Did Jesus Really Refer to Gentiles as ‘Dogs’?

  excerpted from A Life Lived & Laid Down for Friends

And going out Jesus departed from there into the regions of Tyre and Sidon. And look: A Canaanite woman from those bounds came forward and cried out, saying, “Have mercy upon me, Lord, son of David, my daughter is badly demon-possessed.” But he answered not a word to her. And, approaching, his disciples implored him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out behind us.” But in reply he said, “I was not sent forth except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and prostrated herself to him, saying, “Lord, help me.” But in reply he said, “It is not a good thing to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord; for the dogs also eat, from the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” Then in reply Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; as you desire, so let it happen to you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour. (Matthew 15:21–28)

The story begins with Jesus in Gentile and Samaritan country. Tyre and Sidon are Gentile and Samaritan towns respectively. Jesus in in this region. The place that the story unfolds matters. That Jesus is in Gentile and Samaritan country is a big surprise and a big tell. Why?

Jesus just a little while ago prohibited his disciples from going into Gentile or Samaritan towns. In Matthew 10:5 he said, “do not go forth on a road of the gentiles, and do not enter into a city of the Samaritans.”  

However, in Matthew 15, here are Jesus and his disciples in the Gentile and Samaritan towns of Tyre and Sidon. Somewhere in between Matthew 10 and 15, Jesus had a change of heart.

I suggest a couple things influenced Jesus’ change of heart that moved him to become more open to ministry to Gentiles and Samaritans and thus go into Tyre and Sidon. The first influence is the death of John the Baptist in Matthew 13. John the Baptist was not just his cousin but also his mentor and baptizer. Grief like this tends to soften hearts. John was excluded and criticized by the religious-political hierarchy, something that Jesus was increasingly experiencing.

And that is the second point. Jesus is getting more and more flak from the religious hierarchy. We see the religious hierarchy coming down hard on Jesus in the three chapters leading up to Matthew 15.

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are criticized for not keeping the Sabbath the way they think it should be kept. He heals on the Sabbath and receives more criticism which spills over into animosity among the religious hierarchy toward Jesus. A plan is then hatched to “destroy him.”

Also, at the end of Matthew 13, Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth and is not received well. The religious hierarchy “took offense” and, according to Jesus, he was dishonored.

The first part of Matthew 15, the religious hierarchy again attack Jesus and his disciples for defiling the “tradition of the elders” and for not following Torah well enough. This seems the final straw for Jesus. He departs the Galilee region and heads for Samaria as if to imply, “enough is enough.” If my people are not going to listen, maybe others will.

In other words, Jesus embodies a command he once gave to his disciples. "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” That the next town is in Samaritan or Gentile country no longer matters. Things have changed now.

Changed Mind or Lesson Taught

As for Jesus’ interaction with a Canaanite woman in Gentile country, the usual reading of the passage is that the brave Canaanite woman changes Jesus’ mind. Upon closer examination, however, the passage shows Jesus teaching his disciples what faith and the Commonwealth of faith looks like by pointing to the woman’s persistent faith.

In the story, Jesus is worn-out and needing rest. He heads to Tyre to hide away. Being a “Gentile town,” Jesus cannot avoid coming across and interacting with Gentiles. This is what ensues in our story.

A Gentile woman pleads that Jesus restore her daughter to psychological and emotional wholeness. Jesus at first doesn’t answer her. Again, he is tired and seeking to rest and take a day off. He hopes she will get the idea he needs a break. He also knows he is unlikely to get it.

Jesus’ disciples, bothered by her screaming in their ears, “implores” Jesus to stop the madness and “send her away.” We know Jesus doesn’t take fondly to his disciples imploring him to choose callousness. We have many examples of Jesus’ response to this kind of nagging.

Jesus once chastised his disciples for their callousness in trying to turn children away (Matt. 19:14). Jesus once grew bothered by his disciples who implored him to send hungry people away. He curtly quipped, “you feed them” (Matt. 14:16). Jesus once grew annoyed by his disciples’ callousness toward a woman offering him a kind a deed, retorting, “why are you bothering this woman [anointing me with perfume]?” (Matt. 26:10).

Jesus responds to the disciples’ imploring him to send the Canaanite woman away with a lesson. A lesson for his disciples. Jesus will lift up this Gentile woman and her faith, knowing motherly love does give up so easily and that she will not go away. He is going to exalt her as a model of faith for his disciples “of little faith.” In fact, we might juxtapose the Canaanite woman’s faithful persistence despite Jesus’ three denials to help her to Peter’s fearful persistence in denying Jesus three times in Matthew 26:69–75.

The Test

First, Jesus tests her resilience. Jesus already intuits that her pain and hurt and motherly love and faith is not going to be turned away. Her test is to publicly show that love-soaked faith.

This test is meant for her. It’s also meant for his disciples. Jesus wants to show how her faith is so much stronger than the disciples’.

Jesus first ignores her, his first denial. Then, he directly denies her initial request with a verbalized no and rationale. Both denials are a test to the tenacity of her faith.

In the Zen tradition, the first step to entering the monastic life is finding a teacher and proving to that teacher that you won’t be turned away. Stories are told of a would-be novice monk being denied and ignored in various ways by a would-be teacher. Rabbi Jesus is doing a miniature version of this.

In the background of all of this is the fact that Jesus is acting the way the Pharisees would act. This pharisaical way is evident earlier in Matthew 15. He is also acting in a way the still relatively new disciples might expect any faithful Judean to act toward a Gentile. Jesus is acting in a way Jesus himself claimed was kosher in Matthew 10 (i.e., avoid Gentile and Samaritan regions).

Jesus gives a “no” because that is what is expected of the messiah. Any worthy Israelite messiah, according to Jesus’ religious-culture, is sent forth to the lost sheep of Israel and Israel alone. Basically, Jesus’ faux answer mirrors this religious-cultural understanding of what a messiah does. He mirrors that religious-cultural understanding in order to shatter the mirror.

She Persisted

As Jesus intuited, the woman persists.  “Lord, help me,” she begs. Jesus gives a third denial, once more testing her faith. He gives this rather pointed quip: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

The lost sheep of Israel are the children in his statement. The bread he has come to give is for them. It is the children’s bread and no one else. The “no one else” are called the euphemism, “dogs.” Sharp, harsh words for Jesus! He doubles-down on his Israel first and foremost test.

The Gentile woman’s reply is a perfect one and just as pointed. She basically says, well, even dogs need to eat, even if its crumbs from the children’s tables. The gist of her response is that Gentiles are people too and need the bread of heaven. She subverts Jesus’ euphemism and turns it on its head. It is something Jesus is usually expert at in the gospels. The Canaanite woman is standing in for Jesus in this moment.

Jesus likes her answer. Her faith passes the test and teaches his disciples in the process. Her faith is a pure model for his disciples to see, the disciples who initially wanted her sent away but who Jesus instead engages and exemplifies. Jesus calls her faith “great.” When does he ever say this about his disciples? He grants the Gentile woman her request. He heals her daughter.

The Teaching Moment’s Rationale

Why do I think Jesus’ conflict with the Gentile woman was a teaching moment? Well, Jesus never resorted to using a euphemism like this (unless he is talking to the religious hierarchy). Jesus’ statement seems so out of character otherwise, especially when you compare it to the compassion he shows the Samaritan woman at the well (which we will discuss later).

What’s more, if Jesus did not expect to be approached by a Gentile and have to turn her away, why did he go there in the first place? Why not head to the mountains and hills? Jesus expected a Gentile to approach him.

More than this, I believe Jesus was hoping for such a teaching moment. He needed to make it clear that his and his movement’s mission had turned a corner and was heading in a different direction.

By merely going to a Gentile town, Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms just that. He is saying things have changed now. In Jesus’ interaction with the Gentile woman, he makes it plain that things indeed are different now.

Jesus also wants to show the promise and hope in this new mission field to “the Other,” to the dismissed and ignored Gentiles. The Canaanite woman shows this promise and hope perfectly. She perfectly pictures a tenacious faith for the disciples to see. She becomes a lesson of faith, humility and compassion. In the woman’s not being turned around, she proves that this new mission field is ripe and ready for the Commonwealth’s spread.

Confronting Particularism

Alycia McKenzie, professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, suggests this reading of the text. Writing of the parallel text in Mark 7, she writes:

Jesus spoke as he did, in the mode of rabbinic argumentation, to satirize the attitude of the Pharisees with whom he had just been arguing and to offer a lesson to those around him and the woman. We have no inkling of his facial expression or tone. We do have a record of his pattern of relating to supplicants, and it is with unfailing tenderness and poignancy.[1]

As McKenzie points out, Mark is written for a Gentile Christian audience and seeks “to confront Jewish particularism.” What this says is that Jesus is on the “Gentiles’ side”’ in this case. He is confronting the religious exclusivism found in the religious tradition Jesus was born into. 

A common reading of the text, especially among progressives, is that Jesus basically concedes the point and admits his wrong, learning a lesson himself in the process. This is certainly a fair interpretation, and one I appreciate.

Even with this common interpretation, the confronting of particularism and the focus on pluralism remains. Jesus in the end agrees that the good news of wholeness and healing is not just for the lost-sheep of Israel but for all.

Jesus’ core message throughout the gospels adheres to this pluralistic reading of Jesus and the Canaanite woman interaction. As we saw with Jesus and the centurion, Jesus consistently dismisses attempts to minimize and particularize the reach of God’s commonwealth.


[1] Alycia McKenzie, “Commentary on Mark 7:24–37.” pt. 3, par. 3


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