No matter how you read or hear it, it’s impossible to miss that Jesus utters an ethnic slur. Wow!
26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
How is it even possible? A desperate mother with a seriously sick child falls at his feet begging for help and he comes back with an insult. It’s almost unfathomable! No matter how many times you read it, there’s simply no denying that Jesus refers to the woman as a dog, a common ethnic slur that Jews used for people of that region.
Sure. Maybe he wouldn’t have engaged her in deep conversation. After all, she was a woman. She was a Syrophoenician woman at that. A Gentile woman - a non-Jew - who came from a region that was notorious for its sinfulness. She was an absolute nobody. A total outcast. But still… we would at least expect Jesus to follow her home or have her bring her child to him so that he could at least cast His loving gaze upon the child. No, not at all. He just dehumanizes and denigrates her with an ethnic prejudice and bigotry that is both clear, unmistaken and hard to miss.
If this happened today… Facebook and Twitter would be on fire! Jesus would be accused of being racist and abusive and misogynistic. The disciples would be screaming, “Fake news! This is absolutely fake news!”
We immediately want to defend Jesus and say, “Oh, no way! Get out of here! Jesus would NEVER speak to anyone in that manner.” Yet, still… there it is. Hanging heavy in the air with seemingly no way to walk it back. This is the problem with not understanding or choosing not to understand the insidious nature and dynamics of having privilege and power mixed with bigotry and prejudice.
Jesus certainly has the privilege and power. We are totally thrown by the uncharacteristic prejudice and bigotry he displays. It shatters our understanding of who Jesus has been up to this point and we’re not really certain what to do about it. It makes us squirm with discomfort.
The commentaries for this passage overwhelmingly soften Jesus’ intention behind what he says to the woman. Some say that the word Jesus uses for dog isn’t the typically strong language associated with the known racial slur. Others explain that the word Jesus uses takes on a diminutive form, maybe implying a beloved pet or puppy and therefore taking away the sting of the so-called slur. I am nowhere even close to being a biblical scholar, so I can’t really say for sure. I can only focus on what hit me at my initial hearing of the passage. The woman was dehumanized; her child forgotten in the slicing response to her request for help. I’m caught off guard by Jesus’ insensitivity and unawareness of his own personal sin in that moment. And I’m not sure what to do about it.
But then I consider Jesus’ context and time. He was raised in a culture that would have had a prejudiced view of not only women, but anyone who was not among the chosen people. In essence, Jesus was raised in a culture of supremacy and was a member of a privileged gender and because of his status, had a certain amount of power. Kind of troubling when you really think about it, right?
It’s really not so different for any of us who fall into any of these categories: having privilege; being part of a dominant race and/or culture and/or gender; having power to leverage any of the other areas we might not have or having power in addition to the other areas. We use them to our advantage, don’t we? We can feel totally justified with putting our advantages into play. It’s easy to overlook… sometimes, just outright ignore… the deep complexities of prejudice and race and oppression. Who would readily admit to this troubling sin? Probably none of us if we’re being honest.
But Jesus delivers! Thank goodness… he brings the Good News as he always does. Jesus listened. The woman’s response to Jesus gets his attention. “Sir,[b] even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus listened and heard her.
Just a few minutes before, the woman was nothing more than a dog to him. The woman uses Jesus’ own words to get his attention and I think that he was taken aback to hear them. Suddenly, he can actually see the woman; the mother at his feet begging for healing for her daughter. He recognizes her for what she is, a woman of rock-steady faith.
Jesus allowed himself to be changed… to be transformed.
I wonder what would happen if we listened with more intentionality… I wonder if we too would be changed and transformed? What would it be like if we could hear our own words spoken back to us in a way that took our breath away, that made us finally understand the power of our words. To make us see the how our words can break or heal someone; to push aside or lift someone up?
Jesus offers us perhaps one of the most powerful lessons for those of us who want to stand against any type of oppression. Not only do we have to take the time to listen to the stories and narrative of those who are oppressed and devalued in our world, but we have to be willing to acknowledge and hear our own prejudices and see how we use our power and privilege with those who have none.
Are we willing to be changed in the same way as Jesus was? I pray that during our Lenten journey’s we have the courage to say “Yes, I want to be changed and transformed too.”