Was Jesus Unkind to the Syrophoenician Woman?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Kyle Butt, M.Div.
Testing, proving, or trying someone can be a very effective teaching technique. A teacher might effectively test the honesty of her students by giving them a difficult closed-book exam over a chapter they had not yet studied. Those who took their “F” without cheating would pass the test. Those who opened up their books when the teacher left the room and copied all of the answers word for word, would fail the test, and learn the valuable lesson that honesty is always the best (and right) policy, even when it might appear that it means failure.
Teachers test their students in a variety of ways. Good parents prove their children early on in life in hopes that they learn the virtues of honesty, compassion, and obedience. Coaches may try their players in attempts to instill in them the value of being disciplined in all phases of their game. Bosses test and challenge their employees in hopes of assembling the best team of workers who put out the best products possible. Indeed, mankind has understood the value of tests for millennia.
It should come as no surprise that God has used this same teaching technique various times throughout history. He tested Abraham on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-2; Hebrews 11:17), and hundreds of years later He repeatedly tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 20:20; Deuteronomy 8:2; Psalm 81:7). King David declared how the Lord “tested” and “tried” him (Psalm 17:3), while his son Solomon wrote: “The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the hearts” (Proverbs 17:3). Roughly 1,000 years later, the apostle Paul declared the same inspired truth—“God…tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). Even when God revealed Himself in the person of Jesus, He tested man. For example, once when Jesus saw “a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’” John revealed, however, that Jesus asked this question to “test” Philip (John 6:5-6).
There are certain tests administered by God that some find cold and heartless, partly because they fail to recognize that a test is underway. One such event is recorded in Matthew 15:21-28.
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He [Jesus] answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
In this passage, the reader learns that Jesus: (1) initially remained silent when a Canaanite woman cried out for mercy (vss. 22-23); (2) informed her that He was “not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (vs. 24); and (3) told her that it was not fitting to take that which was meant for the “children” and give it to the “little dogs” (vs. 26). In addition, Jesus’ disciples urged Him to “send her away, for she cries out after us” (vs. 23).
Although Jesus eventually healed the Canaanite woman’s demon-possessed daughter, some believe that Jesus’ overall encounter with the woman indicates that He was unkind and intolerant. For example, the prolific infidel Steve Wells documented hundreds of cases of alleged intolerance in the biblical text. Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician women is number 529 on his list. Of the episode, Wells wrote: “Jesus initially refuses to cast out a devil from a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, calling the woman a ‘dog’. After much pleading, he finally agrees to cast out the devil” (2010).
Even many religious writers and speakers view Jesus’ statements to the woman as unkind, intolerant, offensive, or a racial slur. Dean Breidenthal, in a sermon posted under the auspices of the Princeton University Office of Religious Life, said concerning Jesus’ comment: “I suspect we would not be so bothered by Jesus’ unkind words to the Syrophoenician woman if they were not directed against the Gentile community. Those of us who are Gentile Christians have less trouble with Jesus’ invectives when they are directed against the Jewish leadership of his day” (2003, emp. added). Please do not miss the implication of Breidenthal’s comment. If the statement made by Jesus actually could be construed as unkind, then Jesus would be guilty of violating one of the primary characteristics of love, since love “suffers long and is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Any unkindness on Jesus’ part would cast doubt on His deity. Is it true that Jesus exhibited an unkind attitude in His treatment of the Syrophoenician woman?
TO THE JEW FIRST AND ALSO TO THE GREEKS
In order to understand properly Jesus’ statement, one must recognize the divinely appointed order in which the Gospel would spread. Jesus was passing through the land of the Gentiles (Greeks) and was approached by a woman who was not a Jew. While Jesus’ message would eventually reach the Gentile world, it is evident from the Scriptures that the Jewish nation would be the initial recipient of that message. In his account of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Matthew recorded that Jesus said: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). When Jesus sent the twelve apostles on the “limited commission,” He told them: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).
Just before Jesus ascended to heaven after His resurrection, He informed the apostles: “[A]nd you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The sequence of places where the apostles would witness manifests the order in which the Gospel would be preached (i.e., the Jews first and then the Gentiles). In addition, in his epistle to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul stated: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (1:16). Jesus’ statement to the Syrophoenician woman indicated that the Jewish nation was Jesus’ primary target for evangelism during His earthly ministry.
HOW FAR CAN AN ANIMAL ILLUSTRATION BE TAKEN?
To our 21st-century ears, the idea that Jesus would refer to the Gentiles as “little dogs” has the potential to sound belittling and unkind. When we consider how we often use animal terms in illustrative or idiomatic ways, however, Jesus’ comments are much more benign. For instance, suppose a particular lawyer exhibits unyielding tenacity. We might say he is a “bulldog” when he deals with the evidence. Or we might say that a person is “as cute as a puppy” or has “puppy-dog eyes.” If someone has a lucky day, we might say something like “every dog has its day.” Or if an adult refuses to learn to use new technology, we might say that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” In addition, one might say that a person “works like a dog,” is the “top dog” at the office, or is “dog tired.” Obviously, to call someone “top dog” would convey no derogatory connotation.
For Jesus’ statement to be construed as unkind or wrong in some way, a person would be forced to prove that the illustration or idiom He used to refer to the Gentiles as “little dogs” must be taken in a derogatory fashion. Such cannot be proved. In fact, the term Jesus used for “little dogs” could easily be taken in an illustrative way without any type of unkind insinuation. In his commentary on Mark, renowned commentator R.C.H. Lenski translated the Greek term used by Jesus (kunaria) as “little pet dogs.” Lenski further noted concerning Jesus statement: “In the Orient dogs have no owners but run wild and serve as scavengers for all garbage and offal.... It is an entirely different conception when Jesus speaks of ‘little pet dogs’ in referring to the Gentiles. These have owners who keep them even in the house and feed them by throwing them bits from the table” (1961, p. 304). Lenski goes on to write concerning Jesus’ statement: “All that Jesus does is to ask the disciples and the woman to accept the divine plan that Jesus must work out his mission among the Jews.... Any share of Gentile individuals in any of these blessings can only be incidental during Jesus’ ministry in Israel” (pp. 304-305). In regard to the non-derogatory nature of Jesus’ comment to the Gentile woman, Allen Black wrote: “The form of his statement is proverbial. And the basis of the proverb is not an antipathy for Gentiles, but the necessary Jewish focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry” (1995, p. 137).
A TEST OF FAITH
Given other information in Matthew’s gospel account as well as the overall context of Matthew chapter 15, it appears that more was going on in these verses than Jesus simply wanting the Gentile woman to understand that He was “not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Consider that Matthew had earlier recorded how a Roman centurion approached Jesus on behalf of his paralyzed servant. Jesus did not respond in that instance as He did with the Syrophoenician woman. He simply stated: “I will come and heal him” (8:7). After witnessing the centurion’s refreshing humility and great faith (pleading for Christ to “only speak a word” and his servant would be healed—vss. 8-9), Jesus responded: “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel” (vs. 10, emp. added).
If Jesus so willingly responded to a Gentile in Matthew chapter eight by miraculously healing his servant of paralysis, why did He initially resist healing the Gentile woman’s demon-possessed daughter in Matthew chapter 15? Consider the immediate context of the chapter. The scribes and Pharisees had once again come to criticize and badger Jesus (15:1-2). The Son of God responded with a hard-hitting truth: that His enemies were hypocrites who treasured tradition more than the Word of God, and whose religion was heartless (vss. 3-9). What was the reaction of the Pharisees? Matthew gives no indication that their hearts were pricked by the Truth. Instead, Jesus’ disciples reported to Him that “the Pharisees were offended” by Jesus’ teachings (vs. 12, emp. added), to which Jesus responded: “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch” (vss. 13-14). Unlike many modern-day preachers who water down the Gospel and apologize for the Truth, Jesus did not sugar coat it. It may be a difficult pill to swallow, but sincere truth-seekers will respond in all humility, regardless of being offended.
Being offended is exactly what many people would have been had they initially been turned down by Jesus as was the Canaanite woman. While she pled for mercy, at first Jesus remained silent. Then, after being informed that Jesus “was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (vs. 24), she worshiped Him and begged Him for help (vs. 25). Even after being told, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (vs. 26), this persistent, humble woman did not allow potentially offensive remarks to harden her heart. Unlike the hypocritical Jewish scribes and Pharisees who responded to Jesus with hard-heartedness, this Gentile acknowledged her unworthiness, while persistently pursuing the Holy One for help (15:27). Ultimately, her faith resulted in the healing of her daughter and served as an admonition to those witnessing the event about the nature of true faith.
What many people miss in this story is what is so evident in other parts of Scripture: Jesus was testing this Canaanite woman, while at the same time teaching His disciples how the tenderhearted respond to possibly offensive truths. The fact is, the truth can hurt (cf. Acts 2:36-37). However, we must remember to respond to God’s tests and teachings of truth with all humility, rather than haughtiness (James 4:6,10).
Before people “dog” Jesus for the way He used an animal illustration, they might need to reconsider that “their bark is much worse than their bite” when it comes to insinuating that Jesus was unkind and intolerant. In truth, they are simply “barking up the wrong tree” by attempting to call Jesus’ character into question. They need to “call off the dogs” on this one and “let sleeping dogs lie.”
Black, Allen (1995), The Book of Mark (Joplin, MO: College Press).
Breidenthal, Dean (2003), “The Children’s Bread,” http://web.princeton.edu/sites/chapel/Sermon%20Files/2003_sermons/090703.htm.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Wells, Steve (2010), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/int/long.html.