Throwing The Food Of The Children To The Dogs

      The Healing of the Syrophoenician (Canaanite) Woman’s daughter, chronicled in both Matthew and Mark, is an episode in Christ’s ministry we tend to pass over or sweep under the rug because it is embarrassing and difficult to explain. The challenges posed by the text, however, are no excuse for leaving it out of a manual or treating it superficially.[1] Indeed, ignoring inconvenient scriptures or ones that fail to reaffirm our beliefs shows an unwillingness to engage with them on their own terms and infantilizes both the teaching and learning process.

      Towards the end of his ministry, Christ is around the Sea of Galilee where he performs many miracles and continues to preach his gospel. But he becomes so fatigued by the relentless crowds that he decides to get out of Dodge. He heads north to the region of Tyre and Sidon—the major seaports of Syria and Phoenicia—in search of privacy, solitude and rest. But, no sooner does he arrive than he is accosted by a mother seeking help for her sick child:

22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:22-28 NRSV See also Mark 7:24-30.

Matthew 15:22-28; see also Mark 7:24-30.
Artist: Jean Germain Drouais, 1784.

    So what we have here is a sincere Gentile woman asking Jesus for help who initially ignores her and then tells her he can be of no assistance because she is not a member of his tribe. When she persists, he insults her in a way that can only be described as callous while exhibiting total disregard for her suffering and that of her child. After she willingly embraces Christ’s canine comparison, the Savior’s attitude suddenly changes, whereupon he grants her request and commends her faith.

      The words and actions of both the Canaanite woman and the Savior simply do not align with our expectations and perhaps even make us bristle. That does not mean, however, that they are impossible to understand. Let us begin with the supplicant.

      She obviously knows Christ by reputation so must presume he is a man worthy of deference, if not worship. She has also heard of his extraordinary, otherworldly powers that bespeak divine origins. But she realizes she will be viewed as an outsider thrice over: a foreigner, an adherent of a different religion, and a person of lesser societal status (i.e., a woman). This won’t be easy.

      Though Jesus initially ignores her, she does not relent. When the disciples tire of her importuning, they urge their master to send her away. Jesus does not do this but simply answers them, in a voice loud enough for the woman to hear, “I’m here for the House of Israel and no one else.” In a final act of desperation, she prostrates herself before him, blocking his path, and then begs Jesus to exorcise the demon in possession of her daughter (what today would likely be diagnosed as epilepsy or some other neurological disorder). 

      At this point, there is nothing particularly unusual about her behavior. Though interactions between Jew and Gentile were generally kept to a minimum, she was not the only Gentile to seek help from the Savior during his ministry.[2]Nor is she the first person to go to great lengths to gain an audience with Christ.[3] But how she reacts after she is literally treated like a dog by Jesus is somewhat surprising. 

      Given the hierarchal and ethnic divisions in Ancient Palestine, she would have been expected to withdraw at this point, if for no other reason than to avoid further embarrassment. Or maybe, since Jews and Canaanites were bitter adversaries, she might have responded in kind. But her daughter is suffering so she resists both of these impulses. Instead, she concedes the lowliness of her social standing, and then employs both wit and self-deprecation when renewing her petition.

  She embraces her status as a “dog” but correctly notes that even they deserve to be fed. By calling Jesus “Son of David,” she evinces familiarity with Jewish messianic beliefs and their scared texts where similar back-and-forth interactions between mortals and the divine can be found.

      There is, for example, Moses’ intercession on behalf of Israel on several occasions when God was on the verge of unleashing his anger (e.g., the Golden Calf). Moses succeeded in these instances by reminding God that they are his people and he is the one who is known for being merciful and compassionate. The Canaanite woman uses similar tactics to accomplish her objective.

      But did Jesus need reminding of who he was? If not, how else do we explain his behavior, which was totally out of character? 

      Some have suggested he was simply having a bad day: he was tired and worn out by people constantly asking him to do stuff. In making this argument, they draw a distinction between someone being grumpy and impatient vs. someone who has committed a sin. While I believe the difference between the two is quite real, I do not find this explanation compelling since Christ maintained his composure on numerous occasions where he was under far greater emotional and physical duress.

      The Anglican Priest and scholar Jeffrey John, by contrast, believes that Christ is just hewing to the company line, showing that he follows the law: first, teach the gospel to the Jews; only later share it with others.[4] The Savior’s statement, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” gives some credence to this theory, along with certain Old Testament passages that suggest the gospel was to come to the Gentiles through the Jews.[5]

      But this is difficult to reconcile with Christ’s frequent interaction with Gentiles, such as his healing of the Centurion’s servant or his teaching of the Samaritan woman at the well, along with many members of her community. Also, the Savior’s encounter with the Canaanite woman is preceded immediately by his clash with the Pharisees over Jewish dietary laws, where he deemed all food clean, implicitly suggesting his acceptance of the Gentiles.[6]

      Other commentators suggest that Jesus was simply testing the faith of the woman.[7] There is some precedent for this, such as the healing of a blind man whose sight was restored only after he washed his eyes in the Pool of Siloam.” In other words, “Show me that you have faith in my ability to perform this miracle and you are prepared to accept all of the responsibilities that come with this healing?”[8] But in none of these episodes is the Savior dismissive, insulting or cruel towards those who sought his help.   

      I believe a clue as to what Christ is up to can be found in the appearance of the disciples in the initial dialogue, which is quite unusual. While the training of Jesus’ followers is a prominent feature in all four gospels, such instruction typically occurs after a miracle or parable, and is given in response to a question. 

      In this instance, however, by remaining totally silent when the woman first approached him, Christ is allowing his disciples to take the initiative, which they do when they implore him to “send her away for she keeps shouting after us.” According to the Episcopal theologian and Middle Eastern expert, Kenneth Bailey, this opens the door for the Savior to challenge certain deeply rooted prejudices in the hearts of his followers.[9]

      At this juncture, Jesus gives voice to—in modern parlance, he is “channeling”—the attitudes and prejudices of his disciples when he declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “Of course I want to get rid of her, just like you do.” But Christ has taken the measure of this woman and sees in her the personification of humility: someone who is in dire need of assistance but who will refrain from acts of pride (i.e., demanding help), on the one hand, and abject self-humiliation, on the other.[10] The wisdom and sound judgment with which she approaches the Savior makes her an unwitting accomplice in the indictment he is about to level against his disciples.

      Now, Jesus takes the theological attitudes of his disciples to their logical, absurd conclusion: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Here, Jesus gives full expression to the narrow-minded beliefs of his followers, though he softens the word “dog” with a diminutive ending (“doggies”), taking some (but not all) of the edge off the insult,[11] perhaps subtly signaling to the woman that she is not the problem. She, in turn, responds wisely, asking only for the crumbs from Christ’s table. In doing so, in the words of Professor Bailey, she deals “a deadly blow to [the disciples’] carefully nurtured prejudices against women and Gentiles.”[12] And lest there be any doubt regarding the Savior’s opinion of this female Canaanite, he pointedly exclaims: “Woman, great is your faith!”

      The scriptures do not tell us how the disciples reacted to this exchange. But I suspect many of them experienced shame akin to that felt by Ebenezer Scrooge when he implored the Ghost of Christmas Present to tell him if Tiny Tim would live, and received this answer:

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

[1] This episode was not included in the 2019 “Come Follow Me Manual;” in the current New Testament Seminary and Institute Manual, it is simply treated as “part of a theme in … Matthew concerning the Lord’s plan to take the gospel to the Gentiles.” But Mormons are not the only ones who ignore this passage. It has also been excluded from the Roman Catholic Liturgy, what one scholar describes as “a misguided attempt, surely, to ‘protect’ the faithful from more challenging aspects of the Gospel.” Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), fn. on p. 127. 

[2] Luke 7:1-10.

[3] Luke 5:17-39 (Jesus heals man let down through roof of a house).

[4] Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles, (Grand Rapids Michigan: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids Michigan, 2004), p. 111.

[5] Isaiah 19:19-25; 60; Zechariah 8:20.

[6] Matthew 15:11.

[7] France, F.T., The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 590-591.

[8] John 9:6-7; see also John 5:6

[9] Bailey, Kenneth E., Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies In The Gospels, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003) p. 222-225.

[10] Christopher E. Alt, The Dynamic of Humility and Wisdom: The Syrophoenician Woman and Jesus in Mark 7:24-31a. Lumen et Vita, Vol. 2, (2012), p. 10.

[11] Attridge, Harold A., General Editor, The Harper Collins Study Bible, (New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2008) p. 1695.

[12] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 224.

4 thoughts on “Throwing The Food Of The Children To The Dogs”

  1. Interesting commentary on teaching moments. I find this slant fascinating.
    I also like the woman as an example of the power of persistence and despite discouragement, never giving up never giving up.

  2. This is an interesting bit of writing, Eric. I think the idea of the “implied or borrowed tone” of the Savior is compelling. We all do this to some degree in unpleasant or awkward interactions with others. Our comments are sometimes a bit of a fishing expedition as we look about for support, approval or dismissive evidence of our various positions on difficult topics. Politicians and lawyers excel in this. Indeed, as you suggest, in this story, the Savior may be invoking the kind of dialog that he and his disciples evidenced in circumstances encountered daily in interactions with the Jewish leaders and even the Romans. Think of Pilate’s interactions with the crowd in the condemnation of Jesus for execution. There, too, the crowd was used as a springboard for steering the discussion and letting the opinions of others drive the dialog. If instead of the written word, this was an interchange we could hear, we might recognize the “tone” of the Savior as a teaching moment to get the disciples to understand his interaction with the woman from their own insensitive perspective.

  3. Karen, I, too, am intrigued by the Canaanite woman. We tend to believe that a virtue—in this case, humility—must be the polar extreme of a vice (in this case, pride). But it’s not. It lies some where between self-humiliation/silence and pride/arrogance. She struck the perfect balance. She didn’t overplay her hand and she didn’t retreat. And she understood the disarming power of wit and humor.

    Too often in these stories, we focus exclusively on the behavior of the Savior at the expense of the supporting cast. You, obviously, did not.

  4. Virginia, you are spot on in noting that we sometimes misconstrue the meaning of the scriptures because the authors neglect to provide details regarding the setting of an event or story. And frequently they fail to describe the tone of voice used by the participants, their facial expressions, body language, and emotions.

    Part of this is due, I suspect, to the fact that the authors of the Old and New Testaments were writing for their contemporaries, people who were already familiar with these events because they had heard them recounted as part of their oral culture—maybe, in some instances, by actual eyewitnesses. In that setting, the storyteller likely would have provided additional background and, perhaps, played the part of each character.

    With that expectation in mind, there would have been no need to include every detail in the text. But hat culture eventually disappeared so, what we are left with is the “Reader’s Digest” version. But it’s still pretty good.

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