This has been a harder than usual sermon to write. It’s really still a work in progress.
It’s hard to hear Jesus call this gentile woman a dog… and I didn’t want to go into the usual modes of either defending Jesus (he doesn’t need me to defend him), or, even worse, of judging Jesus.
So what I’ve been praying about this week is less about who Jesus is in this story, and more about who we are—who I am—in the way we/I read it.
Last week we heard the religious experts ask Jesus (more or less), “Why don’t your disciples do what good Jews do?” And this morning we hear that—right after the attack on the Jewishness of his disciples—Jesus crosses into gentile territory.
It’s a dangerous thing (and a bad idea) to try to get into Jesus’ head—to psychologize him. But doesn’t this move into Gentile territory right after he’s just been accused of having questionably Jewish disciples make us wonder? Is he hiding out after that last confrontation? Or is he rubbing the noses of the religious experts in it? The text says that he doesn’t want anyone to know he was there, but why? Is he unsure about what he’s doing? Does he think it’s risky? Is he trying out a new thing, but hoping not to draw attention to himself? Does he have a plan? We don’t know.
But a woman comes to him and begs him to help her daughter.
And that’s when Jesus says the line that’s so shocking: “Let the children be fed first. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
By children he means Jews. By dogs he means her and her people.
It’s a brutal story. It sounds racist to our ears. And that he’s a man and she’s a woman makes it worse.
There is a twist.
She says, “Even dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus says essentially (and I desperately want to picture a smile on his face when he says it), “Great answer. Done deal,” and her daughter is released from the demon.
But even with the happy ending, it’s a hard story. What does it say about Jesus? Is he racist? Even if he changes his mind, what does that say about God and Jesus’ divinity? What do we do with this kind of story?
Let me tell another story. A made-up story, but one that could easily have happened.
It’s 1963 upper West side Manhattan, near Columbia University. Malcolm X has just started to hear stories about Elijah Muhammad that have caused him to consider breaking with his leader and leaving the Nation of Islam, but he’s feeling the pressure from a number of his brother Muslims to stay loyal. And right now, with all of that on his mind, he’s on his way to speak to a student group that he knows will include a few white students. He’s stressed. The talk is starting very soon and he’s walking fast, barely looking up from the ground.
At the same time, an upper-middle-class white woman has just gotten out of a cab near her sick daughter’s apartment and is going into the apartment building. The woman is struggling with something heavy that she wants to deliver to her daughter. She sees Malcolm walking on the street and no one else, so she asks him to carry it upstairs for her.
And Malcolm says, “I’m about the business of my own peoples’ children, not the White Devil’s.”
We know a few things about the gospel story that are not in the text.
The region of Tyre is centered around the city of Tyre, a rich gentile port city with a strong metal work, purple dye, and Mediterranean trade economy. It’s located near Galilee, an agrarian land populated with subsistence level, mostly agrarian workers (tenant farmers and fisher people) under Roman occupation. Tyre didn’t have the farmland to support itself with food, so it got its food from farms in Galilee, and sometimes (often) that meant there was less for the farmers’ own children.
Which raises the question about what those poor, exploited, politically and economically vulnerable Galilean farmworkers thought when they watched the rich landowners selling the food they were growing to rich foreigners (even, at times, at the expense of their own children being fed) but it sure informs a line like, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
We don’t know whether this woman was a rich woman from the city or a poorer one from the rural land around the city. She may have been just as exploited as the Jews in Galilee. We don’t know. And maybe Jesus didn’t know either.
And we also don’t know what was going on in Jesus’ head when he said that. We don’t know whether
• he really thought of her as a dog because she was a gentile, or
• if he was just beginning to do what he knew Israel as a people MUST do (that is—open up God’s salvation to the gentiles), but was still anxious and stressed about how to begin moving into this uncharted territory, or
• if the exchange was, for his part, a kind of intentional theater to appear loyal to his Jewish identity for the bystanders, but at the same time revealing that it’s time to begin the mission to the gentiles.
We don’t know. We can’t know. But whatever was going on, the exchange they have is a complicated one—politically, socially, economically, spiritually—and one that, as much as we’re pre-disposed to see it that way by our own circumstances, just doesn’t track easily with the modern American racism.
Unless we’re willing to reduce racism to personal psychology, racism operates systematically for a dominant people (“white people” in our case). So who tracks as the dominant people here? The Syrophoenicians in Tyre? The Romans? Jews in occupied Palestine? Unless it’s the latter, then, by our own modern definition of it, it may be a mean thing for Jesus to say, but it’s not racism. If we were trying to make it line up with our own experience, we can’t even tell if Jesus would be “white” or black or something else. And that makes a difference. As a white man, it may be hard for me to be associated with the term “white devils,” but I know that it’s not racist for Malcolm X to use it.
If this woman and Jesus are both oppressed minorities under Roman domination, then this exchange becomes more powerful… more about undoing real objective structures outside of themselves rather than personal preference or psychology.
But ultimately this isn’t a sermon about whether or not Jesus is racist. It’s about how easily I read this story through my own lenses and assumptions and how recognizing that makes me wonder about how easily I must do this for people (both who come in here and who I meet out there) and who I have less reason to try to understand than I do with the one I worship as God made flesh.
In this story Jesus was doing a new thing. Nothing less than changing the course of the life of Israel and even the world, by leading them into the deeper vocation for which God called Israel in the first place—the mission to the gentiles—and the reconciliation of all people and all of Creation to God and each other. It’s risky work. It’s complicated work. And it’s work that is going to look and feel harder than we’d like or expect.
Whether it was Jesus’ own internal work, or the work of leading those around him beyond the familiar lenses and biases through which they read the world, and by which they resisted that new thing, or both, doing a new thing is hard, hard work. Always harder than we think.
It’s too easy for me to read, to judge, the world around me, even the gospel, even Jesus, through my own familiar lenses, which can create their own new boundaries. I pray that Jesus will continue that hard work in me (and in all of us) to move us all beyond our own familiar lenses and biases through which we build our own replacement for the boundaries Jesus is working so hard to tear down and resist the new thing he is doing in and through us.