When Jesus acted racist.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 May

Mark 7.24-30 • Matthew 15.21-28.

Title get your attention? Well this story gets a lot of people’s attention—when they’re not skipping it, or trying to explain away what Jesus did, ’cause it makes ’em uncomfortable. ’Cause he absolutely acted racist.

Lemme state this first, so you catch its full impact when you read the text: Dogs are pets in our culture, but not at all in Jesus’s. They were considered vermin. Scavenger animals, like raccoons, opossums, wolves, wildcats, rats. Wild, untrustworthy, sometimes dangerous. Pack animals which hassled livestock and endangered children. And would eat anything—dead things, feces, their own vomit. Pr 26.11 This activity isn’t just ritually unclean; it’s downright nasty. So Jews considered dogs untouchable. Pharisees shunned ’em like we’d shun rats and cockroaches.

This is why whenever we see the words for “dog” in the bible—every single time!—they’re a synonym for the filthiest of animals. It’s why John wrote this in Revelation:

Revelation 22.15 KWL
Outside New Jerusalem: Dogs. Drug fiends. Sex fiends. Murderers. Idolaters.
And everyone who loves and spreads fakery.

Like all apocalypses it’s not meant to be literal, but to make the point there’s nothing unclean in New Jerusalem. Period. Dogs were considered nasty, so they wouldn’t get in. (Some claim “dogs” is a euphemism for gays, but that’s a serious misinterpretation.)

This mindset about dogs is what makes Jesus’s first statement in this story, really offensive.

Mark 7.24-27 KWL
24 From there, Jesus got up to leave for the Tyrian/Sidonian border.
When he entered a house there, no one should know him. But he couldn’t hide.
25 Instead a woman, quickly hearing of Jesus, fell at his feet as she came to him:
Her daughter had an unclean spirit.
26 The woman was Greek; her race was Syrian and Phoenician.
She begged Jesus so he might throw out the demon from her daughter.
27 Jesus told her, “First, allow the children to eat!
It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Matthew 15.21-26 KWL
21 Jesus came out of there. He went to a part of Tyre and Sidon.
22 Look, a Canaanite woman from that coast, coming to him, called out,
saying “Have mercy on me sir—son of David! My daughter is badly demonized.”
23 Jesus didn’t say a word to her. His students were asking him questions.
They began to say, “Make her go away; she’s making noise in the back.”
24 In reply Jesus said, “I’m not sent to any but the lost sheep of Israel’s house.”
25 She fell at his feet as she came to him, saying, “Sir, help me!”
26 In reply Jesus said, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”


So how do we reconcile this behavior with the fact Jesus is kind? Because contrary to what this story makes him look like, he actually is kind.

Y’see, from time to time God acts out of character. Not because he slipped up, or decides, “Y’know what, today I’m just gonna be wrathful.” He’s consistent in his character. ">The Spirit’s fruit describes his character quite well. But whenever God (or in this case God the Son) doesn’t act himself, it’s because he’s trying to get our attention. He wants us to respond, “Wait God: This isn’t like you.” Like Abraham did, Ge 18.23-26 like Moses, Ex 32.11-14 like Ezekiel, Ek 4.14-15 like Amos. Am 7.4-6 He expects his kids to be so familiar with him, we respond “Wait a minute…” because we know him better than that.

It’s to challenge his people. To see whether we’re really paying attention. To see whether we really know him. Like Jesus did when he asked Philip, “Where can we buy buns so these people can eat?” Jn 6.5 KWL He had no intention of buying a thing; he was pushing Philip so he could get a faith-response out of him. It doesn’t look like Philip rose to the occasion. Jn 6.6-7 But others did. Abraham, Moses, Amos, and Simon Peter did. So can we.

This is actually an advanced test. One, sad to say, a lot of Christians don’t pass. So it says something about this woman that Jesus was willing to spring it on her… and that she actually did pass it.

Unclean gods. Unclean people?

Though the gospels never mention the mother nor daughter’s names, Christian tradition has named ’em Justa and Bernice. Probably this guess isn’t even close, but I’ll use these names anyway.

Mark identifies them as Syrian Greek, born in Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon). Matthew just calls ’em Canaanite. Syrian Greeks were the ethnic group which lived all over northern Israel, mainly in the Dekapolis, the 10 Greek-speaking cities founded by Alexander the Great and the Seleucids after him. Most were pagan, and worshiped any and every god, big gods and small: Major gods like Zeus and Osiris… and minor, personal, household gods which guided and protected an individual or family their families, which they called δαιμόνια/demónia, which evolved into our word demon.

They treated demónia like we Christians treat guardian angels: They wanted ’em around, to fight their smaller spiritual battles. And sometimes they invited these demons to get inside them—to possess them, and grant them supernatural power. This is why Jesus was throwing out demons right and left in the gospels: This was just how widespread the practice was in ancient times. Even Jews were dabbling in it. It’s still around today, y’know; and even Christians who know the Jesus stories and should know better, still fool around with “helpful” spirits who are really just messing with them, and wanna own them. And given the chance, they take over… and life becomes a nightmare for the demonized person. Even the ancient Greeks realized if you had a demon in you, sometimes you just weren’t right anymore.

Justa could’ve tried her local “physician” for help… but really, in that pre-scientific culture, these aren’t doctors; they’re witch-doctors. What these guys did was folk remedies, narcotics, or they’d throw in a few more demons to root out the first demons. (As if they’re not all on the same evil side. For all we know, the physician may have put the first demon into poor Bernice.)

Justa heard Jesus had a really high success rate in exorcisms. Maybe she even heard the testimony of the man with the legion. So once Jesus hit town, she went to see him.

Thing is, pagans don’t understand how exorcism works. (Neither do many Christians.) Typically they think it involves a special ritual: Say the magic prayers, pray the blood of Jesus, pray the “In Jesus Name” spell, [Ac 19.13-16] claim everything you think you can rightly claim as one of Jesus’s followers. Then demand the devil tell you its name so you can know what sort of critter you’re dealing with; then rebuke it, order it gone, splash the right amount of holy water, do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about. Quite a lot of Christians buy into this false thinking, which works out great for devils, ’cause once you go through your favorite rituals, they can pretend to leave—and after you’ve gone home, they can go back to pestering the poor human. They do this all the time with spiritualists, witch doctors, and even psychologists. And of course naïve Christians.

So no doubt Justa expected Jesus to do as Pharisee or pagan exorcists: Perform some ceremonial acts and bam, her daughter’d be free. But Jesus’s response… was no. Specifically, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Mk 7.27 KWL

This is an obvious, easy-to-interpret analogy. The “children” are Jews, the dogs gentiles. Matthew made it just that plain: “I’m not sent to any but the lost sheep of Israel’s house.” Mt 15.24 KWL He’s Israel’s Messiah after all. But analogy or not, Jesus just called gentiles—specifically Justa and her daughter—vermin.

So Christians get all hot ’n bothered. Jesus is kind, loving, sympathetic, and patient; why’s he calling a needy woman and her suffering daughter “dogs”? Even metaphorically? It’s not the act of a kind person. Maybe a bigot who’d rather keep such people out of his country with a wall, and certainly they imagine Jesus is their kind of guy. But still: Infinite divine patience doesn’t do what Jesus just did.

Some commentators note Jesus used the word κυναρίοις/kynaríois, “little dogs,” instead of κύνας/kýnas, “dogs,” and claim it’s ’cause Jesus meant little pet house dogs, not full-grown adult scavenger dogs. As if the Syrian Greeks would recognize any difference: They knew how Jews felt about dogs; same as Americans know how Hindis feel about cows. Calling Justa a house pet might’ve softened the blow to Justa, but it was still a blow.

Even if Jesus did benignly mean a house pet: You’re in need, you go to a guy for help, and he tells you no, and compares you with a house pet? What the heck? No matter how thin you slice the baloney, Jesus’s statement invariably comes across as an insult. And racist.

Racism in the scriptures.

Jesus told Justa no, and his reason wasn’t based on her character… but her ethnicity. Justa was gentile, and Jesus claimed he was only there to help Jews.

It’s exactly the same as a shopkeeper who won’t serve you because you’re black, a lady who crosses the street to keep away from you because you’re brown, or a neighbor who won’t give you the time of day because he’s sick and tired of whitey.

Certain Christians try to claim the whole Jew/gentile divide wasn’t about race but religion; that if you converted to Judaism you were no longer gentile. Pharisees traveled to other countries to convert pagans, Mt 23.15 and some early Christians were actually some of these converts. Ac 6.5 Note Ruth, who left her homeland of Moab to move to Judah with Naomi: “Thy people [shall be] my people, and thy God my God.” Ru 1.16 KJV Anyone who likewise chose to quit their paganism and obey God’s Law would become a spiritual descendant of Abraham, and be adopted into God’s family. (Exactly like he does with Christians.)

But Pharisee thinking wasn’t exactly like Christian thinking. Regardless of Ruth’s devotion to Naomi, the LORD, and the tribe of Judah, bible still calls her Ruth the Moabite. Ru 2.2 Hebrews always considered foreigners who turned to the LORD as on a perpetual probation. People from Ammon or Moab were even singled out in the Law—

Deuteronomy 23.3 KWL
“An Ammonite and Moabite can’t enter the LORD’s assembly.
Even the tenth generation can’t enter the LORD’s assembly. Forever.”

—because of the way these nations treated the Hebrews after the Exodus. And regardless of Christians’ devotion to Jesus and the LORD, for the longest time Pharisee Christians considered gentile Christians iffy. We had a whole church council over whether gentiles can even become Christian. Ac 15.1-3 Even today, some Jewish Christians (or as they call themselves, Messianic Jews) act a bit like gentile Christians are an inferior species: They’re God’s chosen people, and we gentiles were only adopted into God’s family.

But the distinction between Jew and gentile is entirely racial. Has nothing to do with religion. And Jesus demolished the racist border walls between Jews and gentiles. We have no business putting ’em back up, whether metaphorically or literally… whether to keep gentiles out, or any nationalities. Racism, like every sin, has no place in God’s kingdom. The fact even one segregated, racist church exists, anywhere, is an abomination.

Tangent over; back to the story.

The good news of God’s kingdom—including the good news that Jesus includes everyone!—wasn’t yet widely known. It was barely known outside Israel. Likely Justa never heard it. She was probably used to all the usual, casual racism she’d encounter back then: Jew against gentile, Greek against Syrian Greeks and Arabs and Persians, Roman against non-Romans. What Jesus said was, sadly, nothing new to her. She probably expected a Jew to be unsympathetic towards her.

Still didn’t make it right for Jesus to say it. So why’d he say it? Like I said: It’s a test.

Justa’s response was, correctly, faith:

Mark 7.28 KWL
In reply she told Jesus, “Yes sir; and the dogs under the table are eating the children’s crumbs.”
Matthew 15.27 KWL
She said, “Yes sir, for the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

Even if Jesus considered her, and her fellow Syrian Greeks, to be dogs: He’s Lord of all, and that includes dogs. If he’s only there to minister to Jews, she’ll happily take whatever he has left over.

Some Christians speculate the reason Jesus challenged Justa with his “dogs” crack, was because she may have had a hangup with authority or racism, and this was meant to snap her out of it. They imagine Justa had refused to help her Jewish neighbors, and now the shoe was on the foot, and Jesus was pointing this out. Or she came to Jesus with the attitude, “If he picks on me for being gentile, f--- him; I’m so out of there”—then Jesus immediately picked on her for being gentile.

But in real life (unlike the movies) you don’t cure racism with irony. You don’t cure pride by humiliating people. Sympathy cures people of pride and racism. Kindness smacks ’em square in the conscience. Ro 12.20 When we truly love our neighbors, and identify with them because they’re not that different from us, we don’t put them beneath us. Even for object lessons. So I doubt Jesus was trying to cure Justa of racism that way.

I don’t claim I do know why Jesus picked this particular challenge. ’Cause often the scriptures just don’t tell us. We aren’t told what people were thinking, or their real motives and issues. These were secrets then, and they’re secrets now. All we know is Jesus knows what people are thinking, Mk 2.8 reads their hearts instead of anything we might hypocritically say in public, and answers that instead of our words. Justa’s thoughts required Jesus to challenge her. So he did. And she met his challenge.

Mark 7.29-30 KWL
29 Jesus told her, “For this saying, go home: The demon came out of your daughter.”
30 She left for her house, and found her child thrown on the couch—
and the demon had come out.
Matthew 15.28 KWL
In reply Jesus told hier, “Oh woman, your great faith! It will be as you want.”
Her daughter was cured that very hour.

It was a good answer, so Jesus answered her request.

What’s our takeaway? Sometimes God’ll challenge us. Be prepared for it.

Don’t figure your knee-jerk reaction—“God is kind; he’d never say anything so offensive!”—is correct. It’s not. God is kind, and that’s why sometimes he’s gotta startle us out of our prejudices, ruts, or other false ideas. Sometimes his treatment will sting. But it’s always for our good, and for the best… no matter how it initially looks. Got it?

Christ Almighty!