The Children and the Dogs
"And from thence He arose, and went away into the borders of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered into a house, and would have no man know it; and He could not be hid. But straightway a woman, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of Him, came and fell down at His feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race. And she besought Him that He would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. And He said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs. But she answered and saith unto Him, Yea, Lord: even the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. And He said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. And she went away unto her house, and found the child laid upon the bed, and the devil gone out." MARK 7:24-30 (R.V.)

THE ingratitude and perverseness of His countrymen have now driven Jesus into retirement "on the borders" of heathenism. It is not clear that He has yet crossed the frontier, and some presumption to the contrary is found in the statement that a woman, drawn by a fame which had long since gone throughout all Syria, "came out of those borders" to reach Him. She was not only "a Greek" (by language or by creed as conjecture may decide, though very probably the word means little more than a Gentile), but even of the specially accursed race of Canaan, the reprobate of reprobates. And yet the prophet Zechariah had foreseen a time when the Philistine also should be a remnant for our God, and as a chieftain in Judah, and when the most stubborn race of all the Canaanites should be absorbed in Israel as thoroughly as that which gave Araunah to the kindliest intercourse with David, for Ekron should be as a Jebusite (9:7). But the hour for breaking down the middle wall of partition was not yet fully come. Nor did any friend plead for this unhappy woman, that she loved the nation and had built a synagogue; nothing as yet lifted her above the dead level of that paganism to which Christ, in the days of His flesh and upon earth, had no commission. Even the great champion and apostle of the Gentiles confessed that his Lord was a minister of the circumcision by the grace of God, and it was by His ministry to the Jews that the Gentiles were ultimately to be won. We need not be surprised therefore at His silence when she pleaded, for this might well be calculated to elicit some expression of faith, something to separate her from her fellows, and so enable Him to bless her without breaking down prematurely all distinctions. Also it must be considered that nothing could more offend His countrymen than to grant her prayer, while as yet it was impossible to hope for any compensating harvest among her fellows, such as had been reaped in Samaria. What is surprising is the apparent harshness of expression which follows that silence, when even His disciples are induced to intercede for her. But theirs was only the softness which yields to clamor, as many people give alms, not to silent worth but to loud and pertinacious importunity. And they even presumed to throw their own discomfort into the scale, and urge as a reason for this intercession, that she crieth after us. But Jesus was occupied with His mission, and unwilling to go farther than He was sent.

In her agony she pressed nearer still to Him when He refused, and worshipped Him, no longer as the Son of David, since what was Hebrew in His commission made against her; but simply appealed to His compassion, calling Him Lord. The absence of these details from St. Mark's narrative is interesting, and shows the mistake of thinking that his Gospel is simply the most graphic and the fullest. It is such when our Lord Himself is in action; its information is derived from one who pondered and told all things, not as they were pictorial in themselves, but as they illustrated the one great figure of the Son of Man. And so the answer of Jesus is fully given, although it does not appear as if grace were poured into His lips. "Let the children first be filled, for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to the dogs." It might seem that sterner words could scarcely have been spoken, and that His kindness was only for the Jews, who even in their ingratitude were to the best of the Gentiles as children compared with dogs. Yet she does not contradict Him. Neither does she argue back, -- for the words "True, Lord, but . . ." have rightly disappeared from the Revised Version, and with them a certain contentious aspect which they give to her reply. On the contrary she assents, she accepts all the seeming severity of His view, because her penetrating faith has detected its kindly undertone, and the triple opportunity which it offers to a quick and confiding intelligence. It is indeed touching to reflect how impregnable was Jesus in controversy with the keenest intellects of Judaism, with how sharp a weapon He rent their snares, and retorted their arguments to their confusion, and then to observe Him inviting, tempting, preparing the way for an argument which would lead Him, gladly won, captive to a heathen's and a woman's importunate and trustful sagacity. It is the same Divine condescension which gave to Jacob his new name of Israel because he had striven with God and prevailed.

And let us reverently ponder the fact that this pagan mother of a demoniacal child, this woman whose name has perished, is the only person who won a dialectical victory in striving with the Wisdom of God; such a victory as a father allows to his eager child, when he raises gentle obstacles, and even assumes a transparent mask of harshness, but never passes the limit of the trust and love which he is probing.

The first and most obvious opportunity which He gives to her is nevertheless hard to show in English. He might have used an epithet suitable for those fierce creatures which prowl through Eastern streets at night without any master, living upon refuse, a peril even to men who are unarmed. But Jesus used a diminutive word, not found elsewhere in the New Testament, and quite unsuitable to those fierce beasts, a word "in which the idea of uncleanness gives place to that of dependence, of belonging to man and to the family." No one applies our colloquial epithet "doggie" to a fierce or rabid brute. Thus Jesus really domesticated the Gentile world. And nobly, eagerly, yet very modestly she used this tacit concession, when she repeated His carefully selected word, and inferred from it that her place was not among those vile "dogs" with are "without," but with the domestic dogs, the little dogs underneath the table.

Again, she observed the promise which lurked under seeming refusal, when He said, "Let the children first be filled," and so implied that her turn should come, that it was only a question of time. And so she answers that such dogs as He would make of her and hers do not fast utterly until their mealtime after the children have been satisfied; they wait under the table, and some ungrudged fragments reach them there, some "crumbs."

Moreover, and perhaps chiefly, the bread she craves need not be torn from hungry children. Their Benefactor has had to wander off into concealment, they have let fall, unheeding, not only crumbs, although her noble tact expresses it thus lightly to their countryman, but far more than she divined, even the very Bread of Life. Surely His own illustration has admitted her right to profit by the heedlessness of "the children." And He had admitted all this: He had meant to be thus overcome. One loves to think of the first flush of hope in that trembling mother's heavy heart, as she discerned His intention and said within herself, "Oh, surely I am not mistaken; He does not really refuse at all; He wills that I should answer Him and prevail." One supposes that she looked up, half afraid to utter the great rejoinder, and took courage when she met His questioning inviting gaze. And then comes the glad response, no longer spoken coldly and without an epithet: "O woman, great is thy faith." He praises not her adroitness nor her humility, but the faith which would not doubt, in that dark hour, that light was behind the cloud; and so He sets no other limit to His reward than the limit of her desires: "Be it unto thee even as thou wilt."

chapter 7 14-23 things which defile
Top of Page
Top of Page