So the obvious problem in this passage is how dismissive (even cruel!) Jesus seems to be of this poor woman and her plea for help. Two points can be made to help us understand what Jesus was saying to her.
1. There is at root in Jesus response a consistent New Testament principle about the flow of salvation from Jew first, to Gentile second. Because of God’s promises to Abraham, salvation is “from” the Jews (as Jesus himself said, John 4:22) and so it must always start with the Jews before it goes anywhere else.
Jesus ministry reflects this. Given that the Christian church took on such an international flavor so early, we are surprised that Jesus doesn’t have much interaction with Gentiles. Yes, he famously talked with a Samaritan woman, and praised a Roman centurion, but if God wants to enfold all people, why not go all out and travel to Rome? Instead, Jesus has a calling to Israel, and it’s very intentional.
Now, when he does work with Gentiles, he is amazingly gracious, foreshadowing that the gospel will go to them – eventually – but that’s NOT his focus. So when he says in Mark 7:27 that the “children” must eat all they want first he is meaning the children of Israel. And “eating” here must refer to their chance to get in on God’s healing grace that’s being revealed in Messiah. In Matthew 15 the parallel account shows Jesus saying he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel – he has missional specificity and he doesn’t apologize for it. Again, going ‘first’ to Jews does not mean that salvation will not ever be offered to Gentiles – it will be! Intentionally, specifically and prolifically! This was anticipated and even commanded by Jesus himself – just not “first”.
Well, even if we can see a divinely ordered sequence to Christ’s mission, we still have to deal with his calling a Gentile a “Dog”. It’s a horrible slur to us, and frankly it was also in their context. Gentiles were called ‘dogs’ by Jews because they were considered unclean, and without God’s law, sort of bestial.
Despite that common usage, I think Jesus may be using the term more as illustration here than slur. We can infer this because the image he presents is of a feast on the table, and dogs around tables looking for scraps to come their way (a common occurrence in my household!). This is a metaphor for the sequence of gospel mission.
But given that, the woman’s retort is remarkably insightful and full of faith. Without missing a beat, she accepts Jesus illustration and turns into an affirmation of her belief that God loves so lavishly, his gifts are so vast that they spill over far beyond his chosen people. Jesus loves this response, and grants her request.
So why does he hesitate? Not because he doesn’t want to, but because his FIRST mission field is not the Gentiles, which he makes clear many times (in the parallel passage, Matt 15:24, and in his instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10:5,6). Paul also notes a divine order in dispensing the goods: Jew first, Gentile second (Rom 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile”.)
Now, why this order? Probably because of promises to Abraham, the blessing flows from him to his children, which become a great nation and finally to ALL nations of the earth. Paul will say the Jewish rejection of this blessing will lead directly to the overflow of “crumbs” to the Gentiles.
Jesus alluded to this many times.
“I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd”John 10:16
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’Matt 22:8-10
In the 2nd example, in Matt 22, the point of the parable is that the Kingdom invitation goes to those you EXPECT it should go to, first. When they reject it, THEN and only then does it go to the ones you DON’T expect, the “outsiders”, the “wild branches” (Romans 11:24), the hobos living in “street corners”, the “dogs” – these are all names for us Gentiles in Scripture! Are you offended by that? Well, this beautiful woman, apparently, was not. In fact, her lack of offense probably relates directly to her humble acknowledgement that she is in fact helpless and broken, and such humility is always a key component to saving faith.
Paul tells us that in God’s foreknowledge, he saw his chosen people rejecting free grace, and then in his upside down way, he will take his offer to unsuspecting pagans who weren’t even seeking him, and give them the gift his own children rejected (Romans 9:30). And all this underscores just how awesome God is, how great in mercy, and how the first shall be last, and the last first.
But to prove that, God has to START with the FIRST – that is, the Jews, which is exactly what Jesus does. The fact that this woman anticipates all this, and sees God’s heart to make the last first and graft in the wild branches, before Paul ever wrote explicitly about such ideas, speaks highly of her faith and insight. No wonder Jesus embraces her!.
2. Secondly these hard comments may not even have been directed at the woman but his disciples. Taking in the extra detail from the account in Matt 15, when the woman first asked Jesus to help her here’s what happened:
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”Matt 15:23
One scholar I read takes Jesus initial silence as a clue to understand his seeming harshness with the woman It’s a test, not really for her, but for his followers. See, his disciples are right there the whole time – and they’re clearly indignant about her and the intensity of her request (and her gender, ethnicity?). Why doesn’t Jesus say anything to her? Perhaps to see what THEY, the 12, will say.
What they do say is disappointing – “send her away!” It reveals what’s in their hearts. So Jesus may be responding to their implicit assumptions, when he then reminds them of his mission, first to Jew, then to Gentile. That comment looks directed at them, not her, since they and their indignation are the subject of the preceding sentence. Could this be a test to see if they’re getting how big God’s grace is, to see if they can imagine a day or a way that it might be bigger than Israel? How many people does Jesus have to heal before they see that the heart of God is to bless the whole world!? They say nothing, perhaps nodding in approval – “yes, the mission is the Jews!”. The one to speak next is not them but the woman, who pleads again, “Lord help me!” (Matt 15:25).
Now, with the disciples right there, silent, one commentator I read imagined Jesus saying what he says to the woman, while looking at the disciples, who we know had been trying to shoo her away. He imagines Jesus saying it like this: “Well, lady, as you’ve already gathered from my associates, it’s not right to take God’s gifts and give them just ANYone – right boys? Isn’t that what you’ve just told her?”
Before they can chime in to agree, or detect the sarcasm and change their tune, the Gentile woman pipes up (for a third time) with amazing faith. She says in effect, “yes, Lord, but surely God’s gifts are so lavish, so undeserved, so large, that they spill over to everyone, regardless of status – even to someone like me!”
This is what Jesus was hoping his disciples would say.
But Jesus is nevertheless thrilled with this response! “Good answer!” “Your Faith is great!” I mean, we must hear this, because that is not a begrudging or miserly response. No, Jesus is delightfully surprised by her! Not just because he longs to help her, but because she has just become the teacher of his own disciples who weren’t getting what they were supposed to be learning by now.
He’s thrilled because this poor woman shows us all what God is looking for in a person – a heart of childlike trust in the extravagant goodness of God for unworthy people – and she shows up the disciples own small mindedness about the size of God’s grace. His gracious response confirms all this.