Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Gospel is Going to the Dogs

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 15:21-28, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.

The challenge of reading this story is that it presents Jesus in a non-flattering light and good boys and girls throughout Christendom have been taught never to consider Jesus in a non-flattering light. Some of those good boys and girls have grown up into biblical commentators and still will not accept the starkness of this story, insisting that Jesus is merely testing this desperate woman’s faith. I would argue that – as Jesus is made known to us on the whole – he would gladly test the faith of a pompous, self-righteous, person of power and entitlement, but it seems strange that Jesus would do so to a desperate mother whose child is tormented. The words “irony” or “test” or “feigning” etc. are not in the text unless we add them. The plain reading is that Jesus acts according to a limited view of his mission and the mother responds according to a desperate need outside of that limited view. And Jesus calls it faith.

21 Καὶ ἐξελθὼν ἐκεῖθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὰ μέρη Τύρου καὶ Σιδῶνος.
And having left there Jesus withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon.
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
ἀνεχώρησεν: AAI 3s, ἀναχωρέω, 1) to go back, return, spoken of those who flee. In NT simply to retire, withdraw.
1. This geographical marker may carry significance since this region is where the town of Zarephath is. There, Elijah boarded with a widow, whose vessels of meal and oil did not empty and whose son Elijah brought back to life. The food and healing of the Elijah story seem to be at play in this story.
2. Jesus had previously compared Tyre and Sidon positively to Chorazin and Bethsaida in 11:21-22.
3. The verb ἀναχωρέω can signal a retreat from battle. Maybe Jesus was compelled to go away after his pointed encounter with scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem in vv.1-20.

22 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ Χαναναία ἀπὸ τῶν ὁρίων ἐκείνων ἐξελθοῦσα ἔκραζεν λέγουσα, Ἐλέησόν με, κύριε, υἱὸς Δαυίδ: ἡ θυγάτηρ μου κακῶς δαιμονίζεται.
And behold a Canaanite woman from those regions having come screamed/squawked saying, “Show me mercy, Lord, son of David; my daughter is badly demonized.”
ἰδοὺ: AMImpv εἶδον, see! behold! calling attention to something.
ἐξελθοῦσα: AAPart nsf, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
ἔκραζεν: IAI 3s, κράζω, 1) to croak  1a) of the cry of a raven
λέγουσα: PAPart nsf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἐλέησόν: AAImpv 2s ἐλεέω, to show mercy (more than have compassion), to have the desire of relieving the miserable, to show kindness by beneficence
δαιμονίζεται: PMI 3s, δαιμονίζομαι, 1) to be under the power of a demon
1. Mark (7:26) identifies this woman as “a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.” According to, “Phoenicia” – rooted in the word for ‘purple’ – was the name given to the region by the Greeks because of the purple dye that was produced there.
2. The verb κράζω is onomatopoeia for a raven’s cry. I think ‘to squawk’ is a close English equivalent, but it is intended to be more desperate than comical. I hope my use of “squawk” does not deter from the desperation, because Matthew uses this term for blind men, demons, disciples in a boat during a storm, Peter sinking in the sea, more blind men, crowds saying “Hosanna,” children repeating that in the temple, crowds calling for Jesus’ death, and Jesus in his last breath. See 8:29, 9;27, 14:26, 14:30, here and the next verse, 20:30 and 31, 21:9, 21:15, 27:23, and 27:50.
3. See my comment in v.26, n.3 on why I have added “scream” to “squawk.”

23 ὁ δὲ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῇ λόγον. καὶ προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἠρώτουν αὐτὸν λέγοντες, Ἀπόλυσον αὐτήν, ὅτι κράζει ὄπισθεν ἡμῶν.
But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples having come were begging him saying, “Send her away, because she screams/squawks behind us.”
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
προσελθόντες: AAPart npm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach
ἠρώτουν: IAI 3p, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question  2) to ask  2a) to request, entreat, beg, beseech
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἀπόλυσον: AAImpv 2s, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer) … 2b) to bid depart, send away
κράζει: PAI 3s, κράζω, 1) to croak  1a) of the cry of a raven
1. Sometimes with Matthew’s stories, I find it best to translate the conjunction δὲ simply as “then,” because it moves from one word/action to another. Here, however, I see some contrariness between one word/action and the next and will use “but.”
2. It would be tempting to translate Ἀπόλυσον αὐτή as “set her free” (“heal her already!”) and take the demonized daughter as the antecedent for the feminine pronoun, except that the second part of the sentence shows the reference to be the mother. ἀπολύω has many related meanings.
3. The disciples' demand, "Send her away," echoes what they said about the 5,000+ that were gathered in the wilderness with Jesus as it was getting late. I think that is a very common way that we respond to those in need when we feel our resources or patience is lacking. Jesus - later in this chapter - will look at the 4,000+ gathered in the wilderness and say, "I do not wish to send them away hungry."
4. There seems to be a fair amount of chaos going on here, with the woman squawking out desperately and the disciples begging Jesus to get rid of her.

24 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἀπεστάλην εἰ μὴ εἰς τὰ πρόβατα τὰ ἀπολωλότα οἴκου Ἰσραήλ.
But having answered he said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of house Israel.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀπεστάλην: API 1s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed 
1. This verse alone would imply one thing, but pairing this verse with the preceding verse sets up an interesting dynamic. Jesus did not “send her away,” much to the disciples’ chagrin. But, neither did he seem compelled to answer her because he perceives his mission as to the house of Israel, not a Canaanite woman. The implication – with Jesus’ answer following the disciples entreaty and not the woman’s – is that he is answering them and not her.
2. The relationship between Jesus’ mission and those outside of Israel is complex. - In c.2, the chief priests and scribes with whom Herod consulted quoted the prophet saying, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” But, of course, this quote is embedded in a story about Magi from the east coming to adore the newborn ruler.
- In c.8, Jesus was impressed with a Centurion, whose faith Jesus says is unlike any that he has seen in Israel. Then, Jesus makes the generous statement, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- In c.10, Jesus sent the 12 on a journey saying, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (vv.5-6).
3. When Matthew uses the phrase “house of Israel” (v.24) here and “God of Israel” later (v.31), “Israel” is not preceded by a possessive genitive article, as it is, for example, in Mt. 10:23 or 19:28. It could strictly be translated “Israel house” and “Israel God.”  

25 ἡ δὲ ἐλθοῦσα προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγουσα, Κύριε, βοήθει μοι.
But having come she was bowing to him saying, “Lord, help me.”
ἐλθοῦσα: AAPart nsf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
προσεκύνει: IAI 3s, προσκυνέω, 1) to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence  2… to fall upon the knees and  touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
λέγουσα: PAPart nsf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
βοήθει: PAImpv 2s, βοηθέω, 1) to help, succour, bring aid 
1. One portion of Bullinger’s lexicon for προσεκύνει reads “to crouch, crawl, or fawn, as a dog at a master’s feet.” It would add to indignity of squawking, or crying out in desperation. 
2. The use of the imperfect “was bowing” implies an ongoing action that is not captured in many translations’ “knelt,” but is consistent with the way this story has been told so far. The indignity of bowing is multiplied if someone is not answering and on has to bow repeatedly. That kind of humiliating persistence seems to me to be what Matthew is describing.

26 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐκ ἔστιν καλὸν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ βαλεῖν τοῖς κυναρίοις.
But having answered he said, “It is not good to take the bread of the children and to throw it to the mutts/puppies.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
λαβεῖν: AAInf, λαμβάνω, 1) to take
βαλεῖν: AAInf, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls
1. This time Jesus seems to be answering the woman’s words directly.
2. The humiliation continues to pile up for this desperate woman. Since κυναρίοις is the diminutive form of dog, I take it as a reference to the daughter but do not assume that it intends to imply cuteness. In many countries, dogs are not pets as much as tolerated scavengers that lurk around the edges. Unlike many other hungry species, they are often comfortable around humans and therefore are more likely to come near a table when people are eating.
3. I’m facing a bit of a dilemma here. I’m wanting “squawk” to imply desperation, not comedy; and I want “puppy” to imply an insult not a cute pet. But, I’m worried that the customary meaning of those terms makes the desperate woman look like a lunatic and makes Jesus sound playful. So, I’m backing up and offering the alternative words “scream” and “mutt.” I don’t know if that helps, but I don’t want my own love for Jesus or traditional ways of dismissing women’s voices to shape this text.

27 ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, Ναί, κύριε, καὶ γὰρ τὰ κυνάρια ἐσθίει ἀπὸ τῶν ψιχίων τῶν πιπτόντων ἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τῶν κυρίων αὐτῶν.
But she said, “Yes, Lord, for even the mutts/puppies eat from the falling crumbs from table of their lords.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐσθίει: PAI 3s, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat  2) to eat (consume) a thing
1. The ESV interprets the words Ναί … γὰρ as “Yes … yet.” However, γὰρ is usually translated “for,” not “yet/but/still/etc.” I think the “Yes” is a rebuttal to Jesus’ phrase “It is not good…” resulting in something like, “Oh yes it is good, for the puppies get the crumbs …”
2. There is a contrast of dueling habits: Jesus appeals to the habit of distinguishing between the needs of one’s children and the needs of a dog’s puppies. The woman appeals to the habit of allowing the puppies to feast on the leftovers from what one feeds one’s children.  
3. The woman is appealing to leftovers. While it would be out of character for her to appeal directly to the feeding of the 5,000+ story - which precedes this story, but in which the woman did not participate - the narrator may certainly be expecting the readers to remember it. There were 12 baskets full leftover. Is that a symbol of fullness for Israel, or for the world? Abundance always seems to mean leftovers, sharing, an opportunity for generosity and not parsimony. She is making a case against Jesus' words based on the very activity of Jesus.

28 τότε ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, ω γύναι, μεγάλη σου ἡ πίστις: γενηθήτω σοι ὡς θέλεις. καὶ ἰάθη ἡ θυγάτηρ αὐτῆς ἀπὸ τῆς ὥρας ἐκείνης.
Then having answered Jesus said to her, “Oh woman, great your faith; let it become to you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
γενηθήτω: APImpv 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
θέλεις: PAI 2s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend 
ἰάθη: API 3s, ἰάομαι, 1) to cure, heal  2) to make whole 
1. The phrase “great your faith” does not have a verb. Perhaps, “Your great faith!”

In the end, Jesus gets the last word and it is a gracious word. In the beginning and the middle, however, it was not so gracious. This is, and always has been, a very hard story to read because Jesus seems rather hard-hearted to this woman, not treating her with compassion because her daughter is suffering, but ignoring her and refusing her because of her heritage. It raises difficult questions:
- Was Jesus sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Imagine what it would be like to suffix to all of the grand statements that we make about Jesus, “… for Israel only.”
- One could argue – and I think this is one of the ongoing arguments at play throughout the Hebrew Bible – that for Jesus to be sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel is ultimately good for the whole world, including Canaanites,  Syrophoenicians, and Gentiles. So the exclusiveness of that calling would be provisional, in order to be more inclusive. That argument, of course, easily slides into outright exclusion for the moment.
- Does the kind of power that delivers a child from being demonized have a limited quantity, like bread on the table? Would it be the case that, for Jesus to administer deliverance for this girl, it would mean there would be less deliverance for the next Israelite who was demonized? The analogy seems stretched, to me.
- Is Jesus simply espousing a cultural prejudice that limited God’s salvation to Israel first/only? If so, does the woman’s desperate faith convert Jesus from one way of embracing the gospel to another? Did I just use the phrase, “convert Jesus”?

In the verses that follow, Jesus leaves the region of Tyre and Sidon, returns to the sea of Galilee, many people come to him, bringing people who need healing, and … “they glorified the God of Israel.” (v.31) That is a curious way of putting it. One would think that if Jesus were in the region of the sea of Galilee, then it would be taken for granted that “they glorified God” would mean “they glorified the God of Israel.” But Matthew makes the point that it is the God of Israel whom they glorified. I wonder if that means that the crowd that met Jesus in the wilderness, bringing their sick and lame, and ultimately being fed (again) with loaves and fish, is not a crowd from the “house of Israel.” If they are from outside of the house of Israel, then this encounter with the Canaanite woman radically changes the scope of Jesus’ ministry. The gospel is going to the dogs! The dogs are being fed straight from the table. 4,000 dogs are going to be fed in 15:32-39, just like 5,000 children were fed in 14:15-21 and these dogs become part of the people of Israel whom God fed in the wilderness during their Exodus from Egypt. IF this reference to “the God of Israel” – as opposed to simply “God” – has significance, I argue that the Canaanite woman has won Jesus over with her argument and has broadened his perspective of his mission from God.


  1. My favorite story in all the gospels for precisely the reasons that you so very well articulated. I love your idea/title that the gospel has gone to the dogs. And yes, I have always thought of dogs as scavengers and not simply mascots/pets. Thank you for this posting! (Makes me wish that I would have been a better Greek student--LOL!)

  2. Thanks, DDL. Despite your self-evaluation, I welcome your input whenever you feel it appropriate. :-)

  3. One of the options for this week with the gospel text is adding in the section (vv 10-20) in which Jesus is teaching about evil and what is unclean being material--coming into us, and then into the cesspool, but from the heart. I found it intriguing that Matthew has this story right before the scene with the Syro-Phoenician woman. To see Jesus talk about not worrying about what's on the outside--and then turning down the woman because of who she is--seems to me fertile ground for play.

    1. Yes, I've been mulling over the connection between vv.1-20 and this pericope as well. One thing Jesus critiques the leadership from Jerusalem about is their mishandling of "Honor your mother and father." That, too, seems pertinent to a text about a mother's humiliation in her desperate attempt to save her child. It's almost as if Jesus' demonstration of God's abundance, his critique of using blood relations to justify oppression, and - as you point out - his emphasis on the heart and not the outside, are all finding new expression in this Canaanite mother's plea for her child.

  4. I've loved this story for years. It has been my contention for awhile that an element of this story is Jesus has the capacity to be challenged and have his own theology expanded. What an important example for us as people of faith. Your point/question about praising the God of Israel highlights that element. In this time and place, the challenge for the church to broaden it's understanding is very poignant.

  5. It's interesting that one of the lexicon definitions for the woman's behaviour is to fawn like a dog. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I wonder whether the Evangelist (intentionally or unintentionally) has created an image for us of a woman brought so low by distress that she has been reduced to basic animal instincts. In that context (although admittedly not very faithful to the Greek), maybe a good translation for κράζω here might be 'howl.'

  6. My belief is that the entire Gospel of Matthew is written to convince Matthew's audience that the Gospels is meant for Gentiles, not just for the people of Israel. So it's not so much that Jesus needed to be converted, but his hearers did, and so Matthew has this story so that the people who were listening would change their minds. (See the sweep of the position of outsiders in the Gospel from the genealogy to the Magi to the Great Commission at the end.)


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