One of the most interesting exchanges in the New Testament is Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman near Tyre:
“And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone (Mark 7:24-30 ESV).”
Many modern and secular critics cite this exchange as “proof” of Jesus’ prejudice (and by implication sin), because refers to the Gentiles as “dogs.” Some Christian apologists respond by using the defense that Jesus was using a verbal construction common to His culture and usage of His day. A closer examination, however, will shed light that both views are incorrect.
First, the issue of dogs. Dogs in ancient Israel were scavengers. They were ritually unclean, and generally tolerated as part of the refuse system, as they ate the waste in the streets (see Exodus 22:3). At best, they were semi-domesticated and generally not let into a house at all.
So these unclean, almost vermin creatures were looked down on by the Jews of Jesus’ day. So was He insulting her? The short answer is no. While Jews did not keep dogs, many of their neighbours, especially those who were Hellenised, did. Jesus’ actual word in the Greek is “little dogs,” meaning possibly “puppies,” but more probably implying “pet, or kept dog.” While this would still be distasteful to Jews, it would have been an understandable term to His Syrophoenician supplicant.
Furthermore, while in the Old Testament “dog” is used as an insult or criticism ( II Samuel 16:9), it was only used as such in regards to Jews. In fact, most all references to dogs in the Old Testament are about the actual animals. Rabbinic literature similarly fails to show the term dog as a euphemism for Gentiles. Every reference to dog and Gentile in Mishnah is written as an “either/or” not as a same. A paraphrase of one is “If meat is not Kosher you may sell it to a Gentile, or feed it to dogs (Nedarim, 3).” Therefore, Jesus does not seem to be “just using idiom” or insulting.
So what is he saying? Simply, His mission was to the Jews first. Jesus’ ministry was to the People of Promise, but then to the whole world. It was in His plan all along, He taught Jews, He gathered Jewish disciples, He taught them then said to them: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).” Paul mirrors this in his own ministry as Christ’s apostle: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile (Romans 1:16 NIV).”
So why give this Gentile woman her request? “Compassion?” Yes. “Recognition of her faith?” That too. “An early example to His disciples of their mission to come?” Perhaps. “If so, why the delay?” To make the point clear to the Jewish disciples!
Yes, they were crumbs for the Syrophoenician, but those crumbs (delivered before the full outpouring of the Spirit guiding mission to the world by the disciples) was a foretaste of a feast to come!
John writes: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1: 9-12).” And children eat their bread from the table!