The gospel story about the Syro-Phoenician woman comes up every year and every year we wonder about it. In my struggle with it this morning, I was helped by a remembering a dialog I had with a participant in a day of recollection. I had said that Jesus never refused to help anyone who asked, and she said, "What about the Syro-Phoenician woman?" Well, first, I said, how did the story end? He helped her. But that doesn’t handle the bit about the little dogs. When I thought about it, here's where it comes out for me:
One commentary suggests that Jesus was smiling when he said this standard Jewish insult for pagans and the Greek use of dog to mean low and mean person (like we do, maybe, as in dirty dog). We can tell He was smiling because the woman came back with a snarky answer, maybe smiling, herself. Maybe. Maybe not.
I figure it this way. This is the only work of power Jesus performed outside of Israel. There was an issue He had to clear even inside Israel. Those for whom He does works of power need “faith” – that is, they need to recognize that the work of power, the miracle, is done to confirm Jesus’ authority to preach this surprising Good News. It was hard for them to believe that this “man from Nazareth” – what good comes from Nazareth? – indeed is the Messiah.
So, He’s outside Israel now. The woman is not one of The People who believe in One God, the God of gods. She is a pagan, and who knows how many gods she believes in and relies on? Her world served a whole crowd of gods, from Zeus to Apollo to Hera and on and on. So when she comes to Jesus, who does she think He is? Which of the "gods" does He serve? So Jesus has to help her come to see that He is serving the God of gods, and that's what He's doing.
It's not at all clear in the way Mark tells it - it's clearer in Matthew, where Jesus is making sure she knows He is of and for "The People" - and she still believes, so He can do His work of power because now she understands a little better what these works are about. They show that His words are from the God of Israel, the God of gods.
Does that help? I have to admit that His "dog" remark still grates. And I bet if His mother was there, she for sure fussed with Him and made sure there was none of that again, inside or outside Israel.