The Gospel of Chihuahua

Gary Simpson

Mark 7:24-30 And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid. For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

When we read the story, we miss a lot. We do not hear the tone of Jesus' voice and we do not see His facial expressions. What sounds almost scandalously harsh, may not have felt the way to those who witnessed the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician lady. As with email, we need to be careful not to immediately assume the worst, when we are missing so much important information. There is a possibility Jesus was quoting a popular line or proverb.[1]

Those of us who hold to more traditional views of who Christ was and of Christ's nature may find we have a better sense of what it might mean for Jesus to have been fully God and fully human, the traditional Christology of the church, as a result of thinking about this story. The story can enrich our faith, without threatening our faith. The more theologically progressive in our midst might not struggle with this passage.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman is believed to have taken place in what is currently part of Lebanon. The area of Phoenicia was administrative area of Syria[2]  and that helps explain use of the word Syrophoenician. 

The lady's connection to Syria would have been enough for some Jewish people to not want to help her. The Assyrians were not on the "best friends" list for the children of Israel. Commentator Thomas E. Boomershine notes that in the second century B.C. some of the most brutal persecutions of Jews in the “entire history of Israel” took place. “Many Jewish children who were killed by the Phoenicians."[3] 

Over six centuries before Christ, Assyria was a powerful kingdom. About the time of Nahum, Judah experienced around a century of "terror and oppression" from the Assyrians.[4]  The capital of Assyria, according to Biblical authors, was guilty of plotting against God, exploiting the helpless, cruelty at   war,   idol    worship    and   prostitution.[5] The capital of Assyria was described in ancient inscriptions as "the  bloody  city."[6]  The "mounds of heads" and "impaled bodies" that were left after the Assyrians conquered an area illustrate their military's ruthlessness.[7]  Bible commentators describe Assyrian soldiers as "brutally cruel" and describe the Assyrian kings as "gloating over the gruesome punishments inflicted on conquered peoples."[8]  Wars with the Assyrians     are     described    as     having "shocking ferocity."[9]  The leaders of conquered regions could expect torture and mutilation before they were executed.[10]  The sheer savagery reminds me of the Rwandan and Cambodian killing fields.

In the ancient Middle East, the dog did not have the status it has now. The dog was a "symbol of dishonor." To the Greeks, the word dog was a "shameless woman."[11]  Some ancient Jews called Gentiles dogs.[12] In the book of Isaiah, the nations of the world are compared to dogs.[13]

There is a meaning in the Greek that many of our newer Bible translations miss. Tyndale's New Testamentand the Geneva Bible, both written in the 1500s, use the word whelps instead of dogs. Welp means young dog or a puppy. The Greek word translated dogs means 'little dogs,'[14] possibly pet dogs,[15] puppies[16] or lap-dogs.[17]  There seems to be divided opinions about the use of small dogs, some feeling the term is an insult and others feeling the reference to a small "affectionate" dog took "the sting out of the word" dog.  Did Jesus insult the woman?  All I am going to say is, "I do not recommend calling your wife a puppy to see if she thinks it is a compliment."

After Jesus implies the woman is a little dog, the woman says something remarkable. She refers to Jesus as Lord. Contributors to the popular NIV Study Bible note that this is "the only time in the gospel of Mark that Jesus is addressed as 'Lord.'"[18] 

While we are left with many questions about the conversation between the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus, I get the sense that the woman was either very impressed with Jesus or was confident that Jesus was going to help her, because she called Jesus Lord before Jesus said He would heal her daughter.

Jesus might have given the Syrophoenician woman a hard time to teach His disciples about God's universal love.[19]  But there are other opinions. The United Church of Canada provides online material that assists people who are planning sermons.  The United Church information for this week provides a very thought-provoking question.  “Who reveals the grace of    God in this moment?”  And answers the question, "surely the answer would be the Syrophoenician woman, not Jesus."[20]

The NIV Bible Commentary describes the woman's reply as "remarkable," because "She admitted her status but refused to believe that she was excluded from any benefits."[21]  But this is only one way in which the Syrophoenician woman's response was remarkable.  Perhaps, the Syrophoenician woman awakened Jesus to the broader picture of His passion, of His ministry.  This might have been an "ah ha" moment for Jesus, as Jesus realized the depth and the breadth of God's love that was to be manifest in His ministry and passion.  One Bible commentary describes this story as a situation that caused Jesus to have some "tension" about the "scope of his ministry."[22]

God constantly surprises us when people we least expect to understand grace give us insights into the depth of love. God may have surprised the ancients by choosing the least of nations, Israel. Jesus surprised people by associating with women, tax collectors, prostitutes and zealots.

What helped Jesus to see beyond the prejudice and fear of his culture to heal a Syrophoenician child?  More importantly, how can see see beyond the prejudice and fear of our culture, so we can see the beauty of the souls of those who need our love and our assistance?

   Jesus put priorities first.  A short saying can help us remember what is important.  "When an arrow has hit, there is no time to ask who shot it, or what kind of arrow it is."[23] At the time an urgent need comes to our attention, we need to respond with compassion.  When human suffering slaps the face of our hearts, we can do what Jesus did and put humanitarian needs ahead of our personal baggage, historical discrimination and differences in politics and religion.

   Jesus understood that Jewish people and Syrians are essentially the same.  The Dalai Lama observes that the "basic nature of water is not polluted by filth."[24]  Even when water is polluted, water is the same.  He is correct.  H2O, the chemical formula for water is the same if water is solid, liquid or gaseous.  Hard, cold ice can be transformed into warm soothing bath water, when it experiences long, loving caresses by the sun.

Each time the member of a marginalized group, an oppressed group or a feared group teaches us about grace, we've come face-to-face with the Gospel of Chihuahua. Tony Campolo, a well-known sociology professor and Baptist pastor, is considered to be one of the best preachers of our time. I recall him telling the story of a homeless man offering him a sip of his coffee. Tony does the polite thing and takes a sip of the cup with smudges around the brim and thanks the man for the coffee. For some reason, Tony Campolo asks the man why he was giving away such good coffee. The man responded that the coffee was very good and when God gives you something good you should share it. Having more courage than I would have had, Tony Campolo asks the homeless man what he wants in exchange for the coffee. Tony Campolo stands hugging a dirty man, with greasy hair and food in his beard. And the man hugged and hung on and on, hugging Tony Campolo. He realized that he was not hugging a homeless man; he was hugging God. Tony notes that the presence of God was in the man.[25] Chihuahua Gospel.

Many times I have read the Gospel of Chihuahua in the lives of others.  I will share just a few moments I experienced the richness of the Gospel of Chihuahua.


   Jewish scholars helped me see grace in the Hebrew Scriptures.

   Hearing the unmistakable lyrics of somebody singing "Amazing Grace" coming through the open windows of a gay bar.

   A student of the Koran speaking of God in a way that shows God's lavish grace.


United Church of Canada history contains many moments where the church was touched by the Gospel of Chihuahua.


   In 1925, the church was able to see past denominational bigotry and exclusiveness, doctrinal differences and fear when thousands of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists joined hands to form the United Church of Canada.  Chihuahua Gospel.

   1936, the first woman was ordained by the United Church of Canada.[26]  Chihuahua Gospel.

   1988, first Moderator of Asian heritage.[27]  Chihuahua Gospel.

   1992, first First Nations Moderator.[28]  Chihuahua Gospel.

   2008, Aboriginal Ministries Circle created.[29]  Chihuahua Gospel.

   2012, first openly gay Moderator.  Chihuahua Gospel.[30]


      As we look to the future and see diversity, some of which is frightening, we can reflect on our personal history, on our corporate history and on our Biblical history and take comfort that God can speak to us through very people we fear or despise the most.  And as we embrace those who feel so different, we embrace Creator God and we learn about God's relentless, scandalous and extravagant grace.

   Chihuahua Gospel.  A gospel where the excluded, the weak and the powerless teach us grace.

   Chihuahua Gospel.  Words from God for the people of God.

   And everybody said, “Thanks be to God!”





[1] Wenham, G.J., J.A. Motyer and R.T. France, eds. New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition.  (Leicester, England:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 963.

[2] Barker, Kenneth and John Kohlenberger III, eds. NIV Bible Commentary.  Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan, 1994), 163.

[3] Thomas E. Boomershine. "Jesus Heals a Syrophonecian Woman's Daughter." Go Tell Communications: Biblical Storytelling for the Global Village. 2011 27 August 2012 <>

[4] Peter Craigie. The Daily Study Bible Series: Twelve Prophets. Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 58.

[5] Bruce Barton, et. al., eds. Life Application Study Bible.  (Wheaton, Illinois:  Tyndale Pub., 2004), 1457.

[6] Donald Senior, et. al., eds.The Catholic Study Bible. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), 1147.

[7] Senior, 1147.

[8] Kenneth Barker, et. al., eds. NIV Study Bible.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan, 1985), 1380.

[9] Barker, 1380.

[10] Barker, 1380.

[11] William Barclay. The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Mark. Revised Ed. (Toronto: G.R. Welch, 1975), 178.

[12] Barclay, 178

[13] Barclay gives Isaiah 56:11, where dogs are said to have a 'mighty appetite.'  Barclay, 178.

[14] Barker, 1465.

[15] Barker, 1465 and Barclay, 178.

[16] Matthew Black and H.H. Rowley. Peake's Commentary on the Bible. (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), 807.

[17] Barclay, 178.

[18] Barker, 1508.

[19] Marshall Shelley, Richard Doebler and Paul Woods, eds. The Quest Study Bible.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Pub., 1994), 1393.

[20] "Gathering Lectionary: Summer/Autumn Issue, 2012 (Year B)." United Church of Canada.  n.d. 11 August 2012

< >.

[21] Barker and Kohlenberger, 163.

[22] Black Rowley, 807.

[23] Dalai Lama.  How to be Compassionate:  A Handbook for Creating Inner Peace and a Happier World.  (New York:  Atria, 2011), 80.

[24] Dalai Lama, 73.

[25] One version of this story can be found in an online sermon. Tony Campolo. “Friendship Community’s 38th Anniversary Celebration.” Tony Campolo. 21 October 2010 28 August 2012  <>

[26] ""Overview: Historical Timeline." United Church of Canada. 08 June 2011 August 2012  <>

[27] "United Church of Canada." Wikipedia. 17 August 2012 19 August 2012 <>

[28] "United Church of Canada." Wikipedia.

[29] "Overview:  Historical Timeline." United Church of Canada.

[30] Butler, Don.  "United Church of Canada Elects First Openly Gay Moderator." Ottawa Citizen. 16 August 2012 19 August 2012