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Old Dogs, New Tricks

Lesson: Mark 7:24-37

I’m guessing that what grabbed your attention in this passage in Mark is the same verse that startles me every time I read it. Jesus compares a woman to a dog. We expect better from Jesus, don’t we? It makes me want to say to Jesus, WWJD, “What would Jesus do here, Jesus?” Except what Jesus would do, apparently – what he does do – is so offensive.

What is going on here? Jesus is fresh from a confrontation with some Pharisees over the traditional purity laws – those are the laws that define what is considered clean and what is considered unclean. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites who care more about their own traditions than the intention behind God’s commandments.[1]

After this, Jesus needs a break. He sets off for Tyre to get some alone time. Tyre is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Galilee, in present-day Lebanon. It was a region inhabited by Gentiles – pagans, non-Jews – so Jesus has left the land and people who are “clean” to enter a land that is “unclean.” Jesus doesn’t find the solitude he seeks. Almost as soon as he arrives in Tyre, a Gentile woman kneels at his feet, begging him to heal her daughter. It should be no surprise to him that he’s encountering Gentiles. It’d be like going to New York City and then wondering why you have to put up with so many New Yorkers.

This woman, on the other hand, is in the land of her ancestors, where the Israelites and their Jewish descendants were the more recent arrivals. But they see her as foreign – sort of like Mexicans in Texas or California. The woman cries out that she needs help for her daughter. Jesus brushes her off, quoting an old proverb that says a mother must care for her children before paying attention to the household pets.[2] I wish I could tell you that in the original Greek or in the context of first century Middle Eastern culture Jesus is not insulting this woman. But I can’t, because then as now, comparing someone to a dog is rude. Ancient Israelites and Jews in the first century despised dogs. Dogs were unclean scavengers. One commentator reports that an orthodox rabbi told her he’d never even heard of an orthodox rabbi who owned a dog.[3] Today, even though we might love our pets, it’s still the case that no one wants to be compared to a dog. This was made glaringly apparent last month when a tweet from the Oval Office referred to a former white house aide, an African-American woman, as “that dog.”[4]

So, is Jesus suffering from burnout because of the conflict with the Pharisees? Is this a glimpse at a shockingly human Jesus? How we understand this story does turn on our understanding of the humanity of Jesus, but it has less to do with the fact that he may or may not have been in a bad mood than it has to do with his being a creature of his culture. As racist as it sounds, Jesus’ response to the woman reflects the common understanding that Jesus would bring his message to the Jews first, and later it would reach the Gentiles.