There are behaviorally hard sayings of Jesus (HSOJ) to me in the sense that I constantly fail in following his examples and teachings. Then there are intellectually hard sayings of Jesus, just things that make you go hmm. Things that border on questioning the doctrine of his sinlessness which seems plainly heretical to even consider.
I think this narrative in Mark is one of those incidents for me. It is something I would rather Jesus have not said or something I hope Mark has failed to perfectly relay to us. Maybe the point to this story is to struggle through this and find deeper meanings though. The main problem is found in this verse. Its Jesus’ response to a Gentile woman who asks him to heal her daughter:
27 “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.” [NIV]
I think a lot of us today have difficulties with such “us and them” Jewish nationalism but it is certainly in God’s divine right to establish a covenant with whomever and whatever nation he pleases. Yet viewing outsiders as “dogs” is still very problematic.
Even though I agree with scholars who think there is quite a bit of anti-Semitism in the new Testament, here we have an instance of Jesus actually referring to Gentiles as dogs. Quite the opposite of what I expect. Given the trend to increasingly blame the Jews in the gospels and the fact that Mark appears to write for Gentiles (he has to explain Jewish customs to them in Mark 7:3-4–you don’t need to explain Jewish customs to Jews), it seems improbable that he would make up such a harsh saying But given its surrounding in the Gospel, it is possible a Jewish nationalist (Mark?) now open to the Gentile mission could say something like this. Maybe he thought the language acceptable. We also know there was the circumcision group and “men from James” who Paul encounters in Antioch in Galatians 2. This controversy caused Paul to oppose Cephas (Peter) to his face. The end result was Peter and the Jewish Christians there siding with the men from James. Even Barnabas consented to the men from James. So we know that the inclusion of Gentiles brought with them conflicts and everyone was not happy about it. Thus, even though difficult, but hardly impossible, to imagine Mark making this statement up (c.a 60-75) when he wrote, it is conceivable it could have come from the early church and not Jesus himself. I have to personally consider the issue unproven either way. But still the account is in my Holy Book so what to make of it? Under the impression Jesus actually said this, what do we make of it? Some have likened the leftovers the women references to the food left over after Jesus feeds the multitude. Jesus has already fed the Jews, now it is time to feed the Gentiles. That very well seems to be the point of this story but still, the harshness of it has not been eliminated. The extreme ethnocentrism and insult is the problem.
I know many Christians like to imagine this account as Jesus saying it with a twinkle in his eye, testing the woman’s faith and response. That seems to be the typical apologetical answer I encounter followed by the statement that Jesus did in fact exorcise her daughter, at a distance. Its probably the only answer I’ve heard that seems reasonable unless Jesus actually was a Jewish Nationalist and felt at the time called only to Israel? Did she change his mind? Did he really insult this woman? The twinkle in the eye or wink theory hs only arisen because its Jesus and we ultimately don’t want to accept the harshness of it. The truth is Jesus did come first to Israel. He called 12 disciples which symbolically calls to mind the 12 tribes of Israel. I mean, first to the Jew then to the Gentile right? (Paul in Romans 1:16).
The woman had to ultimately beg, “even a dog deserves scraps” and issue a clever retort to be healed. Is that really a test of Faith? Joel Marcus says for Luther this example is an exhortation “to Christians to persist in trusting God even when he seems to turn his back on them; they must learn to see the “yes” hidden in the “no,”” (pg 469 Marcus, Mark v 1)
As a theological meaning of a story Luther’s view makes a lot of sense to me. We still have the historical difficulty of its actual setting, however. Klausner, who Marcus calls “arguably bitter”, writes, “If any other Jewish teacher of the time had said such a thing Christians never would have forgiven Judaism for it” (Jesus ,294).
Theissen writes that its as offensive as a doctor refusing to treat a foreign patient and the account incongruously couches Jesus’s “refusal to help a child in a parable about the necessity of helping children” (Marcus pg 468 – Theissen Gospels, 61,65)
What are your thoughts on this incident?