Did Jesus just call a woman a dog?

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16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018; Year B

Isaiah 35.4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2.1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7.24-37

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who saves us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Did Jesus just call a woman a dog? The short answer is yes, he did.

The long answer is that so many people have been horrified by Jesus’ reaction to the women’s request to heal her daughter, that they have tried to soften Jesus’ language and response.

  1. Oh, Jesus was referring to her as a little puppy, not a DOG;
  2. Jesus was using reverse psychology as he was trying to teach his disciples a lesson. Theologians have argued that Jesus knew he would help her all along.
  3. Others argue that Jesus was simply being definitive in his mission to Israel, the chosen people … and he couldn’t help everyone who came to him. That Jesus is not really saying no to her, but rather, “I can’t help you yet … I have others people to help first before you.”

These attempts to downplay and soften Jesus calling the woman a dog are not satisfactory to many people. It just doesn’t sit well. The Jesus we have come to know and love would never treat someone like this who is in need, especially when a child is involved!

But, what if Jesus did mean his words in that particular moment? What if he was too darn tired to do one more thing, and simply wanted to be left alone? He has, if you recall, been traveling since the start of his ministry, constantly healing and feeding people. Even when he tries to get away for a moments rest, the Gospel of Mark tells us: “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat (6.31).” At every turn, Jesus encounters people with desperate needs.

So, Jesus sets out for the region of Tyre, enters a house, and doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. We are told in our Gospel reading, “yet he could not escape notice.” Then enters the woman, who bows at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter. He says to her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Let’s pause here a moment in the story to ponder: What if this isn’t one of Jesus’ best moments? Does it make you uncomfortable that the Son of God could act in such a way? Or is this perhaps good news, that even Jesus had some rough days?

One of the truths Christian people hold dear is the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully human. This means that we believe that Jesus is God. As God, Jesus has the authority to forgives sins, make judgments, heal people, and swallow up death forever.

At the same time, we believe that Jesus is fully human, meaning just like you and me. Jesus is subject to death and he died. Jesus had to eat and sleep. Jesus was a baby and grew, studied and learned, like any other person.

Jesus being fully God and fully human is important to think about when interpreting our Gospel reading.

So let’s just say, for interpretation’s sake, that Jesus means what he says. The woman then, desperate for healing for her daughter, does not pick an argument with Jesus, by saying, “What did you call me?”

No. She humbly, wisely, and creatively responds to Jesus by saying: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

She is saying to Jesus: “Here I am, bowed at your feet, no higher than a dog … but I know and see in you the power of God, and I’m not leaving here until you heal my daughter. I don’t care how tired you are. You have more than enough grace and healing to go around, Jesus. I’m only asking for a crumb of it.”

Jesus says to her: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

There are a number of places in Scripture in which God changes God’s mind. I have yet to read a story in which God was going to show mercy and then doesn’t. Quite the opposite in fact.

God, again and again, moves from judgment to mercy. We see it here too with Jesus’ interaction with the woman. Jesus is moved to mercy by her persistence and argument. She contends with God, like Jacob wrestles with God, and she prevails.

One of the more miraculous pieces of this story, if we are moving in this direction of interpretation, is that she actually helps Jesus expand and redefine his own mission in the world. Before Jesus encounters the woman, his focus and mission is narrowed to the people of Israel. We see after Jesus’ interaction with the woman that he goes further into Gentile lands, healing at will. The deaf man Jesus meets next is not of the house of Israel, and he heals him immediately.

One thing we need to remember when reading the Bible is that each Gospel portrays Jesus a little differently. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus knows everything from the beginning and all the way through his ministry unto death.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tends to learn along the way. Jesus shows more emotion, and even asks God in the garden before his arrest if he didn’t have to go through with all of the suffering to come.

Neither one of these portrayals of Jesus is better than the other. They simply give us a more holistic picture of who God is in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.

Does being fully human make Jesus’ initial response to the woman acceptable? No. But, does our interpretation and our theology of Jesus being fully human and fully God help us to better understand our Gospel reading today? I hope so.

Jesus is real and becomes frustrated with people sometimes. He gets tired and needs breaks. Jesus is God to whom we can all relate in some small way.

There are rare moments in Scripture like this one when we can really see and know that Jesus is truly human, but especially in his death on the cross. We have an incarnate God who becomes human, dies and rises for you … and even has a few crabby moments here and there.

Even though our Gospel reading today can be challenging, there are quite remarkable aspects to it. This is a story that shatters the boundaries of gender, social status, religion, and ethnicity. One courageous woman drives past all social norms to seek mercy from the One she knows can heal her daughter.

Call it desperation, faith, or persistence, either way, her trust in Jesus and her belief that he indeed could help her in her time of need, is a witness and example to us all.

She shows us the extent of the mercy of God. Even though she had no business talking to Jesus, let alone demanding something from him … and even though it probably wasn’t the first time she was called a dog in life, God’s mercy is for her too. Again, God’s movement is always from judgment to mercy. Like it says in James today: “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

So, my brothers and sisters … who has shown you mercy? How have you been merciful to someone else?

If you’ve been called a dog before, or the equivalent thereof, you need to know that God’s love and mercy are for you. Jesus died for you also! If you cannot recall one instance in your life in which you have felt forgiven, or been given something you didn’t deserve, like a second, third, or fourth chance, you need to know that God is a God of mercy and steadfast love.

Even though others may have failed you, and you may have failed other people, God will never stop loving you or pursuing you.

God’s movement is always towards God’s creation. Our reading from Isaiah tells us that when God comes to earth, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped (35.5).” As Christian people, we believe that God did come to earth in the person of Jesus, and in our reading today a woman’s daughter is healed and man is given his hearing and speech.

This is what happens when God comes near. God comes near to us today through the hearing of the Word, in the meal at the table, and through one another.

Jesus continues to save us each and every day. Choosing us and choosing mercy again and again.