gentile woman, he engaged in a form of argument. He could have dismissed her outright, but instead he made an opening argument (I must be taking care of my own children before I can help your child) and waited to see her response. Jesus said she answered so well that he granted her request. In the parallel passage in Matthew 15 he said her answer showed great faith. Specifically, she said that she didn’t need the children’s “bread,” but only a crumb would do. Echoing the faith of a mustard seed story, she was making her faith claim that only a little with Jesus was better than anything else the world could offer, and his little was more than enough.
Jesus did not shut the door. First, he said, the children must be fed; but only first; there is meat left for the household pets. True, Israel had the first offer of the gospel, but only the first; there were others still to come. The woman was a Greek, and the Greeks had a gift of repartee; and she saw at once that Jesus was speaking with a smile. She knew that the door was swinging on its hinges. In those days people did not have either knives or forks or table-napkins. They ate with their hands; they wiped the soiled hands on chunks of bread and then flung the bread away and the house-dogs ate it. So the woman said, “I know the children are fed first, but can’t I even get the scraps the children throw away?” And Jesus loved it. Here was a sunny faith that would not take no for an answer, here was a woman with the tragedy of an ill daughter at home, and there was still light enough in her heart to reply with a smile. Her faith was tested and her faith was real, and her prayer was answered. Symbolically she stands for the Gentile world which so eagerly seized on the bread of heaven which the Jews rejected and threw away. – Barclay, Daily Study Bible
Thanks to Glenn Miller at The Christian ThinkTank for excellent commentary on this passage.
Image by Tony Alter on Flickr, CC by 2.0