Jesus journeyed to the region of Tyre and Sidon in an attempt to get away from ministry in Galilee for a time, but it soon became clear that no such escape was possible. Mark 7:24 notes that our Lord “could not be hidden.” News of His ministry had spread far beyond the borders of the Promised Land into notoriously pagan areas, and the Gentiles sought Him out even though they were certainly among the least likely to do so, at least from a human perspective.
The first Gentile that Mark mentions in connection with our Lord’s journey to the region of Tyre and Sidon is the Syrophoenician woman who begged Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter (vv. 25–26). In the encounter between the woman and Jesus, we see that He did not say yes to her request immediately. Instead, He implied that she was a “dog” and did not deserve the bread that belonged to the children of the household (v. 27). This reflects the common view among first-century Jews that the Gentiles were “dogs.” The Jews did not mean this positively, as dogs were regarded as unclean animals. Jews did not commonly keep them as pets, and most of the dogs that the Jews knew were wild scavengers (Prov. 26:11; Jer. 15:3).
But did Jesus’ use of the term “dogs” mean that He thought of Gentiles in the same way that most Jews of His day did? No. We have seen that Christ did not affirm the Jews’ oral traditions regarding cleanness and uncleanness (Mark 7:1–23), so He certainly would not have held to their traditions regarding the inherent uncleanness of Gentiles. Also, the Greek term translated “dog” in Mark 7:27–28 is diminutive in form, referring to small dogs that some Jewish households kept as pets. Finally, the woman did not view Jesus as ordering her to leave. Her reply was that dogs could eat the lefttovers of whatever was given to the children (v. 28).
Note that the woman made no demand of Jesus. She did not contest her status as a “dog”; rather, she pointed out the reality of what happened in those Jewish households that included dogs. For this, Jesus commended her faith (v. 29). Ultimately, the encounter is about the place of Jews and Gentiles in God’s kingdom. The children—the Jews—get presented the kingdom first, and afterward, the dogs—the Gentiles—hear of it as well. This Gentile woman recognized the propriety of that plan. She did not ask for first place but in faith believed that Christ was for her as well.