Was Jesus a racist?
A sermon on Mark 7:24-30 by Nathan Nettleton, 4 September 1994
God uses the experiences of our lives to confront us with our own imperfections and, once so confronted, we are responsible for our growth and change in that area.
Jesus grew up knowing that he was special. He was special because he was a Jew. From the time he was born he soaked up the stories of God's special relationship with the people of Israel, and he soaked up the sense of pride that the stories imparted. His people had a proud history of faithfulness to God. There had been a few glitches here and there, a few times when Jews who should have known better got a bit to close to the gentiles, the non-jews, but God had always dealt with them and purified the people again.
Saul had lost the Kingship for failing to kill all the gentiles he was supposed to rid the world of. Numerous stories were included in the Bible and deeply embedded in the national psyche about Jewish men who had taken gentile wives, or had sexual affairs with gentile women, and God had had to destroy them lest this immorality defile the whole people. The Bible was clear that this was a detestable thing. Jews were Jews. They were the chosen children of God and were to keep themselves holy, separate, distinctive.
Jesus was proud to be a Jew, to be an inheritor of the covenant. He first visited the temple when he was only eight days old, and although he didn't have much say in it then, he wasn't much older before he was choosing to be there whenever he had the opportunity so he could sit at the feet of the old men and soak up the stories and discuss, and share the wonderful sense of history and identity and honour that came from the shared stories of God's own children.
As an adult, Jesus was regarded by many people as a great rabbi and even a prophet. Some even regarded him as Messiah, as the one anointed by God to call the people back to holiness, and to establish the reign of God in Jerusalem. It was a great honour for Jesus to be seen as such a man of God; to be seen as a special one among God's holy children through whom all Israel could again hear the call of God on their nation to be a light to the world, to be the one bright spot in an otherwise dark and festeringly evil world.
One day Jesus was in the region near the city of Tyre. Not a comfortable place to be. It was unquestionably gentile territory, hostile to the ways of God, the sort of place that made a God fearing Jew feel defiled just by being there, but he considered it worth the discomfort because there were Jews there and they needed to hear God's message too. They were a particularly disadvantaged group of God's children too. The native Tyrians had something of a stranglehold on the economy of the area, and would use their financial clout to buy up all the grain, often in the process taking the bread out of the mouths of the struggling peasants who included the minority Jewish group in the area. The animosity that this roused was strong. Jewish parents struggling to put a meal before their children often spoke of the evil of having bread taken from their children and thrown to the pagan people, the ravaging dogs of the Tyrian business class.
It was while staying with just such a struggling family that Jesus was approached by a woman native to the area. A non-jew. A Syro-Phoenisian woman. She had heard about Jesus and she was desperate enough to ask a Jew for help. She had a daughter who was so dreadfully disturbed and sick that the only explanation that seemed to make sense of her condition was that a demonic spirit had taken hold of her. So the mother came to Jesus, and falling at his feet pleaded for him to help.
Jesus was incensed. Of course he was. Were these evil godless people not content with rorting the bread out of the mouths of the children of Israel? Now were they wanting to tear the bread of heaven out of their mouths as well. The whole scene was an outrage. Jesus knew only too well how many otherwise good Jewish men had been corrupted beyond redemption by the wiles of gentile women fawning at their feet. The famous prayer would have been ringing in his ears as a warning. God I thank you that I was not born a gentile. God I thank you that I was not born a woman. There was no way Jesus was going to be sucked in by the tempting ways of an idolatrous woman. The ground was not going to open up and consume him for failing to honour the divine rights of the children of Israel.
The food is for the children, he retorted, It is not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs!
But she didn't give up. This was an outrage. This was out and out offensive. Not only was Jesus well aware that Jewish purity demanded that he have nothing to do with this idolatrous gentile, but every norm of social propriety also demanded that he not carry on a conversation with a woman. It would demean his status as a bearer of the image of God. But here she was, a pagan woman barging into a home where he had retreated for some well earned rest, and pleading for the blessings of Israel to be extended to her! It would be like me barging into government house and demanding that the Queen's Governor shine my shoes for me. Outrageous.
Sir, she pleaded, Even the dogs under the table eat the children's left overs! This woman is not only stubbornly persistent; she's smart. She's turned Jesus' argument back on itself. He had appealed to the rules of good parenting to show why he shouldn't have anything to do with her or her request, and she has shown that it is because she is a good parent that she is continuing to ask. I'm only asking to lick the plate clean after your children have finished she argues. No-one loses out just because the blessing is extended.
And to the astonishment of the Jews present, Jesus concedes the argument. Nothing could be more publicly humiliating than for a respected Jewish rabbi to concede an argument to a pagan woman. No-one would have expected him to even listen to her argument, let alone concede it. The only right response he could make was to have her dragged from the room, and then wash his hands and purify himself.
But something has happened in Jesus. Something has broken through his defence and enabled him to see the world in a new light. Gently he lifts her to her feet and says, For that answer, go in peace. Go back home, and you will find your daughter made whole again. So she went home and it was as Jesus said.
There is no convincing way of making that story nice. Scholars having been trying to explain it away for a long time. With our modern assumptions about equality and justice we find the initial response of Jesus offensive, and you probably found my retelling of it even more offensive. But what you have to realise is that to the people Mark was writing to, it was the final response that was offensive. Jesus' rejection of the woman would have been what they considered the only Godly response he could make. To those first hearers, Jesus seemed to be selling out when he conceded the point to a woman from outside the covenant people.
For us the problem is Jesus' apparent racism, and his need to recognise the implications of that racism and repent of it. It doesn't sit comfortably with our doctrines of the perfect sinlessness of Christ. I want to suggest to you that it can sit OK. You see much of our Christian doctrine came, during the first few centuries of the church to be expressed in the terms of Greek philosophy and therefore understood in terms of its categories. And the idea of sinless perfection is one of those doctrines that changed a lot when that happened.
I'm not going to argue that the doctrine is wrong, but that we need to understand it in Hebrew terms not in Greek terms. The Greek concept of perfection is one of an unchanging realised state. You've either made it or you haven't. It is a static perfected state. The Hebrew idea of perfection is much more developmental. The sinless person is one who makes the right choices when they arise and grows and develops at every opportunity. The Greek idea would have us see Jesus as the baby that never cried. The Hebrew idea sees Jesus as a normal baby who, as the gospel says, grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and people. The Greek concept doesn't cope with that verse because how can he grow in favour with God if he is already absolutely perfect from the word go. The Hebrew concept of sinlessness has no trouble with it because as Jesus grows up, each time he becomes aware of a choice between good and evil he chooses good and grows in favour with God and people.
So, understood in that way, there is no problem with the idea of Jesus growing up with a racist worldview, so long as he turned from it when he became conscious of it. Every Jewish kid grew up racist. They couldn't help it. We all grow up shaped by the values and assumptions of the world around us. We are not responsible for the influences to which we are exposed in our vulnerable formative years. I was educated at Scotch College. I soaked up the idea that my peers and I were superior to other people because we had been there. We couldn't help it. It was in every school song. It was in every principal's address. It never occurred to us to question it because we were never exposed to an alternative view. It was only after I left that I was confronted with the possibility that people who lacked the comforts and education and abilities that I had were created in the image of God too and deserved to be treated as my equals. At that point I had to make a choice. At that moment I became responsible for my attitude. From that time on I have had to choose, and continue to choose whether I will be an elitist or not.
I have a friend who grew up in the deep south of the United States. He grew up racist because he grew up in a deeply and unquestioningly racist environment. He was not responsible as a four year old for taking on the racist assumptions of his family and community. He was nineteen years old before he ever discovered that anybody in the world didn't think that black people were inferior creatures who should never be befriended in case you became contaminated. But at nineteen he was confronted with the choice between good and evil; with the choice between holding on to his worldview or accepting growth and change. From that point on, any racist decision was sin. It didn't mean that he would never have a racist feeling again, but it did mean that he was now responsible for recognising them and choosing to turn from them and behave otherwise.
Our psalm before said that if there is too much wickedness, even the righteous might begin to behave wickedly. We cannot help but have our attitudes and behaviour shaped by our surrounding culture. The reading from James pointed out how even in the early church, people would be far more welcoming of a wealthy and influential person who walked into a church service than they would be of an impoverished misfit. But, says James, you can't continue that way. Your faith must show itself in action by choosing to go against the elitist, or racist, or sexist assumptions of your culture. Once your eyes have been opened you are responsible. You are now like Jesus, faced with the choice between clinging to discriminatory presuppositions, or letting go and growing into new ways of light and life.