31 Jul 2011

Jesus Insults Gentiles?

Religious 25 Comments

I know there are some serious difficulties with passages from the Old Testament, where the Lord (e.g.) literally orders the Israelites to kill infants. In the past I’ve offered some thoughts on this heavy subject.

Yet today I want to bring up something that is more trivial and yet as always puzzled me more:

21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.”
23 But He answered her not a word.
And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
28 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.

This particular story never sat well with me. I would not have expected Jesus to talk like that, given His actions in the rest of the gospels.

25 Responses to “Jesus Insults Gentiles?”

  1. Hans Gruber says:

    Dr. Murphy,

    I love your religious thoughts and I read all of your posts. I know this is off-topic, but can you someday comment on von Mises’ argument against the existence of God in Human Action? I’ve always been curious about that I think you’re in a unique position to address that. Maybe you already have and you can direct me to it. Thanks,

  2. Mattheus von Guttenberg says:

    So what’s the solution? Either Jesus is not how you thought he was – or that’s not a correct depiction of Jesus.

  3. P.S.H. says:

    Is it the contrast between “children” (τέκνων) and “dogs” (κυναρίοις) that troubles you? Jesus seems to be emphasizing the subordinate place of the Gentiles in the plan of God.

  4. Jeff Doolittle says:

    Jesus is shaking up the perception of his disciples. He starts out by acting in a manner they would expect from a fellow Jew, a man, and a Rabbi in their cultural context. Can you imagine the smug look of satisfaction on their faces when Jesus responds this way to the woman? Check out John 4 and see a woman responding to Jesus with astonishment that he would accept a drink from a woman, and a Samaritan at that. when the disciples see him speaking to this woman, they are astounded. Anyway, the passage you reference is a spectacular opportunity for him to reveal to the disciples what true faith looks like and to show them that the gospel is about to spread from being centered in the Jewish nation to being truly global in scope. Jesus loves to catch people off guard and on their heels, including the Pharisees and his disciples. Its one of the primary purposes of the parables. In a sense, this passage represents a “living” parable. He gets past his disciples defenses and shows them the true nature of grace and faith.

    For reference and background, check out Luke 4:16-30. It is shocking to his hearers when Jesus proclaims that the Jubilee has arrived. But even more shocking, he points out that God demonstrated compassion for Gentiles in the past, including a woman from this very region of Tyre and Sidon!

  5. Matt Flipago says:

    Agree with Doolittle, This has nothing to do with being a gentile. This is about having faith even in the spiritually dark periods of one’s life. When prayer seems like a burden, and you do not feel the presence of God, you must continue your faith. This is related to what Saint John the Cross talked about.

  6. K Sralla says:

    *And* His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
    24* But* He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

    The two words “and” and “but” are key for correctly exegeting this passage. Notice that the disciples request that Jesus send her away. But…… he didn’t, and instead answered them with a literary devise that almost resembles a kind of riddle. That word “but” serves almost like an editorial remark by the gospel writer. The writer is editorializing that the meaning of Jesus’s veiled saying is different than what might be apparent at first glance. The disciples expected a fastball, but… Jesus threw a theological curveball.

    Notice, he did not simply say that he was sent to the “house of Isreal”, but rather to the “lost sheep” of the house of Isreal. That’s a key to understanding his saying.

    It naturally begs the question: “Who are these lost sheep?”

    Now there are dogs in sheep clothing and sheep in dog clothing. This lady was the latter, and it was by faith that she was shown to be so.

    Jesus emphasizes the woman’s great faith. Obviously he already said he came to the “lost sheep of Isreal”, and also that it was not good to throw the children’s bread to the dog’s, so it leaves only one option. This woman was not really a dog, but a lost sheep, despite her status as a Gentile, and despite her own view of herself. She came humbly in faith, and that is how we all must come to Jesus.

    Now liberal scholars will quibble with me for this one, but to understand the NT theology behind this, it is helpful to reflect on Paul’s point in chapter 2 of his letter to the Romans.

    “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.”

  7. David S. says:

    Uh, this is nearly 2000 year-old mythology.

  8. knoxharrington says:

    We have plowed this ground several times before. Once you acknowledge that the gospels were written some 40 or 50 years after Jesus’ reported death by authors with theological axes to grind – like whether or not salvation was to be offered to Gentiles, whether to be circumcised and follow the law, etc. it is obvious to point out interpolations in the text which serve the authors purpose. This explains, in part, the disjointed nature of Acts and its attempts to straddle James/Peter and Paul and the very Jew/Gentile evangelism question and harmonize them into one creature.

    The gospels are not contemporaneous reporting and are chock full of these “interpolations” – hence the ability of the authors of the gospels to report things like what Jesus said in his prayer in the garden when everyone in the garden with Jesus was asleep and/or to far away to hear or the variance in Jesus’ death sayings while on the cross.

    Bob has pointed out just one of many “inconsistencies” in the gospels in particular and the Bible in general.

  9. Luke says:

    I feel it was more about allowing her to express her faith. Clearly Jesus had mercy on her just as he would a Jew, for her child was healed. Also he English version of dog is more “harsh” than the Greek word used here.

  10. Andreas says:

    there are so many really hatefull things in the old testament.
    i cant understand why anyone is religious at all

    but as long no one forces his believes on my im fine with that 😉

  11. Bob Lince says:

    Perhaps it’s an example of Jesus’ non-aggression.

    He was sent to the Jews, not the Gentiles. Thus, as a Jewish teacher, master, rabbi, he has a certain authority.

    But he cannot presume to be such to the Gentiles; either to “send [them] away” or “heal” them, until he is accepted by the Gentiles (non-institutionally, but through faith) to have that authority.

    @K Sralla. I hope you will forgive me for pointing out that your use of the phrase “beg the question” is inappropriate.

  12. K Sralla says:

    Te absolvo Roberto.

  13. bobmurphy says:

    Thanks everyone for the thoughts. K Sralla, I am looking for something like the explanation you gave. I.e. I don’t want to just say, “Oh this was a teachable moment,” because nowhere else does Jesus teach by saying things that on their face are rude to someone who is humble. (I.e. He teaches lessons at the expense of the Pharisees and such, but this episode seemed odd.)

    The other thing is that we can’t know the tone with which He said this. If it were almost a playful banter-type tone, that would be a lot different from a solemn declaration.

    • Brian Shelley says:

      Perhaps the next translation should be written this way.

      But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”

  14. K Sralla says:

    EGO mos adaugeo unus magis cuspis. EGO agnosco quispiam super logic etiamnunc eram narro in vernacular parcus .

  15. K Sralla says:

    We must consider that the synoptics are theological narratives, not verbatim historical accounts. The various episodes and sayings of Jesus are weaved together (and may even be taken out of their complete context) to make a theological point to the target audience of the writer, not so much to give a verbatim account of a particular historical event in the ministry of Jesus. That is not saying these events did not take place, only that they have been edited and editorialized to fit the main theological or ministerial purpose of the author. To explore further, it may be helpful to read some background on Matthew’s gospel, and try to understand who the target audience might have been. Then, the theology may begin to make more sense. It is also helpful to read the parallel text in Mark’s gospel.

    So I’m not necessarily saying that Jesus is using this as a teachable moment, but rather that the author of the gospel is using an event in Jesus’s mininstry as a teachable moment for his own audience. See the difference. In my opinion, the author is quitely editorializing this event, and we do not know the full flavor of the real event, since the author was most likely not there, and if he used Mark as a source, Mark gives even less detail.

    Finally, to the extent that Jesus seems harsh here, we likely are “imposing” our modern sensibilities onto this ancient text. That is something we all must be careful with when we interpret scripture. It is challenging, but a good question to ask is how the contemporary audience (probably Jewish Christians in this case) would have read and understood this account. Obviously the writer included it, so I doubt it seemed too out of character for the Jesus that he learned about.

    Quite to the contrary of viewing this from the vantage point of a Jesus who insults a Gentile woman, I suspect they read this as a testimony that Jesus was an amazingly liberal rabbai, who talks directly to a Gentile woman in public, and commends her great faith, despite her visible public designation in Jewish society as “unclean”.

  16. K Sralla says:

    Are you speaking in tongues?


  17. adn says:

    it is the Lord’s way of getting her past her internal blockages, one of which was this cognition of inferiority…
    in a somewhat similar way that is how i understand the eucharist….do you want to be one with Me ? you must drop your bloodthirstiness and your oral aggression (bite, tear, chomp), the most primitive form of anger, to want to eat another man’s flesh….when these are dropped there is only Christ…..

  18. Joshua says:

    There is a school of thought that argues that the New testament is a continuation of the old testament in that Jesus’ earthly ministry was almost exclusively to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’. The age of the “body of Christ” (of the Gentiles being grafted into the church) was not revealed until the revelation was given to Paul. There are few instances where Jesus deals directly with Gentiles as is evidenced by scripture. For more on this line of teaching see the website of Bible teacher Les Feldick http://www.lesfeldick.org/lesqa-b.html#2b
    Although some may disagree with his conclusions, it is one of the few sources that is able to successfully harmonize apparently contradictory accounts. A visit to his site may prove helpful in sorting these things out.

  19. Lila Rajiva says:

    @Bob Murphy

    There are always layers of meaning in anything Jesus says in the Gospel, but I don’t think it’s as out of character as some people think.

    Jesus was brusque with his mother and siblings.
    He vented in frustration against a fig tree.
    He was rather sardonic to the woman at the well, when he told her she’d had five husbands.
    He seems to have been fairly free with his curses (“serpents”, ”
    He wept.
    He felt abandoned by God.
    He had favorites.
    He got tired out by crowds.
    He got petulant.
    He need assurances from others.

    He was a carpenter and man who consorted with fishermen, soldiers, and prostitutes. He drank and ate with common people and criminals.

    He was NOTHING like the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of hymns.
    I think he used a cutting metaphor to the Samaritan womn, because he liked seeing what people were made of ….and, yes, maybe he was in a bad mood and didn’t know why he had to deal with “foreigners”. If he had been born today, he’d have used all the epithets we’ve decided aren’t fit for polite society.

    There is no way to make Jesus politically correct.
    Thank God for that.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Wow Lila thanks. I’ve thought of those things individually but never seen someone list them all in one place like that. Very very interesting.

      • knoxharrington says:

        Related to the interpretation that Lila shared you may want to check out The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey. It provides a similar take to Lila’s.

  20. K Sralla says:

    There is little that is all that controversial in what Lila describes. All those attributes are right there in the gospels. Remember that orthodoxy holds Jesus to be fully human. That means he shares our humanity, only without sin. That includes many of those Lila points out above.

    I would quibble with Lila on the vulgarity. I do not think that there is any biblical source which holds Jesus to be a vulgur man. The other attributes yes, vulgar, no.

    I strongly agree however that the historical Jesus was nothing like the popular modern image that is conjured up.

    On the other hand, I do think we see in his own words that Paul could be somewhat vulgur at times. Remember when he tells to those of the circumcision party to go ahead and “cut it off”. Not very diplomatic.