Children, Food, Dogs, and Who the Gospel Is For

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28 NRSV)

The most significant thing about this passage is not that Jesus compares a woman to a dog, as striking as that image may be. Nor is it the announcement that Jesus has been sent to the Children of Israel. Those are both misdirections that Matthew and Mark throw into the story, like good stage magicians, to occupy our attention while they prepare the stunning finale: this is a story in which Jesus Christ, the mortal Messiah and incarnation of the God of the world, gets into an argument with a Canaanite woman, loses the argument, and changes his mind.

As Matthew tells it, at least, she was a Canaanite woman. Mark makes her Syrophoenician. All we need to know, really, is that she was not Jewish and that her nationality made her especially problematic to people who were. Combined with the fact that she was a woman, and that she was approaching Jesus as a beggar on the streets, we can conclude that she was a “them” in a world of “us’s.” Think of the three or four categories of people you would have the hardest time thinking well of and combine them into one. That’s who this woman was.

To understand why this is important, let’s look at the original audience of both Mark and (a few years later) Matthew. Both gospels were written to a Church that had already decided to accept Gentiles without making them follow dietary laws or undergo circumcision. That decision was made at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) about 10-15 years before Mark’s gospel was written and 35-40 years before Matthew. But, as we read in Acts and in some of Paul’s letters, this produced a split in the Church between the original Jewish disciples and the non-Jewish converts, who were quickly becoming the majority.

Matthew, especially, wrote to the Jewish Christians who were increasingly alienated from both their Jewish roots and from the emerging Christian Church. He had to walk a fine line between confirming the importance of Jewish scripture and traditions while arguing that bringing the gospel to the Gentiles was always part of the plan. This means that he went to great lengths to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. But he also had to show that Gentiles were with Jesus from the very beginning.

To this end, Matthew brings in three Zoroastrian magi, who may or may not have been wise men, and makes them part of the origin story. The first people outside of his own family to recognize Jesus’s divinity (this is Matthew, remember, the Shepherds are in Luke) are non-Jewish devotees of a Persian prophet. All of the apostles place Gentiles in key places in the story:  the centurion’s son, the Good Samaritan, the woman at the well, and, of course, the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman in this story.

When the woman approaches Jesus, the disciples want to send her away. Had not Jesus told them not to go into any Gentile cities but only to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel?” (Matt. 10:5-6). Jesus quotes just these words to the woman, and then he says that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The metaphor is difficult to defend, as it goes well beyond arguing that taking care of the Jews just happens to be his job description. It implies a difference in the moral worth of individuals. Some have infinite worth, like children; others are ultimately disposable, like dogs.

Let’s talk about why Jesus—or at least why Mark and Matthew—would use a metaphor like this when trying to explain to their audiences that Jews and Gentiles are equal before God. None of the common explanations work for me: that Jesus was establishing the proper order for teaching the gospel, that he was testing the woman’s faith before granting her a miracle, or that he was really calling her an endearing term for a beloved pet.

Here’s what does make sense to me. A woman asks Jesus to minister to her needs, and Jesus, acting as a voice for the assumptions of his culture, refuses. But rather than just saying no, he engages with the woman by offering an argument in the form of a metaphor. Rather than slinking away in sadness or defiantly rejecting the metaphor, she enters into it to offer a rebuttal: “Even dogs eat table scraps.”

Look at what the woman’s argument does. Jesus argues that anything he gives to somebody who is not a Jew takes resources and attention away from their intended recipients. This is an argument from scarcity that assumes a zero-sum game: there is only so much Jesus to go around, and any attention he gives to Canaanite women is going to take some quantity of Jesus away from its intended recipients. The woman rejects the scarcity argument entirely by reasserting the metaphor. Most of us do this when someone presents us with an argument by metaphor. It does not mean that we accept the comparison—the woman was not acknowledging that she was a dog; she was showing Jesus how even his own chosen metaphor did not support his argument.

It is not a zero-sum game, the woman asserts. Children and dogs live together in a mutually beneficial relationship. Children are messy eaters, and they never eat everything; there are always crumbs that fall from the table, and if the dogs don’t eat them, they will just stay on the floor and attract ants. Furthermore, the resource is not food; it is attention, and in the time it took you to tell me that story about dogs and children, you could have healed my daughter twice. So don’t pretend that this is a time-management issue.

And she wins. Jesus changes his mind. Because she demonstrates faith, to be sure, but also because she has a superior argument; there was no scarcity. It takes him less time to say that the woman’s daughter has been healed than it took to explain why he couldn’t heal her in the first place. There is enough Jesus to go around.

And this is the point that both Mark and Matthew want to make to their own audiences at a time when the Jewish-Gentile split was threatening to tear the Church apart. If Jesus can change his mind about Canaanites and Samaritans and Syrophoenicians, they seem to be saying, then so can you. And so, it seems, must we all.


  1. I see people talk about “sweet Jesus” — the kind, munificent, loving, accepting, patient, caring, compassionate, universalist good guy. It’s hard to square the dogs comment with sweet Jesus.

    My starting point, by contrast, is that the historical Jesus was Jewish. Not a Pauline Christian but a Second Temple Jew. Among other things, it’s a tradition that honors arguing with God. From that perspective, these verses in Matthew are a great teaching moment.

    Thank you, Michael.

  2. It’s frustrating when we don’t get what we want, and it’s worse than frustrating when we don’t get what we need. How to explain those failures in a way that’s consistent with God’s concern for us is a question that will challenge our faith for as long as we live. The answer to this question that I hear most often is that God always gives to us or withholds from us according to his wisdom. I guess that’s fine, but it’s a passive way of seeing things, isn’t it? I like very much the different idea that God is someone we need to argue with. It’s invigorating. It means I’m going somewhere, and I’m not going there alone. God and I together can wrest something out of this mess if I’m willing to take up the fight.

    Michael, thanks for this series of comments on the Gospels. It’s a series of bright moments for me. Chris, thanks for your insightful comment here that helped me think.

  3. I think what’s at bottom in this story is the lesson that Nephi tried to teach his brothers: that God accepts people because of their righteousness–not their lineage. And so what I see happening is the Savior taking the opportunity to teach this very doctrine in a way that his disciples would never forget.

    He knows the heart and mind of the Canaanite woman–and so he steers the conversation toward a conclusion that ultimately penetrates the hearts of his followers with exquisite irony. His rebuttals to the woman are par for the course with regard to the culture of the times–and are premised upon the notion of being accepted (of God) because of lineage. He purposefully creates a wide distance between those who are chosen (because of lineage) and those who are not by the imagery he employs–children versus dogs. And, finally, when the woman suggests that even the “dogs” eat the same meal (the gospel) as the children–then the Savior relents and grants her request. And the pinnacle of the teaching moment is (IMO) when he tells the woman that she is being rewarded because of her *faith* with a tacit “irrespective of lineage” lingering in the air.

    That said, I agree with the OP in that what the Savior was doing in this instance–at least in part–was preparing his disciples to receive the gentiles. And along those same lines I’d add that the disciples themselves needed further preparation to receive the gospel on a new set of terms. The law of the gospel would require a higher standard than lineage and proper performances. Faith and personal righteousness would be the new arbiter of acceptability.

  4. An alternative explanation for this story (if it can be taken at face value) is that the woman, rather than being a gentile, is revealed as being of Israel and more specifically one of its lost sheep.

    Jesus taught those at Bountiful that the gentiles ‘should not at any time’ hear his voice – a fairly comprehensive ban, it seems, covering both past and and future, even into our day. The fact that this woman is having this dialogue with Jesus in the first place might be our first clue that she is not just a gentile.

    Her faith and willingness to accept whatever moniker Jesus deigns to give her in this situation without resisting or showing any hint of pride, would be another, in my book. There is something more to her, and maybe it is being revealed in this exchange.

    Jesus’ sheep are numbered – there is a set amount, it is suggested, and I believe they were known as such before the creation of this world. Others are welcome (and invited!) to be gathered in with them, but these sheep have promises that date back to the beginning that despite being scattered across all nations and people (even perhaps being born as a Canaanite, as this woman was), they would be found and gathered. One of those promises in that gathering is that they would be personally ministered to by Jesus, unlike the gentiles who would have no such blessing.

    This opinion also doesn’t have to refute the OP’s assertion that Matthew and Mark, or whoever actually wrote these stories, are purposefully using these metaphors in the way they are to address the issues of their own day. It does, however, suggest that they may not be doing so quite correctly. And may also illustrate the pitfalls of following in that same tradition and bending stories to fit our own modern issues.

    Jesus also taught those at Bountiful that the disciples and group of believers he left behind in Jerusalem were stiffnecked, and lacked a correct knowledge of some things relating to Israel, sheep, and gentiles due to their unbelief and iniquity (as Jesus put it). Meaning, Matthew/ Mark/ mystery writers would likely fall under that same umbrella of false tradition, unbelief, and iniquity unless they repented and asked God to correct their misunderstanding. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that this happened.

    Which is another reason to take these stories with caution. Even if recorded properly (a big ‘if’), the writers may not have really known what they were talking about, and as the OP suggest, they would have also had their own agendas and objectives for writing what they did.

  5. I love the comments saying that God is someone we should to argue with.

    I also love this thought: “There is enough Jesus to go around.” This story really has such an inclusive message: listen to people who aren’t like you, and be willing to change when you understand what they are saying. Maybe it’s not fair that she had to speak his language/use his metaphor to get him to understand, but she did so powerfully. I think it may have changed the direction of Jesus’ ministry.

    The story of the Syrophoenician woman is between the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 and the story of Jesus feeding the 4000. Those two stories are very similar other than the (symbolic) numbers. Jesus goes from feeding the Jews to feeding the whole world:

  6. I don’t think Christ changed his mind at all. Rather, I believe he was “channelling” the prejudices of his disciples in order to open their eyes, much the same way the Ghost of Christmas Present revealed to Scrooge the potential consequences of his biases. In response to Ebenezer’s question, “Will Tiny Tim live?” the spirit says:

    “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

    Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

    For a more detailed explanation of this exegesis, you can read an essay I wrote about three years ago:

  7. I have always been hung up a bit on this Jesus was Perfect thing. What does that mean? I believe that it means that Jesus never did something purposefully wrong. Does it mean that he never stubbed his toe? Does it mean that he never forgot to do a chore, or left something at a friend’s home accidently? Does it mean that he never failed to have perfect understanding of everything? I have come to regret lots of things that I have done in my life that are not sins. Is it possible that Jesus could have understood something wrong, and then learned better? Or was he born with a perfect understanding of everything? If so, then I don’t know how he could comprehend our errors. Jesus, we understand, suffered for us and through this suffering he came to understand us. It would not offend me to learn that he was at times incorrect about something and had to learn. It is the most human of all things. And he was human… and divine.

  8. “An alternative explanation for this story (if it can be taken at face value) is that the woman, rather than being a gentile, is revealed as being of Israel …”

    Forgive me for quoting Michael Austin on a Michael Austin thread, but this thought is (in my opinion) not just wrong but exactly wrong. It negates the most important part of the lesson: that those who are not born “in the covenant”, or are not of the “right” lineage, or came from the wrong families have every right to God’s kingdom, forgiveness, and atonement as anyone else. To teach that this story about Jesus reaching across cultural and lineage barriers to heal a woman with no standing is to negate (for me) the main point of the story. Or are we meant to understand that we need to find out whether someone “really” belongs before extending God’s love to them?

  9. birdertyler says:

    I’ve been reading Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Gospels. Here’s her translation of Mark 7:24-30:

    “From there he set off and went out into the region of Turos. He entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know of his arrival, but he didn’t manage to escape notice. On the contrary, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit in her heard about him right away and came and fell down at his feet. But the woman was Greek, and Surophoiniskissa by birth. And she asked him to expel the demon from her daughter. And he said to her, ‘First let the offspring eat their fill, as it’s not right to take the offspring’s loaf and toss it to the little doggies.’ But she answered back, telling him, ‘Master, even the little doggies under the table eat some of the children’s crumbs!’ And he said to her, ‘Because of what you just said: get out of here: the demon has left your daughter.’ Then she went back to her house and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon had left her.”

    Ruden’s footnote is worth consideration: “In the entire Greek Bible, only this passage and its mirror in Matthew (15:21-28) use this diminutive (kunarion) of the word for ‘dog,’ a rare and largely comical word. This word choice weakens the usual sense of dogs as dirty and uncivilized and excluded from the home, much less from the table that symbolized God’s providential bounty. . . . In this passage the Jewish ‘offspring,’ reminiscent of the covenant, and the ordinary ‘children’ are distinguished. The style here is also suitable to a more lighthearted narrative: thugatrion (‘little daughter’), daimonion (‘demon’), kunarion (‘little doggie’), and padion (‘child’) are four diminutive forms crowding the narrative.”

  10. Shardy:

    No, you don’t understand my comment if that is your takeaway, or are perhaps imagining I am saying something or framing it in a way that you can more easily take issue with.

    You don’t need to find out anything about a person here, and treat them differently as a result. That was actually one of the problems these people in these stories had… using endless genealogies, lineages, etc. to try to find out who Israel was, or whether you were of the Covenant, etc.

    I believe Jesus (and John before him) turned the concept of what it meant to truly be Israel on its head. Simply put, many who claimed they were, weren’t. How do we know this? They didn’t hear Jesus’ voice. And on the other hand, those who were thought not to be – whether outsiders within the Jewish culture, or those even from other cultures – were shown to be because they did recognize him and heard his voice.

    These were his sheep, and Jesus seems to specifically call them the lost sheep of Israel. A group that was numbered and known to the Father. Scattered among gentiles (which I take to include being born as gentiles).

    Thus, in my opinion at least, Israel must have meant something different than what those people assumed, and what most people think of today. But the job remains the same – finding them, and they are not found through assuming anything about them. They reveal themselves.

    So no implication on having to treat people differently or not extend love to them, and I don’t believe the suggestion as such was anywhere in my original comment.

  11. SHardy, Your perfection question, I believe, has been and continues to be a trap for us. Our interpretation and application of almost all gospel doctrines, principles, commandments, etc. is bracketed by the metaphorical lens by which we define everything, “Legalism”. We have largely inherited our modern language from ideas taken from Greek philosophy and Roman law. I’m not suggesting that those are, in whole, bad, but they have shaped how we understand everything.

    Our concept of “Perfection” is aimed in the wrong direction, we generally use it as a term to describe personal traits or our ability to comply with “law”.
    Jesus, on the other hand, used it, NOT as an adjective, but as an adverb. Adverbs don’t describe something about the person, but the manner in which they do it. For example, quick vs quickly–quick describes a trait about the person, while quickly only describes the manner in which they do it.

    Adam Miller writes in his book, An Early Resurrection, “It’s true that Christ asks us to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And, in the abstract, it’s fair to read this verse as encouragement to aim at being better in the future. But, in context, this doesn’t seem to me to be what Christ is after. In the verses that lead up to this commandment, Christ isn’t urging me toward the kind of future moral perfection that might come from never breaking the law, good a goal as this may be. Instead, he’s urging me in the strongest possible terms to practice, in the face of a painful and imperfect world, a certain kind of care.

    How does God care for the world? What does his care look like?

    Jesus is clear. God causes his care to shine on the good and the evil. He sends his care like rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
    Jesus was saying, you’re not a sinner because you don’t comply perfectly with the law, you are a sinner because you don’t care equally for those who do or don’t perfectly follow the rules.

    The law, was to the Pharisees the source of their greatest sin. Jesus turned the law from a way to be seen, to the only possible way it can be fulfilled, by seeing the world as he does.

    God’s care is Whole, not broken into parts. It’s complete, not partial. This is what the Greek word for “perfection” (telios) means. To be perfect means to be “Whole” or “Complete”, and Jesus appears to have said exactly what he means.

  12. Eric Facer – You said ” I believe he was “channelling” the prejudices of his disciples in order to open their eyes”. I teach Gospel doctrine in our ward and this is exactly where I went with this story.

    In Luke 6:40 Jesus says, “The student is not greater than the teacher, but when the student is perfectly trained, they become the teacher (Master)”. I believe this verse illustrates a key part of what makes Jesus “Divine”. Beyond him being “The Son of God”, which we all are, he has transcended the need to be higher than the student, he is willing to give them ALL he has for them to become the teacher. He has transcended his need to be greater than the Canaanite woman or to reserve his bread only for “His kind”. I don’t think Jesus ever misses the opportunity for a teaching moment, and the story of the Canaanite woman is no exception.

    It makes sense that Jesus is, in fact, modeling to his disciples how to move beyond their (our) biases, prejudices, preferences, false ideas and beliefs in pursuit of seeing this woman as a child of God, instead of according to her earthly identities.

  13. Todd S, you are obviously a brilliant man. :-)

  14. Interesting ideas Michael. You could take it a step further and say the woman indirectly changed her Father in Heaven’s mind too, since Jesus said he is “sent” first to Israel, and He always deferred to his Father. Jesus teaches many times in the gospels to importune our Father in Heaven.

  15. Todd s: thank you!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: