GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 629 • April 14, 2021
A PREJUDICED, RACIST JESUS?
QUESTION: Was Jesus a racist, a Jewish supremacist? He called a Canaanite woman a dog and said we shouldn’t give holy things to the dogs. But he accepted all Jews as the chosen people of God even if they were sinners and didn’t accept him as Messiah.
ANSWER: You are wrong in both your assumptions. Jesus did not call the woman or her daughter, or all Gentiles generally, dogs. Nor did he accept approvingly all Jews into spiritual fellowship with himself or with God – as if to say, “If you are Jewish you’re OK with God.” Skeptics are always desperate to find some excuse for their unbelief in God, in Christ, and in the Bible. The untaught and naive tend to believe the “experts” (proclaimed as such by self-approved denominational schools which are not true seminaries, but may be de facto “cemeteries” of the true faith). Even seminary-trained and church-approved commentators get it wrong on this point of accused prejudice and racism in Jesus. Jesus was not the product and reflector of his own times, culture, and traditions. True, it was customary for Jews to think of Gentiles – and even Samaritans, who were “half-breed” Jews – as dogs, as spiritual outcasts from God and from His covenants, promises, and blessings. Racism was an endemic flaw among both Jews and non-Jews — parallel to the “religious racism” today which divides all people into Christians and non-Christians, but includes as “Christians of one kind or another” many who would not be recognized by God as His people. And, of course, non-Jews then and now often think of Jews as deluded people who imagine themselves to be, now and always, “the (only) chosen people of God.” There are dogs (and hogs) in both camps, and we are called to distinguish and beware of them (Matthew 7:6) – you alluded to this in your question. But notice in this sermon on the mount by Jesus that he was speaking to and about Jews, not Gentiles. He says, “Be wary of the dogs and hogs among your own selves pretending to be people of God but are false prophets, wolves dressed as sheep, corrupt, fruitless trees, etc.” That speech is not to or about Gentiles. It is parallel to the fact that there are both sheep and goats in the church who will be separated by the Lord.
In Matthew 15:21-28 – be sure you also read Mark 7:24-30; Mark includes helpful information not found in Matthew’s account – Jesus and the disciples have gone into the area of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory, not part of Jewish territory. But he is recognized by a Canaanite woman as Jesus, and she obviously knows something of his reputation as a healer and exorcist of demons. “Oh Lord, son of David,” she cries out to him, asking for mercy for herself and her demon-oppressed daughter. Jesus ignored her, but the disciples urged him to send the troublesome woman away (you will notice that the twelve apostles were not always patient or even helpful to those who came to Christ, or to them). In response to the woman, and to the apostles, Jesus made it clear that his mission at this time was to the Jews, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Israel was the nation chosen by God to produce the Messiah, the Christ who would eventually provide access to God and make His salvation accessible to the whole world. His ministry on earth was directly to the Jews and only indirectly and potentially to non-Jews, to the whole world.
What may not be clear is that in the present event, with this Gentile woman, Jesus is setting up a parable with a notable metaphor which was to be acted out in the transaction with the woman. She apparently recognized it and played her part perfectly – whether the disciples, or we who read about it now, get the point until the conclusion is not known.
The persistent woman (like the widow in Luke 18:1–8) comes then to prostrate herself before Jesus and implore him: “Lord, help me.” Mark gives Jesus’ reply more fully: “Let the children first be fed, for (both Mark and Matthew add) it is not proper to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” Taken out of context and, especially in English, it is easy to take this as an insulting slur against the woman – the Canaanites were, after all, historic enemies of the Jews). But the woman saw the parable Jesus was presenting – no doubt she noticed that he did not use KUON, the ordinary term for undomesticated dogs, usually unclean scavengers, which could be used of unspiritual and unclean persons but rather KUNARION, puppies or house dogs. She made exactly the right response: “Yes, of course the children must not be deprived of their food, nor should the dogs under their table be deprived of crumbs that spill from the children’s table. Yes of course, Lord, feed your children, the sheep of Israel, but do you have no crumbs of mercy and good will for us others who cry to you?” And because she understood him and was not trying to insert herself into a mission not at that time intended to include her she received exactly what she desired – her child was freed from the demon.
So you see, according to both the context and language used, Jesus wasn’t referring to the Canaanite woman as a “dog,” either directly or indirectly. He wasn’t using an insulting epithet or racial slur but making a point about the priorities given to him by God. Yes, he was also testing the faith of the woman and teaching an important lesson to His disciples.
This was not necessarily the first and not the only time that Jesus showed mercy and healing to a non-Jew. In Luke 17:11-19 we meet a Samaritan leper whom Jesus healed, along with 9 others who were Jews, and commended this “stranger” (to God) for being grateful and acknowledging God as his Helper/Healer. He spoke helpfully to a Samaritan woman with a serious marriage problem (John 4:1-43). She made him known to her people who then came to hear him for themselves and many became believers. Jesus also made a Samaritan the hero in a parable about loving your neighbor as you should (Luke 10:30-37). And then there was the case of a Roman centurion whose servant was grievously ill and Jesus healed him (Luke 7:1-10) – the healing was done remotely, as it was also for this Canaanite woman’s daughter.
Now, a few words more about your assertion that Jesus accepted any and all Jews, even sinners. Yes, Jesus entered the houses of self-righteous religious persons, the hated tax collectors and others who collaborated with the Roman occupying force (like the centurion mentioned earlier), and even allowed “fallen women” to approach him, wash his feet and anoint his head. But Jesus did not carouse with sinners. He did not register approval or fellowship at any spiritual level with those who denied God or did not worship God correctly (read, for example, his scorching denunciation of hypocritical and spurious religious leaders of the Jews in Matthew 23). Such vipers, he said, were foolish if they thought they could escape condemnation and hell unless they repented and changed (23:33, compare Luke 13:3-5).
Jews of Jesus’ day and long before were willing to accept Gentiles who would be proselyted to the Jewish religion. Jews were notoriously racist toward non-proselyting Gentiles. But God was not and is not. He accepted the Cushite/Ethiopian wife of Moses, racially different from Jews (Numbers 12:1-16). He directed His evangelist Philip to minister the gospel in Samaria (Acts 8:5-13) and then to an Ethiopian official in Gaza (Acts 8:26-40). Jesus was not and is not racist. In his commission to the apostles Jesus specified: first in Judah, then Samaria, and eventually to the uttermost parts of the earth; all nations in the world to receive the gospel (Acts 1:8, 2:39).
We are not to be prejudiced or racist. Our mission is to all the world, all nations and all people in the world – not now to the Jews first – to anyone and everyone who is willing to listen and can be encouraged to obey the gospel of Christ (Mark 16:15-16, Matthew 28:18-20). Our first obligation in service is to the household of faith, the people of God and, secondarily, to all people who are not yet people of God. Our ministry, attention, and help are to be given to everyone as we have opportunity and ability to do for them what is good, and what they ask (Galatians 6:9-10). We cannot give acceptance and approval and spiritual fellowship to unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), but we are urged to make contact with them as being sent to them by the Lord himself.