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Jesus Calls a Canaanite Woman a Dog

Author: Geoff Ashley Category: Culture, Theology

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out 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.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21–28

Imagine the public relations nightmare if this event took place today. Headlines read: “The Christ Calls a Canaanite a Canine.” Blogs blow up with words like bigotry, racism, arrogance, intolerance, prejudice, hatred and narrow-mindedness. A public apology is demanded, and the damage is disastrous.

Skeptics like to use this passage (paralleled in Mark 7:24-30) to charge Christ with expressing the ethnocentrism of His day. I think something else entirely is taking place.

The English word “dog” can be expressed by at least two terms in Greek. The first was kuon, which carried derogatory connotations of uncleanness. We see this usage in Matthew 7:6, Luke 16:21, Philippians 3:2, 2 Peter 2:22 and Revelation 22:15. Each case carries negative connotations, but not on the basis of race or ethnicity. That said, we know from other literature of the time that it was quite common for first-century Jews to call Gentiles “dogs” using the term kuon.

Jesus could have used this word with harsh undertones. He, instead, used kunarion, which was often used affectionately of household pets. Why not use the more common term with more obvious negative connotations if His intention was to insult? I think the answer is that He did not intend to insult at all.

This account reminds me of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption. Tommy Williams, an inmate at Shawshank, approaches Andy Dufresne, the protagonist, and asks for help getting his high school equivalency. Andy replies, “I don’t waste time on losers, Tommy.”

We could watch this isolated scene and imagine that Andy is a judgmental jerk, but such a description does not fit the movie’s depiction of him. Why then does Andy call Tommy a loser? 

If we continue the scene, we find that Andy uses the term to test Tommy’s resolve. He wants to weigh his tenacity and the degree of his desire to complete the task ahead. Andy wants to help, but only if Tommy is truly willing to put in the effort. It is a test.

Similarly, Jesus is not calling the Canaanite woman a dog to insult her but, rather, to test her faith. The comment, though considerably softer than the cultural standard, is still a carefully aimed assault on the woman’s pride. The intention of the statement is to penetrate and expose a humble posture that is ready to receive the blessing He has reserved for her. 

The woman’s response is incredible. Far from condemning Christ for prejudice, she receives His words. She recognizes that she is a dog, but also that He is a merciful and gracious Master. Perhaps she even glimpsed a shadow of the reality that the blessing was always promised to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3), a promise further clarified and fulfilled as ethnic divisions crumbled at the cross (Gal. 3:28-29, Col. 3:11).

If we approach Christ, we must mirror the response of the Canaanite woman, for we are all dogs. Far from Westminster’s Best in Show, we are rabid and mangy mutts starved and filthy.

We are dogs, yet in Christ, the Master Himself feeds us from His hands. In Christ, we receive blessing and mercy from the Master’s table. In Christ, we find help and hope. In Christ, we are no longer called dogs, but sons and daughters.

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