Mat 15:21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Mat 15:22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Mat 15:23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” Mat 15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Mat 15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Mat 15:26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Mat 15:27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Mat 15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (English Standard Version)
My past two articles have made reference to people being referred to as apes, pigs, dogs, and vipers. One was concerned with the accusation that the Qur’an calls Jews “apes and pigs”; the other referred to a cartoon published by someone which pictured the USA as a rabid dog. Today I’ll do one more “dog story”, about the idea that some Jews have had – and apparently some still have – that all non-Jews are dogs to be despised.
This was certainly a prevalent attitude among Jews of the first century C. E. You may remember the story in the “New Testament” book of Acts about Peter having a vision which directed him to go to the house of a Roman Centurion. In that vision, Peter saw a sheet being lowered from heaven; and on that sheet were all kinds of ‘unclean’ animals. Peter was told to kill and eat them. Being a pious Jew, he considered that to be unthinkable. But eventually he realized that the intent of the vision was to teach him that it was improper for him to any longer consider Gentiles as no better than ‘unclean’ animals. Previously he, as a Jew, considered that it was not lawful to even eat with Gentiles; he now had to abandon that idea.
According to the Gospel writers, there were several occasions when Jesus Christ (peace to him) attacked this attitude. (Peter and the other disciples were apparently slow learners). Luke 4:16-30 tells of an instance early in Jesus’ ministry when he went to the synagogue in his home town, read from the Scriptures, and then taught the people who were present. He told them that they would no doubt quote the proverb to him, “Physician, heal yourself”; they would tell him he ought to do in his own country what they had been hearing he was doing in Capernaum. But Jesus said no prophet is without honor except in his own country; and then reminded them of a couple of instances from the Jewish Scriptures when God had sent his Prophets to minister to Gentiles instead of to the Israelites. Elijah, during a 3½ year drought and famine in the land, was only sent to a widow living in Zarephath in the land of Sidon; and while there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha was sent to cleanse only a Syrian man named Naaman. The Jewish hearers were so infuriated over this reminder that God might choose to help ‘unclean’ Gentiles while leaving the Jews to suffer that they tried to kill Jesus!
In Matthew 8:5-13 (Luke 7:1-10; John 4:46-54) the story is told of Jesus healing the servant of a Roman Centurion. The Centurion told Jesus that he was not worthy to have Jesus enter his house; but he knew it wasn’t necessary because God had given Jesus such great authority that all he had to do was speak the word and his servant would be healed. Here’s what Jesus is said to have replied to that display of faith: Mat 8:10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. Mat 8:11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, Mat 8:12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In the quotation given at the beginning of this article (also found in Mark 7:24-30) a Gentile woman (Syrophoenician/Canaanite) came to Jesus on behalf of her daughter. He, having been granted great wisdom and discernment from God, and knowing this woman’s faith, was led by God to make this a “teachable moment” and allow the woman herself to teach a lesson to those among his followers, and among the Jewish leadership, who entertained this notion of Gentile inferiority. So Jesus, as it were, played the “devil’s advocate” and parroted the prevalent Jewish opinions in order to draw out the faith which he perceived in this Gentile woman. (As the writer of the Gospel of John says: John 2:24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people John 2:25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.)
At first, Jesus did not say anything to the woman. When she was persistent, the disciples grew exasperated and asked Jesus to send her away. (I believe the implication is that they were asking Jesus to heal her so she would depart and leave them alone 🙄 ). Then Jesus made his first “devil’s advocate” statement: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
I believe we have too much of a tendency to imagine that everything Jesus said was said in absolute seriousness. For my part, I imagine Jesus’ voice dripping with sarcasm as he asks, as it were, (in mock surprise): “why, haven’t you heard the scribes and rabbis teach that the Messiah comes only for the sake of Israelites? Surely you can’t expect me to heal an unclean Gentile! What would the Pharisees think?”
Then when the Canaanite woman continued seeking his aid, he is reported to have said to her: It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Again, I imagine sarcasm in his voice; but at the same time a gentle smile on his face. I do not believe he would ever have said something so seemingly rude to her had he not known (by God’s gift of discernment) what was in her heart, her strong faith, and her ready wit.
Then the woman, no doubt realizing Jesus’ gentle sarcasm as he parroted the kind of thing she had most likely heard from Jews many times before, made this amazing reply: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. The point had now been made: contrary to popular Jewish supremacism, this woman had proved that a person is not necessarily spiritually ignorant and blind just because he or she is not a Jew. In fact, as was shown also in the case of the Roman Centurion whose servant Jesus healed, Gentiles could have greater spiritual development and faith than the Israelites themselves! As Peter would finally later learn, no one should be called “unclean” – at least not merely because of his/her ethnicity.
I don’t know whether or not this idea of Jesus using humor or sarcasm is new to people reading this article. But I myself have no doubt of it. I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus was ever guilty of that false ‘superiority complex’ infecting so many Jews. He sought frequently to expose it for the serious error which it was. He knew very well that his ministry was meant to eventually reach out to the Gentiles, even though his primary focus at that time was the Jewish people. He sought to stir up his Jewish followers so that they would fulfill their purpose of being “a light to the Gentiles”.
Not all Jews are alike. There were no doubt Jews in Jesus’ time who did not entertain such false notions of Gentile inferiority; and I’m quite sure there are Jews today also who are not infected with that ‘disease’. May God cause the time to come quickly when notions of racial or ethnic superiority are completely obliterated from the minds of all people; when there will be no “white supremacy”, “Jewish supremacy”, “Aryan supremacy”, or “American exceptionalism”.