Scripture: Matthew 7:24–30
Do you know those movies that foreshadow what is coming, but when it comes…BAM…it still shocks you when they drop that bombshell?
For the second week in a row, we face a difficult passage that examines the intersection between faith and race. Last week, we wrestled with a text from Ezra that showed how even God’s people are capable of race-based dehumanization. I connected a passage from Mark 3 about Jesus’ alternative vision of the Torah, resisting that dehumanization and standing over and against it.
But now, we read a passage a few chapters later, from Mark 7 which is still feels like a bombshell. And in a way, it feels even harder to read. It is hard to listen to Jesus say these words, and use this sharp tone. And just in case our rose-tinted hearing aids don’t hear the edge to these words, let me make it clear. This woman comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. In her desperation, she finds and begs Jesus for healing. Jesus’ seemingly callous response is to say that it isn’t right to give the children’s food to the dogs. Micah Kiel reminds us that Jesus is not using the word “dog” in the sense of that cute puppy dog who begs at the table for scraps. Instead, Jesus’ word here is more akin to… well, another word for a female dog that I will not repeat here in multigenerational company. So let us be clear: because this woman was not a member of the Israelite people, Jesus proclaims “You are not the right race to receive my ministry and my blessings.”
Wow. I’ll repeat the question from last week: “what do we do with this passage?” There are at least a couple of options.
There are a lot of Biblical scholars, most of them probably self-identifying as more progressive or liberal, who suggest that these words of Jesus demonstrate that he was actually capable of some pretty ugly racist attitudes. They lean on the theology of the humanity of Jesus, to say that if we take seriously the idea that Jesus was human, we must take seriously the natural, innate human tendency to judge, mistrust, and dehumanize the other. According to this interpretation, this encounter and this Syrophoenician woman help Jesus to claim his ministry, learn from another person, and bypass those racist attitudes in favor of a more expansive and inclusive ministry.
But other scholars, and maybe some of you, would say that that is a horrible and terrifying interpretation! They would rather lean more toward the divinity of Jesus, and suggest that there is no way that the Incarnate Word, Co-Creator of the Universe, and Holy and Sinless Christ would ever demonstrate something as despicable and ugly as racism. According to this interpretation, this encounter shows Jesus’ power as a teacher. He doesn’t really think these things, but uses these words to teach the disciples, to expose attitudes of Pharisees and others, and really to parody such a horrible and sinful racist attitude.
Now, if I were in youth group right now, I might ask you to play the “which side” game, where we make the whole room a spectrum from the first “human Jesus” perspective…all the way to the second “divine Jesus” perspective, and ask folks to stand where they see themselves on that spectrum, and why they would put themselves there. But we aren’t going to play that game today, for a couple of reasons. One, COVID. And two, and let me say this with all the pastoral sensitivity I can muster, “I don’t care whether or not you think Jesus was a racist in this passage.”
Of course, that is overstating a bit to make a point. I care. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about what we believe about Jesus and who he was and is and has always been. About the humanity and the divinity of Jesus and how he was both. Theologians call this Christology. It is important to talk about, and this passage can help us do that. But I don’t think that we have to agree on our Christology to be able to make some important conclusions about race and faith. In fact, I think that people miss the point of this passage because they want to argue about Christology. I think it is perhaps less than helpful to try and say, with 100 percent certainty, exactly what Jesus was thinking at this moment in time, 2,000 years ago, as recorded some 50 years later by a guy named Mark. What I don’t want to do is get distracted by the question, “was Jesus a racist?”
Because that word alone has the power to divide. We draw these lines about who is a racist and who is not. One person calls another a racist, and the other person says “but I’m not a racist because I don’t wear hoods and burn crosses and go to Neo-Nazi rallies, so I can’t be a racist.” And we oversimplify the sides, and create these characterizations, we point fingers at each other, and the conversation devolves from there and people just call each other names and nothing gets done. But I like what Ibram X. Kendi does with this word “racist.” He resists the idea that the word “racist” is a pejorative, a slur, a category to put people into (or keep people out of). Anyone freak out when you saw the sermon title? “You can’t call Jesus that word.” But Kendi says when “racist” is only a slur, a pejorative, a noun, it “freezes us into inaction.”
Kendi instead talks about the word “racist” less as a noun and more as an adjective. He talks more about racist statements and racist ideas. Using the term in that way gives us a chance to lower the emotion, and spend less time pigeon-holing people as destructive, and instead talk about ideas that are destructive. Then, when we start to come to some common ground on what ideas are racist, then we can start to take a look at the destructive ways that racist ideas can create racist discrimination, racist policies, and racist segregation of space and resources.
I think that this is a helpful way to look at today’s passage, because Instead of getting distracted by the question “was Jesus racist?” I think it is more helpful today to ask, “how do we identify and root out such a racist idea recorded in this passage?” Which is a question that we can get to, regardless of which side of the room you are on. You can think that this is human Jesus, demonstrating a racist idea out of his culture and background. Or you can think that this is divine Jesus, using a teaching method to demonstrate how out of line with God’s kingdom such racist ideas are.
But the bottom line is this: the idea that this woman and her child are somehow undeserving of God’s blessings because of her race is at its heart a racist idea, and has no place in the Kingdom of God. Regardless of which side of the Christological room you stand on, that is something I hope we can agree on.
Because while we cannot know for sure with 100% certainty what Jesus is thinking in this passage, what we can do is look at his actions. Let’s open the Scripture and open our hearts and see how three actions of Jesus impact this question of race and faith. And then let’s ask how we might follow in Jesus’ footsteps as his disciples.
One, Jesus listened to the woman. Again, in that time and place and culture, that was a big deal. Elisabeth Johnson counts at least three strikes against this woman. First, she was a Gentile, impure racially and religiously. Second, she was a woman, unaccompanied by a man, talking without invitation to the man Jesus, breaking another taboo. Third, her daughter was possessed by a demon, associating her with evil and clear outsider status. For all of these reasons, Jesus should not have spoken to her. And yet, Jesus crashed through all of that and listened to her plea. He heard who she was, regardless of these things. Kendi talks about the fallacy of “colorblindness.” Sometimes folks will tell me “oh, I don’t see color.” They mean it as a good thing, suggesting objectivity. Fairness. Kendi suggests it is both impossible and destructive: being blind to color means closing your eyes to the reality of someone else’s experience. What if, instead, we followed in the footsteps of Jesus and actually listened to the perspectives of others? Listened to what it feels like to grow up as a person of color in the United States, or to raise children of color here. Listened to what kinds of racist ideas were ingrained into some of us as children, and how hard it is to unlearn those things. When we start to speak with honesty and openness, and less name-calling, then something holy and Kingdom-tinged begins to happen. Listening to another’s story is a powerful gift that we can give each other.
So, Jesus listened to her. But sometimes, we “listen” to get evidence to refute, to prove our point, so we can deliver our pre-recorded clichés. But Jesus didn’t do that. Secondly, Jesus really listened to her perspective and valued it. Verse 29 suggests that he believed her argument was a convincing one, that it had merit: “Because you have said this…” What I like about the more progressive interpretation of this passage is that it suggests that one of the ways that Jesus was human was that he could be changed, and that he could learn. That something of what God means to teach us through Jesus is humility and openness to change and the ability to receive wisdom from one another. But even if we get nervous about the Christology of Jesus needing to learn, I think we can all agree that all of us who are not Jesus can find value in that lesson. WE need to learn. WE need to listen to others’ perspectives. An element of Kingdom living is to be willing to learn from the perspectives of others.
Three, Jesus did everything in his power to heal this woman and her family. Again, when we lean toward the divinity of Christ, it will lead us to say that only Christ can heal, that his power and his authority alone have that ability. And thank God for that! That Christ broke into this sinful and dehumanizing world of racist ideas and showed us there is a better way. That the healing touch of Christ demonstrates how God freed the world from its bondage, released us from the demonic presence of sin and evil, and overcame death and destruction through the cross. And our task, as followers of Christ, though we clearly do not have the power of Jesus, is to do everything in our power to heal the broken in this world. Can we use our gifts, and our power, and our privilege to bring healing to the world? Not in the same way as Jesus, but following in his footsteps, can we be a part of the healing of the world?
Howard Thurman thought so. You have heard me reference Thurman before. This black teacher and Baptist preacher is sometimes called the spiritual father of the Civil Rights Movement. In his famous work Jesus and the Disinherited, he talks about this story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. He points out that when this event took place, Jesus and his disciples were weary from ministry, and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon to get away for a retreat. To escape the people and leaders of his own faith, and withdraw for a time. But into that retreat came this woman and her request. For Thurman, this woman represented for Jesus a chance to apply his love-ethic in new ways. That even in his weariness, he chose to heal. And heal someone who was not like him, but an outsider, an enemy.
This story, and this love-ethic of Jesus became an inspiration for Thurman to do the same. In 1944, at the end of the war, when race relations on the West Coast were at a fever pitch, and internment camps still held Japanese-Americans in cages, Thurman started a church. And he started it in San Francisco, in the heart of racial tensions. And, if that weren’t enough, he started it alongside a white co-pastor. They called it the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, and it was intentionally an inter-racial community: whites, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos. Together, they sang songs of worship, and built community, and showed the world what the love-ethic of Jesus was all about.
So, it is no surprise that Thurman writes, in the book that came out at about the same time that he was building this church, that “the first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free.”
That is our calling, as we live out the love-ethic of Jesus in our time and place. As we listen to one another, trust one another, and work toward our mutual healing.