First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. (Jesus in Mark 7:27).
Jesus spoke these words to a Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia. She had come to see Him because a demon possessed her young daughter. Without context, His words not only sound cryptic—but offensive. But if we will give the story a patient hearing, remembering that “content without context is nothing,” we will be rewarded.
Jesus is somewhere near Tyre, a predominantly Gentile city located on the Mediterranean coast. There were people from Tyre present earlier during His ministry around Lake Galilee (3:7-8). This explains why Jesus is unsuccessful in His efforts to keep His presence a secret (v. 24). The word about Him was out. We’re told that the woman, “as soon as she heard about Him” she came and fell at His feet.
She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. It doesn’t take much to hear the anxiety in her voice or see the desperation in her eyes. In reply, Jesus speaks of children, bread, and dogs. Even if we had no clue who the children were, its clear the woman is part of the group referred to as “the dogs,” because Jesus is providing her with a reason why He might not grant her request.
So, there you have it—Jesus referred to a Gentile, no, make that a Gentile woman as a dog. How could He possibly be so crude and insensitive to not only refuse her request, but to treat her as sub-human in the process?
But is that what He is doing?
The word translated “dog” is a diminutive. We have this in English: booklet is the diminutive form of book, minivan of van, and so on. In using the word “dog” Jesus is not referring to the large scavenger dogs that roamed the streets, this is a small, puppy-size dog. Moreover, the picture is clearly domestic—it’s part of a household (v. 28).
But it’s still sub-human.
Remember that Mark (the briefest gospel), often compresses scenes and we can usually go to Matthew or Luke to find a fuller account. In Matthew’s record, the first thing Jesus says to the woman is not what we find in v. 27 of Mark 7, but what Matthew records in 15:24 where Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This certainly sheds light on what we read in Mark. Jesus is telling the woman that God has sent Him to Israel—to the Jews rather than the Gentiles. What we find in Mark 7:27 comes next and is a figure of speech expanding on that. The bread He has for Israel shouldn’t be given to the Gentiles . . . should it?
But the perceptive reader will also notice that Jesus referred to Israel as “sheep.” Therefore, we have the Jewish people as “sheep” and the Gentiles as small dogs or puppies. He is not dehumanizing anyone—He is simply using figures of speech. Jesus didn’t see anything wrong with this, the woman didn’t, the disciples didn’t, and Mark didn’t.
That should tell us something, shouldn’t it? In sorting out the correctness of all of this, it would be a real shame if we lost sight of Mark’s reason for sharing this. Click here for part two.