Dogs Are People Too
Media Illustration: It abruptly derailed a promising political career. Trent Lott, the leading U.S. Senator for his party, was at a 100th birthday party for longtime political friend, crony—and segregationist—Strom Thurmond. Thinking that microphones were not paying attention, or that YouTube would ever know, he made what he thought was this innocuous statement: “I want to say this about my state [of Mississippi]: when Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
Before the dust settled, Lott had to turn over the office of Senate Majority Leader to his colleague, Bill Frist. There are some things you simply cannot say!
Does Jesus have conversational “skeletons” in His closet too? As we read through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are a number of times where the Jesus, our Savior and the Redeemer of the world, says some rather controversial things as well. He was a popular political figure; in fact, the leader of His “party.” And people have debated ever since it happened why He would say such a thing. Had He completely lost His “political antenna”? Didn’t He realize that times had changed? Maybe He was just “winging it” that day. Maybe He thought He was among friends and close associates and could let His true feelings show. But somehow a transcript leaked out. There it was in black and white: this well-known public figure invoking the coded language of the segregated past: Us Vs. Them. We’re the chosen people, enjoying our punch and birthday cake, and out there—well, “those people” are all Out There, threatening the heritage of our way of life.
The twelve disciples of Jesus, all ardent nationalists, determined defenders of the old way of life, speak up as one. “So His disciples came to Him and urged Him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’”
Oops! Now Jesus, realizing that He’s among friends, among 12 political cronies who think like He does, lets His feelings slip. “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’” In other words, Us. Vs. Them. “I’m not going to help ‘them.’ I don’t want to be seen with ‘them.’ I don’t have enough miracle power to help ‘us’ AND ‘them.’” And one of the 12 disciples picks up a ram’s horn and begins to play “Dixie” on it. Well, almost. But this is what happens next: “The woman came and knelt before Him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said.” Now brace yourself: “He [Jesus] replied: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.’”
YouTube?? What would today’s Internet reporters have done with a line like that? CNN’s Inside Politics would have looped it over and over. Did He really say “dogs”? Did Jesus, leader of this messianic movement, the founder of the Christian faith, look right into the face of a foreign woman, a member of the Canaanite culture, and call her a dog? And say that His miracle-working power, His “gift,” could only be doled out, rationed out, to the chosen people?
The Message Paraphrase: It gets even more colorful the way Eugene Peterson renders it in Mark 7: “[Jesus] said, ‘Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. IF there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”
“Hard Saying”: Did Jesus think this woman was a dog? Or that her entire nation could be casually placed in a canine category just like that? F. W. Beare comments: “[This is] an atrocious saying, expressing incredible insolence and based on the worst kind of chauvinism.”
The Woman’s Reply: Jesus has just looked at this woman who so desperately needs His help and said to her: “Lady, it’s not right to take the food that belongs to the royal family, to the kids in the palace, and toss it under the table to the dogs down there.” She answers Him in verse 27: “‘Yes, Lord,’ she said, ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed from that very hour.”
What Are the “Givens”? We begin with several bedrock “givens” that we can’t negotiate away. And in a sense, that doesn’t make us the most reliable of investigators. But as a believer, we begin with the following premises:
So we have to stack up this strange “dog” statement against the powerful testimony of the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry and say to ourselves: “What did we miss here?”
No Conflict: That is a very colorful rendering of the story, but we just do not believe Jesus is conflicted that way. He doesn’t plan to do “A,” but then relent and do “B” just because He’s tired of the hassle. He doesn’t “give in” and save people, or “give in” and works a miracle or “give in” and answers a prayer. Jesus and His Father are always in perfect unity of purpose. God never changes His mind, never has to alter His course, never has to backtrack or give in to political pressure. And neither does His Son.
Media Illustration #2: If you heard the words “You’re so stupid,” you would assume ill motives. But in the movie, Titanic, the heroine, Rose, jumps out of her secure lifeboat and rushes into the arms of her new boyfriend, Jack. Overwhelmed by her act, his heart bursting with teenage angst and love, he embraces her and cries out: “Why’d you do that, Rose? You’re so stupid! Why’d you jump?” Everything depends on the tone, on what the twinkle in the eye says, what the nonverbal message of the heart expresses. And we know that Jack is really responding to the grand, sacrificial stupidity of her generous act.
Morris Venden, How Jesus Treated People: “Have you ever been ignored when you asked for help, and then when you persisted in your request, been insulted? Have you ever been called a dog? It’s surprising that this woman didn’t give up long before Jesus got to the ‘dogs’ part. But Jesus must have had a twinkle in His eye during the whole conversation, and this Canaanite woman must have seen it. And now she found the opening she’d been waiting for, because she answered, ‘That’s true, sir, but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their master’s table.’ In other words, if I’m a dog, then at least I’m entitled to some dog food! And Jesus answered her, ‘You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you.’”
Greek Explanation: Linguists and experts discuss about the word kynaria or kunaria, and some feel that it’s almost an affection term for “little dogs” or even “family pets.” But Dr. R. T. France, author of the Matthew section of the Tyndale NT Commentaries, remonstrates that, no, dogs are dogs. “Dogs was a current Jewish term of abuse for Gentiles.” But he agrees that this woman surely saw the kindly twinkle in Jesus’ eyes, and knew that if she pressed ahead, her faith was going to get a rich reward.
Gospel Timing: There is an element here of timing. The gospel was to go to the entire world, Jews and Gentiles both: Jesus Himself said so. But for these 3½ years of painfully local ministry, leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus did confess that His ministry was essentially to “the lost house of Israel.” Dr. France: “The time for the Gentile mission was later. The emphasis of the saying”—I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel—“lies not primarily on the prohibition of a wider mission, but on the priority of the mission to Israel. To call Israel to repentance was the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry; the call was urgent and demanded total concentration.”
Slow Expansion: We can look back over the tumultuous history of Christianity over the past 2000 years, and plainly see how the horizons have steadily expanded. New people groups converted, new countries entered and evangelized, new truths being discovered or uncovered. Our own Adventist denomination wasn’t birthed until the middle of the 19th century. God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that the time wasn’t right before then for the theological perspectives and contributions we feel called to embrace and share.
Teaching Moment: The moment Jesus saw this sad, desperate foreign woman, He knew He was going to do something incredible and generous for her. But He wanted to do it in just the right way, and for maximum teaching effect.
We have to give credence to the “twinkling eye” concept, because there’s no way Jesus Christ ever said anything that was deliberately unkind. His entire ministry was one of selfless love. Racism and any semblance of a “caste system” were abhorrent to Jesus. Jesus would gladly have died for that desperate foreign-born woman and her demon-possessed daughter; in fact, He soon did exactly that.
Twelve Students: Yet on this day He was walking and ministering with 12 stubborn disciples who had pasted “dog” bumper stickers on their chariots their entire lives. They surfed the Internet every weekend, looking for web sites emblazoned with swastikas and hate speech. And is it possible that Jesus here indulged in a bit of divine “theater,” parroting the tired clichés His disciples embraced, the failed Pharisaical gospel of separatism, and then turning everything upside-down by going ahead and answering this Gentile woman’s request?
SDA Bible Commentary: “The Jews felt the blessings of salvation would be wasted if given to the Gentiles, who, according to the opinion of the Jews, lacked the capacity to appreciate those blessings or to benefit by them. Christ’s assumed attitude of disdain for the woman might conceivably have discouraged her, but undoubtedly He had confidence that her faith would not fail.”
Good Cop, Bad Cop: This is a common script device on TV programs. One person momentarily adopts a negative persona just to make a point or elicit a certain response. Perhaps Jesus gives this woman a little wordless glance, unnoticed by the disciples, which said: “Work with Me here, lady. I want to teach these selfish guys a lesson; I want to demolish their selfish facade of nationalism. So don’t be shocked; don’t give up; don’t walk away from Me. Just hang in there while I let them hear just how cruel and foolish their ‘party line’ really sounds, but in about 60 seconds, I’m going to give you the very thing your heart is crying out for.”
Conclusion: This is conjecture because we weren’t there. But even if we read this story as “straight up,” is there still a lesson for us? Sometimes Christianity has its high levels and its low, its exalted leaders and then those who don’t get much but crumbs. But are we willing to take a low position, a place of diminished glory, if it means that we will get the blessing of our Savior? Are you willing to stand by while others seem to get the good places at the banquet table, and say to Jesus: “I trust You. If others should have priority right now, that’s all right. But Jesus, be sure to give me at least the crumbs of Your presence and Your love. Even a crumb from You, Jesus, is better than all the cake, pie, and ice cream in the world served up by the devil.”
Tyndale Commentary by R. Alan Cole: “[This woman] not only persisted when the Lord refused to answer, she now accepted this humble position gladly, and showed that, even on those terms, she still claimed healing for her daughter. God’s abundance for His children was so rich that even the rank outsider could share in it.” Really, when you get to the end of most of Jesus’ stories and miracles, there’s plenty of food for everybody.
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