What Jesus learned
John Campbell has second thoughts about one of Jesus’ hard sayings
In Mark 7, Jesus seems to describe a Gentile woman as a ‘dog’. When she begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter, he says: ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She answers: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,’ and Jesus replies that because of what she says, he will grant her wish.
I have changed my mind about this story. I used to fight as hard as any spin doctor to rescue Jesus here, to explain away the apparent harshness of what he said. But it’s difficult. Imagine if this encounter had happened today and someone put it on YouTube. We’d all know what was going on – the famous moralist had been caught out.
So we Christians who believe that Jesus, in Paul’s words, ‘knew no sin’, have a problem. How can describing this woman, along with millions of other Gentiles, as a ‘dog’, be ‘Jesus behaviour’? Many commentators have tried to rescue Jesus on this one, including me, but the case for the defence has generally been: ‘He can’t be being insulting, because he’s Jesus!’ That is a shaky sort of an argument. That needs serious spin. And most people know when they’ve been spun.
I toyed with the idea that Jesus was joking. There does seem an unspoken chemistry between this woman and Jesus. Maybe there was a twinkle in Jesus’ eye that he was confident that she would pick up? It’s possible, but it sounds like special pleading, an attempt to get Jesus off the hook. That was my best explanation for many years, but I never wanted to use the text in the multicultural contexts in which I ministered. It just sat there in Mark’s Gospel, draped in awkwardness. …
John Campbell is Minister of High Cross United Reformed Church, Tottenham
This is an extract from an article that was published in the July/August 2019 edition of Reform.