And then there is Mark 7:24f, with a parallel at Matthew 15:21f. A woman begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus replies, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Some Jews referred to Gentiles—non-Jews—as dogs. So when Jesus compares healing this Canaanite woman’s daughter to feeding the children’s food to the dogs, he has made an ethnic slur. That is a bad thing. But this is Jesus. What are we to do with that?!?!
Jesus is like us in all but sin. Prejudice and ethnic slurs are sinful. I conclude, Jesus is not in fact insulting this woman’s ethnicity, even though that is exactly what it looks like. So, what is he doing?
In the story itself, Jesus acknowledges that his ethnic slur was not fair, and he ultimately grants the woman’s request. That makes this a story about overcoming prejudice. This story shows us that people who differ from us are not in fact undeserving dogs, no matter what we might be inclined to think at first. This story shows us that, surprise, surprise, God blesses even Canaanite women.
Who needs that lesson?
Not Jesus. Everything else we know about Jesus from all four gospels shows us that Jesus was remarkably open to all sorts of people: men and women, rich and poor, respectable people and scandalous people, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles.
But some of Jesus’ first followers were not.
When Samaritans tried to join the Christian movement soon after Jesus’ death, some of Jesus’ followers resisted. When Gentiles tried to join the Christian movement soon after that, some of Jesus’ followers resisted again. Some of Jesus’ earliest followers thought that the grace of God in Christ was for them and for their people alone. Some of Jesus’ earliest followers claimed the bread of life for themselves and tried to withhold the bread of life from the dogs all around them.
In our story, Jesus himself articulates the prejudices of those followers. Jesus himself speaks like they were speaking. And thus Jesus models a learning process for his prejudiced first followers. In this story, Jesus articulates prejudices to show his followers how to overcome those same prejudices.
Details in our story show this. When the Canaanite woman first approaches Jesus, Jesus waits to see how his disciples react to her before he says anything. The disciples ask Jesus to send her away (Matt 15:23). Only then does Jesus refer to the woman as a dog, echoing the disciples’ hostility to her.
The point is not that Jesus learns to accept Gentiles. The point is that Jesus exposes the prejudice of his disciples and then moves beyond it when faced with the faith of this foreign woman.
What does this mean for us?
Well, it confronts us with a choice. We can be like the disciples, or we can be like the Canaanite woman.
All of us have some things in common with both.
Like the woman, we were not born into the covenant community of God’s chosen people, the Jews. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, we are grafted into Israel. We join the body of Christ. Our families might have done that decades or even centuries ago. Still, Gentiles like us began outside the circle of God’s people and were then brought in. Our inclusion is not something to take for granted. Like the woman in this story, we should approach Jesus with humility and be grateful that we are recipients of God’s grace.
But we are also the disciples. Having received God’s grace and been incorporated into the body of Christ, we stand with Jesus. Unfortunately that means we, like the disciples in this story, are subject to the temptation to claim the bread of life for ourselves and to look down on outsiders who do not strike us as worthy.
We know we should do better. But we are not always better than the disciples. We sometimes urge Jesus to send away those people we believe do not really belong, for whatever reason. They might look different or smell bad or have different politics or sound strange when they talk or differ in any number of other ways. They might just be irritating and obnoxious. And so we incline to send them away, or at least to hope that they go away.
But in the end, this story calls us to be like Jesus, who intentionally models growth in love. Jesus reflects our prejudices for us, and then moves beyond them. We hear Jesus praise the faith of people we might not otherwise be inclined to like very much and certainly not to admire.
And that is a lesson we all need to learn!