a Homily for Proper 18B
Text: Mark 7:24-37
Is Jesus a Racist?
The central figures of this pericope are Jesus and the Psyrophenician Woman. This woman comes to Jesus to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon. The last time Jesus was over here, he dispelled a host of demons. Our lectionary skipped over the story, but it would have come up a couple of months ago, back in Mark 5. Remember when the disciples were crossing over and there was the big storm and Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat? When they got to the other side, they met a man who was living in a crypt—like a homeless man living in the graveyard, only the bodies aren’t 6 feet under. The demon the man was possessed by calls itself Legion, for it is actually a whole bunch of demons. It reminds me of the Borg. The demon asks if they could leave the man’s body and go into a bunch of pigs, and Jesus gives it the go-ahead. Then the pigs are driven off of a cliff.
The people who see this event go tell other people and they tell Jesus to leave, scram! They were afraid of Him. Clearly, news has spread since then, and this woman has come to Jesus looking for help for her daughter’s own demon-possession. He must be good at this stuff.
When Jesus receives the request, He does something shocking. He not only says no to her request, He insults her, comparing her to a dog. We often skip over this fact because we want to talk about how this woman fights for her faith. We want this story to be about faith and perseverance. These are our favorite topics as Christians. faith and perseverance. But Jesus isn’t just demonstrating an uncharacteristically hard heart here to test her faith. It doesn’t read like one of His usual tests. He insults her. And not just a simple insult, but a racist one. He refers to His followers (who were Jewish) as children and she (who is a gentile) is a dog. He isn’t just making a personal insult, but a racially-separating one. This doesn’t sound like any old test. This sounds like the gospel-writer wants us to think that at the beginning of this story, Jesus is a racist and separatist.
What Happens If Jesus is a Racist?
One of the troubles I have with much of the traditional way we talk about Jesus is that it doesn’t always jive with the gospel. When we say in our oldest Eucharistic Prayer that Jesus “lived as one of us, yet without sin” we are setting ourselves up. Because we hear those words and we imagine a truly perfect person—filtered through our local cultural norms. So we imagine Jesus is white. His long beard and brown hair make Him look a bit hippyish, but maybe he keeps it trimmed, shampooed and blowdried. His outfit and disposition gives off the holyman on the mountain vibe. And we imagine ourselves climbing up to visit Him to ask about the meaning of life and he’ll tell some simple refrain that is vaguely familiar, but slightly skewed to make us all go “Oooooohhh! I get it!” Because Jesus isn’t just a holyman, but an answerman. He knows everything and cannot possibly make a mistake.
So when we are given a glimpse of Jesus that isn’t perfect; that isn’t charitable or kind; that isn’t about keeping that perfect relationship with GOD and the people; we get nervous. We skip it or explain it away. When we do that, we miss what might be revealed by Jesus’s own mistake. We might learn what Jesus learned.
Jesus Learns to Throw Open the Doors
This week, I see in the text a transformation. A powerful one. Not in the healing of a little girl, but in the transformation of Jesus. It is no coincidence that this story takes place nearly halfway through the gospel and shortly before the moment Jesus changes directions. It naturally builds off of all that has taken place before it: with the crowds chasing after him, arguing with how Jesus understands what GOD is doing in the world, the disciples getting more and more of what Jesus has planned, and the admonishment of following Him simply to see more miracles, rather than to walk the Way of GOD.
Up to this point, Jesus has been a devout Jew who is reinterpreting GOD’s Laws more broadly than to what people were accustomed. Remember last week, how He dealt with the Pharisees concerning their love of tradition more than their love of GOD’s Laws? Now this woman comes to Jesus and challenges Him on his traditional understanding of who makes up the children of GOD. Jesus’s very theology is thrown into question. This isn’t simply a question of behavior or being nice. This is a challenge to one of the bedrock notions of Judaism: that GOD is building up a specific people for a specific purpose and Jesus would naturally be focused that way. He was raised that way. Besides that, He might have a chip on His shoulder from the last visit. And yet, this woman uses Jesus’s own theology of generosity and His own image that we are to behave like children to discredit the old way. She argues that children know something we don’t about generosity for they give food to anybody and anything. When Jesus hears his own argument coming back to him from this stranger: the other: he is changed. He doesn’t only change His mind, but He changes His theology, His of understanding of GOD and GOD’s work. The woman’s child is made well and then Jesus goes about healing other Gentiles. He no longer reserves help to His people. His people are generous to all of GOD’s people.
Throwing Open Our Doors
This image of Jesus being changed by a Gentile is a powerful example for us. How Jesus listens to her, is moved by her, and is changed from that moment at a foundational place is important. Because our mission in this community isn’t a static one. Neither should we be settled into who our generosity is for. Our generosity is for all of GOD’s people: no matter your color, your ethnicity, your sex, your gender, your orientation, your ability, your age, your interests, your behavior, your economic status, your physical health, your mental health, your education, your upbringing, your anything. The barriers to GOD’s generosity are gone and the barriers to our generosity must get gone.
Jesus threw open those doors to include everybody in the beloved community of creation, despite what Scripture said, because that is what Scripture says to do! That is how we are called to live the Way of Christ: generously and vibrantly. This is our work. This is our stewardship. This is our living the Great Commandment. We give generously and sacrificially of ourselves to listen and be moved by the people, not just in our community, but in every community. We are attached to all of creation, we were brought up from the soil to do this thing: change the world. To change the world, we must succumb to our being changed by the world. We aren’t only from the soil, but we are of the soil. We work the soil. We return to the soil. We are the soil. Jesus changed; so can we.
Check out these other cool readings
- Eating Scripture: Even Dogs Get Scraps (drewdowns.net)
- Jesus Was Not Colorblind: Racial Slurs and the Syrophoenecian Woman (edges of faith)
- Jesus Getting Caught with His Compassion Down (The Hardest Question)