This is one of the few biblical texts where Jesus does not get the “last word” even though he gets the last action (the demon leaving the woman’s daughter). Many interpreters have gone out of their way to take the edge off of Jesus using the derogatory term of “dogs” to refer to the Gentiles. Jesus is speaking metaphorically. Nevertheless with strong language that the children (Jews) are the ones to be fed first and the Gentiles (dogs) should not take anything from the children.
In the Old Testament traditions one does not frequently find the fondness many contemporary cultures, especially North Americans, have for their “pet” dogs. Even using the diminutive term for dog as in this text does not lessen the notion of the slur by referring to the Gentiles as dogs.
The Gentile, Syrophoenician woman does not dispute the use of the term, dog. In fact, she self identifies with the dogs and points out that there is enough bread even in the crumbs under the table for non-Jews. Just as there was an abundance after the feeding of the multitudes (Mark 6:30ff) here the point is that while Jesus message may first be for the chosen people there is plenty for the mission to the Gentiles.
The woman’s daring retort to Jesus shows her ability to both accept the designation of dog and to retain the notion that the mission was first for the Jews but because of the sheer abundance of food she too is included. Her perspective is confirmed by Jesus. Her initial “begging” to have the demon removed from her daughter is accomplished.
In this story the Gospel of Mark is able to show that not only did Jesus come as the Messiah for the Jews but also that the kingdom he reached for included all people. While the woman “steals the scene” from Jesus by her retort she is emphatically pointing toward Mark’s desire to proclaim the gospel everywhere and to everyone.
It is an interesting exercise to compare the Gospel of Matthew’s variation of the story for his audience. If you assume the earlier version to have come in part from Mark you will also see the additions of Matthew; the different designation of the woman (not a contradiction but a different way of referring to the same person); the different character of the way Jesus and the woman interact; and Jesus word to the woman at the end of Matthew’s story. With Mark’s Gospel you hear the reinterpretation of the messiahship of Jesus. With Matthew’s Gospel there is a heightening of the Israelite or Jewish dimensions of Jesus mission
24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.