“Let the children be filled first, for it is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” These words of Jesus are shocking, if not cruel. These words are arguably among the most troubling in the New Testament. These are the words of Jesus to a mother who is begging him to heal her daughter. What are we to make of these words? How can this passage be redemptive?
Some Scripture scholars try to soften Jesus’ words by suggesting that when he refers to Gentiles as “dogs” he actually means to express an affectionate tone by using the diminutive Greek kynariois, which refers to household pets. But who wants to be compared with dogs, even if they are cuddly pets? Others explain that Jesus simply wanted to test the woman’s faith with his provocative words. These scholars may be right. But I respectfully disagree.
Let us look at the historical context to help us better understand this gospel passage. When Mark wrote his Gospel, sometime in 60-70 CE, the church included many Gentiles, along with Jewish Christians. This Jewish church community was still uncomfortably struggling to determine its relationship to these once impure pagan Gentiles. In his letter to the Romans, which was written earlier than Mark’s Gospel, the Apostle Paul writes: “for the Jews first and also for the Greeks” (Rom. 1:16). The Gospel must first be preached to the Jews, followed later to the Gentiles.
Mark’s Jewish Christian community needed to know how they were to relate to the Gentile Christian members. In his Gospel, Mark showed his community that even Jesus, like them, needed to grow in his in his relationship with Gentiles.
Jesus clearly felt it necessary to focus his mission on the Jews. But here in the Gentile region of Tyre, Jesus was confronted by the urgent need of a Gentile mother. She approached Jesus in desperation and yet in deference with her plea: “She begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.” Jesus, however, rebuffed the woman: “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” This mother will not be put off: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” The Jews saw themselves as God’s children, and Gentiles derisively as dogs. Because of her persistent pleading, Jesus could no longer ignore her: “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
Jesus did not accompany the woman to her home. He did not touch the child. He did not even issue a healing command. He simply informed the woman that her daughter had already been healed. The emphasis in this passage is not on the healing, but on Jesus’ relationship with the Gentile woman. The woman began her relationship with Jesus by first expressing a simple but profound faith by coming to Jesus. Then, she expresses her profound faith by going home. Just as Jesus grew in respect of and relationship with the Gentile woman, so too, Mark is saying, his community too, must learn to respect and relate to one another.
And what of us today? What might we learn from this passage? Just this: The woman is a compelling example of persistent prayer that refuses to be discouraged by difficult circumstances when prayer is not immediately answered, or in the way we expect. This remarkable woman also shows us how to engage God fully and passionately in prayer. God honors and hears such prayer.
We are no different than Mark’s community. Human relations can be difficult. Because of our cultural upbringing, we may hold conscious or unconscious prejudice against others. Like Jesus, we too are challenged to be open to others who may not look like us, dress like us, believe like us, or act like us. We can also learn from Jesus. Yes, he was fully divine. But he also was fully human. And in his humanity, his growing self-awareness, he “grew in wisdom and maturity” (Lk 2:52). He learned that no one should ever be called a “dog.” Jew or Gentile, all are children of God. This is what it means to be Christ-like, to grow in wisdom and maturity.
In this month of February, we celebrate Black History Month. This is a time to reflect on the history of black Americans, their experience, and what it means to all Americans. However, this is not just a time to celebrate. This is also a time to consider how we can create greater understanding and respect for one another, to treat one another with the dignity and respect we all deserve – no exceptions. Why? Because we all are created in the imago Dei, in “the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27). No one is a dog. All are “children” of God – no exceptions.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.