Teaching Jesus a Lesson
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 (NRSV) [Spoken as Call to Worship Litany]
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord is the maker of them all.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the Lord pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.
James 2:14-17 (NRSV)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Mark 7:24-30 (NRSV)
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.
In the small South Carolina town of my upbringing, the high school sat just across Main Street from both my family’s home and my elementary school. Throughout my childhood, the school displayed with pride its mascot of a Confederate Soldier while students waved Confederate Flags and the band played “Dixie” at football games. Finally, sometime when I was in early elementary school, the district decided to rid the high school of the mascot and its attending Confederate imagery.
My memory of this time is hazy, as I was no more than seven or eight years old, but I remember being kept inside for recess over the course of several days as the KKK demonstrated and recruited new members on Main Street – the street where I lived and went to school. It was, as best as I can tell, my first memorable encounter with blatant racism. It was obvious to my mind that something was wrong with this scenario – that these were bad racists, making an ugly scene and quite literally wearing their hatred on their sleeves.
Most of us in that small South Carolina town cringed at the grotesque nature of such blatant racism taking place on Main Street. Those bad, bad racists marching in their sheets, I would grow up thinking. I didn’t know at the time that most of the white folks I knew were simply rather good racists – not overtly hateful, but carrying our racism someplace less obvious within our consciousness, sure not to make a scene.
If you didn’t cringe at today’s Gospel reading, you may have missed what is going on here. And it would be understandable if you did miss it. We’ve been programmed to read into the text of scripture only good intentions when it comes to the parts played by Jesus. If it seems that Jesus says or does something that might tarnish the divine image we’ve build up around him, our minds are well trained to look for interpretative loopholes and ways to read around what we’re actually reading so that we can keep Jesus on the highest of holy pedestals.
Even those who insist upon the very orthodox view of the ancient creeds – Jesus as both “fully human and fully divine” – still give scant attention to the complexities of the “fully human” part – especially when it comes to, say, Jesus’ sexuality, or his bodily functions, or even his prejudices.
I rarely hear anyone ask, “Was Jesus racist?” But it’s not a bad question, really.
In light of today’s Gospel text, it is especially pertinent.
In light of today’s social context, it is uncomfortably pertinent.
Does this text actually mean what it seems to mean? Did Jesus really say something so hateful and pejorative to this Greek, pagan woman who comes to him for the sole purpose of having him heal her sick daughter?
Or, more to the point, we might ask: Was Jesus racist?
Surely a look at the Greek text will save us from having to make such a conclusion. We can do all sorts of biblical finagling if we can claim a little “uncertainty” about the translation from the original language. But in this case, the Greek only makes things worse.
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says to the woman. Some suggest that since the Greek word Jesus uses for “dogs” here is the diminutive term for a dog, indicating something more like a housedog or lap dog rather than yard dogs, it’s not such a bad insult after all.
Of course, First Century Middle East is a far cry from Twenty-First Century Cambridge, and folks didn’t have nearly as high regard for dogs as many of us do. Whatever the term for dog he used, Jesus was clearly and unequivocally insulting this woman who carried in her body the marks of a different ethnicity, a different religion, a different race. He wouldn’t be bothered by her pleading – even for the life of her little daughter. He dismissed her with a pejorative term she had probably heard numerous times before. “This isn’t for you. Can’t you see I’m resting? How’d you get in here anyway? What I’m doing isn’t for little dogs like you.”
What we have here, squarely in the middle of the Gospel according to St. Mark, is a Jesus with a racial slur on his lips. And as much as we may try reading around this text to preserve our image of Christly perfection, it’s probably good that at least in this one instance, a Gospel writer conveyed something of Jesus’ own prejudices. Makes him a little more human – a little more like us.
Preparing this sermon reminded me of the song from the musical “Avenue Q” titled, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” If you haven’t seen “Avenue Q,” it’s a Broadway musical that is basically an R-rated, adult version of Sesame Street performed with puppets and actors on stage together. The song’s lyrics are, in part, “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find no one’s really color blind. Maybe it’s a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race.” Even Jesus, it seems.
Now a Gentile woman – a pagan from Syrophoenician origin – whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about Jesus, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 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.”
In her new book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas goes in search of the origins of the “stand-your-ground” culture than so often excuses the killing of black men by white people, a defense made famous in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin in 2012. In the book she relates this story:
My son was about two years old. I had taken him to the park to play in a “Flintstones”-like car that was in the park’s playground. This particular park was next door to an elementary school. After being in the park for about fifteen minutes, what appeared to be a class of first graders recessed into the park. Two little boys, one blond-haired, the other red-headed, ran down to the car where my son was playing. Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out. Soon the two little boys began fighting over who was going to play in the car. My son looked on with the fascination of a two year old. The little red-headed boy, who seemed to be winning the battle for the car, saw my son looking on. He suddenly stopped fighting for the car and turned toward my son. With all the venom that a seven- or eight-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, “You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong.” This little boy was angry. My son had intruded into his space. My son was guilty of being black, in the park, and looking.
I was horrified. Before I could say anything to the offending boy the white teacher, who was in earshot, approached. She clearly heard what the little boy said to my son. I expected her to admonish the little boy and to make him apologize. Instead, she looked at my two-year-old son as if he were the perpetrator of some crime and said to the little boys, “come on with me, before there is trouble.” At that moment, I was seething with anger. I took my son and left the park.
As I was driving home, tears flowed from my eyes. I felt an unspeakable sadness and pain. At two years old my son was already viewed as a criminal. At seven or eight years old the link between a black body and a criminal had already been forged in the mind of a little white boy. If at two years old my son was regarded as guilty of something by the white teacher, I feared what his future would bring as he got older. If at two, looking like a guilty criminal got a finger pointed in his face, and a teacher hustling kids of to safety, what will the response be to him now that he is a proud, six-foot, twenty-one-year-old man? Unfortunately, I know that response.
“How was I to raise my black child in a society in which his body is not cherished?”
Now a Gentile woman – a pagan from Syrophoenician origin – whose little daughter was gravely ill immediately heard about Jesus, and she came and bowed down at his feet. She begged him to heal 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.”
Mothers still come, asking questions like these when their children are in dire situations.
We hear it in the voice of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, as she travels the country pleading for justice: “My son is not here to speak for himself. I am Trayvon Martin,” she says.
We hear it in the voice of Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Mike Brown, when his killer was not indicted by the grand jury: “This could be your child. This could be anybody’s child,” she said.
We hear it in the voice of Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, when the family received a settlement for Garner’s death at the hand of police: “Don’t congratulate us. This is not a victory. The victory will come when we get justice.”
She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. “This isn’t for you. Can’t you see I’m resting? How’d you get in here anyway? What I’m doing isn’t for little dogs like you.”
New Testament scholar, Alan Culpepper, notes that, “Whether Jesus’ use of the diminutive [term for dog] signaled [any] distinction or not, the woman picked up on it.” Thus, the woman’s reply is so filled with diminutives so that, literally, he says it could read, “Lord, even the little dogs under the table eat the little crumbs from the little children.”
And something happened. The text doesn’t let us in on it, but you can see it – plain as day.
It is the only time in the Gospels where Jesus changes his mind. Usually he overwhelms his opponents in argument, outsmarting them with clever turns of phrase, quoting scripture and all. That’s the Jesus we know! But this time, Jesus is stopped in his tracks by a pagan woman, of a different race, from a different culture. “Lord, even the little dogs under the table eat the little crumbs from the little children.”
In Matthew, Jesus is a bit more saintly, portrayed as impressed by her faith and he responds: “Woman, great is your faith? Let it be done for you as you wish” (15:28, 8:13) – but not in Mark’s version of the story. Here, Jesus just says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” It’s as if Jesus was a bit embarrassed by the woman’s clever confrontation of his own prejudices, and needed to get the hell out of there before things got really uncomfortable.
Some suggests that this story should not be considered a miracle of healing at a distance at all. Instead, the miracle in this story is that Jesus – of all people – laden with the cultural baggage of the racism, ethnocentrism, and religious exclusion of his day, changed. He had his eyes opened by the truth of this pagan woman’s experience. Shocked by her tenacity. Moved by her empathy. Convicted by the look in her eyes, the tone of her voice, the truth of her speech.
“Even the little dogs under the table eat the little crumbs from the little children.”
In this instant of this face-to-face encounter, tired and wishing for some peace and quiet, this woman confronts Jesus – even Jesus – with his own prejudice and the boundaries erected to separate them one from another began to come down. In this story, the boundaries come down even between “bad racists” who wear their hatred on their sleeves and “good racists” whose racism is gradually inculcated into our psyches.
“Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find no one’s really color blind. Maybe it’s a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race.”
Even you. Even me. Even Jesus.
 My preparation of this sermon was aided by David R. Henson, “Jesus Was Not Colorblind: Racial Slurs and the Syrophoenician Woman,” Patheos (September 5, 2012), online: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2012/09/jesus-was-not-colorblind-racial-slurs-and-the-syrophoenician-woman-lectionary/
 The full song can be heard online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RovF1zsDoeM
 Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015), 86-7.
 Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground, 45.
 See: http://fusion.net/story/131454/trayvon-martins-mother-collectively-we-have-a-problem/
 See: http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/justice/ferguson-grand-jury-reaction/
 See: http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/14/us/garner-nyc-settlement/
 The analysis of the Greek term for “dog” comes from R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwis, 2007), 241-2.
 This argument is made by Gerd Theissen, The Gospels in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 79-80, and is noted in Phem Perkins, “The Book of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. XI, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 611.