From the Gospel of Mark:
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 7:26-30 (NRSV) – March 31, 2014.)
This may be the most puzzling and disconcerting story in the Gospels. I was taught that Jews had a tradition of denigrating Gentiles as “dogs” — a reference to many negative characteristics of dogs as scavengers, publically shameless, and so on, and to their ritual uncleanness in Jewish law — and that Jesus is just being a typical First Century Palestinian Jew in referring to this obnoxious foreign woman in this way. But . . . the last time I had to preach on this text I did some additional research and found a well-documented paper by a Roman Catholic scholar who had found absolutely no historical literature to substantiate that exegetical tradition. None! In fact, it appears that the first instance in the literary record of a Jew insulting a Gentile by calling him or her a “dog” is . . . this one. Jesus. Insulting this woman.
And then there’s bit we are told about the form of the Greek word for “dog” used in this text. The usual Greek word for dog is kuon. Here, Jesus uses the diminutive noun kunaria. Kunaria refers to domesticated dogs, household pets say some, not wild dogs or mongrels that roam the streets. Of course, we don’t really know if Jesus used a word for “domesticated dog.” Jesus and this woman likely conversed in Aramaic, not Greek; what we have here is Mark’s report in Greek of a conversation in Aramaic (which we then read in English translation further muddying the waters). The usual point made when this is brought up is that Jesus is somehow softening the “traditional” Jewish insult of Gentiles — which (as noted above) didn’t actually exist so . . . what then?
What I’m left with is the feeling that I am reading a fragmentary and garbled account of a much longer conversation, exactly the sort of situation in which misunderstanding and error is likely to occur. (The dangers of acting on the basis of such a thing were explored in a Francis Ford Coppola movie, The Conversation, forty years ago. It’s a movie I highly recommend, but to discuss it here would be a diversion from the morning thought I want to get down about this pericope.)
So . . . here’s something that occurs to me about domestic dogs and this woman: tenaciousness, loyalty, and faithfulness. Instead of considering this epithet to be an insult, what if what we have here is Jesus making a favorable comparison? This woman is “like a dog with a bone;” she won’t let go of the matter of getting healing for her child. She is loyal to her child and her needs in the same way a domestic dog is loyal; dog are not called “man’s best friend” without reason.
I have had several canine companions over the years. I have loved every single one of them and still think of each of them time to time; I’ve forgotten the names and appearances of human friends, but of none of my dogs! Each of them was a model of unconditional love. If Jesus was referring not to the negative qualities of wild dogs and mongrels, but to the positive qualities of domestic dogs and household pets, then his commendation of the woman’s faith makes much more sense.
Years ago when I was a child, my parents owned a one-volume collection of poetry entitled something like Best Loved Poems of America. It included a poem entitled Rags. It’s not a great poem, but it’s the only poem I specifically remember from that entire tome:
We called him “Rags.” He was just a cur,
But twice, on the Western Line,
That little old bunch of faithful fur
Had offered his life for mine.
And all that he got was bones and bread,
Or the leavings of soldier grub,
But he’d give his heart for a pat on the head,
Or a friendly tickle and rub
And Rags got home with the regiment,
And then, in the breaking away-
Well, whether they stole him, or whether he went,
I am not prepared to say.
But we mustered out, some to beer and gruel
And some to sherry and shad,
And I went back to the Sawbones School,
Where I still was an undergrad.
One day they took us budding M. D.s
To one of those institutes
Where they demonstrate every new disease
By means of bisected brutes.
They had one animal tacked and tied
And slit like a full-dressed fish,
With his vitals pumping away inside
As pleasant as one might wish.
I stopped to look like the rest, of course,
And the beast’s eyes levelled mine;
His short tail thumped with a feeble force,
And he uttered a tender whine.
It was Rags, yes, Rags! who was martyred there,
Who was quartered and crucified,
And he whined that whine which is doggish prayer
And he licked my hand and died.
And I was no better in part nor whole
Than the gang I was found among,
And his innocent blood was on the soul
Which he blessed with his dying tongue.
Well I’ve seen men go to courageous death
In the air, on sea, on land!
But only a dog would spend his breath
In a kiss for his murderer’s hand.
And if there’s no heaven for love like that,
For such four-legged fealty — well
If I have any choice, I tell you flat,
I’ll take my chance in hell.
(Rags by Edmund Vance Cooke)
I’d like to think that Jesus was paying tribute dogs’ “four-legged fealty” and not insulting but complimenting this tenacious, loyal, faithful mother, commending her as an example to his disciples and to us. Mark just garbled the conversation!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.