Was Jesus Racist?

+ A sermon preached for Pentecost 15B at First Lutheran Church, St. Peter, MN on September 6, 2015 +

Texts: James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate how grateful I am to be with you all today. I’m now one month into my internship here at First Lutheran and could not be happier to be with you all.

I recently told Pastor Alan that I believe that vacations should leave you more tired than when you left. I’m sure relaxing trips to the beech are wonderful, but there’s so much to do out there! National Parks to hike, museums to peruse, new experiences to have. At the end of a vacation, I often feel like I need some time to recover! This summer has been full of traveling for Ryan and me. We’re at the time in our lives where all our friends are getting married and well, we have been to a total of seven weddings this summer.
While some were close to where we were living in Chicago, others were in places like Washington State, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and even Bemidji, Minnesota. Combine these trips with a conference I attended in Atlanta and our move to St. Peter, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve been traveling a lot. And as you may have guessed, all these wonderful trips wore me out. I really do love to travel – exploring new places, visiting places that feel like home, seeing old friends again – but I just get tired. Whether it was driving 10 hours in the car or getting up to the airport for a 6:45am flight, I will admit that there were certainly times this summer that I was not my best self while traveling. During the early morning trips to the airport especially, let’s just say I may have had some less than “Christian” thoughts for some of my fellow passengers.

In today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus going on a trip of his own to the area of Tyre. Now it seems from the text that Jesus was hoping for that other type of vacation, with plenty of time alone to rest and recover. And if we look at the context of this reading, it’s easy to see why Jesus needed some relaxation. He had been traveling all over Galilee preaching, healing, and feeding 5000 people. Just before today’s story, Jesus was in a heated debate with the Pharisees. I would imagine that by the time he got to Tyre, Jesus was exhausted and probably not feeling like he was at his best. And yet, what happens next is inexcusably appalling.

Perhaps some background here would be helpful. The region of Tyre was a foreign land to the Jewish people and was filled with Syrian Gentiles. Centuries-long conflicts between the Syrians and the Israelites produced distrust and dislike between these two peoples. So when Mark tells us that a Syrophoenician woman came up to Jesus, from a Jewish perspective, this woman was profoundly “other.” She was a Gentile, a Syrian, and a woman. By societal standards, she had no business approaching Jesus. But this woman, whose name we don’t even know, had likely heard about Jesus’ healing powers and knew he was the last resort for her suffering child. So she sought him out and begged Jesus to help her little daughter. And how does Jesus respond?

He calls her a dog.
A dog!

Now, over the centuries, there have been some attempts to soften this label by saying that maybe Jesus was playfully calling her a puppy or testing her faith or…something that isn’t so offensive. But frankly, I don’t see any textual support for these types of explanations. Calling this woman a dog is nothing less than a racial slur. He is literally saying that she and her sick daughter are less than human and unworthy of his time. Dogs in 1st Century Jewish culture were not kept as cute and loving pets but seen as filthy diseased scavengers. And really, I’m trying really hard not to swear during my first sermon of internship, but you really shouldn’t call any woman a “dog” – or any person for that matter. But that’s what happened.

This shockingly offensive response to a plea for the healing of a child raises some big questions for us. This isn’t the Jesus that we often hear about. This isn’t some depiction of a flowery ethereal Jesus as John’s Gospel might prefer. Mark’s depiction of Jesus shows the fullness of his humanity and our own brokenness. The gritty reality of what it means to be, as the Nicene Creed professes, “truly human.” This is Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter son of Mary and Joseph who is a product of his times, prone to the prejudices and preconceptions of contemporary culture. His humanity makes him subject to and part of the systemic and societal racism of his day. And yet, what happens next is profoundly important.

Rather than returning home offended and rejected, the Syrophoenician woman speaks up and argues for her own worthiness – that her life matters. And Jesus listens. Jesus allows himself to be changed. This is the only occurrence in the Gospel texts where Jesus actually changes his mind. It’s as if the scales of prejudice and racism fall from his eyes and he finally sees this woman as who she is: a beloved child of God. The woman may as well have said the same word Jesus spoke to the deaf man in the second part of today’s gospel, “Ephphatha – be opened!”, for as the deaf man’s ears were opened, so were Jesus’ eyes opened. He saw this woman in a profoundly different way.

Up until this point in Mark, Jesus had worked primarily, if not exclusively, amongst Jewish people in Galilee. After his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, however, Jesus travels around this region of foreigners healing, preaching, and feeding 4,000 Gentiles with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. This brief conversation transformed Jesus’ vision of his mission from one of homogeneous exclusivity to one of radical and transformative inclusiveness meant for all of God’s children.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has asked all congregations and members of the ELCA to join with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in using today’s worship to recommit ourselves to end injustice and racism in our churches, communities, and country. The need for this dramatic shift is clear.
We live in a time where saying “Black Lives Matter” is controversial.
We live in a time where politicians’ approval ratings skyrocket for demeaning and dehumanizing entire groups of people.
We live in a time where so many people die on journeys to find better lives and it takes the body of a three year old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish shore to open the eyes of the world to the plight of God’s children, desperately trying to escape war and poverty.

We, as a people, are very good at creating groups of “others.” This isn’t solely a modern phenomenon. We see Jesus struggle with the societal norms of his time too. Our second lesson for today shows that James witnessed these divisions and partialities in the earliest days of the church. Human history demonstrates our shortcomings in welcoming the other. And yet, Jesus shows us that we can be transformed in our outlook – often, just by listening.

And it turns out, simple conversations can indeed lead to profound transformations. Anthropological researchers have found something called “Intergroup Contact Theory,” which says that when majority and minority groups meet and listen to each other, prejudices and negative feelings towards each other start to lessen. Researchers have found that one of the most effective ways to lessen prejudices between those in power and people of minority racial groups, immigrants, or those in the LGBTQ community is to have real conversations with them. I’m not saying that we can end racism simply by having a conversation with someone who is different than us, but it is the place we can and must start.

Beloved siblings in Christ, we live as a broken people in a world filled with injustice. But we are called to follow Jesus’ example of listening to those suffering oppression and be transformed by our experiences. We are called to go from this place into our broken world and be agents of peace, understanding, and reconciliation. We are called to recognize each person we meet as a fellow child of God who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter how hard that is for us to do. I am thankful Jesus gave us an example of how we can be opened to the importance and worth of all of God’s children. We will experience failure in this calling, but we will also experience transformative success if we stay true and humble, keeping our hearts and minds ever faithful toward the grace of God.

Thanks be to God!

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