Yesterday, I read a most interesting blog post. In it, David Henson said that Jesus made a racist comment. He was speaking of a story related by Mark 7:24-29 (also related in Matthew 15:21-28), where Jesus told the Syro-Phoenician woman “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs“. It’s a foregone conclusion he made a racist comment, it’s right there in the scripture. For me, the question is was he being a racist or making a point?
Both ideas have their attractions . One, the racist argument, affirms Jesus’ humanity because only a human being could be callous enough to call a woman beseeching them on behalf of their child a dog. The other shows Jesus to be a pretty smart cookie. On the flip side, however, both ideas have their flaws. On the racist side of the ledger, well, no one wants their messiah to be a racist asshole. And, on the second, it’s a shitty way to make a point.
There are other problems with the story, too. First, Jesus treated the people he healed with great compassion, a compassion that seems to be missing here. Second, He makes a remarkable turnaround. from calling the woman a dog to doing as she asked in practically the blink of an eye. Third, the disciples ask him to send her away, which is something you’d think someone who looked at her as “less than” would do. Especially since was interrupting some much needed rest.
These latter issues that lead me away from the idea that Jesus was a racist. I understand Henson’s contention that Jesus was a product of His time and place, to be anything else would diminish His humanity. It’s certainly possible that Henson is right in saying Jesus only overcame His racism when confronted by this woman in Tyre. But, I wonder about that. Jesus had a practice of challenging beliefs and customs by asking questions and telling stories that made people uncomfortable. And, nothing makes you more uncomfortable than hearing someone else say ugly things that you, yourself, have said. If we look at the statement in the context of his other interactions with Gentiles, it seems out of character. And, if Jesus had a racist attitude about this woman, He abandons it pretty quick. Take a look at the exchange as offered in Matthew (picking up after Jesus makes His “toss it to the dogs” comment):
“Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.”
See what I mean? No self-respecting racist would ever give up after one counter-argument from someone they looked down on.
I think the answer comes in the way the story is related in Mark, where it goes like this:
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
“Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.”
I’m about to use a phrase I hate, but I think Jesus considered this a “teachable moment”. It’s a safe bet that, even if He had moved beyond the cultural concepts that caused many Jews to look down their noses at Gentiles, many of those in His company had not and He saw this as an opportunity to refute that belief. To me, this idea fits the scriptural references better than the idea that Jesus was a racist.
Is it possible that I don’t like the idea that my messiah was a racist asshole? Absolutely. It’s also possible that I constructed this whole argument to deny that contingency. I hope not, though. What’s your take on this?