Star Pupil

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2014 28 Jul

Remember the story of the Gentile woman who begged Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter? Instead of casting out the demon, Jesus seemed to ignore the request. (Keep in mind that in Jesus’ culture, men did not talk to women they did not know, and Jews did not talk to Gentiles.) Annoyed, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. He appeared to comply, stating that his mission was to the Jews only. But she would not give up. Then he went further, insulting her by comparing Gentiles to dogs, a common view among his contemporaries. Instead of taking offense, she simply said, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27).

We are relieved that Jesus finally heals the woman’s daughter, but many of us view the story with unease. It seems to put Jesus in an unflattering light.

But remember that Jesus was a rabbi. And rabbis used various methods to instruct their disciples. Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, suggests an interesting interpretation. What if Jesus was giving his disciples an object lesson in faith? What if he was testing this woman and in the end commending her as one of his star pupils so his own disciples could learn something, not only from a woman but also from a Gentile? (1)

Here is how Bailey paints the scene, just after Jesus makes the comment about dogs: “Will she reply with a corresponding insult against the haughty Jews who despise and verbally attack Gentiles, even those in pain? Or is her love for her daughter, her faith that Jesus has the power of God to heal, her confidence that he has compassion for Gentiles and her commitment to him as Master/Lord so strong that she will absorb the insult and press on, yet again, with her request?” (2)

We see in this woman’s story an encouragement not only to persist in prayer but to continue to believe in God’s love and compassion in the midst of circumstances that may cast him in an unflattering light. Today, may her story impel us to continue to pray for those we love. 

(Image courtesy of melodi2/

(1). Though this explanation may at first seem improbable, read Kenneth Bailey’s convincing exegesis in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 217–26.

(2). Ibid., 224.