Is Jesus insulting the Canaanite woman by calling her a “dog”?

Q. I read the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman the other day and I have no idea what Jesus is talking about in the parable when he references crumbs and dogs eating the crumbs. Can you shed some light on this passage?

“The Woman of Canaan” by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 1670s

This story is confusing and sometimes upsetting to readers of the gospels because it appears that Jesus is not only rebuffing someone who comes to him for help, he’s actually insulting her in the process.

A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to deliver her daughter, who’s suffering at the hands of a demon, but he won’t even speak to her. When his disciples urge him to help, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (The woman is a non-Israelite.) And when she appeals to Jesus personally, he responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

So Jesus seems to have a very callous and insulting attitude. However, I think something different is actually going on here.

This was an oral culture whose ways were embodied in popular sayings. These were often cited in support of a particular course of action. When two people had different courses in mind, they would pit different sayings against each other until one person had to admit, “Okay, you’ve got me there.”

This kind of thing can happen in our own culture. For example, two friends might visit a new part of town on a weekend, looking for a restaurant where they can have dinner. The first place they consider says it can seat them immediately. One of them might say, “Maybe we should eat here. After all, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'” But if the other thinks there could be a better restaurant down the street that would be worth the wait, he might reply, “Yes, but ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.'”

Similarly, I think Jesus is actually quoting a popular saying to the woman: “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” This saying probably had a general application meaning something like, “Don’t use something expensive or valuable for a common purpose.” Jesus is applying it to the mandate he has, during his limited time on earth, to concentrate his efforts on ministry to the people of Israel, as their Messiah. (After his resurrection, his message will spread to all the people of the world from that starting point.)

The woman, however, comes up with what I think is an original saying of her own in response: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus responds, in effect, “You’ve got me there,” and he heals her daughter.

But this was not merely a battle of wits that the woman won by her cleverness and quick thinking. Rather, I believe Jesus evaluated every situation he encountered in order to discern how God might be at work in it. In the gospel of John he’s quoted as saying, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” So Jesus was always on the lookout for when his Father might be doing something that he could join in with.

I believe, for example, that when his mother Mary came to him at the wedding in Cana and told him that the hosts had run out of wine, while Jesus thought initially that the time hadn’t come yet for him to do “signs” in public, he ultimately recognized that Mary’s persistent and trusting faith was an indication that God was at work in the situation. And so he did his first miracle there, turning water into wine.

I believe that Jesus similarly recognized the Canaanite woman’s bold request and audacious persistence as indications that God was giving her the faith to believe her daughter could be delivered if she sought help from Jesus. It was in response to that recognition, inspired by the woman’s reply to his challenge, that Jesus acted to heal the daughter, giving an advance glimpse of how his influence would soon extend beyond the borders of Israel.


Why does Peter call Jesus a “living stone” and his followers “living stones”?

Q. Peter writes in his first letter, “As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” What is a “living stone”? What does that mean?

The references to Jesus as a living stone, and to us his followers as living stones, actually look forward to the quotation from Isaiah that Peter offers shortly afterwards. In the original context in Isaiah, the “cornerstone” is a figure for justice. The correct lines for a stone building (i.e. the placement of all the other blocks) were all derived from a perfectly squared-off cornerstone that was laid down first. In the same way, God says, He will establish justice so that all of the Judeans can know whether their actions are “within the lines” or not. (“I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line.”)

As often happens when New Testament authors see a Messianic meaning in an Old Testament prophecy, Peter is “escalating” the language so that the cornerstone (justice) becomes personified in Jesus. That’s what “living” means: An abstraction, justice, is now embodied in a person, Jesus the Messiah. He is, in effect, the “first block laid down,” and we who are “being built into a spiritual house” (that is, into a new kind of temple, as other New Testament writers also say) need to take our bearings and find our placement from Jesus. Not in a physical sense, but in the sense of moral purpose: “How can my life and actions fit in with what God has already started doing in the world through Jesus?”

We today probably aren’t very familiar with the approach to construction that involves first laying down a cornerstone. So let me offer a modern analogy. When a baseball field is laid out, the first thing put down is home plate. The foul lines are drawn out from the back of it. And those foul lines tell you whether a batted ball is “in” or “out.” The life, teachings, and example of Jesus establish the lines in our lives of what’s “in” and “out,” not just morally, but also in keeping with God’s expanding purposes in the world. He is, in effect, a “living home plate,” and we are a “living infield” and a “living outfield.”

Did Jesus have any earthly brothers?

Q. Did Jesus have any earthly brothers? Near the beginning of the book of Acts there’s a reference to “Mary the mother of Jesus and . . . his brothers.” I went on to browse online and got nothing concrete. Some say it is referring to brothers by faith while others have their own theories. Some even mentioned that Judas was Jesus’s real brother. Thank you in advance for your answer.

Thank you for your question. I hope that this earlier post will help answer it.


How does Christian faith promote scientific endeavor?

Last Saturday (April 22, 2017) I participated in the March for Science. You can see in the picture above what my sign said.

Lots of people took photos of it. Several engaged me in conversation. One person looked at the sign in near disbelief and asked, “Is that all true?” “Yes,” I replied, “I support science, and I have a Ph.D. in theology.” “Well,” she responded, “it sounds like you and I could have a great philosophical discussion some day. But in the meantime, thanks for being here.” I told her I’d felt it was important for me to be there.

Pittsburgh’s NPR station had a reporter covering the event. When she spotted my sign, she took my picture (that’s her photo above) and interviewed me along the route. I shared the coverage on Facebook and one person commented, “You should post an article on your blog about how exactly your theology leads you to support modern science.” I thought that was a great idea. So here goes!

As George Harrison said in the movie Help!, “I don’t want to knock anyone’s religion,” but faiths such as Buddhism teach that the material world is an illusion. We need to look past it and escape from it in order to find enlightenment and truth. The Judeo-Christian world view, by contrast, is that the material creation is a genuine reality with positive spiritual import. It was created intentionally by a good God (not by mistake by a bad demigod, as the Gnostics taught) and declared to be “very good.”

In fact, the Bible holds that creation itself can speak to us about God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” Psalm 19 says. Paul writes in Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” So Christian faith gives us confidence that when we observe the world around us, in effect, we can trust our eyes—what we’re seeing is not a spiritual illusion.

Beyond this, the Judeo-Christian world view is that the created world is orderly and harmonious. It’s not hopelessly swirling about in confusion and chaos. Of course the Bible, since it comes from a pre-scientific era, doesn’t say specifically that the universe is governed by rules and laws such as the Law of Gravity or the Law of Thermodynamics. (When it comes to this view of the universe, which is no longer the state of the art but which has made indispensable contributions to our understanding, we may quote Alexander Pope’s intended epitaph for Isaac Newton: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”) But the Bible does portray the creation as intentionally well-organized and regular, allowing observations of phenomena to be made today that will still be valid tomorrow, and permitting conclusions drawn in one area to be applied in other areas. If all were chaos instead, we couldn’t make sense of out anything.

And ultimately I would argue that Christian faith actually encourages us to go out and explore the created world. As I told the reporter along the march, I believe that science answers questions of what, when, and how, while religion answers questions of who and why. The two are not in competition because they’re answering different questions. Science intentionally limits itself to what can be observed and measured, so it does not properly get into metaphysics. (Saying that there is nothing beyond what can be observed and measured, for example, is not a scientific statement!) Similarly, the Bible was not written to give us comprehensive information about the natural world. Instead, I believe it pushes us out into that world to find the information out for ourselves.

Let me advocate for this, in conclusion, by quoting some relevant thoughts from the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, which I co-authored with my brother-in-law Stephen Godfrey, who is curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum. (We hope to put this book online soon as a series of blog posts, followed by a question-and-answer forum. Stay tuned!)

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” King Solomon, who wrote these words, was noted for his natural-scientific investigations: “He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish.” In these days when many of us enjoy the kind of leisure for cultural, artistic and scientific pursuits that only kings formerly enjoyed, we may paraphrase Solomon’s words in this way: “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.” When we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes. So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm. There is no script that you need to follow, no predetermined conclusion that your results need to square with. If there were, God would not really have “hidden” these treasures for us to find. They’re out there – go get them!

Why can’t I feel God’s presence in my life?

Q. Does God leave people even if they’re trying to be a good Christian, if they make mistakes but confess them afterwards and truly seek forgiveness? I personally do not feel anything of God in my life, but I try and try every day. I read the Bible and go to church every Sunday. I feel empty and have felt that way for a long time. I have forgiven people who’ve wounded me deeply. But my joy is gone. What’s going on?

Thank you for your question. I sympathize deeply with your situation. I can’t speak to it as knowledgeably as I’d like without knowing the specifics, but let me share some thoughts based on my 20 years’ experience as a pastor and my lifelong study of the Bible.

I can assure you that you’re not alone in your situation. I’ve counseled many other people who seemingly were doing everything they should (pursuing spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading and worship, asking and granting forgiveness, etc.) but somehow didn’t feel God’s presence or the joy of the Lord.

First, to answer your opening question directly, no, God never abandons a person who’s earnestly and sincerely seeking him. We do hear in the Bible about God withdrawing his presence from an individual or community, but this is always the last step in a long process of God trying to bring them back from unfaithfulness to obedience. This does not happen to people who are already seeking God. David recognized after his grave sins against Bathsheba and Uriah that he had put himself in danger of this, so he pleaded desperately, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” The prophet Nathan assured him, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”

The book of Hebrews in the New Testament, speaking to people who are earnestly following God like you, reminds us, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.'”

So if God has not left you—and I feel confident assuring you of that, on biblical grounds—then, as you ask, “What’s going on?” Why don’t you feel God’s presence, if he really is present in your life, and why don’t you feel the joy that usually accompanies obedience, since you’re faithfully doing things such as asking and granting forgiveness, which require sincere willingness?

Let me suggest a couple of possibilities, which is the most I can do without knowing the particulars of your situation.

One possibility is that you might not be using the spiritual disciplines that are best for you, or not using the spiritual disciplines generally in the right way. As a rule, it’s good for us to build some structure into our lives to make sure that we invest in our relationship with God as we want to. For example, if our desire is to give regularly and appropriately to God’s work, then the discipline of tithing (giving 10% of our income) is a good way to make sure that happens.

However, the disciplines we often stress as the key to a close relationship with God—Bible reading, prayer, and church attendance—are actually only three of some three dozen disciplines that Jesus’ followers have honored and practiced over the centuries. Not every discipline works equally well for each person, and the ones that work for you can change at different points in your life.

I suspect that there are actually some disciplines you’re already practicing, without recognizing them as such, that would more effectively help you draw close to God than the ones you’re pursuing deliberately right now. For example, theologians have long spoken of the “two books” of God, Scripture and nature. Psalm 19 seems to speak of these two books because it begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” But in its second half, the psalm talks about how “the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Two books, nature and Scripture.

You may be one of those people who appreciates and learns about God when you are out in his creation; you might just not be recognizing this as just as valid a spiritual discipline as Bible study or church attendance. Or maybe that’s not one of the disciplines that does it for you, but some others might. I’d encourage you to read a book or books about the various spiritual disciplines in order to recognize the ones that will most effectively help you draw close to God. The most comprehensive discussion I know is in Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. You might start there, and once you identify some approaches that seem promising, investigate them further in books that discuss them in more detail.

But I also said you might be pursuing the disciplines in the wrong way. You said, “I try and try every day.” The effort is admirable, but I’d encourage you to see the spiritual disciplines as “means of grace,” that is, doors that we open in our lives for the grace of God, which is already waiting just outside, looking for a way to get in. In other words, God sends his grace to us first; we just need to open a door for it. Jeff van Vonderen discusses this distinction in his book Tired of Trying to Measure Up, which, he says, “is written for Christians who live under a deeply ingrained code of expectations and rules that shame them and drain them of spiritual strength.” If that rings any bells for you, I’d recommend you have a look at his book, or another one on the same theme.

But here’s one more thought. It’s also possible that your feeling of spiritual dryness is actually a sign of growth and strength. Many people reach a place where their experience of God has outstripped their beliefs about God. When this happens, people can often have doubts. They need to realize that they no longer believe in the God they once knew simply because now they know God better. A person in such a situation can also feel as if God is absent, but this is only because they can no longer feel close to the kind of God they don’t believe in any more.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in God at all, or that God is truly absent. They just need to recognize that the God they now understand better is waiting there to meet them in their new place of maturity and wisdom. This is actually a process that can be repeated over and over again in our lives, because as finite creatures we are always learning more about the infinite God we love and serve.

It’s a bit like the process that takes place in a healthy marriage. As a pastor I often explained, in premarital counseling or wedding sermons, that marriage is “the process of getting to know the same person over and over again for the rest of your life.” Married couples can hit a “dry patch” and discover that they need to relate to one another differently, and start doing different kinds of things together, to get that spark back because they’ve both grown and changed. This is a healthy and inevitable process, and the same thing needs to happen in our relationship with God. (Although we’re the ones who’ve grown and changed, not God!)

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I certainly wish you every blessing from God as you pursue the close relationship with him that you desire.


Does studying church history lead a person to support Roman Catholic doctrine?

Q. I appreciated your writing on pre- and post-millenialism. I thought it was very interesting. Thank you. You have a Ph.D. in Church History. What do you think of this video? Thank you for your time.

In the video in question, a Presbyterian minister who has converted to Catholicism is interviewing a Baptist minister who has also converted to Catholicism. The Baptist actually grew up Methodist, but he changed denominations when he got married. Divisions arose in his family over the doctrinal differences between the two denominations. He realized that the differences were due to the way people were interpreting the Bible, and he wondered who had the authority to say how the Bible should be interpreted.

He also started studying church history and through these studies, he says, he first began to be persuaded of Roman Catholic doctrine. He quotes John Henry Newman, an Anglican who became Catholic, to the effect that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” In other words, the claim is that if you really understand what followers of Jesus have believed from the start and for most of their history, you see that Catholics have it right and Protestants don’t.

As someone who, as you noted, has earned a Ph.D. in church history, I do not find this claim convincing. (Full disclosure: I am a Protestant.) What I have seen instead is that throughout history, different understandings of various doctrines have continually been arising within the community of Jesus’ followers. And it is not always the earliest understandings that have been carried forward into Catholic teaching today. To give just one example, the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches was occasioned by the addition, by Western popes, of a phrase to the Nicene Creed, so that it then stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded “from the Father and the Son.”

The Orthodox churches objected more to the Pope adding this phrase to the creed unilaterally than they did to the phrase itself. The creed had been adopted by a council of all the bishops of the church, and they felt that if it were going to be changed, this could only be done by a similar council. But this illustrates the essential issue here: the question is not so much who has the authority to interpret Scripture (though Catholics grant this authority to the Magisterium or official teaching of the church), but who has the authority or power to enforce various interpretations. The Pope, it turned out, did not have the power to keep the Orthodox churches in line, and this caused a split that lasted nearly a thousand years and was only reconciled relatively recently.

We might say that the Pope at the time of the Reformation similarly did not have the power or authority to bring the new Protestant groups back under Rome’s doctrinal control, and another split occurred that has persisted to this day. One difference is that while the Orthodox churches remained essentially unified in their understandings, the Protestant groups have continued to split and bicker. So I can certainly understand how someone would want an authority to step in and say, “This is how we’re going to understand things,” and be comfortable finding that authority in the Catholic Magisterium.

But that’s different from saying that this authority is reflecting what followers of Jesus have basically believed from the start and in almost all places and times. Actually, the Catholic Church as we know it today dates essentially from the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, when the variety of practices then in use were standardized. Before that, the Catholic Church itself exhibited great diversity, as frankly it still does in many respects today.

In conclusion, I have no problem with people being on a spiritual pilgrimage as followers of Jesus that leads them to find a new home in a different denomination. I have no problem with Protestants, even Protestant clergy, converting to Catholicism if they come to find their heart’s home there. But I am a bit uncomfortable with the way this video speaks of the Roman Catholic communion as the “true church,” as if Protestant expressions of Christianity were somehow “false,” and of converts “coming home,” as if those of us who remain Protestant are still wandering off somewhere. Let’s recognize all sincere followers of Jesus as “true” Christians, honor one another’s convictions, and make sure that we explore and discuss our differences peacefully and respectfully.


Is there a second chance for salvation after death?

Q. A loved one passed on recently who was not a Christian. A relative who was very close to him was desperately trying to find some information on how, maybe, there could be a chance that he would not go to hell. We stumbled onto this concept of Hades as an “interim destination” for the dead, distinct from hell as a final destination, where people might have a second chance. We’d like to know your thoughts on this.

On this blog I’ve expressed some thoughts very similar to those in the post you found, which I read and in which I found much to agree with. For example, in my post entitled, “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?” I summarize my position this way: “I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.” I’d invite you to read that post and I hope it will offer you some further encouragement. As I also say there, “based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell [or Hades]—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.”