Jesus’ reply is that he doesn’t help gentiles and only helps God’s people. Why does he wait for her to beg and then reluctantly help her?
As much as we would like to, we cannot remove Jesus from his culture. He was a first century Palestinian man of the Jewish faith. When we interpret Jesus we must interpret him through that lens. Thus, we cannot come to scripture with our preconceived notions about how he is supposed to behave. Ultimately such a thing almost is impossible to do, but as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle”. And when we interpret scripture, we need to know that Jesus doesn’t usually fit our mold, as much as we’d like him to.
Jesus’ response to this Canaanite woman (Syrophoenician in Mark) is a tough one to swallow for obvious reasons. We usually have a picture in our mind of a warm and loving Jesus who tells stories to little Children. But here he seems downright rude. He basically refers to non-Jews, and this woman in particular as ‘dogs’. Certainly not a term of endearment! One of the interpretive difficulties that we face here is that we only have the text from which to judge the conversation. There is no way to discern the tone of what Jesus and the woman are saying.
What if, perhaps, Jesus said this seemingly harsh response with a hint of sarcasm and a twinkle in his eye? He replied to the woman’s request, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” To which the woman, with keen understanding about the culture, bantered back with Jesus wit for wit by saying “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” If looked at in a different light the conversation can take on a whole new character.
We often take Jesus’ tone to be so serious that we have a hard time imagining that he could have wit, or a sense of humor. But given the woman’s response, and what we know to be true of Jesus love and compassion for the marginalized in society, this scenario is perfectly legitimate, and perhaps most likely.
That said though, we still need to wrestle with the issue of Jesus and his call to serve the Children of Israel first. Remember, that the nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all people (Genesis 12: 2-3; Galatians 3:8). When Jesus came he was definitely not rejecting the Gentiles, on the contrary, he went out of his way to care for them (John 4) and they went out of their way to seek him for healing (Matthew 8:5-13). Still though, Jesus was sent as a Jew, to the Jews. He came urging the Children of Israel, and the leaders of Israel to remember their call to the nations. In Mark 15 Jesus’ anger toward the teachers of the Law reached its limit when he overturned the tables in the temple. This was not in response to the practice of selling things in the temple, it was in response to the fact that Gentiles were being excluded from Temple worship, even though the Temple was supposed to be “a house of worship for ALL nations.” So clearly, Jesus was not exclusive in his teaching or healing, but still, his mission was to the Jews. This was even reflected in his sending out of the 12 disciples in Matthew 10. There he gave them explicit instructions only to go to the “lost sheep of Israel”. Only later after Jesus death and resurrection would the message be sent to the rest of the world. Jesus ministry was to the Jews, but the Holy Spirit and the Church would be given a mission to the whole world.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus says to his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But note that this was after his death and resurrection. Through his blood, Jesus brought reconciliation to Jews and Gentiles. So he could say to his disciples in Matthew 28, to “go into ALL the world”.
In the Gospel of John there is another strange interaction between Jesus and some Gentiles (John 12:20-23). A group of ‘Greeks’ came seeking Jesus, but rather then speaking to them, Jesus speaks to His disciples and says “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory”. Weird, right? Something significant occurred when those Greeks showed up to see Jesus. When these ‘unclean’ gentiles came to Jesus, it signified to him that something was about to happen, namely, his crucifixion. Gentiles were coming to him, and it was time to make a way for them to receive the full blessing of Abraham. Ultimately it would be Jesus death on the cross that would break down the barrier between the Jews and the rest of the world (See Galatians 3:26-29).
Jesus was a radical who did radical things. And through him, dividing walls like those between Jews and Gentiles were torn down. But we must be careful not to interpret Jesus inside the vacuum of our own limited understanding of culture and the world.