In Mark 7:24-30 (and Matt. 15:21-28), we read that Jesus compared a particular someone to a dog:
But He/Jesus answered and said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”Matt. 15:26; Mark 7:27
Some people find that an offensive statement, but if we compare Scripture with Scripture I think we can get a better picture of this powerful episode.
People are Compared with Animals
Part of the concern undoubtedly comes from the fact that Jesus compares a person (actually, a group of people) to an animal.
But consider first that even in this same passage He also refers to the Jewish people as animals, too:
But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”Matt. 15:24
Notice, here, that Jesus refers to Israelites as sheep, and Greeks as dogs. No doubt the dog feels more offensive, but I just wanted to start by pointing out that comparing people to animals was not just reserved for this person, or even just the Greeks.
Greeks and Dogs are Both Unclean
Biblically, the dog is an unclean animal:
You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.Leviticus 11:3
Thus, God commands his people to not eat:
- outwardly unclean animals (no divided hoof)
- inwardly unclean animals (don’t chew the cud)
Therefore, dogs were unclean on both counts.
Similarly, Greeks/Gentiles were also considered unclean on both counts: outwardly they did not follow the rituals of the Jews (e.g. they weren’t circumcised) and inwardly they had sin (spoiler alert: this is true for all of us–but some of the religious people in Jesus’ day hadn’t quite caught onto this yet…more on that later).
Thus, a Gentile would be comparable to a dog in terms of not being holy before God.
Understanding this can help us see the force of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:2-3:
2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the fleshPhil. 3:2-3
Here he is actually “flipping the script”. The self-righteous Jews were trying to force Christians to obey the outward rituals of the law, particularly circumcision. But Paul denounces this (he does so as well in Galatians and Romans and elsewhere). Instead, Paul sees the Christians as the true circumcision because we “put no confidence in the flesh”. In other words, we “cut off” our fleshly/sinful self and, “serve God by his Spirit,” not by outward ritual.
And so Paul calls these self-righteous Jews the unthinkable: “dogs”. Jews saw this as true of “Gentile sinners,” (Gal. 2:15), but surely not themselves. How dare Paul call them unclean/unholy for insisting on circumcision, yet that is precisely what would be meant by being a “dog”. They are a dog because they haven’t placed trust in Christ alone, and therefore are still sinful/unclean. Only Christ can atone us.
Pigs and Dogs
While we’re at it, let’s also look at another time Jesus compares people to animals:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.Matt. 7:6
There is a bit of irony here that Jesus says this right after saying “Do not judge” (Matt. 7:1). Many modern sensibilities wrongfully interpret “do not judge” to mean we aren’t to address sin or say anything offensive. Yet that is clearly not what Jesus has in mind when he goes on to tell people HOW to address sin (by first dealing with your own sin, THEN dealing with others) as well as compares people to dogs and pigs. Instead, Jesus is addressing hypocritical and ungracious/non-restorative judging. But I digress.
In Matt. 7:6, Jesus names 2 unclean animals:
- dogs – the theme of this article, outwardly and inwardly unclean
- pigs – who were outwardly clean (because they had the cloven hooves) but inwardly unclean (because they don’t chew the cud)
According to Jesus, both such people (characterized by these animals) should be treated differently than God’s people (His “sheep,” if you will). I’ve heard it said before that the dogs would speak to unrepentant Gentiles while the pigs may reference the self-righteous Jews who Jesus would later call, “whitewashed tombs,” (Matt. 23:27 — a reference to them being outwardly clean and inwardly dead/sinful).
The point being that Jesus uses all sorts of metaphors and word-pictures to get at the heart of the matter, including comparing humans to animals. This is not unique or outrageous in Mark 7:27.
Restoration in Christ
Finally, we are really doing great disservice to the entire episode by just pulling out one snippet (and interpreting with unbiblical, modern ears at that!).
Instead, consider the entire episode in Matt. 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30:
- It starts by Jesus wanting to be hidden (but indeed could not stay hidden)
- It is this Greek woman who finds Him
- She calls to Him, but He didn’t answer her
- She calls out to the disciples, but they seem perturbed and don’t know what to do. At which point Jesus explains his mission is to the sheep of Israel
- After this, she still knocked at his door, so to speak. She actually came and worshiped Him and said, “Lord, help me!”
- Yet, again, Jesus seems to usher her away, and this is where he says he came for the Jews not the Gentiles (though uses the imagery of “dogs” for Gentiles).
- Tried to hide
- Ignores her first pleas
- Does nothing when she pleads to the disciples
- Tells her He came for the Jews, firstly
He seems to be doing everything to shirk her away. Or is He? Could it be that He is motioning like He wants nothing to do with her, only to see what she will do? Remember how He, “continued on as if He were going farther,” with the 2 to Emmaus (Luke 24:28), but ended up staying and revealing Himself AFTER they “urged him strongly,” to stay (Luke 24:29). Likewise, we read that it’s the glory of the Lord to conceal matters; but the glory of kings to find them out (Prov. 25:2).
In fact, just 1 chapter earlier in Mark, we read that when the disciples were struggling at sea, Jesus actually walked on water and, “meant to pass by them,” (Mark 6:48). It was only after they implored Him that He ended up helping them in a life-threatening situation.
Consider this like the “knock” phase of the “ask, seek, knock” that Jesus taught us to do in prayer. When we ask, it’s as if the Lord is right with us. When we seek, we have to do a little more work to find Him. And when we knock, we actually have to address a barrier between us and the Lord.
All to say, this episode with the Canaanite woman is not unlike Jesus. I’d go so far to say that He is seeking this in all of us today, as well. He says in Luke 18 that he is looking for the kind of persistent prayers of a widow who won’t relent–even when it looked like the Judge wasn’t going to help her (see Luke 18:1-8).
Alright, back to the story.
After all of that seeming resistance, the woman perseveres more. She took his statement about dogs, and turned it back on Him: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” (Matt. 15:27 = Mark 7:28).
And at this response, Jesus greatly commends her, and grants her request. In fact, we read that, “this saying” of hers made the difference (Mark 7:29).
I personally think this was what Jesus was getting at all the while. He wanted to see if she would give up or persist (even adding the word “little” before dog, to say something akin to, “who are you to ask such a thing?” He knew the answer [that He came for such as this!], but the disciples didn’t…and He wanted to see how she would respond, as well). I believe He’s looking for the same today. He’s looking for those who truly recognize they have no hope outside of Jesus. Whether we are dogs–unclean outwardly (like, perhaps, the younger son in the Prodigal Son story)–or we are as pigs–unclean in our hearts but may look good outwardly (like, perhaps, the older son in the Prodigal son story)–He wants to see who truly lays hold of Him. Even with barriers or Him seeming to pass on until you would cry out to Him.
Jews and Gentiles Welcome
If I may add one more thing…
Though it is true initially in Jesus’ ministry that He seems to focus only on Israelites (Matt. 10:6), this is truly not the full picture. For instance, it was early in His ministry when He revealed Himself to a sinful, Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). And early in His ministry when He sets up camp in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:16).
Even more, Matthew and Mark (who record this episode of the Canaanite woman) finish their gospels with the triumphant announcement that Jesus is meant for all the nations: “Make disciples of all nations,” “Go into all the world” (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15).
In this sense, I see Joseph as a type for Jesus. He was initially with his brothers, but then they rejected him. This ended up bringing salvation for the whole world, and later on restoration for the brothers who initially rejected him. Jesus goes to the Jews, but they largely reject Him. Then He is made known to the Gentiles and salvation comes to them. Jew and Gentile together can receive the promise. And hopefully there will be a revival of natural-born Israelites coming to Jesus in the last days as well!
All to say: praise the Lord for the opportunity for little dogs (like us Gentiles, dead in our trespasses) to become sheep of God by Jesus’ triumphant sacrifice.