Sermon: A Dog at the Table

Roxy (2012)

Sermon: A Dog at the Table
Note: updated, final edited version ready for preaching this morning

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

• Mark 7:24-30

I have never been one who is comfortable preaching about politics, and I’m not going to begin today. However, I am going to mention our president as a way of introducing today’s message. No matter what you might think of him as a person or as our nation’s leader, I think we can all agree on one thing: President Trump often speaks his mind, speaks directly, and doesn’t always speak with a great deal of sensitivity.

Recently, a White House staffer left and wrote a book that was critical of the president. He wasn’t happy, and when he tweeted about it, he called her a “dog.” Now that makes most of us cringe. To call someone a “dog” like that is a clear insult, equivalent to saying someone is lower than a human being. And especially when we think that it was a woman he was talking about and that the woman was an African-American, the statement took on sexist and racist overtones that make us all frown.

Why bring this up this morning? Well, did you hear today’s Gospel? You might have missed it, but unless I’m mistaken, didn’t Jesus just call a woman a “dog” in this story? And not just any woman. A foreign woman. A Gentile woman. An outsider. The kind of person the Jews didn’t like. The kind of person the Jews thought God didn’t like! This sounds like a despicable insult. Did Jesus just call a Gentile woman a dog?

If we read it that way, this sounds so unlike the Jesus we imagine. The woman came to him with a serious need. She came with great respect, bowing down at his feet. She made an emotional, earnest appeal to him. And yet he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This appears to be a religious and racial epithet: Jesus came for the children — the Jews — and since she was not one of the children but one of the dogs — a Gentile — she wasn’t entitled to his help.

Did Jesus just call this woman a dog? What’s going on here? The short answer is, “No, I don’t think Jesus called this woman a dog. I don’t think Jesus was using the word “dog” in the same way President Trump did. I think Jesus was quoting a folk saying from his culture. There were different kinds of dogs in the ancient world. There were outside dogs that were scavengers, work dogs, or wild dogs and then some people kept littler dogs in their homes. When you called someone a “dog” as a put-down, that referred to the wild dogs, not the smaller house-pet kinds of dogs. Jesus uses the word for pet-dogs here.

So, this saying Jesus quotes is not an insult, but an endearing little proverb that describes describing a common scene: a family is eating at the table, and their little pet dog is laying under the table, awaiting its turn. First the family has its meal, then the dog gets fed. The saying is a way of saying dog should not be allowed to interrupt the family. First things first. Take care of the children, then take care of the dog.

Why did Jesus quote this folk saying? What I think is happening here is that Jesus and his disciples came to this house in Gentile territory for a well-deserved break. He and his friends are tired. They need rest. They need some down-time, some peace and quiet, some space from the crowds, some relief from the demands of those who constantly come for healing and help. In the saying, Jesus and the disciples are the family that is sitting down at the table to enjoy an uninterrupted meal. They are hungry and tired. They need a good meal and some relaxation.
But now comes this woman, interrupting them and asking Jesus to leave the house to help her daughter. She is interrupting their meal, intruding upon their rest. So Jesus gently gives this little saying to suggest that his priority at the moment is to feed his family, and it wouldn’t be right for him to abandon them to take care of her request first. He’s not insulting her. He quotes this familiar saying as a way of requesting her patience and understanding.

Well, in response, this Syrophoenician woman shows herself to be a person of good humor and cleverness. She doesn’t take the saying as an insult, but playfully responds to it. She answers Jesus: “But sir, I don’t want to interrupt your family meal. I was just hoping, like that little dog, to catch a few crumbs falling from the table.”

I like to think that Jesus laughed or at least smiled when she said that. That was a really witty and clever thing to say. He acknowledges that when he says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” He commends her for entering into the spirit of the saying he quoted and for understanding their need for rest. As a result, Jesus doesn’t have to leave the house or his disciples, and the woman receives the blessing she came for.
This story does not portray a rude or insensitive Jesus. It shows a divine yet human Savior who needed to take care of himself and his friends by getting away from the crowds. He affirms our humanity and recognizes our need for rest and refreshment.

It also shows his love for everyone, even this Gentile woman that his fellow Jews rejected. He treated her with respect and dignity and used this little saying to appeal to her rather than to insult her or turn her away.
Finally, it shows that Jesus delights in those who come to him with sincere and creative faith. Like this woman, we may find that the most unlikely people can surprise us with insight, and good humor, and the resilience of their faith.

May God bless us with such faith. Amen.


• • •

Note: I was helped in understanding this text by William Lane’s commentary on The Gospel of Mark in the NICNT commentary series. It is one of the best biblical commentaries ever written, and I highly recommend it.

32 thoughts on “Sermon: A Dog at the Table

  1. (1) the use of the diminutive word for dog, which was not an epithet in the ancient world

    “Dog” as in the puppy pic at the top of the posting?


  2. Jesus was also so good at reading a person’s heart that I wonder if he didn’t make the dog comment with a slight smile on his face, knowing the woman would reply with her own sharp repartee.

    The non-verbal cues and body language that never make it into the Plain Text of Inerrant SCRIPTURE(TM)…


  3. I don’t think he was “addressing the woman” as a dog. He was quoting a Jewish folk saying, much as we might quote a familiar proverb.

    A folk saying that needed no explanation because “Everybody Knows That!”

    Except 2000 years later it’s in red letters of Inerrant SCRIPTURE, dictated word-for-word by the lips of God, clear and Inerrant in its Plain Meaning….


  4. It is only in our imagination that we might see his body language and the gentleness in his eyes that might have helped elicit her response. I don’t suppose he turned his head and raised his eyebrows in disdain or disgust.


  5. Job 41:5 suggests that, at the very least, the concept of pets existed:

    “Can you make a pet of him [Leviathan] like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?” (NIV)


  6. It certainly is a proverbial statement, though it is entirely possible that it was coined by Jesus. If so, it shows his familiarity with Hellenistic households, which were probably more likely to have small dogs as house pets. Here’s what William Lane says in his commentary:

    It is therefore doubtful that Jesus intended a reference to the Gentiles or that the woman understood his statement in this sense. On the contrary, he alludes to a current domestic scene, particularly in a Hellenistic household. The table is set and the family has gathered. It is inappropriate to interrupt the meal and allow household dogs to carry off the children’s bread.

    A few factors lead to this understanding: (1) the use of the diminutive word for dog, which was not an epithet in the ancient world, (2) the fact that the woman did not take offense but playfully responded by entering into the metaphor, (3) Jesus’ response: “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter, (4) the fact that Jesus did not leave the house, which was presumably what the woman was asking him to do when she came for help. He was thus able to maintain the priority of rest for his disciples and himself.


  7. Pure conjecture. But it has the ring of one and Chap seems to think so. Either way, Jesus still skewered them by doing the exact opposite of what they wanted him to do.


  8. Robert, I don’t think it’s wrong to think that way, either. And I don’t lean toward this interpretation out of fear of portraying Jesus in a bad light. I find it compelling and indicative of Jesus’ humanity in other ways, not the least of which is his using a little folk proverb to say, in essence, “Come on lady, we need some rest!”


  9. I think calling someone a dog, particularly a complete stranger of another ethnicity, with whom one is not on a friendly, joking basis, and who is in dire need, could be anything but insulting. That is might have been a rhetorical proverb of your people would not mitigate the insult.


  10. So, this is known to have been an actual rhetorical proverb that was current in Jesus’ time? Or is the idea that it was conjectural?


  11. Hello Susan,
    sorry to hear about your priest leaving . . . . after ten years, he must be like a member of the family . . .
    hope they will send you someone new who will fit in well with the parish


  12. Idk, CM. It may be as you say, but I don’t think the text provides enough clear signals to be certain. That goes for my interpretation, too.

    But whether my guesswork is right, or more likely wrong, I don’t think it is wrong to think that Jesus in his human nature inherited the cultural prejudices of his tribe, and that he learned to overcome them by interacting with other people; also, I think he learned the extent of his mission, not just to his tribe but to the whole human race, by those interactions. This would be completely in harmony with taking his identity as a human being, and taking the Incarnation, seriously.


  13. It seems to me that Jesus, in quoting this rhetorical proverb, is skewering his cultural contemporaries by doing just what she asked.

    This post dovetails nicely into yesterday’s social justice police report.


  14. I’ve always found this to be one of the more interesting exchanges recorded. On the surface, it’s so un-Jesus-like. Whether you imply someone is a feral dog or a pet dog, the implication Jesus makes here is pretty clear: I’m equating your needs with a dog’s.

    But unlike your take, Robert, (viewing Jesus’ reaction as human prejudice), I think his initial reaction was much more human and basic: he was just plain tired and wanted a break. That’s even given at the beginning, that he had basically gone into seclusion.

    Jesus was also so good at reading a person’s heart that I wonder if he didn’t make the dog comment with a slight smile on his face, knowing the woman would reply with her own sharp repartee.

    This is one of several accounts I’d like to see the replay of when I get to heaven. (Certainly hoping such things are allowed!)


  15. Hello Chaplain Mike,

    I remember a discussion concerning a Mr. Torres critique on Wade Burleson’s post long ago where I wrote this concerning the story of Our Lord and the Samaritan woman:

    “How is it that Christ holds up a mirror for us to see our own prejudices so clearly?

    Can the reader not see that Christ lays out the problem confronting all of us: who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’: the others, the ‘dogs’, the rejected, the lepers ?
    What is the difference, if any?
    And what is it that may we have in common that He values far above our differences?
    And what is our obligation to help the ‘others’ ? Must they always be ‘sent away’ unaided?
    Nothing in this incident was ‘incidental’.
    All was planned by God and set in motion to teach us something, if we will quietly look at it without our ‘prejudices’ and without our ‘self-righteous reactions’.

    The Canaanite woman did not come to Christ by chance:
    she was directed to that place by a faith that she would receive healing for her child.
    In some part of all of us, we know that every mother would go to hell and beyond to get help for their suffering child.
    This woman came to the Lord Christ. And she came to Him confidently.
    Do His Words to her not reflect what many in the crowd thought?

    And therein lies the irony.
    He is wisely, once again, holding up a mirror, using His Words to reflect the crowd’s rejection of this Canaanite woman.
    And in doing so, He teaches, in a way that is unmistakably His:
    DID he send her away unaided, as they might have done? No. He did not.

    And therein lies the resolution of the irony. She, one of the ‘others’, had great faith, and so her daughter was given healing by the Lord Christ ‘from that very hour’.
    Nothing in this story is without meaning. I disagree with De La Torres’ interpretation, as well as the ‘indignation’ of any who react to De La Torres. The story is a lesson that ALL the despised and rejected of this world, who are of strong faith, may confidently come to the Lord Christ for healing, not to be turned away by Him. WE are the ones doing the rejection of the ‘others’. Not Him. ”

    “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.”
    (Jean Claudel)
    In the story of the Samaritan woman and Our Lord, that is exactly what is happening. Yes, the child is healed. But as Flannery O’Connor once said ‘we have hold of the wrong horror’ in the sense that a greater need might have been the contempt borne by many towards the Samaritan woman who was of ‘the others’. . . . . so Our Lord enters into the story, and ‘fills it with His Presence’ as only a ‘master teacher’ might do. He shows us who He is, but He also helps us by showing us who we really are and how we might see ourselves as better than that.


  16. And yes, some Jews must have kept dogs or at least were aware of those who did, because otherwise they would not have had this saying or this separate word indicating a different kind of dog than the outdoor, wilder dogs. Remember that Jesus was in Gentile territory as well. Perhaps the saying was more well known there.


  17. Unlike our president, Jesus was not satisfied or content with his own culturally inherited ignorance, nor was he satisfied to continually use it as a cudgel against others.


  18. My own understanding is that, since he was fully human, Jesus shared many of the prejudices against outsiders that his people held. While he did learn far more quickly than other people, he still had to learn, just like everybody else. From the interaction with the Syrophoenician woman he learned something important about the full humanity of those outside his own tribe, and perhaps something about the extent of his mission, which after all was not just to his own tribe but to the whole world. That he might, through tribal prejudice and ignorance, have insulted her (and others!) before learning what he needed to learn about her and himself seems entirely likely and human to me; the divine part enters in his willingness to learn, through his interactions with others, so quickly and openly the way his Father was leading him.


  19. My parish is in the same situation as yours, Susan. We are having an interim start on Wednesday, but who knows how many months or years it will take to find a “permanent” minister to fill the position. May be God be our helper.


  20. Did ancient Jews of Jesus’ time keep dogs as pets? I thought they were universally detested by the Jews, though some of the national neighbors of Israel did keep them as pets. Am I wrong in this?

    But is it really not insulting to address a human being as a household animal, even a beloved pet? I’m dubious; even with our modern sentimental and humanized view of companion animals, which pre-modern peoples did not share (heck, even my Amish neighbors don’t share it!), calling someone who comes to you seeking help a dog would be considered demeaning and insulting.


  21. Thank you Pellicano,
    I have heard of this app and I will look into it.
    In this transitory time between resident priests, this will be beneficial.
    I am in the doldrums as we say farewell to our Priest and we make do with Locums.
    I haven’t spoken of this on IMonk before but our Parish is in grief at our Priest leaving for a new Parish interstate.
    He has been with us for 10 years.
    Because of the lack of newly ordained priests the many Anglican Dioceses of Australia are always in need and looking for well trained young priests to lead our dwindling congregations.
    We have so many parishes held up by retired clergy.

    May God be our helper.



  22. Wishing you a blessed Sunday, Susan, and more rain too.

    My church doesn’t use the Lectionary – I had no idea that there even was such a thing before I started hanging around here – but I use it for my personal Bible reading.

    There’s a lovely, simple app called Daily Lectio that provides you with the day’s readings. It’s free and has no ads. I highly recommend it for people wanting a light-weight digital way to use the Lectionary.


  23. Thanks for this very timely post – this story is part of today’s Lectionary reading and I had been wondering about exactly this.


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