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The time that Jesus called someone a dog

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It's a difficult passage -- when Jesus in an exchange with "the Syrophoenecian woman" calls her a dog. How can we make sense of it?

Both Mark (7:24-30) and Matthew (15:21-28) tell the story. Thus one evangelist judged the story important enough to tell, and another judged it important enough to repeat.

In the episode, Jesus has travelled to the land of Tyre and Sidon, pagan territory, hoping (as Mark explains) not to be noticed. But apparently his fame had spread so widely, that a woman from among the pagan peoples (called a "Canaanite woman" by Matthew) makes her way into his presence, throws herself at his feet, and begs him to exorcise the demon that is afflicting her daughter. He says "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She replies, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

Jesus then says, with praise: "For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter." She returns home to find her daughter restored.

Now, right away, one detail of the story should leap out at us -- that the daughter was restored on account of the faith of the mother. St. Bede insightfully comments: "Here is a precedent for baptizing infants, seeing that by the faith and the confession of the parents, infants are freed in baptism from the devil, though they can neither have knowledge in themselves, or do either good or evil."

Bede's comment draws attention to another feature of the story too, namely, that at the time of Christ the gospel was understood to bring with it first of all freedom from demonic influences. Physical healing was regarded as an important and yet secondary sign of the arrival of "the kingdom of God."

We should remember that baptism includes exorcism -- as was clearly emphasized in the old rite, but is still present in the new. The new rite, too, contains a prayer of exorcism, which begins: "Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him (her) free from original sin."

However, the difficult detail of the episode is that Jesus calls the woman a dog. Jesus is God, and God is love, so there cannot be anything unloving about it. How, then, should we understand it?

Perhaps the usual way of dealing with the passage today involves taking the woman to be "saucy" in exchanging barbs with Jesus. We take Jesus to be somewhat playfully assuming toward her the contemptuous attitude which many Jewish people had at the time toward their pagan neighbors. And we take the woman, in return, to be playing along with the game, by using the same kind of language to argue on behalf of her daughter. Jesus praises her for her spunk, and sends her on her way with her wish granted.

But that interpretation, although barely consistent with Mark's telling, cannot fit Matthew's. According to Matthew, when the woman first approaches Jesus, she cries out "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David." To call him Son of David was to acknowledge him as royalty, descended from the king. To beg for mercy in Semitic context would be to take a lowly position of postulant. Matthew even says she "knelt" before him, which was the usual attitude of a suppliant before a king. It is inconceivable, on these premises, that she would suddenly switch to "cutting it up" with Jesus as though she were his pal.

The Fathers unanimously take a different interpretation. They concede that the word "dog" would be difficult for her. But it had some truth, they say, insofar as the pagans then, in worshipping their false idols, engaged in some truly horrific practices (which we tend to overlook). They emphasize too that the woman was bold for answering back at all to someone she regarded as a king and called "Lord."

But above all they regard her as an example of prudence and humility.

"Observe this woman's prudence," St. John Chyrsostom says, "she does not dare to contradict Him. ... He calls the Jews children, she calls them masters; He called her a dog, she accepts the office of a dog." St. Augustine comments: "See, Brethren, how the value of humility is set before us! The Lord had called her a dog; and she did not say, 'I am not,' but she said, 'I am.' And because she acknowledged herself to be a dog, immediately the Lord said, 'Woman, great is your faith; be it unto you even as you have asked. You have acknowledged yourself to be a dog, I now acknowledge you to be of human kind.'"

Jesus tells us to lower ourselves, so that God can exalt us. Job calls himself a maggot (25:6). The psalmist says "I was brought forth in iniquity" (51:5). But we remove as offensive even the word "wretch" from "Amazing Grace." Is our bristling at such language consistent with humility?

Or if today in prayer God were to intimate, "You are a dog because of your sins!" doesn't that pagan woman teach us how to reply?

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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