Jesus went to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.Mark 7:24-30
Right after Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and Pharisees concerning kosher food laws, the questionable rabbi from Nazareth did the unthinkable by walking into the unclean, Gentile district of Tyre. In Mark’s Gospel, but omitted in Matthew (15:21-28), Jesus surreptitiously slipped into a house with the hope of finding respite in anonymity. Such a hope was soon dashed when reports of his presence reached a Greek, Syrophoenician woman who pursued him. Matthew called her a “Canaanite woman of that district,” emphasizing her reviled status in Jewish history.
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon,” the woman begged in Matthew’s account. The following details are omitted in Mark:
But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”Matthew 15:23-25
Ironically, Jesus had just come from “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and found coldness and hypocrisy in the religious leaders. They did not seek his help, but only sought to trap him in his words and actions. Nevertheless, the “children” must be fed first, Jesus replied. “For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” The Greek word used in the Gospels, kunarion (little dog, puppy), is actually a diminutive of kuón (dog).
The woman’s love for her daughter and faith in Jesus overcame any human tendency to wounded pride. “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps,” she entreated, arousing his compassion. As children take pity on household dogs and feed them, the Son of David will also share his mercy with the Gentiles.
Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.Matthew 15:28
Matthew’s Gospel explicitly praises the woman’s faith. The disciples witnessed an extraordinary exchange between their revered master and a Greek woman who was inferior on account of both nationality and gender. Faith in the God of Israel transcends all boundaries. In Christ, the words of David the Psalmist can also be sung by Gentiles:
You set a table before mePsalm 23:5
in front of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Canaanites, the ancient foes of the Jews, now receive from the same table of plenty, served by the Good Shepherd of the Psalm.
The reference in the couplet to the “Hound of Heaven,” an image for God made famous by the poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907), was inspired by the dialogue between the Greek woman and Jesus. The label kunarion (puppies), although culturally derogatory, brought to mind the corresponding image of the Lord as our “Hound of Heaven” madly in pursuit of his beloved.
The dog, “universally despised in the East,” is “man’s best friend” in the West. Thompson’s poem is characteristically British and throws fresh light on the Christian faith.
The Hound of Heaven shared his feast
With the littlest and the least.
A Study of Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven by John Francis Xavier O’Conor