Jesus Was Not Colorblind: Racial Slurs and the Syrophoenician Woman (Lectionary)

I have reworked this post after the feedback I’ve received here. I’ve edited out some rather problematic portions of it that seemed to cast Jesus in the role of a white man. After receiving pushback and criticism from people of color, I too began to see the deep problems with that frame. So I keep listening and learning. Please visit the updated post as well here. 

Proper 18
Mark 7:24-37

Was Jesus a racist?

This might be an uncomfortable question for Christians to ask, but, given this week’s lectionary text, I think it’s one we must ask. And we must ask it unvarnished.

Our immediate response likely is, “Of course not! Jesus couldn’t possibly have been racist!” But Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems to tell a different story. In it, Jesus calls the woman, who was desperate for a miracle for her child, a dog, a dehumanizing ethnic slur common at the time. No matter what theological tap dance we might create to avoid this uncomfortable truth, eventually, we have to face this stark truth.

Jesus uttered a racial slur.

Part of the difficulty of this passage is that as Christians, we want Jesus to be the simple, easy answer to all our problems and to all of society’s problems. When faced with the complexities of personal and institutional racism, it is much easier to think of Jesus as transcending them all and loving all peoples regardless of skin color or culture of origin.

After all, that’s what our children’s song teaches us. Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.

But what of the little dogs? Does Jesus love them too?

The difficulty of this passage particularly for white Christians is that we want Jesus to be colorblind. We want Jesus to be colorblind because that’s what we want to be or think we should be. But, in truth, at least in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is anything but colorblind. In fact, rather than being part of the solution to racism or ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story.

So what does it mean, exactly, that the Son of God, the Incarnation, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, utters a racial slur?

Because that is exactly what Jesus does in his exchange with the Syrophoenician woman. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.

It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus explains, to take the banquet prepared for his people – the children, the humans – and give it to gentiles – the dogs, the less than human.

A number of scholars whistle past this ghastly put-down by explaining that perhaps Jesus called the woman a dog with a twinkle in his eye, as if he winked at her knowingly in order to say he didn’t really believe her to be a dog. Like she was in on the joke when he uttered this well-known racial slur. Others emphasize that the word for dog that Jesus uses isn’t the typical strong language usually associated with this racial slur. They explain that the word Jesus uses takes the diminutive form, implying perhaps a beloved pet or a lap dog, and therefore takes the sting out of the slur.

Of course, white Americans have had their own diminutive versions of racial slurs to imply endearment. Still unconvinced? Perhaps we can put this story in better context, my current context, the Deep South. Imagine the Syrophoenician woman as an African-American woman who comes to Jesus, a white male, seeking to be healed. In response, Jesus dehumanizes her, calls her an animal, a female dog, a bitch, even! Maybe he goes further, criticizes her for seeking a medical handout and labels her a welfare queen. He asks her why the good things meant for whites only should be given to the sweet little n*****s.

If those slurs are too harsh, choose a different one: a House Negro, an Uncle Tom, an Oreo. Boy. Dominant, oppressive cultures have a long history of assuaging their own latent guilt with terms of endearment for those they are abusing.

Do these diminutive forms, even when they have been used affectionately by whites, soften the sting of raw racism in the words? Clearly not, and I don’t think Jesus’ diminutive case of “dog” in this text softens the bite of his own racism either.

So what are we to make of this exchange? Clearly, racism is a sin, an evil, systemic sin which Christians everywhere should stand against. But how are we to do stand against racism when our own Lord and Savior has so clearly uttered such a heinous racial slur? Does it make Jesus a racist? Does it make him a sinner? How can we ever think of him the same again?

This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of racism, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. As a good Jew, Jesus would have been reared to give thanks daily that he was born a Jew, not a Gentile, a man and not a woman. Jesus could not help but become entangled by such a sexist and racist snare.

Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind. And neither can we.

But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist. It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed, reveal who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside as dogs?

Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth of they are speaking?

When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his racist, sexist slur, Jesus listens, and hears. It is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.

“But even the dogs get table scraps,” she replies, a complex response often required of the member of the “lesser race” who stands up to dismissive racism even while accepting its instituted, ugly, dehumanizing order.

Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith, a moral exemplar, his teacher.

Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into the unfortunate privilege of dominance or prejudice.

He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.

When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same, will never be able to listen to the lies of the dominant oppressors the same way again. For me, this happened in graduate school. Having grown up in the racist culture of the Deep South, I found myself disarmed in my African-American Women’s Literature class, by the writers we were reading, by the reflections of my classmates, by being the only male and by being a minority as a white person. It happened listening to the stories of Oakland-area ministers explain the realities of being Black in urban America. It happened as I learned to be quiet, to listen and to allow myself to be changed.

If your experience is like mine, it will be disorienting, disturbing, traumatizing perhaps. For in that moment of transformation, we see, as I’m convinced Jesus did, the racism deeply embedded within us, planted within us by a dominant culture without our permission.

You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality. Both must happen in order to confront racism. We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true. This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a privileged race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us. But we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories. We must hear our own incompleteness. We must hear how our knee-jerk responses to “the dogs” perpetuate oppression.

The problem is that it is an uncomfortable direction which, if we have the courage to follow it, will bring us face to face with our own racism, that embedded culture that rises to the top like rancid cream at the most inopportune moments.

So, in the end, Jesus’ exchange offers us perhaps the most powerful story for those of us in privileged classes as we stand against racism. It compels us to listen to the narratives of the oppressed we devalue implicitly. It requires us to listen to our own prejudice.

It asks us to do the unthinkable: to own our racism and to be changed by society’s most marginalized.

Having followed Jesus this far, perhaps we can do no better than he did, and that is to learn to listen to those with such different realities than mine and to let that new reality change my own reality – who I am and who I will become.


When I first started blogging in 2008, my friend, The Rev. R.G. Wilson-Lyons, introduced me to this reading of the text. Over the years, I have returned to it again and again, each time appreciating his wisdom and courage to listen in this way.

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  • Rose Kahendi

    This is a great article and it asks great questions. But I wonder why so many American religious writers (at least the ones I’ve read) who discuss racism conflate religious community (in the Scriptures) with race. Race is a recent invention. It would have been a foreign idea to those who lived in Biblical times. This Biblical excerpt does not describe an instance of racism. It may describe one of religious discrimination or even “tribalism”.

    The Syrophoenician woman was not Jewish. And perhaps she spoke a different mothertongue from Jesus (I do not know for sure). But she was a native to the region, as he was, and I’m willing to bet she spoke a Semitic language.

    I hope I don’t come across as if I’m nitpicking for the sake of it. This is something that I think about quite a bit because I’ve noticed that a similar conflation allows some to claim that the Bible is against inter-racial marriage.

    • David R. Henson

      We use it as a metaphor. Race is a generally a modern invention, (though the first instances of dividing along racial lines could date back to as early as the 9th century, if memory serves) but prejudice and ethnocentrism are not modern concepts. In this text, Jesus comes off as an ethnosupremacist (a bigot) by using an ethnic slur, and, the closest shorthand to that in American culture is racism and racial slurs. In addition, race is one of the biggest issues in American culture and many Christian writers seek ways to use the Scriptures stories as metaphors to address our own current issues. It also serves to address a significant systemic sin/issue in our culture.

      So like the Syrophoenician woman, our different races today have minimal differences which our culture tends to exaggerate or invent differences entirely.

      I don’t think you’re nitpicking. It’s a legitimate point, and one that I’ve had pointed out before. However, I think it’s an appropriate exegetical step for both addressing a systemic issue today and creating a bridge for helping modern readers see what was going on in the text itself.

      I understand the difference, but we always seek to apply the Scriptures to our modern context in compelling ways.

      I hope this helps.

      • Zac Henson

        I get what you are saying, but I think you conflate ethnicity and race, without problematizing the relationship between the two. Blacks and whites in the South have extremely similar, though not identical, cultures. Culture isn’t really the issue in the South, but race. It is important to understand and explicate the differences.

        I understand that you are using this in an instructive way to talk about prejudice in general, and that is important, but it could add to the confusion about the difference between ethnicity and race. Race is based solely on some difference in physical appearance that is made meaningful in order to subordinate one group to another. Ethnicity involves a difference in culture. One could be the same race and have different ethnicities, and vice versa.

      • David R. Henson

        Generally, when I’ve used this in various settings, it hasn’t added confusion to the conversation about racism. Quite the contrary, it has provided a powerful avenue to discuss and reflect on racism, personal and institutional, among black and white Christians. I’m not even sure you are reading the post correctly, given that I am very much talking about race, not prejudice in general (as well as confronting the theological question of Jesus’ fallibility, growth and relationship to his own cultural structures; there’s actually quite a bit going on in this post).

        I’m not sure if you understand how I’m using this Scripture to address this, if you are understanding this passage in a more literal way or simply can’t engage with sacred stories in a metaphorical/pastoral/theological way. I wonder if you understand the importance of these kinds of mythic, symbolic or sacred stories for the way people think and order their lives, particularly in the South. Perhaps this is a blindspot?

        I’m not really clear what you mean by culture isn’t the issue in the South, but race, given that this post and my comments generally reflect that same sentiment of the importance of race in America. If I had to guess, you are projecting.

      • Yvonne Aburrow

        The concept of races as being biologically different from each other was a nineteenth century idea. However, group dynamics existed before that, so people still rejected the “other”. Look at all the anti-Pharisee rhetoric in the Gospels (probably added later by the Church which was keen to distance itself from its Jewish roots, hence the early decrees against “Judaizing”).

        But Jesus is clearly uttering an ethnic slur here, metaphor or not; and the othering involved can definitely be extended to racism. By metaphorically calling the woman a dog, he is implying that she is less than human, which is exactly what racism does, it implies (sometimes states) that the other “races” are less than human.

      • Rose Kahendi

        It certainly does. 😀

        Thank you for taking the time to respond.

  • Adrienne Findley-Jones

    Having read this, I wish I was preaching this weekend at my church. Wow. Thank you for the insight.

  • Abril

    Jesus often used hyperbole (exaggeration) and metaphor (calling one thing another), both common features of Semitic speech. I see this as an example of both. The woman asked Jesus to exorcise a demon, He responded with a comment about feeding children. It’s FIGURATIVE.

    • David R. Henson

      It doesn’t really matter if it was hyperbole, metaphor or figurative language.

      It’s still an ethnic slur.

      • Abril

        Of course it matters. It’s like someone running to the market to buy mustard seeds because Jesus said that’s what the kingdom of Heaven is like. Or cutting off a hand because he said it’s better to go into Heaven without a hand than not at all. It matters a great deal.

      • David R. Henson

        A mustard seed isn’t an ethnic slur. If you use an ethnic slur in a metaphor or in hyperbole, it is still an ethnic slur. An ethnic slur is a metaphor for hate, the hyperbole of prejudice.

        Dog was an ethnic slur. Jesus dehumanized a desperate woman with an ethnic slur. I don’t see a way around that.

      • Abril

        I live in Mexico, and the word dog (perro) is used as an insult here, too. But it isn’t always an insult. Dog is still dog too. That’s what you seem to be missing. This word is not the equivalent of n*****; it has two meanings. And in a context of figurative language, which is what I firmly believe this was, you’re choosing which connotation to apply. I argue that you’ve chosen wrongly and your argument is specious.

      • David R. Henson

        So we’re both choosing connotations for the same word; we just choose differently. You think I’m wrong, and I think you are. You think my argument is specious, and I feel the same towards your argument. Generally, a Jew addressing a non-Jew as a dog doesn’t give one much choice whether it is a slur. I wonder if this were any Jew at the time other than Jesus whether you would see things differently.

        It seems clear we aren’t going to convince each other, and there’s enough exegetical room in the text that accommodates us both.

        It seems, basically, we disagree on whether Jesus is addressing her as a dog or if he’s telling some kind of metaphorical story (though he certainly could have chosen a less offensive character, like say, a mustard seed or a vine).

        Seems we’re at an impasse, doesn’t it? I’m okay with that.

        Perhaps a more interesting line of discussion would be what is it about you and I that makes us choose differently? Why in your first comment do you elide the kernel of the story, not that Jesus responds with a story about feeding children (Israelites), but about not feeding dogs (Gentiles, of which she is one)! It seems like a rather intentional, if unconscious, way of framing it positively through omission. Christian theologians, even conservative ones, have struggled with this passage because of this word “dog” and what it meant.

        I’ve been clear that I think this passage is useful for addressing modern racism. How is this passage useful for you in your teaching, writing, reflection and life?

      • Abril

        The truth is that I find incredibly galling the complete certainty with which you assert that “in truth… Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem” of racism and compare Him to a Jim Crow Southerner. You fail to mention other healings of Gentiles prior to this episode (including a possibly gay Centurion’s “boy”) and subtly question whether I harbor anti-Semitic feelings.
        You point out that this passage is problematic for conservative scholars, from which I infer that you may be appealing to my own suspected conservatism. The truth is that I’m on the liberal end of the spectrum, a fan of Christian anarchists like Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul. But, while I’m often a proponent of revolutionary interpretations of the Gospels, my version of piety also requires me to start from a single bottom line: Jesus was the Son of God, unique in the history of humanity. You ask what it is that makes us interpret this passage differently. That may be what it is. I don’t ascribe to Jesus the same problems and misconceptions that the rest of us suffer from. If there are two linguistically plausible possibilities (as you concede there are), I prefer to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.
        I think your analysis reflects what Northrop Frye said of Shakespeare–the agendas that modern critics ascribe to him say more about the critics themselves than they ever will about Shakespeare.

      • David R. Henson

        I completely agree that my analysis and the way I read the Scriptures reflects my own experiences. I think this is true of all of us. Our experiences shape how we interpret things and tell a great deal about the interpreter.

        I don’t think I’m subtly questioning whether you hold anti-Semitic feelings. I’m not sure where you get that from. I merely asked what makes us choose differently. And you answered: your Christology. Nor did I infer your theological bent. I simply pointed out that even conservatives recognize how problematic this passage is for them.

        But I think you gave me an honest answer, which I appreciate. We could have gone round in circles for days. Instead we drilled down to the fracture line. Your Christology dictates how you can interpret this passage. And this is what our discussion has been about, truth be told. It is what simmers beneath all this. I don’t think that this post means that Jesus was not the Son of God. I think there are some assumptions there that I think need to be teased out.

      • David R. Henson

        Btw, @Abril, I love the interpretation of the centurion’s servant as his gay lover!

      • Skenth1

        So Abril has some deep-seated unconscious deception going on.

      • David R. Henson

        Not at all. We are just coming from different sets of assumptions and limitations which make our ability to agree on this unlikely. Instead of bickering, I’m hoping to have a deeper conversation about our differences.

        This is simply a probing question.

  • Chris Kern

    Jesus was both God and human, and as a human, he embodied qualities of humanity — one of those is the experience of having your perceptions challenged and opinions changed.

  • Regina

    I am uncomfortable with the assumption that Jesus is calling the woman a dog. I am trained in anti-oppression and usually am quick to spot it and call it by name, so why am I uncomfortable this time? I firmly believe that Jesus was fully human, that his self-understanding at the beginning of his ministry was indeed that he was called to his “own people,” and this is one several exchanges, especially with women, that changed this self-understanding. That said, to my ears, this is clearly a simile or semi-parable about family, who belongs, Jesus’ limited understanding of family, which the woman cleverly turns on him to enlarge his vision of family. Since Jesus’ ministry was and is to create New Family, this enlargement was indeed of huge significance.

    The genre that Jesus used most often to teach was parable. As Abril pointed out, he included hilarious exaggeration and other figurative language. It does not mean “the same as” or “is”. So to say that Jesus called her a dog just is not good biblical exegesis. If that were not the case, if Jesus was name calling, there are some other parables that would be shockingly un-Christlike, and would say the opposite of what the church believes Jesus was teaching.

    So, though I see no justification for teaching that Jesus is calling her a dog, or a racial slur, he is drawing a boundary, a boundary based on a theology of scarcity. He is thinking hierarchically, and that the hierarchy is ethnically based (since we are told nothing about her religion). While Jesus was not calling her a name, he was, by his words and inaction, enacting oppression. He probably though he was just setting appropriate boundaries, based on his self-understanding. But in this boundary was the oppression of “othering”, of hierarchy, of scarcity. Here is where the intersection of racism and this story is found. For me, in reading the blog, once past the “calling her a dog”, that is where I found power in these reflections. Darned good reflections. I’m glad I kept reading.

    • David R. Henson

      Thanks for such hearty engagement, but I’d have to disagree, respectfully. Jesus isn’t teaching in parable here. He uses an ethnic slur (calling someone like her a dog was a slur at the time. That’s well-documented and accepted historically by biblical scholars. The debate is why he used it); the woman understands him as addressing her as a dog, hence her response. I really don’t think it’s an assumption to say that he refers to the woman as a dog. In fact, I think the text is as clear as it can be.

      • J P Serrano

        David, would you please state your sources on this? I can’t find anywhere that calls this specifically and ethnic slur.

  • Robert Cornwall

    Thanks David for sharing this reflection on one of those truly difficult words in Scripture. We do a disservice to the text, to Jesus, and the Syro-Phoenician woman by not hearing the full conversation and recognize that she schooled Jesus on ethnocentrism and sexism!

    • David R. Henson

      Thanks so much. I couldn’t agree more (and it means a great deal to have you comment here, btw). This text became so much more powerful when I was introduced to this way of reading it.

  • Yvonne Aburrow

    Unitarians have always seen this story as showing that Jesus was human and fallible, and not the one and only Son of God.

    The Unitarian view is that we are all children of God; in the 19th century, James Martineau wrote, “The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.”

    Anyway, I like your interpretation and it’s good to see a Christian examining the issues that this passage raises, rather than ignoring it.

  • valerie

    Thanks for great conversation in these comments and for a thought-provoking blog post! I found a lot of places to heartily agree (and by heartily agree, I mean feel desperately dependent on Jesus for salvation from the ways racism has crept into who I am and how I am in the world). I am wondering about one particular paragraph, however.

    “Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith, a moral exemplar, his teacher.”

    I know this is not meant to be the final word on all of this, so I do not hope to criticize you or appear to be more aware of dynamics or anything like that. What I hope is to draw attention to something that I bet you already know and just didn’t mention in this post and that is: very very often it falls on people in situations of oppression to be moral exemplars and teachers and that is unfair and a perpetuating dynamic of continued oppression. The faith/morality/ability to teach of this woman should not be under scrutiny because her humanity is not dependent on these things. Her humanity is dependent on being a child of God, which she is whether or not Jesus likes her/understands her/learns from her. This woman is to be praised for her beautiful qualities, certainly, but it cannot go without saying that these qualities are not indicators of her worth, they are accidental qualities rather than essential ones. And for that I give thanks to God because sometimes I am the minority and I do not always behave as a moral exemplar/teacher/woman of great faith.

    • David R. Henson

      Wow. Amen. That is so well-said. Thank you for adding this. You are exactly right, of course. It makes me want to write another post criticizing this one and the fairly common mistake many progressive Christians in doing what you just noted — perpetuating the dynamic of continued oppression — by emphasizing her as a surprising moral exemplar and teacher.

      Thanks, again.

  • David Chase Hawisher
    • David R. Henson

      Um, I think you just did. :)

  • Steve

    Very, very interesting! Thank you!

  • Sara Sue

    Thank you for your willingness to present an interpretation that will be challenging for some to consider. I appreciate your broader application to the (unfortunately) still-relevant response to racism and perspective-shifting.

    It’s a mystery, of course, and we can all only postulate according to what scholars’ studies have revealed of context, culture, and language, and what rings true subjectively.

    I prefer to hang on to my more Godlike, less human views of Jesus for now. The consummate Teacher was likely using the teachable moment on multiple levels. His use of demeaning language may have shocked his followers intimately familiar with his interactions into paying attention to the lesson he was about to unfold:

    He bluntly reinforced the stereotype just long enough to dismantle and discredit it.

    Notice that he chose not to say, “Now go and sin no more” as he said to some other miracle recipients. Instead, he publicly and verbally honored her faith, healed her child, and simply but profoundly restored dignity that was previously lacking in the culturally-accepted racism of the day.

    I still find it difficult to reconcile (and what if she didn’t respond with such great faith?), but I’m not accustomed to reading the words of Christ flippantly. Perhaps it’s the countless sermons and Bible studies, but it seems all His recorded words were extremely purposeful.

  • Jroopecc

    Or there is the obvious fact that Mark, and other writers, wrote ABOUT Jesus, doing so through their own cultural lens. The slur exists in Mark’s telling of the tale. I am unfamiliar with any text ostensibly written BY Jesus. This text only poses your stated dilemma for those who take the literalist view of scripture. From another view, the good Jews who wrote the gospel accounts made Jesus into a good Jew, thinking nothing of placing words in his mouth a good first century Jew might have spoken.

  • Sueblakeman

    Thank you for your explanation. This passage has always troubled me. I inferred disdain in Jesus’ reply, and I could never rectify it with His message. Being fully human would make him, as it makes us all, vulnerable to our cultural prejudices. I have found it to be true that it is a revelation when I finally understand the point of view of ‘the other.’ It is during that paradigm shift that I feel most clearly the compassion of “the kingdom of God within.” I thank God for those precious moments when I am given “eyes to see.”

  • Linda Nicola

    But Jesus was inclusive of the Samarian and the Romans. He helped them. Isn’t this contradictory?

    • David R. Henson

      I have been pondering this, and that’s not a bad counterargument. In response, I’d say that not exactly. There are lots of people in this world who are inclusive, but still have an embedded culture that is oppressive towards others. That embedded culture can come out when our guard is down (some scholars note Jesus was on “vacation” or retreat here).

      It’s not unreasonable to see Jesus as inclusive and still have his culture of birth at work in him.

      I dare say many of us find ourselves in this boat.

  • john

    First, I applaud your enthusiasm, even if I disagree with the interpretation and application. I have tried to incorporate references to Scripture in my thoughts, but please excuse the brevity.

    Many words, taken out of the proper context, could be interpreted as racial slurs. I would also point out that a significant number of pastors, biblical scholars, and treatises specifically note the term is not used as a racial slur in this passage.

    Even in other passages, it is not used as an “ethnic” or “racial” slur. The term “dog” here, derived from the Greek “kuon,” is always used to describe an “impure mind.” Phi. 3:2, Rev. 22:15, Matt 7:6; 2 Pet. 2:22.

    This is not shocking in the context that Gentiles did not follow Jewish customs or beliefs. They did not know Scripture (Rom. 3:2). They likely had no concept of who “God” was or the “Messiah.” Accordingly, when read in the context that Christ is specifically addressing the purpose of his ministry, Gentiles (justifiably so) were simply not the initial focus of Christ’s ministry prior to resurrection.

    Christ ministered first to those adhering to the Jewish faith because only they would have the knowledge of Scripture to be able to understand his life and teachings (though most initially did not) and ultimately allow for the spread of the Gospel (Rom. 3:29). Christ specifically truly “discipled” only a handful of Jews, if you catch my drift.

    A reasonable interpretation, in context, would be that the comment was contrasting the Jewish faith from the rest of the “world,” not a woman’s ethnicity or race from another. We have to be very careful when committing to a theology about what Christ being “fully human” really means. Asserting that Christ needed to be “fundamentally changed” is a very bold choice of words for only a 30 paragraph or so blog entry.

    Secondly, assuming Christ chose to use a slang “racial slur,” why completely discard another reasonable interpretation that Christ was speaking facetiously in this context in order to expose and correct what you concede was a widespread custom with Jews? Not only did Christ often directly confront the Pharisees and others with questions Christ already knew the answer to, this was also a common Rabinical teaching technique. Cf. Luke 20:1-8.

    I agree it is important to discuss and work out the true meaning of this passage, as it is also critical to the modern assault on Christ’s divinity and character. In that regard, again, I applaud the enthusiasm.

    • David R. Henson

      A slur is nothing more than a pejorative, and referring to someone — anyone — as a dog is pejorative and dehumanizing. Further, it was a common pejorative (slur) for non-Jews at the time. Because it was used as a way to put-down entire groups, it was an ethnically-based slur. Even using the more loosely connoted “impure mind” of yours becomes problematic, because it assumes the woman is impure of mind in her request for no reason other than what the text indicates, that she is “other.”

      I don’t have a problem asserting that Jesus grew and changed from others, including this woman. I think it speaks to how deeply the kenosis went. Otherwise, we commit another kind of heresy in implying that Jesus was only part human.

      I discard the other reasonable explanation because it fails to consider the perspective of the one put down. Oppressive cultures have a tendency not to be able to see how one’s words and actions — thought to be innocuous or thought to be “teaching” — are actually patently offensive to those used as object lessons.

      I would hope that Jesus could manage to teach his disciples to respect Gentiles without using an ethnic slur in regard to a woman desperate for help.

      I don’t necessarily think we can know what the true meaning of this text is, but we can allow the text to speak to us in different ways and at a different times in our different contexts.

      I appreciate your thoughtful engagement and constructive criticism. I hope this helps you understand more fully where I am coming from. I too apologize for the briefness of this response.

      • Paul

        That’s an awesome interpretation, especially since the “other” in this case, were the Jewish people. Jesus did teach his followers that the Gentiles or let’s be honest, Romans were not necessarily the enemy, because Jesus was very clear that the enemy was the satan, the adversary of humanity, and Jesus was fulfilling all the Scriptures in his own life for Israel. Jesus showed very little concern for Gentiles and THANK GOD he did. Why? Because if Jesus went to everyone, NO ONE would have ever known uniqueness of his death. When people make Jesus simply a moral example, then Jesus came become anything we like. But Jesus was not simply a moral example of how to live more tolerant of the “other”. Jesus in that culture WAS the other that so many people like to talk about.

      • Joel Montgomery

        Not to mention the many problems that arise from Jesus using this moment as a kind of “hyperbolic teachable moment.” David, I came to this article just after listening to you and Mark on Moonshine Jesus talking about the Matthew parallel, so I’m bringing in some of the things you guys talked about, too. The fact that Jesus takes *this* particular moment – a moment where a woman comes to him in desperation – to suddenly impart some kind of veiled moral lesson… that’s a pretty cruel Christ, especially considering the amount of compassion he’s already shown just in the previous chapter with the feeding of the 5,000.

        But there’s also a significant textual problem in my own study – that being the fact that there’s no textual evidence of a Pharisaic presence in the pericope. Jesus’ previous conversation about “What defiles a person” (both in Mark and Matthew) is directly responding to Pharisees and their own hypocrisy, but when he encounters the Syrophoenician (or Canaanite) woman, he’s now in a totally different place. He’s transitioned to the district of Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile district. If Jesus were still trying to make a point to educate the crowds, he picked a really bad crowd in which to do this. It’d be like me as a white pastor in a white congregation going to Queens and using racial slurs to the community in the idea of “making a point.” The people of Queens wouldn’t look at me and go “Oh, he’s being hyperbolic to drive a point home.” They’d get pissed off and insulted. And my congregation would only be further confused by my actions – likely thinking me to be something I’m not intending to be.

        I don’t think it’s blasphemous, bad Christology, or even far-fetched to allow a larger emphasis on Jesus’ humanity to influence our approach to scripture – especially in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has moments where he’s very distinctly human – and subject to the human condition. He encounters healings that *fail* because of hostility and people’s lack of faith. He works with a blind man and has to take a second shot at giving him sight because the first time around doesn’t “fix” him completely. He gets angry and comes off at times as blatantly *abusive* to his disciples, if not just abrasive. And yet he is still God. He is still the Savior. Because it’s what he does *in the face of* these moments of humanity that define him as Christ.

  • Catspaw41

    What translation are you using? My NIV says differently.

    • David R. Henson

      The King James. Just kidding. I use the NRSV. The Greek is pretty clear that the word is “dog.”

      • Regina

        actually the Greek word kunaria means little dogs (pl.) puppies, family pets. not a strange, mongrel, or feral dog, but familiar and belonging to the family.

      • David R. Henson

        Yes, and in the post I addressed the problem of casting a diminutive version of dog as any less harmful or any less pejorative.

        A little dog (lap dog) is still a dog, still subhuman.

  • MorganGuyton

    This might be a cop-out but one of the theories out there is that the Syrophoenicians were traders from the coastal towns that were economically exploiting the agrarian society in Galilee and other places. For a woman in that day to walk into a random house alone would involve a degree of presumptuousness that would be indicative of the upper class. Jesus may in fact have been cutting a rich lady down to size and then responding with compassion when she was so willing to completely humiliate herself. It may be that this theory came about in order to get Jesus off the hook and allow him to stay perfect. I don’t know. Obviously 1st century sensibilities were completely different than ours. Racism would have been totally off the moral radar screen. “Well of course he called the woman a bitch; she’s a Gentile — DUH!”

    • David R. Henson

      That is an interesting theory, actually that would add another layer of complexity to it. I still get hung up on the ethnic pejorative. But you’re right, 1st century sensibilities were so different from ours, which makes Jesus’ change so miraculous and so powerful. Thanks!

  • Regina

    I continue to be uncomfortable with the assumption that Jesus is calling the woman a dog because I see no textual reason to jump to that conclusion. He does not say “YOU are a dog”, but IMHO merely uses a familiar family scene to let her know his boundaries. His self-understanding at that time was that he was called to minister to the Jews. He said this many times in many ways that he was sent to the “lost sheep” of Israel. (Is he calling Jews sheep, and lost at that? Talk about a slur!!) Jesus keeps trying to set the boundary and people, including his disciples keep transgressing them. He has already healed the Centurion’s “boy”, according to Matthew. Yes, the familial analogy “others” her, but the literary genre used (example/analogy) and the choice of words leads me to believe that he is trying to explain his boundary.

    Choice of words and setting: a family meal. Is her calling her “puppies (pl)”? kunaria: lit. “small dogs”; not kuna, and not stray dogs, not bitches, but family pets. “Dog” did and does, in some contexts, carry meanings of slur. But does “puppies”? Puppy love, puppy eyes, warm puppy… No if you are going to insult, you use the insult word. And Jesus did not.

    I have found this online discussion disheartening because, as a result of insisting that Jesus is calling her a racial slur, focusing on the “insult”, the actual content of his words has been lost, and that is our loss. Let’s imagine for a moment that he is actually using figurative speech, an analogy evoking relationships. Imagine a family at supper, with the children at the table, and the family puppies beneath the table. The paterfamilias’ first concern is the nourishment of his children. This scene evokes one of the most important teachings of Jesus, New Family. Creating a new way of being family was at the heart of Jesus work, such an extraordinary counter-cultural ideal that it began to be undone within a few years of Jesus’ death. And he asks the woman to imagine how the paterfamilias looks at the family, focus on the children (the anawim: little ones, the powerless), not the puppies. Given that Jesus’ self-understanding was focused on the anawim of Israel, he would see gentiles as a distraction. He repeated tried to not dilute his mission, but keep it focused. That is, by the biblical account, the scene Jesus has laid out for the woman to imagine.

    She imagines that scene and tells something about children that Jesus not forgotten, that they love their pets and slip them little morsels. And that the pets love the humans with whom they live. It is a disarming and true to life vignette. Jesus’ response is not “oh I’m sorry I called you a dog” but “yes, I now see that you also are a member of the family, and that there is enough grace for all.” Jesus’ conversion is to abundance theology. It is that conversion to abundance theology that enables anyone to let go of xenophobia, racism, “othering”. Without that conversion to abundance theology, there is always fear. When survival is on the line, boundaries ARE drawn, fear makes the decisions. When survival is taken off the table and abundance affirmed, fear lets go of its deadly grip and we have the spiritual freedom to be new family. Racism can never be successfully overcome using fear, or in the context in which fear has “reason.” When we convert to a mind filled with abundant of grace and knowledge of God’s love, then and only then are we free enough to let go of racism and “othering.”

    BTW, I recently read a nice exegesis saying that the woman could have been a lesbian, and her “child” her lover. Same equation as the Centurion and his boy.

    • David R. Henson

      I am confused because you speak of a conversion to abundance theology that allows us (Jesus?) to overcome fear- based xenophobia and racism, which I agree with. But you disagree that calling someone a little dog is derogatory.

      As I mentioned, folk have long thought they were softening their pejoratives by casting them in the diminutive. It doesn’t make them any less derogatory to the people to whom they are said.

      The word for the centurion’s “boy” is actually pais, beloved, and the metaphor of sheep and shepherd has a long discourse behind it, dating back to the Old Testament. In this context, the metaphor of dogs at the table is not a positive one.

      I think we are probably at the point of talking passed each other. We have addressed the same points at least twice. I appreciate your engagement here and your enriching comments.

      • Regina

        Actually, rather than having addressed the same points twice, I was answering your critique, and you are answering mine. That process should have brought us forward in mutual understanding: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

        To answer your “in this context, the metaphor of the dogs at the table is not a positive one.”: you are assuming an interpretation Jesus use of that metaphor, dog as slur (which is more than just “not a positive one”), that I do not think the text carries, nor have your proved otherwise. I will not repeat what I have already written how I read that text and why. I would hear you better if you said something like “in my opinion”. I have appreciated the various voices on this thread.

        Hopefully to bring things further forward on your “confusion”, I said nothing one way or other about whether or not calling someone a “little dog” is derogatory. I would suppose that would depend on context. After all, the French call their children petit chou. For textual reasons, I do not think Jesus is CALLING anyone anything. (I hate using caps, BTW, but emphasis is important here and italics are not available.) For me, that distinction is important. I study the use of symbols and symbolic language, and understand linguistic and symbolic slippage. As I said in my first comment on this thread, I am hyper-alert to racism and other oppressive language. AND, as a scholar, I am first responsible to what actually is- in this case, the actual text. It is from both of these sources, semiotics and anti-oppression that I look at the text and say: no Jesus is not calling this woman a dog. I can see why people with anti-oppression training would hear it as such, but, for me, it fails the test of form. It is not an allegory, where everything is equal to (stands in for) something else. That is why I used the word semi-parable, because while it wasn’t totally a parable, he set a scene to make one point, which is the parable form. That point was that he called to the Jews, everything else was a loss of focus. But the interpretation that equates the “little dogs” with the woman, like Matthew in the parable of the sower, has turned the semi-parable into an allegory. That is an abuse of the text, IMHO.

        It also fails the test of what kind of person Jesus was, according to the texts, what he said to others who were also foreigners and “others.” He is clear that he believes they are “other”, but it is also clear that he never insults them for that. He saves his insults for his coreligionists.

        Since Jesus did not say (according to the text) “YOU are a dog” or even a little dog, or pet, or whatever, we need to look at the form in which he does reply. What is the form and does it imply that she is a dog? I trust that my previous comments have already covered that ground, and given the foundation for my response: no, Jesus is not implying that she is a dog, only that his ministry is to his own people, his “family”, in a theology of scarcity.

        That said, the context of Jesus actions (his words) and inaction (refusing to heal her “child”) is one of “othering” within that theology of scarcity. While I do NOT believe there is a one-to-one correlation to the kunaria (plural) to the woman (singular), his analogy is one of othering (we are assuming it was ethnic, but we weren’t there, so who knows). Her response is, with grace, humility, and humor, to claim membership in that family, turning Jesus’ own word-images. Once again I point you to his response. It is not “Oh I’m sorry I called you a dog.”

      • David R. Henson

        (For clarification, everything I say is “in my opinion.” I was taught as a journalist that putting forward an opinion and then calling it an opinion was redundant. This is must my writing style.)

        Essentially, what I hear you saying, is that because Jesus did not directly address her saying, “YOU are a dog,” then he wasn’t calling her a dog, even though she responds by identifying with the dog.

        I get what you are trying to say, but I think it stretches credibility as an exegetical method and it seems like you are searching for an excuse for Jesus while still affirming the change to no longer “other.” His response, and her answer, both show he is referring to her as a dog. I can’t really find a biblical scholar or commentary that would even attempt to argue otherwise. That’s the whole issue with this text, the reason why it’s so problematic for Christians.

        Jesus insults someone without proper cause. And he does so using a word that, discursively during that time, is a slur used by Jews toward non-Jews (ethnic slur).

        We aren’t talking about the French, Regina. That’s a red herring. We are talking about referring to non-Jews dogs. Referring to non-Jews as dogs was an ethnic slur, not a term of endearment. Attempting to turn a slur into a term of endearment through the diminutive (little dogs). If one were to use an established ethnic slur — in a diminutive — while telling a semi-parable directed at one for whom the word would have been a slur, it would still be heard by that person as a slur. The original Greek actually suggests the interpretation is not “give it to the dogs” (as one would from the table) but fling it to the dogs. The assumption you seem to have is that being a dog would have been anything but unclean and bad to a Jew. I don’t think that’s correct, historically.

        A lack of apology doesn’t really prove or disprove this interpretation.

        Jesus’ intention doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if he is teaching a lesson or telling a parable.

        Here’s a basic form for how I read this:
        A non-Jew asks for help.
        A Jew responds that he should not give the bread meant for the human family to the animals, to the dogs — an established slur for non-Jews by Jews.
        A non-Jew responds creatively, affirming her role as a dog while subverting it at the same time and claiming her power (not unlike Jesus’ turn the other cheek instructions).
        A Jew changes his mind and affirms her humanity.

        I trust that we’ve covered the ground that we are going to cover. I appreciate the dialogue. Like I said, I see us covering the same points over and over again.

      • Regina

        The reference to the French was an example of context; I do not believe that using examples to make a point is a red herring. Since context was the point, the example cannot be a red herring. I’m sorry you think we are going over the same points over and over again. I thought this thread had actually succeeded in a better exploration of the issues than would otherwise have happened. And yes, it is the CALLING her a dog that has been my issue from my first comment. I’m glad you were able to hear that distinction. For you, that makes no difference. For me, it makes all the difference.

        I am not stretching to search for a way to protect Jesus from himself. He stands or falls on his own. I am looking at the text and being honest to it.

      • David R. Henson

        To be clear, I believe he is calling her a dog either way you slice and believe it is intellectually dishonest to suggest otherwise. I don’t think you are addressing the actual context of the word “dog” during this socio-cultural time. (Which I’ve been over in each comment I’ve made)

        Trying to soft-pedal his use of an ethnic slur by referring to the same word in French as it is used today is a red herring and doesn’t address the actual context of the word itself. The context of “dog” when Jews address non-Jews is that of exclusion, derogatory language and a slur.

        Regina, we are going over the same points. I hear you. I understand what you are saying. I’ve repeated back what you say in a way that you affirm. So I do understand you. I just don’t agree with you. I’m not convinced I get the same courtesy for you. I see you as pressing an edge that I don’t agree with and you know I don’t agree with. I’m not really sure what that’s about. It’s okay that you disagree with me. We don’t have to agree. We can have different perspectives on this text.

        Unless you are after something else?

      • Regina

        As always, I am after clarity and honesty. Each time I have responded again, it was because your response showed to me that you hadn’t heard what I had actually said, and, as in all conversation, it takes several rounds to actually understand what the other is saying. It took me three tries before you understood my main point. And the process of trying to articulate better, or in a way that can be heard, is an important part of any conversation. And in each exchange I learned a bit more about your perspective.

      • Linnea Lagerquist

        Context is indeed everything, and it vitiates the alleged parallel with the French person calling her child “petit chou” (‘little cabbage’). In the first place, one would be highly unlikely to use that term to a child one doesn’t know – especially to the child of a parent one doesn’t know: the relationship simply isn’t there. See Roger Brown & Albert Gilman’s seminal paper “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity” (1960), which can be viewed in pdf format on a number of academic Web sites: when tu ‘you-familiar’ is used mutually, it encodes familiarity, but its use by a competent-speaker stranger is likely to be construed as a move to establish or emphasize the asymmetry of the relationship. In the second place, “petit chou” is properly used to a literal CHILD: using it to an adult with whom one doesn’t have a relationship underscores underscores or at the least reflects one’s dominance. See also Deborah Tannen’s followup “Rethinking Power and Solidarity in Gender Dominance” (1990), which can be viewed at We have no indication that Jesus had any prior relationship with the Syrophoenician woman, so I think there’s no alternative to interpreting his remark about throwing food to the dogs as something of a smackdown.

  • Gordon

    I can’t help but wonder if perhaps your analysis of the story might give a more straightforward answer to why the gospel writer chose to include this story in the narrative. It’s not exactly a complementary portrait of Jesus. But to imply that Jesus is simply “pulling her string” until the very end, “pretending” to insult her, assumes the original readers knew that is what Jesus was doing all along, and that may be more of a strained interpretation.

    You could have said that this was a case of “mutual healing”, too.

  • Ruok

    One of my favorite passages…because He heard…and the gospel became for every tribe tongue and family

  • Daniel Hussey

    For the record, Jesus was not a racist. To read racism into this passage is to misunderstand Jesus’ intent with the Syrophoenician woman. By using such degrading language with the woman Jesus is testing her faith, and quite mildly at that. You may recall God calling on Abraham in Genesis 22 to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a testament to Abraham’s faith. God, in His grace and mercy, spared Isaac, as Abraham proved undoubtedly that he feared God. This is why I say that the test of faith that Jesus presented to the woman was relatively mild when measured against the test of faith endured by Abraham. The fact that the Syrophoenician woman neither took offense (as far as the scripture reads), nor verbally retaliated was enough for Jesus to deem her faithful, and reward her by ridding her daughter of the demon. Yet another fine example of God’s grace.

    Racist – unequivocally not. Demanding of us to prove our faith – certainly. The real question we should be asking here is would one of us pass such a test? Or would we be pridefully offended, and continue in self love?

    God is good.

    Originally posted to:

    • David R. Henson

      Wow! You admit Jesus was using derogatory language (a slur) and was doing so intentionally.

      • Daniel Hussey

        Is this really so shocking an assertion? I need only refer to my initial comparison of Abraham’s test of faith. I am confident you would agree directing a man to sacrifice his only son as a show of faithfulness is a considerably more challenging test of faith than calling a person a dog, and expecting that person to remain faithful. I contend that falling victim to the social climate of the times is a trap reserved solely for humans. Yes, Jesus was fully man; however, Jesus is also fully God. Thus, Jesus is sinless, and ultimately proved impervious to temptation. As such, the social climate, or societal mores, have no impact whatsoever with regard to Jesus. Combine this with the fact that the term racism indicates one group’s feelings of superiority over another. While Jesus has more right than any other to claim superiority Jesus has no reason to even allude to such a claim with the Syrophoenician woman.

        Tests of faith come in many guises. The important thing is making the right choices even when you do not realize your faith is being tested. While I can see how this scripture can be twisted to indicate Jesus was a racist any knowledge or understanding about Jesus, the Trinity, or the nature of God surely defies the notion of racism as related to our Savior. God is the paradigm of good. Jesus is God. Jesus is the paradigm of good. Racism is not good. Therefore, Jesus is not a racist.

      • David R. Henson

        Those last few sentences represents circular logic.

    • Rizpah37

      Why would Jesus feel the need to test her faith if she wasn’t a Jew? That is the point of the story. He dismissed her because she was a woman and a foreigner, but she PROVED her faith by not giving up.

      • Daniel Hussey

        Whether or not the woman was a Jew has no bearing on the situation. The woman expressed faith, and Jesus challenged her on that faith. Jesus dismisses no one who is an active seeker of the Lord.

  • Laura Lee

    Thank you for this post, which has given me lots of food for later reflection. The only thing I wanted to ask is whether the analogy of Jesus as a white man in the racist south is exactly apt. I do not know my ancient history well enough to know the social status of the Syrophoneician woman– but am now interested to read more. I know from context that it was a group that was not liked by the Jews of Jesus’s community. But the reason Jewish people tried to maintain their separate identity was to preserve it from outside influence because they were the marginalized and oppressed people– a minority group in Rome, not the dominant majority that the white males are in our society.

    • David R. Henson

      Yes, we are generally taught that it was the Jews that were oppressed. But just because someone is oppressed does not make them incapable of re-enacting oppression on others. The Jesus as a white racist may be a stretch. It’s not supposed to be exact but an attempt to jar readers into seeing this exchange in a way that I believe reflects its problematic nature.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  • Steve Kiely

    Thank you for this article. Christians have a hard time comprehending that Jesus was both man and God – the hypostatic union. While non-Christians have a hard time understanding Jesus’ divinity, many times Christians have a hard time understanding his humanity. We can quote scriptures until we are blue in the face, but this duality is a mystery – beyond our human minds ability to grasp completely.

    I like to think that this story represents both our Lord’s humanity (His unwillingness to initially help the Syrophonecian woman) and His divinity (His change of heart.)

    Your article is thought provoking.

  • Daniel Genseric


    Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

    The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

    Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

    What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

    How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

    And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

    But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

  • Chris Rockwell
  • Jeff Donnelly

    Thank you for this post. It’s a very important discussion, I believe. A couple thoughts:

    1) This question about Jesus’ humanity/divinity is and has been a difficult one for a long, long time. Christians have never been able to grasp entirely all the implications of the belief in Jesus’ being both human and divine. I do feel, though, that Christians have always tended to err on the side of making him more divine than human. It’s as though the Eternal, Living Divine Being decided one day to get into a human-being suit and come to earth. Many Christians conceive of Jesus as having a human body, sensations, experiences, but not many other dimensions of humanity, like limited understanding and growing in faith and understanding through time. I believe Jesus needed to grow and learn and discover and evolve, just as we do. That is a major part of what it is to be human.

    2) We see racism today as sin, and then we anachronistically insert our 21st century ideas about racism into the 1st century. Some of the comments here assume that Jesus couldn’t have been racist because today human consciousness has come (or rather, is in the process of coming) to the consciousness of racism as sin. It seems clear, and there’s plenty of evidence that I don’t need to go into here, that Jesus and his early followers were evolving a new consciousness of the love of God for all humanity, regardless of the divisions of race, gender, class, and other human distinctions. Yet, to assume that Jesus had a perfect understanding of what it meant to be racist in the sense we do today is to interpret him anachronistically. Jesus was limited by his time and culture.

    3) We feel uncomfortable by this passage. That tells me that it’s doing exactly what the Christian Gospel has always done. It makes people uncomfortable because it challenges us to stretch and grow beyond our present understandings, beyond our limitations, and beyond those things that separate us from one another and from God. The Gospel is always throwing something into our midst to shake us up. I believe the reason the Gospel writers of this earliest Gospel of Mark included this story was to show the evolution of humanity toward divinity through the person of Jesus Christ. If he could have his human limitations and human prejudices challenged and expand beyond them to embrace this foreigner, then so can we.

    • David R. Henson

      Very well said, Jeff. Thanks.

    • Wmssh1

      Totally agree with you Jeff, well said.
      I just want to add racist or not, Jesus was the greatest man to ever walk on the face of the earth, and we should all strive to be like him.

  • Regina

    As uncomfortable as my persistence on this thread as been, I wish to witness to its importance in my wrestling with the issues as I prepare to preach on this gospel tomorrow. As I was weeding and planting in the parish garden yesterday I thought through all that has been posted here and my own thought processes through the discussion and it became very real to me that the wrestling had required me to slow down and sit long and listen hard to what Jesus was saying and what the woman was saying. What I came to was an affirmation of my anti-oppression training: “You don’t persuade people by bullying them and shaming them. You persuade people by loving them.” (I put that in quotes because that was what Louie Crew wrote this morning on FB about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent statement of regret.) As race/othering intersect with this gospel story, shame and bullying echo. What I have learned and experienced is that racism is shameful, yes, AND shaming the racist rarely (if ever) converts the racist. The primary condition necessary for conversion is safety, a safe place in which to be vulnerable. I believe that this gospel story, in how the woman responded to Jesus’ imagery, which she probably heard as offensive and oppressive, is about how that safe place can be created. Since I have already written about Jesus conversion on this thread, I won’t repeat myself. I may not have come to understanding this conversion as based on a theology of abundance if I had not sat long listening to that conversation, as a result of listening long to the conversation on this thread. Thank you, David and all, for this gift.

    • David R. Henson

      That is a beautiful insight, Regina.

  • Lance

    I just don’t buy it. I don’t think is racist, and I don’t think he struggles with it.

    Jesus was a rabbi, and a popular way of teaching in his day was to make really dramatic statements, and really bad statements…then have your disciples refute them. EVERYTHING was a lesson.

    Jesus made those statements so his disciples would refute them. It is unfortunate that no one did. But the teaching moment was saved when the woman replied as she did to Jesus.

    Yes, he was encountering racism. But not HIS racism…the DISCIPLES. He was calling them out on it.

    Or that’s what I think.

    • Lance

      Sorry, I typed quickly. The first sentence is, “I don’t think Jesus is being racist, and I don’t think it is something that he struggles with.”

  • Paul

    I really don’t understand the purpose of this article? In questioning the intents of Jesus, are you actually saying that you know the situation better than Jesus? That Jesus did not know the thoughts, intents, culture, attitudes, mission, interactions, looks, non verbal body language, and his own intentions better than you? That would be like me coming into your house and telling you how to act with your family or your neighbors, or your co-workers, when I am an outsider. And the fact of the matter is that you’re questioning something which you think you have a “Right” to question, which is ONLY a white, male, dominant majority trait. Guess, we figured that out.

    • David R. Henson

      Actually, this post represents the hard work of theology, the wrestling with God (which is what Israel means and that to which all persons of our faith are called, regardless of their skin color).

      Your last line is patently offensive and ironically racist. You have revealed that you think that only white men have the right to question things, including Jesus, the right to doubt, the right to struggle with their faith. Personally, I think this is a human right, to use our minds. All those other women and persons of color I suppose just know their place in the world, right? Which is to passively accept authority and instruction.

      Really, only white men think they can question things? That’s just awful logic and an even worse perspective on humanity.

  • Stevie_tay

    Israelites were the blacks.. hence the gentiles were the whites. Jesus is a black man! Jesus referred to the woman as a gentile because she was white. The original Jews were indeed black.

  • Harliquin111

    I thought that Jesus Christ was supposed to be “incapable of sin” ?

  • Harliquin111

    I thought that Jesus Christ was supposed to be “incapable of evil” .

  • Kristen Rosser

    You might be interested in some things I learned from a study of the historical-cultural background of this passage. I believe that when understood according to the unspoken understandings of the time, which we tend to miss, that Jesus was actually being pretty amazing.

  • Redheadchik

    I’m sorry, but this is perhaps the worst interpretation I have come across. To suggest Jesus sinned in any way in absolute blasphemy. The scriptures are clear; Jesus was without sin. He did not err in any way and did not need a teacher. HE is the teacher. What this passages illustrates so beautifully is God’s priorities (His children first) and His absolute love for the humble. The Syrophoenecian woman *acknowledged* her position as a dog (a lowly societal position as a gentile and a woman) and did not attempt to defend herself. Rather, she begged His mercy in spite of it. She knew what she was, but more importantly, she knew who HE was… and Jesus rewarded her for that. He’ll do the same for us as soon as we get over ourselves!

    • Brianna Gipp

      Well, that’s pretty gross. He blessed her as long as she knew her place and agreed that she was inferior? Why would you want to worship a god like that?

      • Shaun S.

        Aren’t all of us inferior to God? She recognized it more clearly than some of those “Godly” Israelites of the day (and many of us struggle with it, today. Wouldn’t you agree?). She didn’t demand her rights, but recognized Jesus’s goodness & willingness to save the meek. Jesus knew the hearts of (wo)men according to John’s gospel. This could easily have been intentionally worded as a teachable moment for the onlookers to learn a humble human spirit is pleasing to our divine Creator rather than reversing the roles. My hope is that we can get past our tendency to forget we are all beggers. May God bring salvation & hope to each & every one of us who will listen.

  • Thomas West

    Interesting prose, thank you again, you make me explore my own understanding of scripture and my experience in this world.

    While I am not going to attempt to challenge your understanding of the verse, I will say this; to me, being who he was Jesus looking at this women, knowing that his disciples where watching every move took the opportunity to teach all that would listen. Being the man that I have come to know and cherish I believe that when she approached at once Jesus rose to his feet and shouted at her those words.. seriously shouted.. Why? I believe that he knew the spirit of the women that approached, in part simply because as a gentile she was bold enough to approach a Rabbi which undoubtedly was surrounded by many Jews, but also because his sight pierces through the avatar to the soul. Further this was an extremely delicate situation because of the immediate needs of his disciples in the room with him and because he knows scripture will through the centuries recount this event. He handled it as He needed exactly to handle it. See, Jesus is continually challenging those in the flock and those not. So, he called out to her, your child is nothing more worthy than a dog at this table. He KNEW that she understood she was not. Under normal circumstances then and even today most would turn away. She did not, she actually rebuked him, in front of his disciples as he knew that she would. Can you imagine? I’ll take some license and update her response: “Even the dang dogs get scraps sir, can you not just give me a scrap please?” Bang, exactly what he needed, immediately he gave her what she had asked for and in that moment demonstrated through her to his disciples how to be blind to racism. Think about it this way, if she did turn, well you can’t prove a negative, suffice to say that this scripture would have more challenges than it is. She didn’t she insisted on help. Imagine the confidence she must have felt to have challenged, careful here, not Jesus but the notion that her child is a dog, as though to say: “I know my child is not a dog but if you want to denigrate me and my child then fine, that is narrow and shameful and I’m sorry you feel that way but I still want what is due to me because of my earnest asking.” Jesus looking on her did by example what he needed all his disciples to do. Look beyond. This is another (for me) stunning example of Jesus pushing, no, thrusting us beyond our own vision of ourselves and the people who surround us. Following Jesus is not about being comfortable, in fact, it’s the opposite, when the lessen is more atherial Jesus uses parable, for many reasons. When the lessen needs desparately to be understood by all he is blunt and to the point.

    Thanks again, I enjoyed the read.. have some catching up to do for sure, have not been on your post for some time… I know I’m just a ‘simpleton’ but I started my own blog and would love to get your take..? Named it blissfulig because at times it’s better to be blissfully ignorant to the noise produced by this world….

  • Amanda Martin

    Wow, a bold and fresh perspective on this text I have never considered–and one that makes me glad to follow Jesus all the more.

    I do have a quick question, however. You say “It is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.” I think I would disagree with this point. In the water into wine miracle in John 2, Mary confronts Jesus with the problem of no more wine at the wedding. At first, Jesus simply says “Woman (ouch), why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” But sure enough, with a little more persistence from Mary’s part, he heeded her advice and performed the miracle anyway. This account bolsters your argument, in my opinion. It emphasizes the humble heart of Jesus. After all, I wonder what the cultural perception of accepting a woman’s leadership was like at that time.

    Luke 2:52 is one of my favorite verses, because it says “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” So too, should we. Thanks for the provocative reminder.

  • disqus_7wWyVBLcfS

    Two other examples of divine “mind-changing” are where (1) God decides to wipe out the Jews in the desert when they worship the Golden Calf and Moses reminds him of his promise to them; and (2) when Abrahm gets God to hold off on wiping out Sodom

  • C_smith619

    ok Jesus was Black plain and simple and he called a white woman a mixed breed a dog. There is no other way of putting it. Everyone should go check out a movie called Hidden Colors because America is LOST!!!

  • Matt Kleinhans


    First time commenter. Does it change anything that Jews were not the dominant culture of the day, nor particularly of the region?

    For instance, in your analogy to the racist slur of the Deep South, it is the dominant, oppressive culture talking down to the subjugated, oppressed culture. Though this may not change the reality of the “slur”, as you see it, does it alter the comparisons? What if Jesus is speaking from the oppressed culture, not the oppressive one?

    I know I’m a year late on this!


  • Andreas Meyer

    Politically incorrect Jesus.

  • LucyLu

    If you’re interested check out The Urantia Book. Finding and reading this book is one of the best things that ever happened to me. The part of the book about Jesus is truly a blessing.

    1. The Syrian Woman

    (1734.3) 156:1.1 There lived near the home of Karuska, where the Master lodged, a Syrian woman who had heard much of Jesus as a great healer and teacher, and on this Sabbath afternoon she came over, bringing her little daughter. The child, about twelve years old, was afflicted with a grievous nervous disorder characterized by convulsions and other distressing manifestations.

    (1734.4) 156:1.2 Jesus had charged his associates to tell no one of his presence at the home of Karuska, explaining that he desired to have a rest. While they had obeyed their Master’s instructions, the servant of Karuska had gone over to the house of this Syrian woman, Norana, to inform her that Jesus lodged at the home of her mistress and had urged this anxious mother to bring her afflicted daughter for healing. This mother, of course, believed that her child was possessed by a demon, an unclean spirit.

    (1734.5) 156:1.3 When Norana arrived with her daughter, the Alpheus twins explained through an interpreter that the Master was resting and could not be disturbed; whereupon Norana replied that she and the child would remain right there until the Master had finished his rest. Peter also endeavored to reason with her and to persuade her to go home. He explained that Jesus was weary with much teaching and healing, and that he had come to Phoenicia for a period of quiet and rest. But it was futile; Norana would not leave. To Peter’s entreaties she replied only: “I will not depart until I have seen your Master. I know he can cast the demon out of my child, and I will not go until the healer has looked upon my daughter.”

    (1734.6) 156:1.4 Then Thomas sought to send the woman away but met only with failure. To him she said: “I have faith that your Master can cast out this demon which torments my child. I have heard of his mighty works in Galilee, and I believe in him. What has happened to you, his disciples, that you would send away those who come seeking your Master’s help?” And when she had thus spoken, Thomas withdrew.

    (1735.1) 156:1.5 Then came forward Simon Zelotes to remonstrate with Norana. Said Simon: “Woman, you are a Greek-speaking gentile. It is not right that you should expect the Master to take the bread intended for the children of the favored household and cast it to the dogs.” But Norana refused to take offense at Simon’s thrust. She replied only: “Yes, teacher, I understand your words. I am only a dog in the eyes of the Jews, but as concerns your Master, I am a believing dog. I am determined that he shall see my daughter, for I am persuaded that, if he shall but look upon her, he will heal her. And even you, my good man, would not dare to deprive the dogs of the privilege of obtaining the crumbs which chance to fall from the children’s table.”

    (1735.2) 156:1.6 At just this time the little girl was seized with a violent convulsion before them all, and the mother cried out: “There, you can see that my child is possessed by an evil spirit. If our need does not impress you, it would appeal to your Master, who I have been told loves all men and dares even to heal the gentiles when they believe. You are not worthy to be his disciples. I will not go until my child has been cured.”

    (1735.3) 156:1.7 Jesus, who had heard all of this conversation through an open window, now came outside, much to their surprise, and said: “O woman, great is your faith, so great that I cannot withhold that which you desire; go your way in peace. Your daughter already has been made whole.” And the little girl was well from that hour. As Norana and the child took leave, Jesus entreated them to tell no one of this occurrence; and while his associates did comply with this request, the mother and the child ceased not to proclaim the fact of the little girl’s healing throughout all the countryside and even in Sidon, so much so that Jesus found it advisable to change his lodgings within a few days.

    (1735.4) 156:1.8 The next day, as Jesus taught his apostles, commenting on the cure of the daughter of the Syrian woman, he said: “And so it has been all the way along; you see for yourselves how the gentiles are able to exercise saving faith in the teachings of the gospel of the kingdom of heaven. Verily, verily, I tell you that the Father’s kingdom shall be taken by the gentiles if the children of Abraham are not minded to show faith enough to enter therein.”

  • Mary Guevara

    Most important reason that EVERYONE has missed here is Jesus’ devotion to our Heavenly Father and the request from a PAGAN woman. For a pagan to ask God for a favor, first the pagan should accept God as the One and only. So many believers did not get immediate responses then why should a nonbeliever? Pagans disrespect God as if He is not the One and only, therfore, Jesus does the same for a pagan as not human. It’s not racism, it’s spiritual respect between The one and only God and a pagan.

  • C. Bauserman

    I might take a slight issue with your interpretation of this. It’s an intriguing angle, but I think you might have shifted the focus of the tale a little too far.
    Our mental representation is treated to her being described as a “Syrophoenician,” not a “Gentile” or a “pagan.” She wasn’t one of the most hated races of the Jews (the Samaritans or some other analogous people group); she might have been more comparable to a Hebrew “ger,” a stranger, a person originally outside the covenant. Now, Christ came to the people of the covenant, obviously, who were the children of the master. And indeed, he does say the word “dog” as describing the woman in the story, but it does not seem to be the focus of this story.
    Focusing on the term “dog” amid the story refocuses how the entire story can be interpreted. When you focus on the word “dog,” Jesus gives in to the cultural norms, lets the word slip or something of the like, and, as he listens, the listening being his redemptive quality, the woman actually corrects him in such a way as to surprise him, and the Master even becomes the student for such a brief moment as the woman helps him to see a much larger perspective, the “scales falling from his eyes.”
    I don’t think that is what’s happening here.

    Rather, what seems to be in view here is a person outside the covenant being more holy than those inside the covenant, and thus, what one must keep in mind: Christ came to turn the prevailing attitudes of the day on their heads. Those for whom he came, would not listen and did not receive him. Thus, there were people outside the covenant who were waiting with the greatest anticipation, and thus the Lord states that her faith, a woman outside the covenant, is greater than any of those that he has found in Israel, those who are supposed to be the “people of God.”
    Thus, while there seems to be a supposed tension, if one rather takes Christ’s statement concerning the woman’s faith over against the entirety of Israel’s faith as the central focus of the story, then the entire story shifts. He actually uses the cultural norms of the day, the term “dog,” to actually bring his bigger point to bear: that there are people who are more faithful outside of the covenant than those inside, than those who have received all the benefits of the revelation of God and the Torah and the Prophets.
    (Plus, the analogy from the supposed “racism” of Christ to the particular strain of American racism today is entirely misappropriated as an improper analogy.)

  • Andreas Meyer

    I see the whole bible is race realist!

  • John

    Jesus was not a white male. Jesus was dark skinned with wholly hair. He was not white or Caucasians like those who came to Israel from 1948 on and the Arabs in the 600 A.Ds or the romans and Greeks from 30 B.C. There is a tendency to liken Jesus’s race to the greek romans or arabs but they are merely invaders and have not and do not represent the Israelites. Israelis and Jews today are Caucasian (Indo-European origin) like the Iranians and turks but have adopted a non-indo European language. please Stop calling Jesus a white male, t.hat is very insulting and inaccurate.

  • Justin Ewing

    soooooooooooooooo the dog is suddenly black in the all white retelling of ancient stores… convenient

  • Armoured Shephered

    I say this with love
    You are wrong and have no spritual discernment not only was Jesus not being racist but you are saying that the only begotten which the Bible says that he was tempted in all ways but sinned not!
    “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion ” this scripture is not talking about the state of race but authority Jesus in this example scripture I’m giving here for understanding is saying “Ye are Gods but Ye shall die like men ” meaning what He always means the state of the flesh to God in the Old Testament before Christ everyone on the outside of Gods covenant was unclean “dogs” everyone on the inside of the covenant were men “

  • Avi Marranazo

    I heard this story in yesterday’s gospel reading. It gave me pause to think about the importance of striking a balance between hateful bigotry on the one hand and mindless racial egalitarianism on the other. It is only natural for all of us–the Christ included apparently–to hold our own in-group in higher regard than out-groups. BTW, everyone does it, not just White Europeans and not just the Jews.

  • Tim M

    This essay and subsequent discussion seem to completely ignore how God repeatedly worked and works within the cultural and historical contexts of mankind. Jesus’ comments to the woman are not a reflection of some perceived racism in the Messiah, rather they simply reflect the Rabbi navigating within the cultural paradigm of that day. The woman knows that she is a “dog” to Jews. The ethnic lines had been drawn before Jesus was ever born. Rather, Jesus’ exchange with her is a clear attempt on Jesus’ part to help the woman articulate her faith in Him, and it is graciously rewarded. He knew she would take the imagery to its inevitable conclusion: the promised Messiah would come through Israel, and salvation would ultimately spread beyond Israel’s borders. It is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.

    • True Hebrew Israelites

      The whites of old and new (Edomites) do not fit Deuteronomy 28, but they fit Revelation 2:9 and Revelation 3:9…any commits?

  • Feli

    All i can say is people DO YOUR RESEARCH & read the ENTIRE PASSAGE in the bible. Do not take any ones word, God’s word is final. Its very sad that people still try to depict Jesus as “white” man or use examples such as if he were white. And to use this example in term of a black woman “the sweet n***er was uncalled for. The point sailed out of the window, Very much of the passage is also omitted therefore can be interpreted wrong in oh so many ways. Jesus was no sinner, and do not try to compare to folk of the world because i’m sure none of would call someone a “racial slur” then be willing to suffer for that very same person at a huge cost.

  • Mo

    With all due respect, you have it all wrong. Read for an interpretation that is actually Biblical.

  • Unity 7777

    Jesus was a Jewish bigot, an emissary of Satan, AKA Yahweh.

  • Pam Johnson

    “Dog” was a cultural reference. It was against the Law for Jews to associate with Gentiles. Refer to Acts 10:28. You sound as if you would have wanted Jesus to sin by associating with a Gentile contrary to the Law. Then, he couldn’t have redeemed anybody.