That One Time Jesus Seemed Kind of…Racist

By: Zac Cannon

“I know who the bad guys are,” my five-year old daughter says as we watch some silly kid’s cartoon.

“Oh, yea? Who?”

But you already know who. We all learn how to spot the “bad guys” pretty quickly in life. They’re the scowling, nefarious, black-clad types. The one’s who stick out from the utopic, lively colorful neighborhoods in our kids’ shows.

The outsiders.

The one’s who don’t seem to fit.
The one’s who put the “other” in “other side of the tracks.”

Certainly, there’s a kind of naïve safety that comes from learning about the dangers of going into particular areas or spaces when you’re a child, especially alone or after nightfall, but there also exists the danger of laying the foundations for deep rooted biases and prejudices that persist well into our more mature years.

In some very real ways, our country is tattooed with these dividing lines of hostility and prejudice. Neighborhoods in cities across the nation have been separated historically by railroads and highways, restricting certain “types” of people to their side; infrastructure reinforcing barriers of class and race: white/black, rich/poor, Christian/Jew/Muslim.

We all learn who the bad guys are.

Where thosepeople live.
Where thatneighborhood is.

Deep within our culture remains a divide often left unspoken and unexamined by those who would like to forget it ever existed and persists to this day. Which brings us to an interesting story found in the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

 29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.”[1]

A surface reading of this texts yields some curious results. Jesus and his followers head into a new region, they’re outside the bounds of their normal sphere of culture and influence, and when a desperate woman encounters Jesus with tears he seems to turn her away. No only that, but he does so rather rudely. I mean, he calls her a dog!

Mark’s gospel makes sure to inform the audience that this woman “was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” Interestingly, Matthew says that the woman is a “Canaanite.”[2]This is a bit anachronistic, but the point is the same: she’s an outsider.

Jesus highlights this. He refers to her with what amounts to a racial slur. To be called a dog was insulting. Dogs were unclean animals without shame; base creatures. Likewise, to be labeled a Canaanite stirred up all kinds of ideas in the collective imagination and prejudices among Jesus’ followers and the gospel’s readers. The Canaanites were Israel’s ancient foes. They were wicked pagans.

They were the bad guys from the other side of the tracks.

But let’s dig a little bit deeper. Just before Mark records this encounter, we read about an interesting encounter of another kind. Jesus and his followers have just been scolded by the Jewish religious officials for failing to obey certain laws about ceremonial cleaning. Simply put, they didn’t wash their hands before eating.

You know who else doesn’t wash their hands before eating? All those hooligans over yonder in places like Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus gets scolded for acting like a heathen and he retorts, “There is nothing outside someone that can corrupt him. Only the things that come out of a person can corrupt him.”[3]And, “It is the sin from within that makes a person unclean.”[4]

To illustrate this truth, Jesus and the gang take a field trip across town, stepping over the old borders and demarcations, into unfamiliar, hostile territory. Gentile territory. The region of Tyre. And what happens?

“Immediately,” Mark says, “a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit came and bowed down at his feet.” A Gentile woman with a sick daughter at home, both as ritually unclean as Jesus’ unwashed fingertips, pleads for Jesus to extend mercy to her and bring liberation to her daughter.

Mercy, or eleosin Greek; the word commonly used to translate the Hebrew word hesed.

Hesed, God’s covenant loyalty and faithfulness reserved for Israel, the people of God. Hesed, God’s personal, sacred commitment to them alone. Jesus’ followers watch and listen as this ritually unclean woman from the wrong side of town whose great great great grandparents spilled the blood of their great great great grandparents over and over across centuries and battlefields…she asks…for mercy?

And don’t get this wrong, Jesus does not misspeak. He goads her. He calls her a dog. He insults her in front of those she assumes – and who probably assume of themselves – are the righteous, legitimate “children of God.” Jesus uses the exact same tactic his followers had previously witnessed the religious elite of the Jews use on him to provoke a response.

To reveal what is within.

And her answer very much pleases Jesus. She seems to have a little bit of that feisty Jesus guff herself:
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Immediately, Jesus commends her great faith and her daughter is set free from the ills of her unclean spirit.

This story serves a purpose. This encounter serves a purpose. Jesus wanted his followers then – and wants His followers now – to see, hear, touch, and experience the “other.” He wants a kind of sight that sees past labels. Unclean. Woman. Canaanite. Enemy.

The sight of Christ demands that we see and acknowledge the presence not of an “other” but of “another,” another human being. A human being who isn’t going to just get scraps but can eat from the same table as the rest of us.

The grace and healing and mercy of God is not allocated to one people group or one type of people. As a matter of fact, those who think they deserve it most usually miss out on it the most frequently. Those who know they’re on the “right” side of the tracks are far too superior and pure hearted to need Jesus’ mercy in the first place, so no wonder He has so much to go around.

The “losers”?
The “dogs”?
The “bad” guys?

They’re the one who find themselves at the feet of Jesus in need of mercy.

Even if they’re from the “wrong” part of town.

Or the “wrong” country.

Or the “wrong” religion.

Or the “wrong” skin color.

Or the “wrong” sexual orientation.

God’s loyalty and faithfulness doesn’t see our dividing lines. God has a personal, sacred commitment to all of humanity. The walls of hostility were torn down by the power of God’s love shown through Jesus. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, good guy or bad guy, insider or outsider. We all can approach the throne of God boldly seeking the mercy of God.

The kind of mercy that liberates us from the unclean spirits of division and bigotry and bias that strive to thwart the advances of God’s kingdom so that an age will come when our children no longer know who the bad guys are.
[1]Mark 7:24-29

[2]Matthew 15:22

[3]Mark 7:15

[4]Mark 7:23


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