Sunday, September 9, 2012

Was Jesus a bigot?

Mark 7:24-30 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Was Jesus a bigot? I know the question sounds unspeakable. But if the definition of a bigot is someone who is intolerant of a particular race or group of people, and if the only thing you knew about Jesus was what you read in this passage from Mark’s gospel, the answer would have to be, “Yes.” Yes, Jesus was a bigot. That’s why this is one of the most troubling stories we have about Jesus in the gospels. It’s one of those it might have been better to omit. After all, those who gave us the gospels didn’t give us every single thing that Jesus ever did. They had to do some editing; they had to decide which episodes in Jesus’ life would contribute to the larger story, which ones were most important. And, for some reason, Mark, and then later, Matthew, both thought this was a story about Jesus that we needed to hear. What were they thinking?

Jesus had been doing some pretty intense ministry. He’d just finished a heated debate with the scribes and the Pharisees about how to interpret the law. He challenged the way they had always seen things before. He pushed them to open their minds that had been way too narrow, to admit they may have been wrong about some things. That’s hard work!

So now it’s time for a retreat. Jesus heads off to escape the crowds. But of course, he is discovered. One of the people who finds him is a woman. Well, not just any woman. This woman is a mother. And not just any mother. This mother is desperate. Her daughter has a demon living inside her that threatens to destroy her.

We can only guess what that might have been about since we don’t tend to label illnesses as demon possession today. But that’s the way it was seen back in Jesus’ day. There is a devastating illness attacking the little girl, either physically, or mentally, or spiritually. And the mother is desperate.

When this woman comes to Jesus for help, he isn’t very nice. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It’s hard to believe Jesus could say such a thing. Since this woman is a Gentile, and Jesus sees his mission exclusively to the Jews, he doesn’t want to have a thing to do with her. He calls her a dog. Now, if you’re a dog-lover, you may think of that as high praise. But trust me, Jesus doesn’t mean it as a compliment.

I suspect that most people would have walked away at that point, thinking, “Well, if that man doesn’t have time for me, I don’t have time for him.” But a mother who is desperate to save her child isn’t easily discouraged. No matter that the man just insulted and rejected her. She has a come-back for him. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The next thing this passage from Mark tells us is that Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

Huh? It seems like a whole lot is left out between verse 28, where the woman comes back at Jesus, and verse 29, where Jesus heals her daughter. We need a 28a, and a 28b, and a 28c. Why does Jesus suddenly change his tune?

Through the years, I’ve preached on this passage multiple times. And I’ve come at it from a variety of angles. I’ve explained the narrow-minded statement of Jesus, where he’s calling the woman a dog, as something that he was just saying for his disciples’ benefit. That he was just playing devil’s advocate so they could listen and learn from the woman something that Jesus himself already knew. I know that another time I preached that Jesus said this simply to test the woman’s faith, to see how she would react. And I remember at least once preaching about how Jesus was just being playful here. That he was making a joke and engaging in some repartee with a woman whom he suspected could hold her own with him.

In all those interpretations, I was guilty of something that we so often do when we read stories where Jesus is behaving in a way that doesn’t line up with the Jesus we have already created in our minds. I had already decided that the last thing Jesus was was a bigot. Jesus was the guy who loved everyone, especially the outcasts. Jesus never refused to help someone just because they weren’t his kind of people. So, Jesus would never call that woman a dog who doesn’t deserve to be fed. Jesus would never do that. My way of dealing with this passage was to work my way around it by making excuses for Jesus. He didn’t really mean it, he was being ironic, he had a good reason for saying what he did and his motives were pure.

Thank God, I’m in a different place now. I’ve grown in my understanding of Jesus. I don’t need to make excuses for him. I can accept this passage for what it is. And the simplest explanation for what Jesus says here is to admit that, yes, Jesus said it, and he meant what he said. Yes, Jesus was a bigot.

We have such twisted ideas about Jesus. One is that we like to believe Jesus was perfect. And by that, we usually mean that Jesus never did or said anything wrong. But when we talk about the perfection of Jesus, that’s not what it means to be perfect.

It means is that Jesus was “complete.” Jesus was at one with God. Jesus’ will and God’s will were the same. That’s the perfection of Jesus. It doesn’t mean that Jesus never made a mistake, or Jesus never said anything that was wrong.

Another thing we like to believe about Jesus is that he was all-knowing. From the time he was a babe in the manger, he knew all about what was going to happen to him in his life. He could have told you the names of his disciples before he could even speak, and he knew he was going to end up on a cross. Well, how ridiculous is that?

We do everything in our power to resist recognizing the humanity of Jesus. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Not God masquerading as a human being, but God really as a human being. God incarnate. That means that not just parts of Jesus were human. We can’t say that he was human in body, but not in mind. He was ALL human.

So, there are some things that are true about the human experience that had to be true for Jesus, too. And until we can see just how human Jesus really was, we will never understand him. Part of what it means to be human is that you are a product of your environment. Your social context influences the way you view the world around you. If you grow up in a world that believes only your people are God’s people, that’s the way you will see things. Jesus grew up in such a world. Like any human being, he was influenced by his environment.

But another part of what it means to be human is that what we learn through the world around us can change. In fact, growing up into big boys and girls means growing beyond the way you always thought things had to be. Think about your own life. If you’re an adult, do you still see the world the same way you did when you were a kid? Or, if you’re still in your younger years, do you still see the world the same way you did when you were in preschool? We grow. Throughout our lives. Sometimes it unfolds so gradually that we hardly realize it’s happening to us, unless we think back to the way we saw things twenty years ago and the way we see them now. And sometimes, we experience something in our lives that can change us overnight. It’s like a moment of clarity when the veil is lifted and we wonder how we could ever have seen it any other way. That’s a part of the human experience. It’s the way God made us. We grow. We are all a work in progress. And Jesus was as human as we are. He grew along the way. His understanding of his mission evolved. His mind expanded.

This little confrontation with a Gentile mother who wouldn’t take no for an answer must have been one of those life-changing moments for Jesus. He had considered his ministry exclusive to the Jews. Yes, he had healed the sick, touched the untouchable, reached out to those on the fringes of society. But they were all Jews. He hadn’t gone far enough. It took a desperate woman to challenge him on it. And because Jesus was one with God, he was not threatened by this Gentile woman’s words. He was open to being transformed. He could see that he had been wrong. And he changed his mind. That’s the way it works for a human being who is perfect in his completeness.

So, we don’t need to make excuses for Jesus. We can face the truth about his humanity and recognize that he did humanity better than anyone. Does that mean he was never wrong? Of course not. Was he ever a bigot? Yes. He was human. Just like us, he could be too narrow in his thinking. Just like us, he needed to be jarred into expanding his mind. And, just like us, once his mind was expanded, it could never again return to its original size.


peg said...

I love this and I love your own evolution in your understanding of Jesus. Often the rationalizations of things that seem indefensible to me strike me as weak; those rationalizations make me think, "well, ya know, if God/Jesus want to test the faith of a woman whose daughter is gravely ill, then to heck with him." This exploration of the full humanity of Jesus, and all the implications of that, give me a much greater appreciation of what it is to follow Jesus. Thanks, Nancy. Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Great rationalization !

Anonymous said...

Yes, thanks Nancy. Good to know that nobody's perfect.

1day@atime62 said...

Bless you for your expansion of this passage. Like you, I have always had trouble with this story. I have always felt "unsafe" bringing this up with fellow Christians who become touchy when anyone makes the slightest inference of Jesus' fallibility, questioning my faith as a Christian. Thanks
For delivering me from that. I can safely say that despite Jesus' human failings, he was still perfect! Amen.