Was Jesus a Bigot?

One of the biggest barriers to helpful, healthy conversation about the Christian faith seems to revolve around fear. What if I don’t know something I should and others find out? What if I ask a question that makes me look stupid, unfaithful or even heretical? So instead we wander through our lives of faith, wondering about an awful lot but asking very little.

This isn’t my understanding of the faith we’re called to live out. After all, if your beliefs can’t stand up to rigorous questioning, dialogue and debate, what good are they?

I created the “Banned Questions” book series both to prompt the collective human imagination about often off-limits topics, and also to give others permission to do the same in asking their own questions. The following was one of the more interesting questions that came out of the most recent volume, “Banned Questions About Jesus:”

A woman in Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28 asks Jesus to heal her daughter, but his first response is to deny her help and call her a dog. Isn’t this a cruel, and pretty un-Christlike, response?

I asked several folks from different backgrounds to offer their responses.

David Lose, professor at Luther Seminary and author of “Making Sense of the Christian Faith,” writes,

There are two options most readers flee to when trying to make sense of Jesus’ interaction with this Gentile woman. Either Jesus didn’t really mean it (supposedly, he Greek word translated as ‘dog’ was a term of endearment, as in ‘little dog’ or ‘puppy’) or he was testing her faith. Both options are, I think, bogus.

But most Christians opt for one of these interpretations anyway because they can’t imagine a third option: that Jesus was being a jerk. Could it be that Jesus’ mission has gone and ventured ahead of his inherited attitudes? Might it be that the Spirit that drove him into the wilderness is now driving him across barriers, social and ethnic as well as geographical? If so, then perhaps Jesus learns something this day.

If so, then let us give thanks for fierce mothers and pushy women, for we who are also Gentiles have much for which to be thankful.

I’ve experienced a lot of push-back from people unwilling to accept, first, that Jesus could have been a little bit obnoxious or rude, and second, that he could learn or change because of someone else’s faithfulness. Though for some, Jesus needs to remain pristine and strangely omniscient (if not psychic) at all times, I actually find more to embrace in his more human moments.

Not all of the respondents to this questions share this perspective, however, which makes the conversation that much more interesting.

Professor of Philosophy and Theology Keelan Downton is from the camp that believes Jesus was actually in on the setup from the beginning, offering the uncomfortable exchange as an object lesson for his Jewish companions.

There’s an Irish phrase, ‘winding you up,’ which describes someone exaggerating (or just making up) a story in order to evoke a strong emotive response from someone else.

I’ve often wondered if Jesus is up to something like that when he renames the most unpredictable disciple, Peter, ‘Rock.’

When this woman persists in seeking help from Jesus he’s not cracking jokes, but he is doing something similar that makes a point by walking around the edge rather than addressing it directly. The story is present to contradict anyone who wished to restrict the gospel proclamation to Israel…

Peter J. Walker points out our tendency to create Jesus in our own image, which is helpful in considering this particular text and how we interpret it.

Many conservatives want a hawk who turns over tables and wages holy war, while liberals want an eco-friendly dove who will leave that poor fig tree in Mark 11 alone! Undeniably, there is a controversial character to Jesus’ mission that frustrates our attempts to reconcile him as lion or lamb, soldier or hippie.

But what if we don’t even try to justify Jesus’ actions by shaping him to fit our agendas? I don’t think it’s necessary or even ethical to defend words that seem so blatantly unkind. Jesus probably doesn’t need our protection. The Canaanite woman probably does.

Peter’s final statement resonates in a way that is both profound and disquieting. Though we spend much of our time and energy trying to justify, defend or explain Jesus’ actions, maybe we’re missing the point. The one who really needs our support, empathy and compassion is the woman being brushed aside. But how many of us jump to Jesus’ side first instead?

Of course we will never know whether Jesus’ intentions were pure, or if he succumbed to a very human moment of intolerance. But the fact remains that we, like Jesus, should be challenged to reach beyond whatever lines we’ve drawn around our faith and the justice it claims to include those beyond the boundary.

We all have our own Canaanite women, and we’ve all been in Jesus’ position. How we respond to this story tells us less about Jesus than it does about ourselves.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.travismamone.net/ Travis Mamone

    I tend to fall into the typical evangelical explanation, that Jesus was testing the Canaanite woman.  In my own experience, sometimes I think Jesus pretends to say “No” to our prayers just to see how badly we need them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elypsium Adam Louw

    I had an interesting conversation this afternoon with a dear old friend, and we like to chat about everything theological and one of the topics that I brought up was Marcus J. Borg’s point that Jesus Christ from an international perspective was not unique, we live in one world with many faiths and I think I can see where Borg is coming from which is we live in a pluralistic society which means that any faith, religion or spirituality has more or less equal chance of salvation and again from a universal perspective Christianity is definitely not unique and I subscribe to the perspective that Jesus is unique in that if the resurrection is true then why do we Christians live as if He is not risen?

    Now I am reminded of some of  C.S. Lewis’ quotes such as:

    Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.

    and:

    I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

    I have been accused of demythologising the resurrection in the past because I wanted to analyse it, I feel slightly more at peace now, but mainly because quite a bit of time has elapsed though I am looking and trying to do as much research as possible on most of these subjects, but I need to balance that with Eugene Peterson’s , “The best theology is applied theology.” (Paraphrase)Any advice is more than appreciated. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/1913Intel Matthew Wilson

    “A woman in Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28 asks Jesus to heal her
    daughter, but his first response is to deny her help and call her a dog.
    Isn’t this a cruel, and pretty un-Christlike, response?”

    We don’t have enough information to make a judgment. How do you know whether the woman was happily possessed by demons and testing Jesus?

    What about the Parable of the Ten Virgins?

    25:12 But he answered and said,
    ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

    Was Jesus’ response cruel? Again, we don’t have enough information to judge. Perhaps the group asking Jesus to open the door is dead in real life.

    Do not be quick to judge Jesus. You do not have the information he possessed at the time.

  • Benjamin

    So you think the anthropomorphism of God should be held over the Theomorphism of man?  If you are calling Christ less-than-perfect, you are departing from orthodoxy in a quick fashion.

  • Lesila Grace

    Jesus went over to Gentile territory to bind the strongman and walk the territory like Joshua and He need a “Rahab” (after all she was a Canaanite) to help save the people. Therefore Jesus need one fearless person to be able to go spread the news that The Son of David is the Healer and One who whom the Cannanite said He was. Jesus saw her and chose her. 


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