Was Jesus a Bigot?

Scripture: Mark 7: 24-30
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
August 28, 2016

In my 20 plus years of ordained ministry, I have never preached on today’s scripture passage.  I have never even attempted to preach on it.  Why?  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  The Jesus I have come to love and follow and honor is the culture-defying, rule breaking, boundary crossing, turn your world upside down, unconditionally loving, radically inclusive Jesus.  The Jesus I encounter in this morning’s scripture is anything but inclusive.  In fact, I would go so far as to call this Jesus a bigot.

In Mark’s gospel, she is referred to as a Syro-Phoenician woman.  In Matthew’s gospel, she is referred to as a Canaanite woman.  Canaanites first come into the Jewish story during the time of Joshua.  Joshua led the Hebrew people across the Jordan River into the Promise Land, into what came to be called “The Conquest of Canaan.”  The Canaanites were identified as the ancient foes of Israel.

Jesus crosses over the borders of Israel into Gentile territory – into Tyre and Sidon.  This Canaanite, Syro-Phoenician woman is situated in every way “on the border” – on the boundary between the old and the new, between male and female, between Jew and Gentile, between friend and enemy, and between the holy and the demonic. This woman had a daughter who was said to be demon-possessed.  In biblical times, that could mean anything from epilepsy to mental illness.  She comes to Jesus with a heavy burden in her heart – her daughter, the fruit of her body, is deeply tormented.  She screams, shrieks, cries to Jesus for help.  And Jesus ignores her.  He remains completely silent. It’s a strange, even rejecting response from Jesus.  

The disciples noting his response were emboldened in their own prejudice, which is often the way it works.  Leaders, by their very silence, can and do give their followers permission to continue with their own prejudices.  So, the disciples say, “Send her away!  She is bothering us!”  And Jesus agrees with them. He says, “Look, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  In other words, “Scram.  You are not of my ethnicity. You have no intrinsic value to me. Get lost.”  And she begs, cries, grovels, “Lord, help me.”  

To add insult to injury, to kick while she is down, Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.”  Wait.  Is this really Jesus speaking?  Did Jesus just call this woman a dog? Or even worse, did Jesus just call this woman the B—– word? I don’t want to offend anyone, but this is a  very offensive scripture passage.   He uses a  derogatory, dehumanizing ethnic slur common at the time in describing gentiles, non-Jews.

It’s important to note that to the Israelites, dogs were not cute, little, fluffy domesticated pets that slept at the foot of our beds.  Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East.  Dogs were scavengers.

When Jesus is talking about throwing food to the dogs, he is not talking about sneaking a piece of hamburger under the table to Kiko.  He’s talking about taking the fine food you have prepared for your family, walking it outside, throwing it in the gutter, so that scavengers that are rooting through the garbage can dine on what you prepared for your children.  The children in this passage are the Israelites. The Syrophoenician, Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter are not even human in his metaphor.

Can you see why I’ve never preached on this passage?  Jesus is clearly entangled in the systems of oppression and in the culture of supremacy.  Jesus is not telling her that she is the light of the world, the salt of the earth.  No, instead he is calling this woman the “B” word.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot theologically tap dance around this most troublesome passage.

And this woman picks up on Jesus’ insulting language and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”  It was a breathtaking response.  She humbles herself, she does whatever it takes in order to help her little girl.   

The heart of Jesus was touched, even moved in new directions, by this mother’s love.  Jesus is astounded.  A moment, before she was but a dog to him.  In the next moment, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is.  Jesus’ heart was “opened up” by love.  It is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.  Jesus responds, “O woman, great is your faith!   Be it done for you as you desire.”  The woman went home and found her daughter relaxed on the bed, the torment gone for good.

In our scripture passage this morning, we meet a very human Jesus, who was a product of his culture.  Yet, he was willing to listen and learn, grow and change.

The Canaanite Woman is the icon, who stands at the gate through which we must walk to hear this call to unbounded love.  At other times in Christian history, the Canaanite woman is the Jew, whom we Christians ghettoized, violated, and in the Holocaust sought to eliminate.  Later, she becomes the Muslim against whom we Christians unleashed the murderous Crusades.  Still later, she is the African whom we Christians enslaved, segregated, lynched, prohibited from voting, and suppressed economically.  She is the woman who until the 20th century, we did not allow to be professionally educated, to enter the work force, to practice law or medicine, to be ordained.  The Canaanite woman is also the member of the LGBTQ community, each of whom was defined by the Christian Church as deviant, abnormal, perverted and evil.  We can see the Canaanite woman in the faces of all of our victims of prejudice.  The Canaanite woman, however, will always confront us until the walls of prejudice fall and we fling open the doors of our hearts (Bishop Spong, article “The Canaanite Woman:  Matthew’s Icon of Prejudice”, Spong website).

Yes, the Syrophoenician, Canaanite, gentile woman stands at every gate through which we must walk to hear the call to boundless, limitless, infinite, radically inclusive love.

Because of her, Jesus opened the gates of his heart and he was transformed.   We especially see this when we look at the chapters immediately before and after this key event in the life of Jesus.  In Mark 6, Jesus feeds the 5000 in Jewish territory.  In other words, he feeds 5000 Jews.  Only the Jewish people get the bread.  He crosses over into gentile territory in Mark 7, and encounters this woman who merely asks for the crumbs of the bread, the leftovers.  And yet, she ends up becoming the rabbi, who teaches Jesus the value of all human life. She is the prophet who preaches the kingdom/kindom of God for all of God’s children.  She is the one who transforms the narrowly ethnocentric Jesus into the radically inclusive shepherd of all.  For in Mark 8, we read about Jesus feeding another set of people, this time it is the 4000.  Remember, he has stepped into Tyre and Sidon – gentile territory.  This time he is not feeding only Jews, he is now feeding the Gentiles.  Did you ever wonder why there were two feeding stories in the Gospel of Mark?  Because of this Syrophoenician, Caanite, gentile woman, Jesus no longer just offers crumbs to the outsider, but instead offers a feast that feeds thousands.  Jesus becomes the bread of life for all people because of this woman.  

I heard a story about a preacher who asked a deacon in his church to offer the opening prayer for worship.  The deacon began, “Dear Lord, I sure do not like buttermilk.”  The preached opened one eye and wondered, “Where is this prayer going?”  The deacon continued, “I sure do not like baking powder.  And a cup of flour on its own tastes quite chalky.  But when I mix them all together and bake it in the oven, I sure do love the taste of warm biscuits melting in my mouth.  O God, thank you for taking the parts of life that we don’t like, mixing them together, and making something really good from them.  Amen.”

I never preached on this scripture passage because it tasted like buttermilk.  Yuck.  But when I began to look at what came before this passage and what comes after it, it took on an entirely different taste. We meet a Jesus who rises to the occasion like yeast in bread. Whether we are talking loaves of bread or a hot pan of buttermilk biscuits, this human Jesus can feed our souls.