“Was Jesus Racist?”

~ Matthew 15:21-28 ~

The events of last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia and subsequent verbiage by our president and others has, needless to say, caused considerable consternation and angst. Indeed, it is downright scary. This morning I want to address these events in light of our two scripture readings this morning. I want to talk about community and what makes for community in light of our psalm reading: “See how good, how pleasant it is for God’s people to live together as one!” And I want to talk about how racial bias or racism affects community in light of our gospel reading – the story of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus crying for him to heal her daughter. This is a tough passage because it does appear that Jesus, himself, displays a racist attitude in dealing with this poor woman. How can that be? As we unpack this narrative, hopefully we can find some grace to help us be the community God wants us to be.

Let me say upfront that religion and culture naturally tend towards exclusivity. Determining who is in and who is out is endemic to cultural development. “Us” vs. “Them”, whether we like it or not, is a natural outworking of people leaving together. There is not a natural bent towards inclusivity and acceptance of differences. To be open and inclusive takes intentionality. Even Jesus had to discover this.

But first, I’ve been wanting to preach on this passage for a long time. You see, when I was at San Francisco Theological Seminary I took Greek exegesis. Now, exegesis is simply the art and science of textual analysis. Well, you’re in trouble this morning. I wrote a 20 page exegesis paper on this text. I analyzed every word in the Greek, compared it line-by-line with the same passage from Mark, and sought to explain its significance in the scope of Matthew’s overall purpose in the Gospel. Given that, I figured for my sermon this morning I would just read my paper to you.

No, I wouldn’t do that to you. Yet this is a fascinating passage. It raises intriguing questions. Why did Jesus dismiss this poor woman’s plea? What is this going-only-to-the-lost-sheep-of-Israel thing? What about this woman’s refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer? Why did Jesus change his mind? What made her faith great? And most critical for our consideration this morning, did Jesus actually use a racial slur? Was Jesus, in fact, racist?

Let’s dig in and find out! Jesus wanted to get away again. He has done this several times lately. This time, after a difficult encounter with the scribes and Pharisees, he goes away to a Gentile region, Tyre and Sidon, hoping not to be found. But someone does find him–a Canaanite woman. Now, Canaanites were a cursed people according to Jewish history. A people dispossessed by Israel’s occupation of the land. Israel’s victory over the Canaanites was viewed as God’s gift, understood as an expression of Israel’s elect status, and was celebrated in Israel’s traditions. Yet here comes this Canaanite woman seeking out Jesus. She comes challenging the excluding and racial/religious-superiority of Israel’s theology.

Hers is a plea for healing: “Have mercy on me.” Her daughter is being tormented by a demon, she tells him. But this is not a quiet request. She comes screaming. Yet even in her shouting she does show respect for Jesus: “Lord, Son of David.” But in coming to Jesus she has broken all the rules of an honor and shame society. A Gentile woman has the audacity to approach a Jewish male? It would be beneath the honor of any self-respecting Jewish man to give her any notice. Jesus has every right to ignore her completely.

It appears he does follow that honor system code. He ignores her. But yet, she persisted, shouting so much that the disciples intervene. “Send her away,” they say, “she is causing trouble with all her shouting.” Jesus states his reason for ignoring her cry: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He has said this before. Earlier, when instructing the disciples before they went out on their mission, he explicitly told them not to go to any Gentile areas. They were only to go to the “lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus is sticking to his agenda – Israel only. It would appear that this poor woman’s plea is for naught. It is a dead issue.

Or is it? Let us continue. She tries again, respectfully pleading her case: “Lord, help me.” Again, you would think Jesus would respond positively. But he doesn’t. Instead he says this: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” There it is! The racial slur! He is calling this poor Canaanite woman, with a demon-possessed daughter, a dog!

Now, given what Jesus has already said, ‘children’ does refer to Israel. The ‘dogs’ are everyone else. Jesus affirms what everyone already knew: Gentiles are dogs. And believe me, ‘dogs’ was always used negatively. In fact, earlier Jesus had said, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs.” Among Jews, ‘dogs’ was used exclusively to refer to Gentiles. To be licked in the face by a dog, as was Lazarus, was as low as one could go.

Given all this, it appears that Jesus is right there with the rest of his racist Jewish society. Jesus stands his ground, sticks to his agenda, and refuses to help the poor woman. A jarring slap-in-the-face of who we understand Jesus to be.

Surprisingly, she affirms what Jesus has said. She does not deny her status among the Gentile dogs. Again, there is an implied respect for Jesus as she yet again addresses him as Lord. But her response is quite out of the ordinary. Hers is a witty, clever twist of the metaphor, challenging Jesus’ statement: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, she seems to honor the primacy of Jesus’ mission to Israel, yet questions its exclusivity. Does the good news of the Kingdom have to be only for the Jews? Is the healing Jesus brings only for the benefit of the children of Israel? Can there not be one little crumb that falls off the table for this Canaanite’s tormented daughter?

This simple woman of Sidon knows somehow that in Jesus is the presence of God. He can heal. He brings an authentic truth, unlike that of other religious leaders. Yes, Jesus is from God. She somehow knows that even the crumbs from the master’s table are life. She merely asks Jesus for a little bit of that life.

To this witty retort, Jesus’ turns his head. Jesus turns! He commends her great faith. Because of her faith he fulfills her request, presumably from long distance.

Note that this great faith is in considerable contrast to that of others Jesus has encountered. The religious leaders have no faith. The disciples have been the subjects of one of Jesus’ favorite phrases: “you of little faith.” In just the previous chapter Peter, albeit while he is sinking into the sea, is chided for his little faith. But this woman has great faith. Ironically, this is much like that of the Centurion back in chapter eight. These are the only two places in the Gospels that people are described with great faith. It is, indeed, in these presumably godless Gentiles that Jesus sees ‘great faith’.

What was so great about this woman’s faith? One could suggest that her faith was due to her persistence. Despite being first, ignored, and then rebuffed, she kept pursuing her plea. First she comes shouting, then she kneels and asks politely, and then she challenges Jesus with a clever retort. Yes, persistence is a force to be reckoned with. Yes, it could be her persistence. However, I think there is another way of looking at this great faith of hers. I think Jesus responded to what she actually said. It is this woman’s truth-telling that turned Jesus around.

I believe it is something like this: There is enough of God’s mission to the world that it didn’t have to be just for the Jews. Or, in other words, there is enough of God’s grace for everyone. This is not insignificant. Even the crumbs from the master’s table are life. The early church understood this. From exclusively Jewish roots it adopted a worldview of faith and grace. Did Jesus change his mind right here because of one woman’s witty retort? I don’t know. But Jesus let himself be outwitted to make a point. This story of the poor woman from Sidon challenging Jesus is a pivotal point in this gospel. It represents the turning away from the exclusivity of the Jewish tradition to the expansiveness of God’s grace. The gospel of Matthew is, in fact, the story of the expansion of God’s grace, from only-the-lost-sheep-of-Israel to “go and make disciples of all nations.” One woman, a woman of a despised, dispossessed people, a woman of the wrong religious persuasion, a woman and not a man, turns the head of Jesus.

This woman was more than satisfied with the crumbs Jesus threw her way. Somehow she knew the crumbs of God’s grace were more than enough to satisfy her need. Indeed, the crumbs of God’s grace are more than enough for us. I would say that these crumbs are a veritable feast, more than enough to satisfy our hunger. But of course, as the story of the gospel goes on, the crumbs of grace from this incident grow into a huge outpouring of grace by the end of the gospel.

What does this mean for us? Several observations:

One, religious, cultural, racial biases run deep and are not easily eradicated. From within one’s culture the tendency towards these biases is always a danger. We have to pay attention. What this story tells me is that Jesus’ exchange with this woman calls us to listen to the stories of the oppressed we tend to devalue implicitly. It calls us to listen to our own prejudice. This story asks us to do something that is really hard – to own our racism and be changed by those who are most affected it.

But let me also say this: Intentionally adopting a theology and philosophy of racial superiority is completely antithetical to the Gospel of Christ. God’s kingdom agenda of justice and peace has no room whatsoever for such hateful attitudes. When and where Christians buy in to such a racial agenda, they must be challenged directly and courageously – by us. It is no accident that one of the most powerful counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville last week were ministers standing in solidarity against the hatred on display. Likewise, we should never shrink back.

Two, God’s grace is the means by which we change. Embracing God’s grace means looking outside us for perspective, for understanding, for facing our implicit racism. God’s grace is meant for everyone. We need to constantly embrace that truth and live out of that grace, not just in the form of crumbs that have fallen off the table but a veritable feast of grace.

Three, being community is based on that grace, solely on that grace. It is not based on common culture, common traits, common religious beliefs. If we go with that approach we will necessarily exclude others. No, community is based on God’s gift of grace. Admittedly, that is not easy to define. Grace is fuzzy and non-definitive. It is much easier to rely on distinct lines that map out the order of things, who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’.

Here at Noe Valley Ministry we do not rely on theological distinctives to determine who we are as a community. We do not rely on a common culture or race to determine who we are as a community. We do not even rely on all of us agreeing who we are.

We are community because Christ has called us to be God’s people in this place. To that degree we are in mission together – a mission that is all-inclusive, that find’s validation in diversity, not despite diversity. My prayer is that we will learn the lesson Jesus learned: there is plenty of grace for everyone. Amen.

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