1. Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?
In one of our recent group discussions, the question was asked, “Why does Jesus sometimes seem to be harsh in his answers?” It is a good question for us to consider together. Of course, it needs to be answered in regard to each specific context in which it might be raised. I have picked a passage for our study which is often considered a classic for this issue. The story also occurs in a slightly shorter form in Mark 7:24-30.
There are two statements in this passage that seem harsh. The first is Jesus’ use of the term ‘dogs’ to refer to non-Jewish people. It was a derogatory term used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. The second is his blatant statement to her face concerning the priority of his ministry among the Jews. Why would Jesus use a derogatory and racially charged term? Why would he speak as if he were going to exclude her?
2. How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?
The first thing we need to remember is that the reason this objection or question exists in our minds is because the teaching of Jesus has taught us fairness and produced a culture today that has more egalitarian values. The culture in which Jesus lived would probably not have taken much offense at either statement, considering them both, “just the way things were.”
The second thing we need to remember as we deal with this issue is that Jesus was by personality what we would call “plain-spoken,” that is he did not mince words, he did not beat around the bush, he was instead rather frank, even quite blunt. People who have this characteristic are sometimes accused of being tactless, occasionally even unkind, but their openness is usually appreciated because one does not have to guess what they think. I believe Jesus was like that. For example, he often called his disciples “you of little faith (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20).” Once he even used the term “unbelieving and perverse generation (Lu. 9:41).” He told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan (Mk 8:33).” He had numerous colorful terms for the Pharisees too, including “brood of vipers (Matt. 12:34), whitewashed tombs (Matt. 23:27), and hypocrites (Matt. 23:29). He called Herod a “fox (Lk. 13:32).” The passage we consider today is another example of Jesus’ bluntness.
More than one commentator suggested that we would not know from the text if Jesus winked or something to show he was using the term “dog” sarcastically or was otherwise encouraging the woman to continue by non-verbal means. But the texts seem to indicate surprise at the woman’s answer which I think limits how much we can rely on such a supposition. It is worth noting that Jesus gave the woman more attention than the disciples were willing to give. They advised Jesus to get send her away. In addition, there is one hint in the text that Jesus’ words were not as harsh as they might have been. According to Barclay, the word for dogs that the Greek text uses was not the word for the outcast street dog, of the type that everybody avoided, but the word used is rather the Greek word for a little pet dog in the home. This word may have given the woman the clue she needed for her reply.
We also cannot rule out that Jesus, who knew the hearts of individuals was testing her enough to reveal the precious spirit that she had, her persistence, her humility, and her faith. All these things Jesus loved to see and they were all wrapped in the reply that he heard from her. Because of her beautiful reply, Jesus granted her request.
Finally, it was true that Jesus did put a priority upon ministry to the Jews, not to the Gentiles during his time on earth. That is where he sent the disciples on their journey (Matt. 10:6). Jerusalem was his goal and as he entered, he wept over Jerusalem because they did not recognize the day of their visitation (Lk. 19:44).
3. What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?
The final healing answer shows that even though Jesus did have a priority upon Jewish people during his earthly ministry, he did not close out those of other ethnicity who responded to him in faith such as this woman or the centurion who came with a similar request (Matt. 8:13). As the book of Acts shows, Jesus’ priority upon the Jews was a practical strategic matter of where to start, and not at all a matter of who was to be eventually included in his saving work. Jesus’ occasional ministry to Gentiles like this woman foreshadowed what was to come as his disciples were called to widen the circle of believers and discover that Gentiles too had been granted “repentance unto life,” (Acts 11:18).