Summary: Jesus reference to dogs seems a hard saying. What did he mean?
Mk: 7:24-37: The Syro-Phoenician mother
Story: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went away a camping trip. One evening they set up their tent and fell asleep.
Some hours later, Holmes woke his faithful friend.
"Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."
Watson replied, "I see millions of stars."
"What does that tell you?" asks Holmes
Watson pondered for a minute.
"Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.
Astrologically speaking, it tells me that Saturn
is in Leo.
Horologically speaking, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three.
Theologically speaking, it’s evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant.
Meteorologically speaking, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. “
The after a pause, Watson said: “Well, Holmes, What does it tell you?"
Holmes was silent for a moment and then he said.
"Watson, you imbecile, someone has stolen our tent."
Whenever I have read the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman – our Gospel reading today, it has always jarred a bit.
It seems that Jesus is being rude to the woman – because the Jews used to refer to the Gentiles as “dogs”. It would have been as offensive as one of us referring to an African American as a “nigger.”
So when I started my preparation for the sermon this morning I felt a bit like Dr. Watson – was I missing the obvious? Why would St. Mark (and also St. Matthew) include a story showing Jesus being rude to a Gentile.
As I thought and prayed about the story it seemed to me that there were three lessons that I could draw out from this story
1. Jesus always knew his man – or in this case his woman!
2. Jesus had a mission – and that was to the children of Israel and not to the Gentiles
3. Jesus needed rest, for he had a human nature too.
Lesson 1. Jesus always knew his man – or in this case his woman!
The first misconception that we often have is that Jesus called the woman a dog. He didn’t but simply used a rather strong expression to speak about Gentile people in general.
He said: First let the children eat what they want – for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. (Mk 7:27)
Jesus treated people as individuals – and as we see in this story, the woman was not offended.
Actually the translation of the word dogs should rather be “little dogs” which takes a little of the sting out of it. But there is still a sting there.
Although this may appear, as F.W. Beare has suggested that this is an ‘atrocious saying’ and based on the ‘worst kind of chauvinism’; one Bible commentator has put it into a more sensible context. He said:
“..Written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react (Matthew – R.T.France p, 247).
Certainly the woman’s response would support this interpretation. The woman does not take offence – and shows her faith by answering Jesus back in the same tone:
“Yes Lord” she replied “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28).
And Jesus commends her faith. “For such a reply” Jesus said “You may go. The demon has left your daughter”
She wasn’t put off by an apparent offence.
Yet how many people have lost out on a great blessing because they have reacted negatively to something that has offended them.
Story: I took the funeral of a woman whose husband had been a great stalwart of the Church until about 20 years ago he fell out with the vicar and hadn’t darkened a church door since.
And I think he genuinely regretted that he stopped coming to church.
Let us not be too quick to take offence – where perhaps one is not even intended.
Lesson 2. Jesus had a mission
However you take Jesus’ saying to the Syro-Phoenician woman, its meaning would have been very clear to any first century Greek living in Israel. There would have been no mistaking what Jesus was saying.
Jesus was saying that his mission at that time was not to the Gentiles but to the Jews.
In other words, his mission was first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles
St. Paul himself said in Romans 1:16
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.