Jesus, Peter, and Paul Learn Something about Race
Matthew 15:21-28, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, August 20, 2017
Even a preacher who doesn’t believe in “meddling” in social issues like race would be hard pressed to avoid it today—not only because of the situation in Charlottesville and the many reactions to it, but because of the scripture texts assigned for today in the 3-year cycle known as the Common Lectionary. The issue of God’s love for all races is everywhere. Psalm 65 is the one that says twice, “Let the peoples praise you, O God, let all the peoples praise you.” “Peoples” in plural is not a mistake; it means “let all the ethnic groups praise you, every race, every nation.” Isaiah 56 says that the Lord will overrule the laws that say that the disabled and gender-different are not allowed into the temple, and he will call excluded foreigners to his temple, so that “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
But then the lectionary drops right into our laps this story from Matthew 15 about a foreign woman Jesus refuses to help because she is from the wrong ethnic group, and Jesus even calls her a dog because of her race. We have to make something of that. If you read commentaries, you’ll find scholars and preachers trying to spin Jesus’ words the way people try to excuse the President’s words—he was just joking, he was setting up a test of her faith, etc. In other words, take Jesus seriously but not literally. Nah. We need to read it straight—as a story about Jesus changing his mind, even Jesus overcoming his prejudice.
Here’s the situation: Jesus was on vacation. He needed to get away from all the fundamentalists and critics. He goes to what we could call Lebanon, but was then Phoenicia. Jesus isn’t there to do ministry; he is just there to rest incognito. But this one woman recognizes him. Even though she is not Jewish, she calls him by a Jewish name: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Messiah, help me!” This is before any of the twelve disciples say that Jesus is the Messiah. This woman has faith that Jesus is the Messiah and that he can help. “My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly,” she says.
How do you expect Jesus to react? With mercy, right? But Jesus does not answer at all. I don’t think he expected to deal with this. The disciples tell Jesus to send the woman away. Jesus doesn’t do that, but he draws a boundary between Jews and non-Jews: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” This is how Jesus understands his ministry at this point: he is supposed to give priority to the Jews, as their Messiah. He wants to say to this lady, “That’s not my job.”
The woman doesn’t give up. She gets right in front of Jesus and kneels down, shouting, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus responds with words I can only understand as rejection: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The Jews are God’s children, and the Gentiles are dogs. Ouch. He might have been playing on the fact that Gentiles sometimes kept dogs in their houses, while the Jews didn’t even believe in pets. To a Jew, it was nasty to have a dog in the house near your food when you were trying to keep clean and kosher. In Israel, dogs were wild and seen as pests, like large rats. But, Jesus says, even you Gentiles should know that you shouldn’t take food intended for your children and throw it to the dogs. My time and ministry are intended for God’s children, not for outsiders—dogs.
How did Jesus come to think that way? Here’s what I want you to think about today: it’s hard to overcome racial prejudice, ethnocentrism, and the sense that your people are privileged. Jesus grew up in a culture that was occupied by foreigner soldiers but tried its best to preserve ethnic purity. It had an ideology and a theology that supported that goal. It seems to me that this rejection of the “other” as second-class in God’s eyes wasn’t altogether different from the Southern Baptist theology that underwrote the Confederacy or the Dutch Reformed theology that supported apartheid in South Africa. It’s not that it’s not there in the Bible. It is, because that attitude was shared by some of the writers. But there are other streams in the Old Testament that show God’s concern for the whole world and for all ethnic groups.
But Jesus grew up in this, spending his whole life in the Jewish bubble. You could almost say that he was a Jewish-supremacist, or at least that he believed in Jewish privilege. They were God’s people and God’s first concern. Most people thought the Messiah’s job was to make Israel great again, not to help the other nations. And at this point, there seems to be evidence that Jesus has absorbed that attitude.
What I want you to face is that it’s hard not be have racist attitudes if you grow up in a racist country. That cuts two ways: we can’t be so quick to judge white-supremacists and more subtle racists who are just acting on what they have been taught. And second, we ought not to be so sure that we have not absorbed the attitude that we are somehow superior, or more deserving.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A lot of the race problem grows out of the…need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel…that their white skin ordained them to be first.” Everybody needs to feel better than somebody, and that was the reason poor whites supported the rich ones who benefited from slavery. The very idea of whiteness was created to make us feel superior. Did you know that nobody ever talked about a white race before slavery? We were English, French, German, Irish, Polish, Italian—but to support the ideology that made slavery possible we all became white people. Even the idea of three races is a construct from the 17th century. There is no such thing as a white race; we just made that up. What we meant is that there are people who deserve to be in charge, who are gifted by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, the default Americans who qualify to be citizens, by which we clearly meant in 1776 to be white people as opposed to the indigenous people and involuntary immigrants from Africa. The definition of white was something like “White People R Us” and whoever is on the outside is not white. There was a long period when Irish were not considered white, and one when Italians were not considered white. But it became more useful to have them as allies against the blacks than to have them outside our club.
In Jesus’ day, whoever was not a Jew was Gentile, other—even Samaritans, who were arguably part Jewish. I can’t really talk about Jewish racism, because racism is prejudice plus power, the use of power to oppress people of other races, either by specific actions or just the way you organize the society. Jews were not racists in Jesus’ day because they were under the rule of the Romans and had little power. But they certainly organized their religious and social life to exclude people of different ethnicities. And it was not unusual to refer to a Gentile as a dog—and that did not mean that a Gentile was man’s best friend.
When Jesus uses that term, it’s a little like hearing Jesus use the “n” word. It’s distressing. But even that does not make this woman give up. She comes back with quick wit. Jesus said it was not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs, but she responds, “Oh yes, it is, Lord! In our houses, even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.” That’s all I’m asking for. I’m not asking for the first and best that you have. I’m just asking for something, whatever power you can spare to help my daughter.”
At that point, Jesus knows that he has made a mistake. He had not been seeing this woman clearly as a human being in need who is demonstrating great faith, but seeing her simply as an outsider. “Ma’am,” he says, “that’s some kind of faith in me you have! I’ll grant your request.” And sure enough, the woman’s daughter was healed at that moment.
I think Jesus learned something during that experience. I think Jesus grew in his awareness of outsiders, and in his sense that his Father cared for them as well. He was able to step outside the ideology he had inherited and act out of the mercy that was the core of who he was.
I know some people will have trouble with the idea that Jesus learned anything. But Luke says that Jesus “grew in wisdom,” and Hebrews says that “he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Jesus was fully human, not a god-in-disguise; he learned to walk like any child, and he had to learn to overcome the fallen aspects of his culture just like any one of us. Of course he was fully God, but born in the flesh he had to learn to be both fully human and how to be God in a human life. Raised and ascended, and reunited with the Father and the Spirit, Christ is indeed fully God and bears no trace of human ignorance, but when he began his ministry he was a Palestinian Jew unlearning much of what his culture had taught him—just as we have to.
I want to point out one really odd thing in Matthew’s story. He calls this woman a Canaanite woman, while Mark and Luke call her Syro-phoenician, from that part of Syria on the Mediterranean Sea where the Phoenician people lived. In Jesus’ time, there was no Canaan. There hadn’t been any Canaan for a thousand years. Nobody called herself a Canaanite. To call someone that would be like going to Mexico City and referring to a native as an Aztec. Why would Matthew put that label on this woman? I think it’s because the Canaanites were the historic blood-enemies of Israel, the people they had to fight to get their land and the people who were always threatening to corrupt Israel with their pagan religion. The Canaanites were the Bad Guys with a capital B in Israel’s story. Matthew wants us to see that even Canaanites can have faith. The one other time in Matthew that Jesus expresses amazement at the faith of a non-Jew, it’s a Roman centurion—the current enemy of Israel. Does it ever occur to us when we think of the Other or the Enemy that they might have faith? That they might have something to teach us? They might even be a step ahead of us in understanding Jesus? That’s certainly the way I feel about black people in America.
Our friend Jim Wallis says that some people tell him he should stick to the Bible instead of talking about race. But racial division is an important theme in the Bible, and overcoming racial division is the central theme in the book of Acts, Galatians, and Ephesians.
In Acts, the pivotal moment comes when Peter has his racial awakening. He has lived all his life in a culture analogous to white culture, assuming privilege. He had been taught that it was a sin to eat with a Gentile or even go into his house. He is preaching the message of Jesus only to his fellow Jews. Then one day, napping on a rooftop, he has a dream about a sheet full of animals that Jews are not allowed to eat. A voice from heaven says, “Get up, kill them and eat them.”
“No way,” Peter says, That’s against my religion!”
The voice says, “Don’t call anything impure that God has called clean.” This happened three times in a row. What the heck?
I remember standing outside the house in Joppa, the old seaport part of Tel Aviv, which is allegedly the house where Peter had this dream. The Israeli tour guide said, “This is the moment when Christianity was born; otherwise it would have remained a Jewish sect.” The natural interpretation of the dream might be that Christians don’t have to keep kosher. But just at that moment there was a knock on the door. It was men from Caesarea, sent by the Roman officer Cornelius, who believed in God. They said, “An angel told our boss to ask you to come to his house so he can hear your message.” Suddenly Peter knew that the dream was about people, not food.
When he got to the home of Cornelius, he said to the crowd gathered to listen to him, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every ethnic group who worship him and do what is right.” After Peter finished preaching, those Romans believed in Jesus, received the Holy Spirit, and were baptized. Peter had to explain himself to the Jewish-supremacists back in Jerusalem, but when they heard the story of what God had done, they had no objections. They said, “Well, I guess God has decided to grant life-giving faith to Gentiles as well!” You learn something new every day.
Paul had to be awakened as well. He was proud of his Jewish heritage and considered himself the strictest Pharisee there was. He was the kind of fanatic who wanted to kill heretics. But when he met the risen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, he realized he was wrong about everything. He was wrong in his ideas about the Messiah, about Jesus, and wrong about Gentiles, because Jesus said to him that his mission in life would now be to proclaim faith in the Messiah to Gentiles.
Paul struggled in his ministry to let go of some ideas he’d inherited from his culture, but he didn’t struggle with ethnocentrism or racial prejudice. Overcoming racial prejudice was absolutely central to his work---overcoming prejudice of Greeks against Jews, and the prejudice of his own Jewish people against Greeks. He gave away his Jewish privilege—his “white privilege” by analogy—and said that he was happy to throw it away like so much garbage so that he could come to know Jesus and become like him and share the resurrection life with him.
“In Christ,” Paul eventually wrote, “there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women” (Galatians 3:28). Today he might say “black and white, Anglo and Hispanic, European and Asian”—“we are all one in union with Jesus the Messiah. “Christ is our peace,” he said (Ephesians 2:14). “He has made two ethnic groups one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.” In fact, Christ’s great purpose was “to create in himself one new humanity” transcending racial differences and to reconcile all of us in his one body the church to God through the cross (2:15-16). We are all fellow citizens and members of God’s household—Greek, Roman, Jew, African, Celtic, slave, free, rich, poor—and we are being joined together like stones that are creating a new temple.
Neither Jesus, nor Peter, nor Paul started out that way. They started out having absorbed from their culture and its ideology the notion that their ethnic group was special. They had to come to what I would call an awakening to their “whiteness.” They had to understand that what they had assumed to be true was fake news, in fact, a lie from hell. That division between ethnic groups was absolutely at cross-purposes with the purpose for which Christ came. But it wasn’t easy to get “woke,” as people say today. It took having their eyes opened to real people standing in front of them saying “Help me!” or “Talk to me!” And it took their hearts having the humility to say, “Wow, I guess I was wrong about that. I guess God wants me to heal, to speak, to include.” May we have that humility and may we understand what God wants.