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God’s People, part 197: Dog

Read Mark 7:24-30

“But the voice spoke again: ‘Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.’”  (Acts 10:15, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

DogsPart 197: Dog. This is one of those moments when even the most unquestioning, unwavering Christian has to be wondering, “What gives?” In the Scripture reading for this devotion, we have an episode where Jesus seemingly dehumanized her and almost completely snubbed her. Of course, he did eventually acquiesced to her, so it was not a total snub, but still, “What gives?”

In this account, which is recorded in both Mark and Matthew, the woman was a Gentile. Mark describes her as a “Syrophoenician woman” and Matthew describes her as a Canaanite. While those two descriptions may seem different, they aren’t actually. Tyre, where Jesus found this woman, and Sidon were both cities that were built by the Canaanites and were a part of the land of Canaan. Thus, Syria and Phoenicia were actually Canaanite.

Thus, this woman was a non-Jew, and belonged to a country of people who were enemies of the Jews. She approached Jesus because her daughter was possessed and she was hoping he would heal her. Instead of healing the daughter, Jesus first dismissed the woman: “First I should feed the children—my own family, the Jews. It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs”  (Mark 7:27, NLT).

Sure, this woman was not a Jew and sure Jesus had come as the Jewish Messiah, but he was traveling in HER LAND. Why dismiss her like that. Worse yet, why call her a dog. How dehumanizing is that? I have heard a lot of people try to explain this away by saying, “Oh, Jesus was just testing her faith.” Sure, that is a possibility; however, couldn’t have done so in a less humiliating and degrading way than that?

I don’t think that Jesus was testing her faith at all. Clearly, she had faith in him if, as a Canaanite woman, she sought him out to exorcise her daughter. That would have taken a tremendous amount of faith and humility, quite honestly. What’s more, Jesus didn’t apply that same standard to the Roman centurion or any other non-Jew he interacted with.

I have always seen something else here at play. The religious leaders had been challenging Jesus at every turn and he was being rejected by his own people. This is so true that Jesus often found himself traveling with his disciples outside of Jewish territories. In fact, right before the interaction with this woman, the religious leaders were questioning Jesus on ritual and dietary purity. Jesus chastised them and proceeded to say that food is not what defiles someone. Mark then added the following commentary, “By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.” (Mark 7:19, NLT)

This would have been a big deal and, what’s more, dietary laws were one of the ways that Jews were differentiated from Gentiles such as the Canaanites. Thus, I do not think Jesus’ initial response to the woman was actually intended to be a slight against her; rather, I think he was echoing the unclean thoughts that defiled his own people. He treated her, initially, in a way that the religious leaders and other Jews thought of her.

But the account did not end there, did it? The woman acknowledged Jesus’ words and then retorted, “That’s true, Lord, but even the dogs under the table are allowed to eat the scraps from the children’s plates” (Mark 7:28, NLT). At that point, Jesus lightened up, commended her answer, and sent her home with these words, “the demon has left your daughter.”

What Jesus did there was further expose the hypocrisy and impurity of those who saw themselves as pure. This Canaanite, Syrophoenician, non-Jewish woman who ate swine and was generally deemed to be impure was, in actuality, the one who had faith and was clean in God’s sight. This should actually be a lesson for all of us who see ourselves as clean, or pure, or “saved”. Christians are just as culpable as the Jewish religious leaders in seeing themselves as above those who are non-Christian and “unsaved”.

The challenge for us as Christians is to humble ourselves and remember God is the one who deems who is clean and/or unclean, not us. We are not some how more valuable that those we look at as “dogs.” Whether they be immigrants, the poor, criminals, the “unchurched”, or whatever label we use to define and describe the other, Jesus can be found among them. When we exclude others, we end up excluding Christ along with them. The challenge for us is to drop our perception and pick up Christ’s.

Let us remember that while we may be “saved”, that is only because we are sinners in need of saving.

Lord, help me to humble myself so that I can see the sinner that I am and work on removing my own logs, rather than other people’s specs. Amen.