If you’ve ever read the exchange between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30, I’m sure you’ve asked the same question most of us have: “Did Jesus really say that?!”

What did He say?  In response to the woman’s request for Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter, Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  How rude!  It seems out of character for Jesus to put down a woman, equating her to a dog.

Larry Hurtado has a helpful article on this passage that explains Jesus’ point in its original context.  He makes the following points:

  • The Greek word Jesus used for “dog” refers to domesticated dogs, not wild dogs, and thus it was not meant to be taken in a derogatory manner.
  • Jesus was appealing to a common practice that every mother knew: first you feed the kids, and then you feed the household pets.
  • Mark’s gospel was written for a Gentile audience.  Why would Mark choose to include this story if Jesus’ was belittling Gentiles and saying they were not worthy of the kingdom?  That’s counter-intuitive, and suggests that we are misunderstanding the exchange.

Mark’s original audience would not have understood Jesus to be belittling the woman, or Gentiles in general.  Jesus’ point was merely that His ministry was limited specifically to the Jewish people.  The problem was not that the woman was unworthy of a miracle because she was a Gentile, but that the timing was not right.  Jesus makes it clear that the Gentiles would also receive of the same food the Jews were eating in the future.  This is implied by His statement that the children should be fed “first.”[1]  And yet, the woman was granted her request because she answered wisely, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Just as children often give the dogs portions of their food before they have finished eating, even so this woman wanted to receive the benefits of Jesus’ ministry before it would be expanded to the larger Gentile world in the future.

[1]Even the great missionary to the Gentiles, Paul, continued with this practice.  He went to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles (Acts 13:14,44; 17:1-5,10,16-17; 18:4-5,18-19).