Was Jesus a Bigot? He Did Call a Woman a Dog

One of the biggest barriers to helpful, healthy conversation about the Christian faith seems to revolve around fear. What if I don’t know something I should and others find out? What if I ask a question that makes me look stupid, unfaithful or even heretical? So instead we wander through our lives of faith, wondering about an awful lot but asking very little.

This isn’t my understanding of the faith we’re called to live out. After all, if your beliefs can’t stand up to rigorous questioning, dialogue and debate, what good are they?

I created the “Banned Questions” book series both to prompt the collective human imagination about often off-limits topics, and also to give others permission to do the same in asking their own questions. The following was one of the more interesting questions that came out of the most recent volume, “Banned Questions About Jesus:”

A woman in Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28 asks Jesus to heal her daughter, but his first response is to deny her help and call her a dog. Isn’t this a cruel, and pretty un-Christlike, response?

I asked several folks from different backgrounds to offer their responses.

David Lose, professor at Luther Seminary and author of  “Making Sense of the Christian Faith,” writes,

There are two options most readers flee to when trying to make sense of Jesus’ interaction with this Gentile woman. Either Jesus didn’t really mean it (supposedly, he Greek word translated as ‘dog’ was a term of endearment, as in ‘little dog’ or ‘puppy’) or he was testing her faith. Both options are, I think, bogus.

But most Christians opt for one of these interpretations anyway because they can’t imagine a third option: that Jesus was being a jerk. Could it be that Jesus’ mission has gone and ventured ahead of his inherited attitudes? Might it be that the Spirit that drove him into the wilderness is now driving him across barriers, social and ethnic as well as geographical? If so, then perhaps Jesus learns something this day.

If so, then let us give thanks for fierce mothers and pushy women, for we who are also Gentiles have much for which to be thankful.”

I’ve experienced a lot of pushback from people unwilling to accept, first, that Jesus could have been a little bit obnoxious or rude, and second, that he could learn or change because of someone else’s faithfulness. Though for some, Jesus needs to remain pristine and strangely omniscient (if not psychic) at all times, I actually find more to embrace in his more human moments.

Not all of the respondents to this questions share this perspective, however, which makes the conversation that much more interesting.

Professor of Philosophy and Theology Keelan Downton is from the camp that believes Jesus was actually in on the setup from the beginning, offering the uncomfortable exchange as an object lesson for his Jewish companions.

Brave New Films

There’s an Irish phrase, ‘winding you up,’ which describes someone exaggerating (or just making up) a story in order to evoke a strong emotive response from someone else.

I’ve often wondered if Jesus is up to something like that when he renames the most unpredictable disciple, Peter, ‘Rock.’

When this woman persists in seeking help from Jesus he’s not cracking jokes, but he is doing something similar that makes a point by walking around the edge rather than addressing it directly. The story is present to contradict anyone who wished to restrict the gospel proclamation to Israel…

Peter J. Walker points out our tendency to create Jesus in our own image, which is helpful in considering this particular text and how we interpret it.

Many conservatives want a hawk who turns over tables and wages holy war, while liberals want an eco-friendly dove who will leave that poor fig tree in Mark 11 alone!  Undeniably, there is a controversial character to Jesus’ mission that frustrates our attempts to reconcile him as lion or lamb, soldier or hippie.

But what if we don’t even try to justify Jesus’ actions by shaping him to fit our agendas? I don’t think it’s necessary or even ethical to defend words that seem so blatantly unkind. Jesus probably doesn’t need our protection. The Canaanite woman probably does.

Peter’s final statement resonates in a way that is both profound and disquieting. Though we spend much of our time and energy trying to justify, defend or explain Jesus’ actions, maybe we’re missing the point. The one who really needs our support, empathy and compassion is the woman being brushed aside. But how many of us jump to Jesus’ side first instead?

Of course we will never know whether Jesus’ intentions were pure, or if he succumbed to a very human moment of intolerance. But the fact remains that we, like Jesus, should be challenged to reach beyond whatever lines we’ve drawn around our faith and the justice it claims to include those beyond the boundary.

We all have our own Canaanite women, and we’ve all been in Jesus’ position. How we respond to this story tells us less about Jesus than it does about ourselves.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. He is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. Christian has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. Visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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About the Author

Christian Piatt

Christian PiattChristian Piatt is an author, founder of the Homebrewed CultureCast Podcast and owner of Crowdscribed, a publishing house, social networking platform and crowdfunding tool.View all posts by Christian Piatt →

  • Benmanben

    I don’t know if I can come back to this site anymore.
    This is it.
    I will not hear my Lord Jesus Christ talked down to. 
    He is a Member of the Holy Trinity, and he is greater than any of us will ever be.

    Don’t speak down to God.
    Don’t say things just because they are controversial or get you attention.

    I’m done with this site.

    • Peter Garcia


      I understand where you’re coming from and I see why conversations like this frustrate you. The point being made here is not that Jesus is not holy or that he is sinful, but simply that he was human. This is orthodoxy. Jesus was fully human and fully God. 

      Piatt is drawing attention to the fact that Evangelicalism–nay, most of Christianity–only focuses upon the “fully divine” aspect of the incarnation. That goes against 1600 years of orthodox doctrine. Whether or not the tradition has always upheld the tension between the two natures of Jesus is a different story. The fact is, it is etched into our Christian history. Fully God and fully human.

      Our tendency is to make Jesus so completely unlike us because, as you have reminded all of us, he is God. None of us are denying that. However, we are pointing to the tension between humanity and divinity, the blending of the spiritual and the material in the incarnation and what that means for us as disciples and followers of Jesus.

      A way to look at this which has been helpful for me is this: if Jesus is more divine than he is human, we cannot follow him and become his disciples, imitating his life and his love. If his divinity trumps his humanity, then he will always have a “leg up” on us in our imitation of God because he is already perfect. However, if we recognize his humanity as well as his divinity, recognizing with scripture that Jesus was tempted like us in every way and experienced the full breadth of human emotion and experience, and YET lived a sinless and love-filled life that was fully dependent upon the Spirit, then we can imitate him. We can actually follow that Jesus and be like him.

      Questioning what it means to “be perfect” is important. Does it mean that Jesus was intrinsically perfect and could not sin? Does it mean Jesus never got sick? Or never cried as a baby? Or was never hungry or sad or emotional? Does it mean that he never tripped or fell? Or is it something else? Could it possibly mean that his perfection was something attained not by his divinity but by his human dependence and communion with his Father and the Spirit? 

      I hope you are not finished with this website because there is much for all of us to learn here, and to be challenged by as well. 


    • Brianskirk

      I think he can handle it.  

  • Benmanben

    Jesus was perfect!

    • Benmanben

      And IS perfect.

      • Benmanben


        • Joe

          And it’s good that the three of you agree.

          • Benmanben

            And do you NOT?

          • Joe

            Did I say I didn’t? Just poking fun at your replying to yourself.

  • I read and struggled with this passage very recently, so I’m fascinated to read this. When I read it, I began thinking about different cultures. Who was this woman that was talking to Jesus? Maybe she was someone who continually was hateful towards him, and turning people against him. And then, when she was hungry, she desperately came to him begging. Yes, his comment was unkind. Maybe kindness wasn’t his goal? I tend to think he main goal in life was to teach, so perhaps he was teaching her, himself, and the others around to think through their questions. She had to realize what she was asking, before she could receive his gift. That way of thinking makes Jesus’ kindness irrelevant, in my mind. 

  • Jason Bennett

    Is this passage really so difficult? Jesus is clearly having a back-and-forth dialogue with a women whom he knows will be persistent. He is throwing a challenge to her that he knows she will rise to. Look at verse 28!

  • The main concern that evangelicals would have about seeing Jesus as “just another jerk,” even only once, is that this makes Jesus a sinner just like the rest of us, and therefore not fit to wage the battle against sin and death through the Cross and Resurrection. When we make Jesus in our own image, which is not by imagining He didn’t sin, but by thinking that situations like this one are examples of Jesus being all-too-human (and therefore sinful) in His responses, we completely defuse the victory represented by His death and would make the resurrection impossible (because Jesus would be as deserving of death as the wages of sin as the rest of us, and therefore impotent in fighting it).

    This cuts to the very heart of the Gospel that the Church has taught for 2,000 years. Christian Piatt must know that, and I’m even more surprised that Tony Campolo allowed this article to pass muster on what most of us perceive to be an evangelical Christian site. Although passages like this one (actually there are two here) are difficult, falling into a sub-Christian heresy is no way to wrestle with them.

    • Piatt’s attitude was on the right path when he interpreted and wrote this article–we shouldn’t feel the need to anxiously defend Jesus to keep our ‘pristine’ image of Him.  However, Piatt stopped too early–he didn’t ask enough questions.  The key to good  exegesis is making sure you’re continuing to ask and consider what’s really going on.

      • Benmanben

        JESUS IS PERFECT, even without others thinking of him that way! To suggest otherwise is bad.

        • Yes, I agree…but, the question is, “What does perfect mean?”  Again, I don’t think he asked enough questions, which also makes me wonder what conclusions he has with his other “banned questions”.  I think his approach to raising this topics is very necessary–but, it’s a task greater than just one person can carry.  Christians need to be having these discussions–for that I applaud Piatt’s effort!

          • Benmanben

            You agree that he is perfect and don’t know what perfect means?

          • In terms of defining “perfect”, all I suggest we do is redefine it for ourselves to understand Christ’s perfection better.  Does perfection mean He could fly?  That, Jesus could reverse time?  We miss the point when we make blanketing statements that sound profound, but really lack any amount of depth or meaning!

          • Benmanben

            Perfection means he never disobeyed God.
            He is God, and God can do anything.

            Is that really being debated?

          • Benmanben

            And I don’t think Christians do need to be having these discussions.
            I think these discussions go against what it MEANS to be a Christian.
            We must have limits, and there is a reason that a line is drawn.
            For it is wrong to disagree with God.

          • If we don’t have these discussions, then our faith is not blind–it’s ignorant!  If you don’t question anything, then you’ll never really know why you believe what you believe–giving people who hate Christianity more justification for their condescension towards our ignorance.  No one is taking Jesus seriously because of years upon years of putting God in our pockets–having a nice gold cross on our necks without really knowing and understanding the God we claim we worship.

            If you don’t think Christians ought to be having these discussions, then why are you discussing it?

    • Paul, I think you’re missing Platt’s main point, which is NOT that Jesus might have been a jerk, but rather our own unwillingness to countenance the sort of reasonable-but-uncomfortable question that a passage like this can engender.  If when someone says “but doesn’t Jesus come off like a jerk in this passage?” we immediately jump down their throat in the way @09131c899b5e8534b046ceac5c038526:disqus did above, we basically teach people that maintaining a “holy” demeanor is more important to us than being forthright with our disturbing questions.  That, I believe, is an unhealthy but very common attitude in the church.

  • In reading the passages after this article, I’m not necessarily opposed to seeing Jesus in an annoyed manner.  After all, He became annoyed at people often–the reason for that is, Jesus knows innately what humanity ought to look like and every person in every aspect is far from human.  

    In this story particularly, however, I see Jesus addressing something she personally has nothing to do with.  Israel is seen as God’s “children”; anyone outside, Gentiles-alike, is lower.  Jesus addresses this caste system for one.  Secondly, Jesus addresses what is assumed as His priority–God’s children.  No one sees the Messiah as caring for anyone outside of Israel, while Jesus broke that mentality throughout His ministry.  Also, back then in that culture, similarly to other Eastern cultures, that sort of language is not seen as demeaning.  Americans and Western culture are way too sensitive and politically correct.  In fact, the REAL Jesus IS offensive–especially to us Americans.  For example, in an Asian culture if a person is over-weight, then they’re just “fat” (ironically, I put quotation marks because I more than expect people to get offended at the word “fat”).  Jesus was very blunt, and this is one of those cases.  

    Although I like Piatt’s articles sometimes, I think his interpretation here is bad exegesis.  I liked the content, and he makes some good points, but I disagree with his conclusions concerning this scenario completely–sorry!

  • Brcolorblind17

    I’ll be praying for this author, and for most authors on this site. You think Jesus was intolerant? He tolerated all of our sin and even bore it on the cross even though we act like bigots towards Him. To think that He thought of Himself as better than this woman is ridiculous. He says He came to serve not to be served. And if you say Jesus is capable of sin then his death means nothing for us and all who rely on his grace for salvation are doomed. You need Jesus bro. You need the perfect lamb slain for your sins, not what you’re trying to make Him out to be.

  • urbanpilgrim2010

    I’m so glad “banned” questions like this get aired
    and discussed with no stigma attached. About time we brought the margins onto
    the center of the page, our own evangelical equivalent of bringing out the
    madwoman in our attic, to mix my metaphors.


    Here’s my penny’s worth: I have squirmed at difficult
    passages in the Gospels that show Jesus as being “less loving” and
    often wondered at the frame of mind and heart that induced him to act that way
    and say those things. I have also wondered at how others around him must have
    felt. Why, for instance, were the disciples sometimes shy about asking Jesus
    pointblank about what he meant? Did Jesus intimidate them? If so, what kind of
    a leader was he? Jesus didn’t seem to be all that democratic, did he? Questions
    like this intrigue me no end and I’m glad this site has created space for such.
    Struggling with these questions has re-shaped my understanding of Jesus as well
    as a host of other things.


    I will draw the line, however, at Christian Piatt’s
    suggestion that Jesus’ intentions may have been less than “pure, or if he
    succumbed to a very human moment of intolerance” when he made his remark
    to the Canaanite woman. That doesn’t make sense. Either Jesus was completely
    morally sinless as a human being or he isn’t God at all. Scriptures back that
    up. What rather makes sense to me is the way Jesus often disrupts–most disturbingly!–our
    cherished assumptions. Often I find that we need to reconfigure our lame (and politically
    correct) notions of love, truth and holiness. Holiness isn’t all coziness. Love
    isn’t always nice. And truth can sometimes be brutal.

    • http ://ezinearticles.com/?Did-Jesus-Call-That-Woman-a-Dog?&id=929375

  • Pingback: When You Say “Sin,” What Do You Mean? | Christian Piatt()

  • Drew

    We live in a time when the political correctness of extremist liberals has no bounds, where extremist liberals go out of their way to be offended.  Jesus is simply making a figurative comparison; extremist liberals with
    political correctness coursing through their veins want to make this a
    literal comparison in order to feign offense, because there is nothing
    an extremist liberal likes more than to be offended.

    I’m saddened that Christian Piatt addresses the extremist liberals who are offended by the lack of political correctness in this passage by telling them that they are correct; that Jesus was somehow wrong in his response.  This is, of course, the spirit of the antichrist at work.

    I hope Piatts’s schtick trends more towards serious discussions in the future rather than shock-jock type articles that satiate extremist liberals and make mainstream liberals, moderates, and conservatives turn away from future articles by Piatt.

  • I can’t make it thru all the comments tonight, but just in case anyone’s still reading and this hasn’t already been said:  I’ve seen one interesting explanation based up on the Matthew passage, that suggests Jesus responded in this way because a Canaanite woman referred to Jesus as “Son of David,” a term which really means nothing to non-Jews.  The suggestion has been made that someone told her that was the formula that would get Jesus to respond.

    In his response, Jesus points out that she’s appealing to membership in a group to which she has no rights (children vs. dogs being a rather familiar analogy of Jews vs. Gentiles that Jews would have used frequently).  Once she acknowledges that she has no claim on the “Son of David” Jesus responds with love anyway and heals her child.

    Maybe this is reading too much into the passage, but I’m not sure.  We are all susceptible to trying formulas to manipulate God…and all need to be reminded to approach him honestly and without pretense.  Just a thought…

  • ://ezinearticles.com/?Did-Jesus-Call-That-Woman-a-Dog?&id=929375

  • http ://ezinearticles.com/?Did-Jesus-Call-That-Woman-a-Dog?&id=929375

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