WAS JESUS RACIST? Mark 7:24-30

A Sermon with the Anglican Chaplaincy community in Paphos, Cyprus, January 24, 1993

by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)

Was Jesus Racist? In our Gospel today we have what looks like a very racist remark to a foreign woman in the neighboring country of Tyre and Sidon. When she asked Jesus to heal her demon possessed daughter, he said "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (Mark 7:27). Was he contrasting the Jewish children of God and the foreign dogs of Phoenicia?

A first answer to this problem is that if you want to control the world, the strategy is to begin with a firm base at home. Jesus eventually intended his good news to be made known all over the world. But first he needed to train twelve apostles to go out and plant churches in every city and town. When he sent them out alone for the first time he gave them strict instructions. "Go nowhere among the Gentiles (people of other nations), but rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6).

But in Matthew's gospel already before this conversation with the Syrophoenician woman Jesus had heard a Roman army officer's prayer for his servant (Matthew 8:5). He was impressed by the Centurion's faith, and said that "Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 8:11). That could only mean that the Holy Spirit would soon be bringing people of all nations to faith. Then he healed two demoniacs from the area of Gadara across the Jordan (Matthew 8:28-32). They lived among people who raised pigs, so they probably came from a heathen background. And John's Gospel recorded the shock of the disciples when they found Jesus talking to a woman of Samaria (John 4:5-10, 27).

Those were just first-fruits of what was to come. After his resurrection he was ready to say "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).

But that does not explain why on this occasion Jesus used what seem to be racist words to distinguish between children and dogs. When the eternal Son of God came and took birth among us, he was surrounded by all the prejudices of a village in northern Galilee. When the people of Nazareth talked about the Romans, the Greeks, the Syrians and the people of Syrophoenicia, I am sure they had racist terms for them. Jesus was totally trained in the Jewish culture and traditions, and he knew that the Pharisaic rabbis viewed people of other races as dogs.

But now in our Gospel today it seems that Jesus had taken his disciples for a holiday west into the area of Tyre and Sidon and he intended to come back across the mountains of Lebanon. There he met a woman who was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin. These Phoenicians were descended from the hated Canaanites . And this woman came to him boldly begging him to cast the demon out of her daughter. She knew that Jesus was a Jew and she assumed he would view her as a foreign dog. So Jesus began with her assumption. "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she came back at him with an answer that turned the whole situation around. "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." He was obviously impressed by this expression of astonishing humility and faith. He immediately said "For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter." And sure enough "she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone" (Mark 7:26-30).

Whatever we think about the meaning of Jesus' words to this foreign woman, the event assures us that whoever we are, and however unworthy we feel ourselves to be, he listens and responds to our prayers.

Prayer In a moment of silent prayer I am going to ask you to do two things. First thank Jesus that he cares about you and listens to whatever prayers you address to him. Then take the greatest personal concern of your heart right now, and ask him to intervene to help you.

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