On first reading this passage is one of the most disturbing things ever written about Jesus. It sounds like Jesus is rude and uncaring. It seems like Jesus is being racist. Could that be true? Is Jesus a racist?
Jesus goes on mission to the Gentiles
The first reason why Jesus cannot be racist is that he has gone on mission to that region. I love he is going to minister to them.
He begins his time in Tyre and Sidon by getting some rest. Mark tells us that he went to a house and hoped that no one would discover where he was. Remember that while Jesus is fully God, he is also fully human. He was tired. He needed time out from ministry. There is nothing godly about overwork. In fact, workaholism ruins families the same way alcoholism does.
But Jesus had not simply gone to that region to get spiritually and physical refreshed. He was resting before he would launch into ministry in that place. In just a few days we will see him feed four thousand men and many women and children. One friend told explained to Caroline, ‘we are to work from a place of rest, rather than rest from a place of work.’ His rest is preparing him to care for these people. He loves these people. Before he feeds the four thousand, he tells the disciples, ‘I have compassion on them.’
Jesus commends the faith of a gentile
The second reason we know that Jesus is not being racist in this passage is that he will commend the faith of the woman. In fact, in the gospel he never actually commends the faith of his own people, the Jews, but he does commend the faith of some gentiles (non-Jews)-like this woman and the Roman centurion.
The woman was a Canaanite. Now in the Old Testament, Canaanites were known as the enemies of God’s people who were immoral, cruel and idolatrous. This person’s cultural background is nothing to be proud of. But then all cultures are composed of sinners and show plenty evidence of sin. This island has been stained by sectarian hatred. Our most famous saint, Patrick, was a British man who was brought here because we took him as a slave. There is a place to be grateful for how God has been good to our cultures and there is a place to be humble and accept that our cultures have failed God in many ways.
Matthew records her calling Jesus ‘Lord’ three times. She calls him, ‘Lord. Son of David.’ She knows that this is long awaited Messiah who would come from the Jews. She gets who Jesus is far more than the Pharisees at the start of this chapter do. She is more insightful that the disciples are at this stage in Jesus’ ministry. She understands who Jesus is far more clearly that the Jewish crowd who had been fed in the feeding of the five thousand men.
This is not the first time that a woman in this region has been held up as an example of faith. Centuries before, in the same region, a Canaanite woman had said to Elijah, ‘as the Lord your God lives, do this for me’ (1 Kings 17:12).
Remember that spiritual insight and faith are gifts of God, and in love God has given this woman the faith which so impresses Jesus.
A Canaanite teaches us how to pray
So, this woman, in a society that looked down on women, who is a Canaanite, from a people known for their sin, teaches us how to pray. She goes to Jesus about her daughter who has an unclean spirit.
Her child has an unclean spirit. She literally cries, ‘my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.’ Tim Keller says that a good parent is never happier than their saddest child. Think of the torture this mother and daughter endured. The constant torment. The terrifying night. What mother won’t move heaven and earth to find help.
She is helpless. I heard someone say that asking Jesus for things is actually an act of worship because it recognises that he is the only one who has the power to change our situation. She falls down before Jesus acknowledging her unworthiness before him. She persists in prayer, even when Jesus is silent and his words seem to be pushing her away. I love what the godly English bishop, J. C. Ryle, says about the little girl in this story: ‘hopeless and desperate as her case appeared, she had a praying mother, and where there is a praying mother there is always hope.’
Sometimes all we can do for our children is pray, but praying is the most important thing that we can do for our children.
Jesus is not racist because he answers her prayer
Jesus is not racist because he has gone to that region in a mission of love. He is not racist because he commends this woman's faith. And he is not racist because he answers her prayer.
There has been lots of ink spilled over the fact that Jesus says that he has come only to the lost sheep of Israel and then calls the gentiles dogs. It is true that the focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was first to the Jews, but it was never to be limited to the Jews. In fact, this gospel will end with Jesus sending the disciples out to the end of the world. It has been pointed out that the word used for dog was not the same word that the Jews normally used to insult the gentiles (which described stray scavengers), but an affectionate word that described the family pet. It has been suggested that he said these words with a smile, to say that he did not really mean them. It has been suggested that he is looking at the disciples and simply putting their thoughts in his mouth—four hundred years ago the Geneva Version explained this with the words, ‘according to the Jews.’ It has been said that he is testing her faith.
I am not sure that we can be absolutely sure what Jesus means here, although we can be absolutely sure that Jesus is not a racist and that he is not uncaring towards the needs of this or any desperate person. He is certainly impressed with her faith. Indeed, he heals the woman’s daughter instantly. I can’t imagine anyone in our cancel culture persisting in prayer like this when Jesus’ initial response seems so unpromising.
While Jesus’ words may leave us scratching our heads a little, but remember that while God initiated his mission with the people of Abraham, he always intended that they would be a blessing to the world. Matthew will finish this gospel sending the disciples out to every nation of earth.
Listen to the words of Psalm 87: “I will record Rahab [a Canaanite prostitute] and Babylon [a symbol of oppression] among those who acknowledge me—Philistia too, and Tyre [in the region where our passage is set], along with Cush [Sudan and Ethiopia]—and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion’ (verse 4). Whatever our cultural background we are equals in the kingdom of God. Love your culture but be humble about its past failings.
I think we need to reflect that equality in reminding ourselves that this is not an Irish church, this is a church in Ireland. There is a different. To say that we are an Irish church would mean that we are saying that somehow our Irish culture has certain rights over the way our church works. It is the sort of attitude that says ‘now that you live in Ireland you must do things our way, including in ours churches.’ But our church is made up of people from over twenty different nations and I don’t see why any one of those nationalities should have rights over another. We are a church in Ireland, because we are located in Ireland, but we are an international family of equally loved sons and daughters of God. We were once foreigners and strangers to the things of God, we are all from gentile cultures, but through Jesus we have access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18).
In London I met a man from Pakistan who grew up Muslim, yet he was intrigued by Jesus' command to 'love our enemies' and he came to know Jesus. He is from a different background and has a different colour skin, but he and I are equally adopted by the Father. On a Saturday night a Romanian church use our building. God has been doing great things in the Romanian community in Ireland-they are our brothers and sisters and are equally a part of the church of God. A friend of mine, Mucky, was a loyalist paramilitary who came to faith while in prison on remand-he is one with us nationalist Christians. Jesus truly is the Saviour of the world.