Crumbs: Jesus and the Ethnic Slur (Lectionary Reflection, Mark 7:24-37)


Year B — Proper 18  — Mark 7:24-37

Jesus uttered an ethnic slur.

To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child.

In this week’s gospel text, in the Black Lives Matter era, I think we have to start with that disturbing and disorienting fact.

Our immediate response likely is, “Of course not! Jesus couldn’t possibly have uttered a slur!” But Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems to tell a different story. No matter what theological tap dance can avoid it: Jesus calls the unnamed woman a dog, an ethnic slur common at the time.

To be clear, while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism.

This story should stop us in our tracks.

It presents Christians with some difficulty, particularly if we understand ethnic prejudice and racism as the systemic sins they are. When faced with the complexities of personal and systemic sin, it is much easier to think of Jesus as transcending them all and loving all peoples regardless of skin color or culture of origin. We want Jesus to be the simple, easy answer to all our problems and to all of society’s problems.

Perhaps part of the difficulty of this passage particularly for white Christians is that we want Jesus to be colorblind. We want Jesus to be colorblind because that’s what many of us want to be or think we should be.

After all, that’s what our children’s song teaches us. Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.

But what of the little dogs?

Does Jesus love them too?

In truth, at least in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is anything but colorblind. In fact, rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story.

So what does it mean, exactly, that the Son of God, the Incarnation, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, utters an ethnic slur in a situation in which he held all the power?

Because that is exactly what Jesus does in his exchange with the Syrophoenician woman. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.

It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus explains, to take the banquet prepared for his people – the children, the humans – and give it to gentiles – the dogs, the less than human.

A number of scholars whistle past this ghastly put-down by explaining that perhaps Jesus called the woman a dog with a twinkle in his eye, as if he winked at her knowingly in order to say he didn’t really believe her to be a dog. Like she was in on the joke when he uttered this well-known racial slur. Others emphasize that the word for dog that Jesus uses isn’t the typical strong language usually associated with this racial slur. They explain that the word Jesus uses takes the diminutive form, implying perhaps a beloved pet or a lap dog, and therefore takes the sting out of the slur.

Of course, white Americans have had their own diminutive versions of racial slurs to imply endearment. Dominant, oppressive cultures have a long history of assuaging their own latent guilt with terms of endearment for those they are abusing.

Still unconvinced? Add the word “little” to any ethnic or sexist slur. Do these diminutive forms, even if they are used with apparent affectionate, soften the sting of a slur? Clearly not, and I don’t think Jesus’ diminutive case of “dog” in this text softens the bite of his own ethnic prejudice either.

Others argue that Jesus is using this exchange to teach his disciples about the inclusivity of God’s Reign, and there’s textual evidence for that, too. But that simply further dehumanizes the woman, not only referring to her with a slur but also using her as little more than a prop or an object lesson.

So what are we to make of this exchange?

Where exactly is the good news?

This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.

Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind (or ethnicity blind as it were). And neither can we.

But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist. It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed or the Other, reveal who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside with dismissive prejudice as dogs?

Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth of they are speaking?

When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his ethnic slur, Jesus listens. And he hears.

It is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.

“But even the dogs get table scraps,” she replies, a subtle calling out of his dehumanizing language.

Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith.

Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into prejudice and power.

He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.

When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same, will never be able to listen to the lies of the dominant oppressors the same way again.

You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality. Both must happen in order to confront ethnic prejudice in any time — and, yes, racism in our time. We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true. This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a privileged race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us.

But we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories. We must hear our own incompleteness. We must hear how our knee-jerk responses like All Lives Matter perpetuate oppression.

The problem is that it is an uncomfortable direction which, if we have the courage to follow it, will bring white people like me face to face with our own prejudice and racism, that embedded white culture of supremacy that rises to the top like rancid cream at the most inopportune moments.

So, in the end, Jesus’ exchange offers us perhaps the most powerful story for white people like me who seek to stand against oppression.

It compels us to listen to the narratives of the oppressed we devalue implicitly. It requires us to listen to our own prejudice.

It asks us to do the unthinkable: to own our culture’s hate and to be changed by the realities of the marginalized.

So don’t tell me you aren’t prejudice or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice.

Even Jesus did that.

Is the disciple greater than the teacher?


This is a reworking of a post from three years ago. I’ve edited out some rather problematic portions of it that seemed to cast Jesus in the role of a white man. After receiving pushback and criticism from people of color, I too began to see the deep problems with that frame. So I keep listening and learning.

Photo Credit: Sprogz (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He is ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He lives in North Carolina, is a father of two boys, and the husband of a medical resident.

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