What do we make of a passage like this one today?
Reading it through it contains some disturbing language. In the passage, Jesus is seen indirectly referring to the women’s little girl as a dog.
Jesus appears to be buying into or simply accepting 1st century Jewish racism.
1st century Jews saw themselves as superior to every other race. They believed they were God’s chosen people. All other nations and races were by implication, God’s 'unchosen' people. People rejected by God. Unclean. Unholy. Less important. Less valuable.
As an expression of all these negative attitudes to their neighbours, Jews would refer to them as dogs. Even today, to call someone a dog is not a compliment. It carries with it the sense that the person concerned is no better than an animal in our eyes. Perhaps also a sense that they are dirty, unacceptable, less than human.
And so what is happening in this passage that Jesus is buying into that language.
One explanation that some preachers have suggested is that this is a moment of conversion for Jesus. This is a pivotal moment in the gospel, where Jesus is confronted by his own prejudice and caused to rethink those prejudices when seeing the faith of the Syrian Phonetician women.
This is quite a challenging view, because it makes us rethink our views of Jesus. Most Christians are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as being absolutely perfect with no fault at all. The idea that Jesus might have had un-examined racial prejudices which had to be challenged and over-turned seems a strange one. Maybe even blasphemous?
And yet those who interpret this passage in this way, will remind us that if Jesus was truly human, as all orthodox schools of Christianity would affirm, then is it not possible that at times, like all humans Jesus had to reconsider ideas he had grown up with and inherited. After all, in Mark’s Gospel, at no point does Jesus claim to be perfect or omniscient. In fact, when one person comes to him and calls him “good teacher”, Jesus immediately responds asking the question “Why do you call me good? There is only One who is good, and that is God.”
And so we are left with the question: “Was Jesus, in this incident, confronted with the un-examined prejudices of his own culture and his own upbringing, and then forced by the faith of this women to review those prejudices, or is it perhaps that there is something else happening in this passage?
I wouldn’t want to dismiss the above interpretation out of hand. But it seems to me that maybe something else was happening?
Firstly, in passage just prior to this one, Jesus has just declared that all foods are clean. Last week we glossed over those words. But to a first century Jew, Jesus’ words would have been like dropping a bomb-shell. It would have been utterly shocking. It would have rocked the foundations of what they considered it meant to be properly Jewish. It would have rocked their understanding of their own scriptures. It was of course in scripture, in the book of Leviticus, that some foods were to be regarded as clean and others to be unclean. Jesus was not only challenging their culture and their tradition, he was even challenging what they would have regarded as the word of God.
Absolutely shocking to hear Jesus declare that all foods are clean. How then would they define themselves as Jewish if they no longer observed their food laws?
Clearly Jesus in the previous passage, Jesus had already begun to challenge the culture of his upbringing. Jesus had already begun to see beyond his conditioned understandings of what it meant to be Jewish. He had already begun to see that God is bigger than the Jewish tradition of his upbringing. There is a realm of the spirit that transcends any specific culture or tradition.
Secondly, the very fact that Jesus was willing to consciously and knowingly travel into Gentile territory meant that Jesus had already transcended the racial prejudices of his day.
For most Jews, the very thought of traveling into gentile territory would have been non-negotiable. Gentile territories and and gentile towns were no-go areas, best to be avoided even if it meant adding a day or two to one’s travel time.
To travel into gentile area and into a gentile town would have given most Jews the "heebie jeebies".
Jewish prejudices were so deep that even going into a gentile town would have made them feel unclean and deeply uncomfortable and probably even a little unsafe.
But Jesus goes knowingly into the gentile area of Tyre. He seems un-phased by it. Clearly, he no longer holds the prejudices of his Jewish culture, or he wouldn’t be there in the first place.
Some have suggested that what is therefore actually happening in this passage is in fact a bit of playful banter between Jesus and this strong willed, determined women, who is determined at all cost to see her daughter healed.
From this perspective, Jesus uses the language of Jewish racial prejudices in order to highlight it, to bring it out into the open, and then to undermine it and over-turn it. Maybe this is a teaching moment for his disciples.
The Syrian Phonetician woman already knew of the Jewish prejudices against her people. She was probably expecting a hostile response anyway. But there is a clue in the passage that Jesus is already undermining the racist language of the Jews even as he makes use of it. The term Jesus uses for dog, is in the diminutive. In effect turning the word into a term of endearment. It could give the effect of a parent referring to their son or daughter and ‘my little puppy’. And so with that phrase, Jesus sets up a bit of banter... too-ing and frowing with this women, who Jesus clearly sees is up for the challenge.
In the end, I don’t believe it is Jesus who is being converted... In the end, I think it is the disciples who are watching who would have been converted or at least deeply challenged by these interactions between Jesus and the Syrian Phonetician women.
And maybe, by pushing her hard, Jesus was being a little bit like Simon Cowell on the X-factor who pushes some of the contestants to bring the best out of them. Maybe, Jesus was pushing her a bit in order for her to discover the strength of her own faith and determination that already lived within her.