How can Jesus call Gentiles dogs?
In his interaction with Sidonian – Canaanite woman Jesus compares Gentiles to dogs and Jews to children. This comparison has rightly disturbed millions of people (Christians and Jews alike).
What are we missing here?
Two Gospels record a meeting between Judean Jesus and a Greek woman – Canaanite (Mk.7:24-29; Matt.15:21-28). Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon (allotment territory of the tribe of Asher that was never fully taken over by Israelite). There he meets a desperate mother willing to do anything for her suffering child: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely tormented by a demon.” (Mat. 15:21-22)
As we continue reading we see that Jesus first gave her the silent treatment. Then, when his Jewish disciples demanded he answer her, he responded: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” However, the woman was relentless. “She came, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, help me!” He answered her: “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Mat. 15:23-26)
The most offensive statement, of course, has to do with Jesus’ comparison of Greek Gentiles to dogs. The key to understanding this text is found in realization that only in the modern Western world dogs are thought to be part of the family. Dogs (often) live inside and not outside of the family home, but it was not so in the ancient times in the East. In other words, the comparison to dogs was not meant to dehumanize the Greek woman but to emphasize that Jesus’ primary mission was to Israel – to those inside of God’s family, not outside of it.
Understood this way, we see that there was nothing dehumanizing in Jesus’ response. It is no different from what Apostle Paul would later write: “…the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek.” In spite of some misunderstood statements about his seeming disregard for the physical family, Jesus here says – family first!
But what made Jesus act different towards her now? Clearly it was her response: “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus replied to her, “Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done for you as you want.” (Matthew 15:27-28)
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This Sidonian woman displayed the true faith of Israel exemplified in the Torah by both Abraham and Moses. Just like them, she was willing to argue with God, believing with unwavering faith that He is just, good, and merciful.