Was Jesus Racist?

Understanding Scripture and its teachings can often be confusing, and even unsettling. Even when we try to interpret certain stories or letters charitably, we can frequently find ourselves bewildered. How do we deal with these difficult passages? This week, Vince and Jo consider a question about Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite or “Syrophoenician,” woman (recorded in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30), where Christ refers to a suffering woman and the Canaanite people she is part of as “dogs.” How can we make sense of such seemingly harsh words and treatment? How do we square this with a Christ we say is full of love for the downtrodden? What is going on in this story? Is Jesus racist?


I really enjoyed the fresh take on this passage provided by Vince and Jo Vitale in the Ask Away podcast posted above by Robert Repke.
What were some new thoughts you had after listening?

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This is actually my second favorite passage in the entire Bible.

For some reason, I never thought Jesus was “wrong” because I never assume Jesus is “wrong” but I assumed on two levels that this passage makes sense.

I am about 1/3 of the way through the podcast.

First, what actually makes sense to me, is that the woman is actually literally giving her daughter, who is demon possessed, her food to the dogs, literal dogs.

Secondly, What I see in this is that Jesus was trying to make a point. He is culturally motivated through a line of people against God, those being the Cannanites. At the end, God honors this woman by granting her her request. This was an absolute enemy of Jesus on at least 3 levels. First she is a Canannite. Then, she was a Greek. Third, she was a woman. For all intents and purposes, Jesus should not have helped her at all let alone doing a miracle for her, which would be unheard of for this time. So Jesus is actually acting merciful towards her even though it doesn’t look like it to us. It is a demonstration of Jesus breaking the chain between the cannanites and the Jews which went on for more than a millenia.

One more note here is that she actually calls Jesus Ben-David, son of David. She is calling Him the Messiah. And then we see this:

Matthew 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Jesus is saying, upon me as the foundation and by a word of faith in calling Jesus the Messiah is what the rest of the entire church is built upon.

That is my interpretation.

It shows that Jesus breaks every chain. That is why there is this song:

I loved Jo’s comment near the end of the podcast:

What’s so beautiful actually about this interaction is rather than just saying what He thinks, Jesus is allowing the woman to be the one who is making the teaching point…He’s actually putting her almost in the position of teacher over the disciples who are trying to send her away and having the wrong reaction.

The entire story seems theatrical, as if Jesus was setting this up for the disciples (and all of us) to learn something. It makes me wonder why Jesus was in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Wasn’t this a strange place to be if He didn’t want to interact with Gentiles?

The IVP Bible Background Commentary says, “Some argue that in Jesus’ period, their territory stretched inland, so that one had to pass through territory belonging to Syrophoenicia, as here, even to get from Galilee to Caesarea Philippi.”

That’s possible. Maybe Jesus was just passing through. Otherwise, the territory of Tyre and Sidon could have been Jesus’s planned destination.

The story parallels Elijah’s journey to Zarapheth in Sidon to hide in a widow’s house when Israel’s King Ahab wanted to kill him. Elijah saved the widow’s life by promising her flour and oil would not run out. Then he healed her son (1 Kings 17:8-24).

Likewise, Jesus tried to hide in a house in that territory, and He healed the child of a Gentile woman there (Mark 7:24-30). This highlights the fact that a Gentile believed when the Jewish leaders would choose to kill Him.

The similarities between 1 Kings 17 and Mark 7 further convince me that Jesus was not racist. He knew some of the Gentiles would exhibit more faith than the religious rulers of His own nation (Luke 4:24-30), and He honored that faith.

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Here is another POV from a pervious post on the same subject.

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I had to listen to the podcast because when I saw the question the first thing that came into my head is:
"Of course He’s not racist!

Why would He, as Creator, Sovereign Lord and embodiment of love itself, make a person a certain way, appoint them to a people, a culture, a specific time in history, a gender and a family and then devalue them for those things?"

But I loved Vince’s point that Jesus states, “I was sent only (emphasis mine) to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24) which we know is not quite the thing. He was actually emphasizing wrong thinking that was even prevalent with the disciples, and was taking advantage of the engagement to correct this thinking.

I believe the dog reference was another way He wanted to correct thinking. The Jews would refer to gentiles as “dogs”, but Jesus knew the disciples would soon be sent out among the gentiles. And it would be important for them to stop considering themselves as the only recipients of the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. He first disturbs this barrier (in culture and gender) with the woman at the well in John 4.

We see this struggle to let go of the exclusivity of salvation over and over in the book of Acts. And finally Paul, the writer of much of the new testament, is sent to the gentiles, and stands before the demon possessed and kings!