His disciples came up.
’Please send her away!,’ they asked. ’She’s shouting after us.’
’I was only sent,’ replied Jesus, ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
The woman, however, came and threw herself down at his feet.
’Master,’ she said, ‘please help me!’
’It isn’t right,’ replied Jesus, ‘to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’
’I know, Master. But even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’
‘You’ve got great faith, haven’t you, my friend! All right; let it be as you wish.’
And her daughter was healed from that moment.”
(Translation from N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)
I love Jesus, but if I were her (the Canaanite woman) I think I would’ve slapped him! When Jesus indirectly calls her a “dog,” he is using a common racial slur used by Jews for Gentiles in his time. What is going on here?
Of course the larger context is that this woman is desperately seeking help for her daughter. She has probably exhausted her options. She has heard about Jesus and his healing power and will endure even the most humiliating of interactions if it can secure her daughter’s deliverance.
What I have a whole lot more trouble wrapping my mind around is Jesus’ behavior in this passage. First he ignores her when she throws herself on his good will. Then he drops the grenades: first, the comment that he was “only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” followed by the rather racist analogy that “it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
This passage is a tough nut to crack. Which is why I solicited some help. I put the question, “Was Jesus racist?,” before my now-retired New Testament professor, Christopher Bryan. Chris has written a number of books, having most recently published with Oxford University Press The Resurrection of the Messiah. He also sports a dignified English accent, which makes him even more authoritative on the subject.
Chris gives an answer with which I would have to concur: yes. At one time Jesus was racist, and in Bryan’s words, “there is no sense in getting around it.”
Now that the angry outcry has died down and the pitch forks have been momentarily lowered, I’ll attempt an explanation. Which begins with a few assumptions- the first being that we are holding in tension here the great mystery of faith that in the “Incarnation” Jesus Christ is both “fully God” and “fully man” (as elucidated most famously at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.). This mystery can feed all kinds of fun speculation about what “fully God” and “fully man” in union looks like in practice.
What this does not look like is ”God dressed up” as a man, as Chris is quick to point out. As a human being, Jesus would have been to a great extent the product of his times. He would have been born into a particular culture and steeped in its idioms. He, like us, would have always been learning and growing. In fact, Luke tells us this twice to make the point: ”Jesus grew in stature and increased in wisdom in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:40) and “increased in wisdom and in age” (Luke 2:52).
What does this mean? The fact that Jesus was once a fully human child, with a fully human mother, Mary, suggests- contrary to those spooky, early Renaissance pictures that portray the baby Jesus with the face of a grown man- that Jesus like everybody else had to “grow up.” He had to learn things and could be wrong or in error at times and in need of correction. To grow in wisdom is to learn from life’s experiences. Wisdom requires real-life exchanges that chasten and transform us.
“The difference [between Jesus and us]…is that it took one encounter with one Gentile woman who looked him in the eye, and our Lord got it…he saw it immediately. That was the perfection of his humanity,” Chris says.
In other words, this is a rare interaction- (in fact the only one we have recorded in our canonized Scriptures)- in which Jesus is brought up short and recognizes his own error. He makes a mistake and corrects himself by honoring the woman’s faith and healing her daughter. As Chris used to say in his New Testament Intro class, it is notable here that “the only time Jesus loses an argument” is “with a woman and a foreigner.”
Of course the evil of racism comes in many gradations, from sheer ignorance or error to entrenched, willful violations of other human beings’ personhood. In no way do we find any suggestion in Scripture or elsewhere that Jesus’ racism belonged to the latter category. He should not be confused with the few who in my time and place still put Confederate flags on their porches.
And a mistake is different from sin- or so it can be argued. Augustine does so in his Enchiridion, for instance. Sin in many instances involves an act of the will, as a willful disregard for what is known to be right. In this sense, sin is like a child or subject’s rebellion against the known rules of the parents or established authority.
But what about racism as a systemic evil? Can we reduce its impact on individuals to a matter of mere ignorance? I’m not so sure. Isn’t sin by definition in the original Greek (hamartia) a broader notion of “missing the mark?” If so, isn’t Jesus “missing the mark” in this passage? Maybe. In which case we are left to wrestle with the idea that Jesus was “like us in every way only without sin,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. But if Jesus was truly one without sin, then to what degree was he subject to systemic evils like racism, such that he had to, in a sense, relearn how to be perfectly human? This passage would suggest that at the very least, Jesus made a mistake and had the humility and courage to correct it more quickly than most of us could.
So…was Jesus a racist? What do you think? Leave a comment below to prove that there are other people reading this besides my mother. (I love you, Mom!) If you’re too shy to post a comment, send me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org) or post a remark on Facebook and I will post these at the end of the week. This is after all a “fellowship of saints and sinners.”