Jesus the racist

Tonight we held a service at Collins Street Baptist Church on racism. Matt Bell facilitated some discussion about the racism that is inside all of us, Christop ran some prayerful reflections, and I spoke on the following passage:

Matthew 15:21-28 (NIV)

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.


These are my reflections:

This is a jarring story because it seems Jesus is being racist.

He just called a woman a ‘dog’ – because she is not Jewish.

It is hard to reconcile this

with the Jesus we know of as perfect.

“Did Jesus really mean to say that?”


But while we understand Jesus as being fully God

we also know that Jesus was fully human.


It turns out that Jesus didn’t land

in middle of first century Palestine

as a fully grown

generic humanoid,

with the sounds of angels still ringing in ears.


Rather, Jesus was born and grew up with other humans,

who taught him the language he spoke,

who his ancestors were,

what land they dwelled on,

which God they belonged to.

From an early age he learnt

who his friends were,

who his enemies were,

who was in,

and who was out.

He learnt the stories of his people:

         About how they wandered the desert for 40 years,

         About how God led them to the Promised Land,

         About the Canaanites who were living in that land,

And about how God told his people

to exterminate them,

         to make room for the people of God.

He also learnt about all the Canaanites

who were not exterminated,

the people still living in the land and referred to as Gentiles.

He learnt that they weren’t clean and pure

like the lambs of Israel

but were impure and dirty,

like dogs.


The story of Jesus calling the Canaanite a ‘dog’,

you see,

has a back-story.


It reminds me of another more recent story,

of a footballer,

a 13-year-old girl,

and this city.

The footballer is a star,

and today he’s playing like a star.

He’s about to celebrate victory,

when he hears a word:

a word he’s heard too often before.

It emerges loud and clear from the thunderous crowd,

from the mouth of a young girl, a Collingwood supporter.

That word is “Ape!”

The star footballer is heartbroken, and angry.

He points the girl out to security,

and he leaves the field,

too gutted to finish the game.


The footballer, of course, is Adam Goodes:

an Aboriginal man,

a champion Sydney Swans player,

and a dual Brownlow medallist with the AFL.

Eddie McGuire, President of the Collingwood Football Club,

apologised on behalf of the girl.

Also pointed out girl didn’t know that ‘ape’ was a racist slur.


The problem, however,

is that this story has a back-story.

This ‘back-story’ goes something like this:


For thousands of years Indigenous Australians occupied and were custodians of this land, Australia.

A great upheaval occurred in 1788,

with the arrival of Europeans.

The original inhabitants were in the way of the land,

and so the new arrivals did their best to exterminate them,

to make room for the people of Europe.


At the same time,

Europeans were colonising much of the world,

encountering many different people.

New scientific theories were invented

that said that non-white people,

including Africans and Australian Aborigines,

were not progressive and intelligent

like the people of Europe,

but were animal-like and primative,

like apes.


Of course original people of this land

were too resilient for the European colonisers to wipe out,

but a deep hatred and racism set in.


In 1838, seven European men massacred

28 Aboriginal men, women and children

at Henry Myall Creek Station in NSW.

One of the jurors at the trial said this:

I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one.


The story of the Aboriginal footballer

and the 13-year-old girl,

you see,

has a back-story.


And I would like to suggest that this is a story

that ALL of us are a part of.


I want to return to the first story,

of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

What is actually remarkable in this story

is not that Jesus calls a Gentile woman a dog.

That was a common enough sentiment.

It’s what happens next that is amazing.


Jesus comments that it’s not right to take bread

for the ‘children’ of Israel

and toss it to the presumably Gentile ‘dogs’.

This is a slap down comment,

to which the woman looks straight back at him and replies:

“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs

that fall from their masters’ table.”


What she is saying

in her clever, quick witted way

is that contrary to Jesus’ assumption,

she and her people will NOT be excluded

from the community of God.

It may just be crumbs,

but she will be there, nonetheless.

And as Christop points out,

in her culture, unlike Jesus’ culture

dogs are NOT impure,

but welcome family members.

“Maybe I am a dog,”

she seems to be saying,

“but in my world, we have a place at the table.”


Jesus responds in a way that says to me

that his world has just been seriously rocked.

“Woman, you have great faith!” he says.

He seems to be agreeing with her, and affirming her!


Then he says, “You request is granted”.

And the woman’s daughter is healed.

Essentially, Jesus does a back-flip.

Previous he had ignored her,

made it clear that he wouldn’t help because she wasn’t Jewish,

and then insulted her with a racist slur.

And now, after the woman has confronted Jesus

and spoken truth to him,

he gives her what she asked for in the first place.


Some scholars say that this story

marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.

Whereas before he was indeed only ministering

to the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel,

now after this encounter with the Canaanite woman

he opens his ministry to Gentiles as well.

The encounter causes his story to go

in a whole new direction,

to the point where we now have a church

that is made up of all the nations of the world.

We can thank a gutsy Canaanite woman,

and a Christ who was willing

to be challenged and transformed,

for that.


The story of Adam Goodes and the 13-year old girls

has a not-so-great postscript.

Eddie McGuire, who was so supportive of Goodes after the incident,

himself racially vilified Goodes on radio,

by suggesting that Goodes should promote the new King Kong movie.

Realising what he’s said,

he immediately backpedalled,

and when the media storm broke out later

he denied any racist intent.


Part of me feels of Eddie,

because I could imagine doing the same kind of thing.

We all have racial prejudices

– identified at the start of this service.

They are the product of the ‘back-stories’

that form the background of our lives.

We are part of the story whether we like it or not

and when we are not challenged,

we take on the roles that are handed to us.

We absorb the attitudes and the dialogue and the behaviour

because they are in the very air that we breathe.

Like Eddie on radio,

or Jesus in the region of Sidon,

our racial prejudices

can just slip out of our mouths

when we are tired or off-guard, or just telling a joke.


The most important thing

is what happens AFTER the racist slip.


Jesus took on the challenge,

and it transformed his whole life and ministry.


I wander what might have happened if,

instead of denying it,

Eddie had said,

“Yes, what I said was racist.

I don’t like that there is racism inside of me,

But thank you for pointing it out.

Now – how can this story be transformed?”


Since this is a ‘Conversation’ style service,

you all have a right of reply!

My main point was:

It is a given that we absorb racial prejudice,

but the most important thing

is how we respond to challenge

to be transformed.


What do you reckon about that?