From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.He said to her, “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 answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter. So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. [NRSV]
The Politics of Racism:
It is in influx of racially motivated incidents AND the fires fueled by political factions that our United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked us to address the topic of Racism this Sunday. They ask us to 1) acknowledge that racism is a sin and to 2) affirm the church’s roll in eradicating Racism is to be a priority. I find this passage that is typically remembered for its emphasis by Jesus on miraculous healing, is an interesting perspective on dealing with assumptions and prejudice, regarding racial divisions.
The passage is about seeing and hearing Racism.
First, the passage is about Jesus healing people from different political and geographical regions.
Gentiles of Syrophoenician heritage, Folks from Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis regions.
We generally focus on the healing miracles and skip over the very thing we need to hear and see in the passage:
Might Jesus be a racist?
What? This might be an uncomfortable question for Christians to ask given this text.
Our immediate response likely is, “Of course not! Jesus couldn’t possibly have been racist!”
What are you talking about?
But Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman seems to raise the question. In it, Jesus calls the woman, who was desperate for a miracle for her child, “a dog”, a dehumanizing ethnic slur common at the time. No matter what theological tap dance we might create to avoid this uncomfortable truth, eventually, we have to face this stark truth.
Jesus uttered a racial slur. “Dog’s are not worthy.” Blessing is not for you, you are a female dog.” We have a word for that term.
If we only knew Jesus was talking with a women, we might Just call his statement Sexist.
But since she is first identified by her race and as a women. Its a double whammy.
What in the world is going on here?
(Have you ever read or studied this passage? It is troubling but crucial to address.
Part of the difficulty of this passage is that as Christians,
we want Jesus to be the simple,
white or black with absolutely no shades of grey
Jesus must have easy answer to all our problems and to all of society’s problems.
When in fact: 100% x 2 is not 200%
The passages show us that Jesus is 100% God who can heal beyond any medicine and all limits.
This passage shows us that Jesus is 100% human. A man who was raised in a culture, filled with real people who struggle to choose good from bad and right from wrong.
This passage reveals the complexities of personal and institutional racism, it is much easier to think of Jesus as being above them all and loving all people regardless of skin color or culture of origin.
But that is not what we want to see and hear from Jesus, but, “Whoop, there it is.“
And yet, he says: You are a dog: You are not legitimate, you are not worthy, you are less than human, as a woman and as a Canaanite.
This does not fit our picture of Jesus at all:
After all, that’s what our children’s song teaches us. Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.
But how about them Dawgs?
Does Jesus love them too? Is every team unworthy of support?
Here we are in the start of SEC Football season kicking off and you are bring racism in religion and sports into
The difficulty of this passage particularly for white Christians is that we want Jesus to be colorblind.
We want Jesus to be colorblind because that’s what we want to be or think we should be. But, in truth, at least in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is anything but colorblind.
In fact, and not being part of the solution to racism or ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story.
So what does it mean, exactly, that the Son of God, the Incarnation, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, utters a racial slur?
Because that is exactly what Jesus does in his dealing with the Syrophoenician, Canaanite heritage woman.
When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain – “whites only” – that is part of our history not too long ago.
It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus explains, to take the banquet ready for his people – the children, the humans – and give it to gentiles – the dogs, the less than human.
He is “Just a Joking” trying to get someone’s attention?
A some scholars whistle past this ghastly put-down by explaining that perhaps Jesus called the woman a dog with a twinkle in his eye, as if he winked at her knowingly to say he didn’t really believe her to be a dog. Like she was in on the joke when he uttered this well-known racial slur.
Others emphasize that the word for dog that Jesus uses isn’t the typical strong language usually associated with this racial slur. They explain that the word Jesus uses takes the diminutive form, implying perhaps a beloved pet or a lap dog, and therefore takes the sting out of the slur.
Of course, white Americans have had their own diminutive versions of racial slurs to imply endearment. Still unconvinced?
Look at the picture
Perhaps we can put this story in better context, our current context. Imagine the Syrophoenician woman as an African-American woman who comes to Jesus, a white male, seeking to be healed.
In response, Jesus dehumanized her, calls her an animal, a female dog. She is coming to Jesus for healthcare for her daughter and calls her a welfare abusing mother of a litter that has not paid taxes to cover the care.
If those slurs are too harsh, choose a different one. Does a more kind-sounding name make the sting go away?
I will always remember my Grandmother’s conversation with my Grandfather. He called the people he hired to help around the farm: Negros. My Grandmother corrected him repeatedly, Now Charlie they preferred to be called Coloreds. The terminology did not change the foundational relationship. And similarly, I don’t think Jesus’ diminutive case of “dog” in this text softens the bite of his own racism either.
So what are we to make of this conversation?
Clearly, racism is a sin, an evil, systemic sin which Christians everywhere should stand against. But how are we to do stand against racism when our own Lord and Savior has so clearly uttered such a heinous racial slur?
Does it make Jesus a racist? Does it make him a sinner? What flag would Jesus have raised to this woman?
Q: Does this passage change the way you think of Jesus?
This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman:
It teaches us about Jesus and it teaches us the dynamics of racism, of how even the best of humanity — Jesus himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy.
I Slice of Real Life
As a good Jew, Jesus would have been reared to give thanks daily that he was born a Jew, not a Gentile, a man and not a woman. Jesus could not help but become entangled by such a sexist and racist snare.
His statement reflected his heritage, his culture, his up bringing, his community understanding of men and women.
Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind. And neither can we.
But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist. It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed, reveal who we truly are.
Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them?
Continue to brush them aside as dogs? less than human?
Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth of they are speaking?
When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his racist, sexist slur, Jesus listens, and hears. It is the only time recorded in the gospels where Jesus changes his mind.
“But even the dogs get table scraps,” she replies, a complex response often required of the member of the “lesser race” who stands up to dismissive racism even while accepting its instituted, ugly, dehumanizing order.
I heard, for the first time.
Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him.
In the next, he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith, a moral exemplar, his teacher.
Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into the unfortunate privilege of dominance or prejudice.
He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.
The very next healing miracle Jesus conducts is to open a man’s ears to here.
When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same, will never be able to listen to the lies of the dominant oppressors the same way again.
For me, this happened as a student at Gammon Seminary at the ITC at Atlanta University. Having grown up in the racist culture of the Deep South, I was serving a congregation that had about a quarter of its members we in bi-racial families and my reference to serve and lead as pastor was lacking
I found myself disarmed in my doctoral class, by the students sharing stories of what it meant to be black in the church in the south and a Christian. We listened to one another’s faith journey stories, by the reflections of my classmates, (by being the a minority as a white person) they heard what it was to be white from a real person seeking God and I heard what it was to be black from real people seeking God.. It happened listening to the stories of Atlanta-area ministers explain the realities of being Black in urban America. It happened as I learned to be quiet, to listen and to allow myself to be changed. I also shared my journey that did not necessarily fit their assumptions about the power of the “whites.”
I also had a well-respected faculty member in the area of Christian worship dismiss my dissertation agenda of addressing Racism in Worship, resigning from being my committee chair because she said she wanted to know, and I quote, “Why do you think a little white boy has any business teaching the black community anything about racism? I believe you have it backwards.”
I knew I was not little.
I was not a boy, and
I was not fitting her definition of racism and its potential for resolution.
I knew God has a better way.
First: Processing, honestly what we hear:
Second: Be willing to change our hearts and minds when we experience oppression.
You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality.
Both must happen to tackle racism. We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true. This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a majority race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us.
But we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories.
Things to note:
Racism is about power and can be abused both ways.
The Goal is not colorblind, but to find ways to appreciate one another, even if we offend each other.
The church, by Jesus example, is the agent of transformation of racism.
I would offer this passage needs to be read, studied, shared and brought into life before political correct politics claims another task of the church.
So, in the end, Jesus’ conversation offers us perhaps the most powerful story for those of us in majority classes as we stand against racism. It compels us to listen to the narratives of the oppressed we devalue implicitly. It requires us to listen to our own prejudice.
It asks us to do the unthinkable: to own our racism and to be changed by society’s most marginalized.
Having followed Jesus this far, perhaps we can do no better than he did, and that is to learn to listen to those with such different realities than mine and to let that new reality change my reality from– who I am and who I will become through living out our relationships with God together.