Jesus, Race, and the Syrophoenician Woman

A little while ago, a video on Tik Tok went a little viral that accused Jesus of being a racist. The proof of this was Our Lord’s interaction with the Syrophoenician woman. She is a non-Jewish person who comes to Jesus (who is Jewish) to ask Him to help her daughter. Here is the story as told by Mark.

From that place he went off to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice.Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. (Mark 7: 24-30)

The blasphemous interpretation of the story is that Jesus looks at this non-Jewish woman through the lens of His own racial prejudice and proceeds to insult her by calling her a dog. The woman then makes Jesus confront His own racism and changes His mind.

There are, of course, several problems with this interpretation. For any believer, this view of the story would be dismissed out of hand. Racism is a sin. To say that Jesus engaged in racism is to say that Jesus sinned and thus He could not be our Savior. If Jesus sinned, then He would need someone to save Him from His sins.

But for the non-believers, they can try to use this as evidence that Jesus was not Divine because of a supposedly racist remark He makes. For that reason, we should take a few moments to explain the interaction He has with this woman.

When I was in high school, we had an assignment where our teacher had us go through the entire Gospel of Mark. Part of the assignment was to point out the stories that seemed strange or uncomfortable to read. I must admit the first time I read Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman, I was shocked and didn’t know how to react. I mean, Jesus calls a woman a dog. How am I supposed to take that?

However, there is a larger point that Jesus is making in this story. A very important point in the Gospels is that Jesus comes first to save the children of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, God made them a promise that He would save them. The prophets spoke His word foretelling the coming of a Messiah. This person would restore the throne of David forever and save the Jewish people.

It is important to understand that though this Savior is foreshadowed in the Old Testament all the way back to Genesis 3, He is only promised to God’s chosen people. In other words, God made a promise to save the Jewish people and He did not make a similar promise to the Gentiles.

Does this mean that God does love the non-Jewish people as much as children of Israel? No. But because of His promise, He has made a commitment to the Israelites that He did not make to others.

When I teach this section in class, I take out a candy bar and I ask anyone if they want it. If someone volunteers, I tell them that I promise them that I will give them the candy bar. I ask if anyone else wants the candy bar. When someone else volunteers, I walk over and act as though I am going to give the candy bar to them. I ask the class who should get the candy bar. They overwhelmingly say that I should give the bar to the student to whom I made the promise. But I object. I tell them that I want to give the candy bar to the second student first. The class points out that this motivation on my part doesn’t matter because I have to honor my commitment first. So I give the candy bar to the first student. But then I produce a second candy bar and give it to the second student too.

The point is that if I want to give a gift to someone, that is a good thing. But my promise binds me in a commitment that must be fulfilled before the other. In a similar way, God made a promise to the people of Israel that He would save them. Because of this, He owes them a debt based on this promise. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that God’s covenants are so incredible: God binds Himself by a promise to His people so that they can make claims on Him).

Jesus came to save everyone. But He must first make good on His promises to Israel. That is the point of the story of the Syrophoenician woman. He does not look at her as less of God’s child because of her race. He is explaining that there is a prioritization because of commitments.

Notice that the blasphemous interpretation of the story is not supported by the Syrophoenician woman’s response. She does not chastise Jesus on any prejudice. There is nothing in her response that has anything that can be interpreted as a rebuke. Also notice that Christ’s initial response is not a “no” to her. He mentions prioritizing the “children,” meaning the children of Israel. Her response is not to demand He change His preconceived notions. Instead, she adapts to His point. She calls Him “Lord.” She acknowledges that the children (of Israel) must be prioritized. She does not convince Him with force of argument. She instead appeals to His generous mercy.

In this, the Syrophoenician woman shows that she truly understands Jesus as the one who brings mercy. In this, she demonstrates great faith, which results in the healing of her daughter from her spiritual torment.
And to be clear, this status difference between the Jewish people and the Gentiles is something that is now eradicated by Christ’s mercy. By dying on the cross for all people, Gentiles have now been adopted into the covenant of Abraham and are part of the people of God. As it says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3: 28-29)

The story does not show Jesus as a racist. In fact, Jesus’ mercy overcomes racial division because we are now all one in Christ. This is an important reminder for all of us in the modern world:
Jesus is the Lord of all.

Copyright 2021, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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