Friday, January 13, 2012

Toss It to Their Dogs

We have come to a point in the Gospel storyline where Matthew and Mark continue on alone for a little while. Jesus fed the five thousand men, plus others, and then walked on water to meet His disciples on the Sea of Galilee. This was followed by a confrontation with some traveling Pharisees over hand-washing, where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for teaching contrary to God's Law, only for Jesus to give His own teaching which was contrary to God's Law regarding being clean and unclean.

Toss It to Their Dogs
Jesus is often portrayed as being humble, merciful, and generous; assuming a lowly position, opting not to condemn but rather save, and healing all who came to Him. It is a nice picture, but it is not the whole story. There are other, more controversial, aspects which crop up as you explore the Gospels in their entirety. Take, for example, the episode where Jesus is approached by a Canaanite.

Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 record a journey of Jesus into the region of Tyre and Sidon, coastline cities to the north of Israel. Allow me to repeat that for emphasis, this is outside of Israel. Why is Jesus outside of Israel? Well, Mark, the earlier-written of the two Gospels, seems to imply that Jesus either on the run, or was looking for a little private relaxation, because Mark 7:24 reveals that Jesus was trying to keep His presence there a secret. Matthew did not want his version of the Messiah sneaking around, so he left off the secrecy in Matthew 15:21, which also leaves off any kind of indication of why Jesus would go there.

I know. Right now you are thinking: "You Fool, Jesus was sent to the Jews and the Gentiles. That is why He was there." Is that so? Hmm. Let us see what Jesus has to say about that a little later.

Despite the secrecy of Jesus' visit, or lack thereof, news of His presence spreads. This was Jesus' first recorded visit to the region, but supposedly His fame had already reached the region and had earlier enticed some of its denizens to go see Jesus while He was in the region of Galilee (Mark 3:8, Luke 6:17). So, naturally large crowds gathered... No. Wait. Just one woman. One woman came to see Jesus while He was there, because she had a demon-possessed daughter. She begged Jesus to help her daughter (Matthew 15:22, Mark 7:25-26).

Naturally, you would expect Jesus, the epitome of love and virtue, endowed with unlimited powers of healing and exorcism, and overflowing with compassion for everyone, to jump at the chance to free this woman's daughter of the evil spirit, just like He had done literally countless times before for other people. You would be wrong. Matthew 15:23 records that Jesus would not even waste His breath to speak to her until He was prodded by His disciples to do so because she was bothering them. When Jesus finally did say something, it was far from what would be expected, as we see in Matthew 15:24:
[Jesus] answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." NIV
According to this line, Jesus was sent only for the Jews, according to the will of God the Father (the implied sender of Jesus). No Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:45-47). No inclusion of Gentiles. Maybe. Let us take a moment to birth this pregnant statement.

This could be a relic of a time when the Jesus story was exclusively for the Jews. With the above-noted Great Commission (the commission to preach Jesus to all of the world) being at the end of the Gospels, they could easily be a late addition to the story at a time when it seemed that the Gentiles had become interested in Jesus. In fact, the oldest manuscripts of Mark do not include this Great Commission. (Those versions end at Mark 16:8, with an empty tomb but no eyewitnesses to a risen Jesus.) Of course, there is also the curious fact that Saul/Paul was specifically designated as the Apostle to the Gentiles in Acts 9:15, which would not have been necessary if the surviving eleven Apostles had been given a commission to go out to all of the nations. Finally, and in connection to the point above, we should also consider that the "all of the nations" in the Great Commission may not have actually meant all the nations of the world. In the Old Testament, such as in Zechariah 11:10, "all of the nations" was also used (although rarely) to mean exclusively the Jews, as each of the Twelve Tribes of Jews had a "nation" of their own* within the greater nation of Israel. So it is possible that the Great Commission, even if it was included in early Gospel drafts, may not have been all that great in scope.

On the other hand, Jesus could just be saying that God the Father's specific orders were for Jesus to spread the message to the Jews, and for believers to subsequently spread the message to the rest of the world. Then Jesus' statement would seem to be an indication that He placed following the commands of God the Father first and foremost, so He could not heal the woman's daughter because it was outside His God-given scope, and yet He healed the daughter anyway just a handful of verses later. Plus, if Jesus was only sent to the Jews, what on earth was He doing outside of the nation of Israel? It makes no sense for Jesus to travel to Tyre or Sidon. It is like going to Norway to help the people of Sweden.

The story really does not get better as it continues. The woman begs for help again (Matthew 15:25). From here on out, Matthew 15:26-28 and Mark 7:27-30 have essentially the same content, but there is one peculiar difference.

Matthew 15:26 is similar to Mark 7:27, but Mark adds a qualifying statement (highlighted in bold below) in Jesus' reply to the woman:
"First let the children eat all they want," [Jesus] told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." NIV
If you were reading Mark's version alone, you may not really know what Jesus means by "the children." That is probably why Matthew touched up the story when he copied it for his Gospel, adding the part discussed above regarding the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is saying that the Jews should get first dibs on healing miracles and exorcisms, and possibly on interaction with Jesus. Of course, again, this leads to the question of why was Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon if such preference was to be given to the Jews?

Jesus' statement suggests that there is a limited quantity of God's blessing.

Also, you should note that to use the reference of dogs here, referring to this woman and her people in general, was a pretty big insult. This is not exactly the kind of language you would expect from Mr. Compassion.

Do not think that the statement implies that it was a Jews-first, then Gentiles sentiment either. The metaphor is children verses dogs. They were not equal in Jesus' eyes, and not even worthy of sitting at the table. The concept through the metaphor is that maybe, just maybe, some compassion may spill over for the Gentiles, but it is far from guaranteed.

Finally you should note that this is the same Jesus who had earlier instructed His own Disciples to freely give of their powers of healing and exorcism when sending them out on their first mission (Matthew 10:8). This is no free giving. This is a test of endurance against intentional discouragement, rendering Jesus a hypocrite in the classic sense.

The woman, unfazed or perhaps desperate beyond any other hope, pleads one more time, continuing in Jesus' metaphor to suggest that she would gladly take any crumbs which dropped from the table. This persistence finally won over Jesus' compassionate side, and so He exorcised her daughter remotely (Matthew 15:27-28, Mark 7:28-30). Allegedly the daughter is healed, even though there are no witnesses in Jesus' party to verify that fact, given that the daughter was not present at the time.

Perhaps it is for these very serious issues that Luke, the Editor, opted not to include this episode in his Gospel.

* - That each of the tribes had their own nation is not 100% accurate. The Tribe of Levi, a.k.a. the Levites, did not have their own nation, but were rather scattered through each of the other Jewish nations serving as priests. Nevertheless, there were still considered to be twelve nations, as the Tribe of Joseph was considered to be split into the Tribe of Manasseh and the Tribe of Ephriam. See this map for reference.

Curiously, you will see that the map actually includes Tyre and Sidon as part of the territory of the Tribe of Asher as defined in Joshua 19:24-31. Yet as 2 Samuel 5:11 later indicates, Tyre had a Gentile king. Neither Tyre nor Sidon were ever captured and populated by Jews or fully incorporated into their kingdom, but Tyre was often portrayed as having a friendly, almost vassal-like relationship for some time with the Jews (2 Samuel 5:11, 1 Kings 5:1, 1 Kings 9:11-12). Yet at some point in time, the relationship with Tyre turned sour, causing God to condemn it (Isaiah 23, Ezekiel 26).


  1. I hear what your saying, but what if you look at it from this angle: After the Woman's persistence, the DISCIPLES get frustrated... The disciples said "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after US." Following this HE ANSWERED THE DISCIPLES "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" (Almost sarcastically towards the Disciples), prior to this Jesus didn't say a word; the disciples did... was this not a test of the Love of his disciples? who seem to have put themselves on a pedestal? remember it was Peter who denied Jesus three times and Jesus was always questioning the disciples faith; When Jesus settled the storm for instance... following this, Jesus reverts his attention BACK to the Woman and establishes her faith even-more, although Jesus' comments were... lets say Harsh, he doesn't reject her, he makes a point THROUGH her comments:"Yes it is, Lord," she said. "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table." Jesus used the words he did because they related to how the disciples felt, the woman justified why she should be entitled to the Lords power which would have questioned the disciples decision to push her away..Jesus then says "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." Matthew 15: 28 Now looking at it from this view, we can see that Jesus in HIS WISDOM has made a brilliant point by humiliating himself and making the GENTILE WOMAN Victor! Doesn't that say something in itself?

  2. Hello Karl, and thanks for the comment.

    You raise an interesting perspective here; one which I had not heard before.

    Matthew 15:24 does just say "He answered," meaning Jesus, but it does not say who He answered. It very well could be, as you suggest, that He was instead speaking to the Disciples. I took it to be a reply directed at the woman because 1) she was Canaanite, 2) Matthew 15:23 suggests that she was constantly calling out, making a reply to her somewhat independent of needing a specific preceding sentence from her in the text, and 3) in Matthew 15:25 the woman does what she had not done before, namely go right up to Jesus and kneel before Him, which implies that she received some queue to do so, such as Jesus speaking to her. Yet this is all circumstantial evidence, which does not always point to the truth.

    If we take your suggestion, that this was a sarcastic response to the Disciple (which would not be humble, loving, or a straightforward rebuke; traits more in line with His prescribed nature), that would imply that the Disciples held a belief that Jesus was only for the Jews, and that such a belief had no foundation in truth. Yet, interestingly enough, when Jesus is sending the Disciples out on their first mission, He states in Matthew 10:5-6 that they were not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the "lost sheep" of Israel. So what Jesus says here in Matthew 15:24 is 100% consistent with what He had said earlier in a time when we know for sure that He was not being sarcastic.

    You are right about Jesus constantly rebuking His Disciples' lack of faith, though, but your theory also is a little problematic if you were to just look at Mark's account, where there is no mention of the disciples at all, and so would fail to be a test of their love.

    At the end, I think the message which was meant to be conveyed focuses on the fact that God rewards persistence, especially when no encouragement is given. This is consistent with the Parable of the Wronged Widow in Luke 18:1-8, among other verses. Yes, the Gentile woman was a victor, as you say, because she doggedly pursued God/Jesus. (I wonder if the origin of the use of the word "doggedly" meaning persistently comes out of this story?)

  3. You know, this blog is hard to stay away is a bit unique.

    If we tweak assumptions, does the picture change? Supposing we view Jesus' healings as not the main event but as a corollary. If you are establishing your credentials as the messiah, someone who will one day preside over an earth free of sickness and death, isn't it good if you can do more than dispense aspirin in the here and now? That would explain why he's not keen on healing the Gentile woman....his ministry is geared toward Jews just then; that would explain why he sometimes tells followers to keep mum about his shallow people would not seek him out for the wrong reasons, which, of course, they did anyway, but at least his directions for silence was a step toward the end of people deciding based, not on his healing, but based on his teaching and his fulfilling of scripture that those literate among them would have read themselves or …..sigh....relied on their unreliable religious leaders to read to them. That would also explain why it did not necessarily require faith to be healed by him....there were some healed who didn't even know who he was. Does that make sense? Are there problems with that view?

    Nor am I sure it was such an insult to use the term “dogs.” By today's standards, yes, but this woman wasn't a woman of today, but of then. With hunger, poverty, sickness, always just a stone's throw away, did they really harp on their emotional wounds back then so as to quickly take offense, as people today would? My guess is no. Everyone knew Jews stayed separate for religious reasons, and therefore would not take it aloofness as personally as they surely would today. Moreover, Jesus even used a softening variation of 'dog,' sometimes translated as "little dogs," as opposed to big filthy hound dogs. Though, to be sure, he did not address her as “noble dame comprising but another part of our rich diversity.” But I doubt his remark would have been such an insult in its time. The woman certainly did not take it so. Perhaps a discerning Jesus may not even have used that term with everyone, just as our language may change depending on our connection with and insight into whoever we might be talking to.

  4. Hello again Tom! I am glad you are enjoying the blog! I do apologize if if comes off as a little too contentious at times. I try to balance shock and content with the skeptical perspective, but I doubtlessly go too far at times. So I am glad you can see past that and engage in the discussion! It is a rare pleasure to have such great conversations on the matter.

    Does that make sense? Are there problems with that view?
    The biggest problem is that we are stepping a level or two beyond explicit detains in the Scriptures in the points you raise, so, honestly, I cannot tell you that you are wrong or right with much authority. :-) Even so, here are my thoughts:

    I think I understand most of what you are suggesting, but I am not sold on it. Certainly the healings should have been a corollary. If you contrast this episode to that of the Samaritan woman in John 4, it is completely different. Jesus approaches her first, and eventually teaching of the afterlife is given. In this case for the Canaanite woman, Jesus seems to resist speaking to her, and He never tells her anything about the afterlife. He marvels at her faith, but what is her faith in? The afterlife? No. It is the faith that Jesus could heal her daughter, and might just do so if she was persistent enough. For if she knew of the afterlife, would not it be more fitting for her to solicit Jesus to forgive the sins of her daughter?

    Now what if Jesus told this woman, "Look, I know you want to save your daughter's life, but what if I told you how both you and your daughter could live forever, beyond this present life, without disease or hardships, or any evil of any sort?"

    I can understand not wanting shallow followers, but are shallow followers too great a cost to afford in order to also get meaningful followers? If you were to look at the population of Christianity today, how would you answer that?

    So I would not say that your view does not necessarily make sense, but I do not think that it answers, or points to the answers, of all of the valid questions.

    Nor am I sure it was such an insult to use the term “dogs.”
    You raise good points that people may have had thicker (emotional) skins back as to not take great offense in a comment like this, that the Jews were known to keep themselves separate, and perhaps that Jesus was discerning in who He was speaking to and the verbiage He used accordingly.

    The "little dog" I had not noticed. I am on the fence on that one whether it is better or worse. Certainly a puppy is is cute and more lovable than a full size dog. On the other hand, it could also be seen as another layer of insult, as puppies are not really good for anything, in a utilitarian sense of the words. They are not going to defend your property or your flocks.

    Somewhat in a flipped perspective, however, I think the use of "dog" today is less offensive than it was back then, at least in certain circles. In what I have read regarding man-dog relationships at the time, they were not as romanticized as they are today. It is only in recent decades that the question of whether or not dogs (or any other domesticated animal) go to heaven has come up as more of a mainstream thought. A church in Europe just had a doggy blessing service. Compare that with the sentiments about dogs in Matthew 7:6, Philippians 3:2, and Revelation 22:15.

    As for the woman not taking it as an insult, that may be a little presumptuous. The text does not speak of her feelings on the matter. To tell you the truth, if my child was sick, almost to death, and there was someone who could miraculously heal my child in front of me, I would bear all sorts of insults and humiliation by chance to gain the favor of the miracle worker for the healing.

  5. When my daughter went as a teen to the Dominican Republic, she saw a dog on the street and asked those she was with what was it's name. They all looked at her strangely. The idea of anyone naming a dog was quite foreign to them. So yes, agreed that today's Western view of dogs is unique.

    But on the explicit "what if I told you how both you and your daughter could live forever, beyond this present life, without disease or hardships, or any evil of any sort?" He didn't speak that way even to his own 12 disciples, who were always behind the curve as to what he was up to. They figured the messiah was wrapped up with various restoration and healing prophesies, but they were usually wrong on specifics. And Jesus was not in a hurry to clear up everything for them. Mostly he was content to be identified as the messiah, and to gather some who would follow in his footsteps, even while only gradually revealing where those footsteps would take them.

    There was very little talk of any afterlife with the Samaritan woman, who plainly didn't understand (vs 15) what little was said. It's mostly all about revealing himself to her as the messiah in vs 26, building on what she already knew and on Jesus knowing details of her life. And the Canaanite woman....was her faith in Jesus as miracle worker, or Jesus as messiah and implicit with being messiah was ability to heal? Doesn't really say, but I lean toward the latter. A mixture of both, probably. They're not mutually exclusive.

    I'm not sure if I understood what you meant in the paragraph regarding shallow Christians and the state of Christianity today. Surely the deep Christians today are on the sports field praising Jesus for completed plays? ;-)

    1. "He didn't speak that way even to his own 12 disciples..."
      "And the Canaanite woman....was her faith in Jesus as miracle worker..."
      It is a little strange, that. Although, in this case, there may have been a reason for a difference. The Disciples were Jewish, and so were, most likely, familiar with the Messiah concept, and, if they sided with Pharisees over the Sadducees, somewhat familiar with an interpretation of an afterlife in the Scriptures.

      The Canaanite woman, on the other hand, we can only guess. Chances are, with the Jews usually trying to keep to themselves (as you had mentioned previously), and with no apparent favor shining down on the Jews from God in that moment of history, she would have little to no reason to interest herself in their religion or prophesies.

      As I mentioned above, there is no evidence in her speech which would give you any indication in belief in Jesus as anything more than a healer, and she was in desperate need of a healer.

      So I think that the weight of circumstantial evidence is against the notion that this woman thought of Jesus as the Messiah, and may not have even been familiar with the Messiah concept. But it is just that; circumstantial evidence. So I would have to concede that your theory is firmly within the realm of possibility.

      "There was very little talk of any afterlife with the Samaritan woman, who plainly didn't understand..."
      Check out the conclusion of that episode, John 4:39-42.

      "They figured the messiah was wrapped up with various restoration and healing prophesies, but they were usually wrong on specifics."
      I hate to keep kicking a dead horse, but your words here support one of the points I was making in the "The Signs of the Times" post. Even if they were self- or home-taught in the Scriptures as opposed to relying on scribes, there is a great difficulty in interpretation of Scriptural prophesy, especially as compared to the weather.

      In fact, it may have even been impossible for them to understand the prophesies, if you look at Luke 24:25-27 and Luke 24:44-47, and take the words of Luke 24:45 to heart:

      "Then [Jesus] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures." NIV