Was Jesus cruel to the Canaanite /Phonecian woman by calling her a “dog” in Mark 7:24-30/Matthew 15:21-28?
In order to understand this passage properly, one must look at the context of what happened right before it in Mark 7:14-23 /Matthew 15:10, 15-20. That pericope also flows naturally from what came before it in Mark 7:1-13/Matthew 15:1-9. One could title the whole passage this way, breaking down the passage into three sections, because they relate to one another:
Mark 7:1-13 – the Word of God /Scripture is above all human traditions
Mark 7:14-23 – True cleanliness has to begin in the heart. Our hearts are naturally unclean and sinful and sin begins in the heart of evil thoughts and motives, selfishness, lusts, pride, greed, jeolousy – the hidden internal sins. They come out from us in our words and actions. Uncleanliness is more an internal matter rather than external washings. External washings cannot cleanse the heart. We have to realize our hearts are sinful and that sin starts with evil thoughts and the selfish motives.
Mark 7:24-30 – Jesus tests the disciples’ racial pride in the heart by interaction with a Canaanite/Phoenician woman.
14 After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He *said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
24 Jesus got up and went away from there to the region of Tyre. And when He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; yet He could not escape notice. 25 But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered and *said to Him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” 29 And He said to her, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30 And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.
Mark 7:19 is pointing to more than foods – “by saying this, He declared all foods clean” – He is pointing to the acceptance of eating other foods with Gentile cultures, foods that were considered unclean in the OT are now no longer forbidden to eat. Jesus is telling the Jews to reach out to Gentile cultures and nations. Acts chapters 10-11 also shows this. Food is a deep part of culture. Accepting someone’s food and hospitality from another culture breaks down prejudice and is a great way to open doors for evangelism in other cultures. Jesus deliberately leaves Israel proper and goes into pagan areas of Tyre and Sidon where the Phoenicians (Canaanites) are. (Mark 7:24-30) This explains Jesus’ statement that, by itself, seems cruel (calling the Canaanite woman a dog, etc.), but He was mainly testing the Jewish disciples to see if they had learned the lesson of sinful uncleanliness in the heart. The Jewish culture thought external washings of the hands and body made one clean before God. Many other cultures and religions think this also today. Islam has many ritual washings before they pray. But that external ritual cannot cleanse the heart.
20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” Mark 7:20-23
He also is testing her, and she passed the test by her attitude of humility and accepting the truth that she also is a sinner, “a dog”, so to speak. (the form of the Greek word for “dog” here is the diminutive (small, petite) form, which meant a “house dog, small dog”, “pet dog”, not the wild street dogs. She didn’t complain or whine about past injustices of the Jews, nor throw out the modern charge of “racism” or racial hatred or prejudice. She realized she did not deserve mercy. She realized she was from a wicked and pagan culture, a false religious system. She was admitting she is a sinner, by agreeing she is a “dog”. “Yes, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the table.” (Matthew 15:27) She knew God is merciful, and apparently even knew about the law of Israel that said the Jews were to let the poor and foreigners graze the corners of their fields. (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19; Ruth 2:2-7) The Canaanite woman recognized Jesus for who is really is, calling Him “the Son of David” (the Messiah) and “Lord” (Greek: kurios) (Hebrew: Yahweh). (Matthew 15:22, 23, 27; Mark 7:28)
Mark 7:20-23 lists pride and foolishness in the list of internal sins. The sin of racial hatred of other cultures and ethnicities comes from sinful pride/arrogance/conceit. Thinking one is better than another people group or ethnicity or skin color is sinful and arrogant. Jesus was deliberately testing that in the disciples hearts.
Acts chapters 10-11 demonstrate this principle also. The relation of food to a people group/ethnicity/culture is obvious in the passage. The Lord was preparing Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, an ethnic Italian/Latin/Roman for the gospel. The Lord gave Peter a vision of all kinds of animals (Acts 10:10-12), many were considered unclean and prohibited by the Mosaic Law for a Jew to eat. Jesus told Peter, “rise, kill and eat”(Acts 10:13). Peter said, “by no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unclean or unholy.” (Acts 10:14) When Jesus says – “what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15) – He is pointing to the people/ethnicity – “no longer consider the Gentile nations unclean, but go and reach out to them with the gospel”. “be willing to eat their food with them and talk to them about the gospel”. The message of both Acts chapters 10-11 and Mark 7:24-30/Matthew 15:21-28 is – “don’t think the Gentiles cultures and ethnicities are unclean as people, rather reach out to them with the gospel, and eat their food with them, spend time with them, accept and give hospitality, and love them and share the gospel with them.” Mark 7:19 – “by saying this, He declared all foods clean” – he was pointing to the pagan Gentile cultures, and by immediately going to the areas of Tyre and Sidon (modern Lebanon), the area the Romans called “Syro-Phoenicia”, Jesus shows He was deliberately going into an area and culture that ate different foods and the people were different ethnically, so He could test the disciples to see if they had learned the lesson of racial hatred and arrogance in the heart, which He had just taught them on in Mark 7:20-23.
In Matthew 15:23, the attitude of the disciples is revealed. Jesus was quiet at first, because He wanted to draw out a response from the disciples and expose their hearts. (Matthew 15:17-20) “But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” (Matthew 15:23) The Jewish disciples did not want to deal with her. She was a Canaanite or Phoenician, which was a very pagan culture and a cursed people in the Old Testament. They were Canaanites in the land of Israel, and they were called Phoenicians outside of the land borders of Israel. God judged them for their wicked religion (Deuteronomy 7, 9, Joshua), but even then, God waited 400 years to judge them, giving them opportunity to repent – Genesis 15:13, 16-18 – “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The reason God took the Jews to Egypt for 400 years was to have mercy on the wicked pagan nations within the land of Canaan. Even before the command to take the land of Canaan in the book of Joshua, God saved Rahab and her family because of their faith in the true God of Israel. (Joshua chapter 2)
When Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24), He was testing her and the disciples; He did not mean “forever”. He was expressing the principle of God blessing His covenant people the Jews first, but He clearly taught that the disciples were to reach out to other nations. (Matthew 24:14; 28:19) You can almost hear the disciples nodding their heads and saying, “yeah, the Messiah is only for the Jews, the lost sheep of Israel”. But Jesus shows this was not true. God, from the beginning, said to Abraham, “I will bless you, . . . so that you will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.” (Genesis 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; 49:10) See also Psalm 67, 96:3; Isaiah 49:6.
But the Gospel of Matthew itself shows a theme of the kingdom of God spreading to all the nations/Gentiles – By the mention of 3 women in Jesus’ geneology that were from foreign ethnicites – Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabites, and Bathsheba was he wife of Uriah the Hittite. (Matthew 1:3-6); the Magi (probably made up of several people groups from the Persian Empire – wise men from different people groups -Persians, Medes (the modern Kurds come from the Medes), Arabs, Babylonians, and Assyrian peoples). (Matthew 2:1-12) See also Matthew 4:14 (Galilee of the Gentiles); Matthew 8:5-12 (healing of a Roman Centurion’s servant); Matthew 10:18 (after Jesus told the disciples to only go to the lost sheep of Israel in Matthew 10:5, He says that eventually, they will go to the Gentiles, “you will go before kings and governors as a testimony to the Gentiles/nations”. This shows that the command in Matthew 10:5 was temporary and was for a short-term missions trip to their own culture first. The Jewish disciples needed to learn to reach out to their own culture first, then later they will go to the Gentiles/nations); Matthew 12:17-21 (quoting Isaiah 42, that the Messiah will be a light to the nations and bring justice to the nations); Matthew 24:14 – “this gospel of the kingdom must be preached to all the nations first, and then the end shall come.”; and Matthew 28:19 – “therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations”.
I actually had already written an earlier article on this issue. (with more details)
Therefore, Paul William’s post here has been refuted.