Foundry UMC

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Is Jesus a Bigot?

November 22nd, 2015

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, November 22, 2015, Reign of Christ Sunday.

Text:  Mark 7:24-37                                                               

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that when I am overtired and haven’t gotten enough sleep, I am a walking nightmare.  My capacity for patience and generosity of any kind becomes deeply impaired even as resentment exponentially increases.  I snap and lash out.  I don’t want to be bothered.  It is not a pretty picture.  Perhaps you can relate.  Or, perhaps different circumstances trigger similar kinds of responses for you.  Physical pain, stress, lack of sleep, fear, emotional injury and all sorts of other human experiences can lead to behaviors that we likely regret. Whatever the cause, all of us have to deal with the reality of our own capacity for nastiness—a capacity that shows up in thoughts, words, and deeds.  It is part of being a human creature, this susceptibility to the effects of being in a physical body, with feelings and needs and limits. 


In the Christian tradition, today is observed as “Reign of Christ” (traditionally, “Christ the King”) Sunday. On this last Sunday of the Christian year, Jesus the Christ is lifted up and celebrated as Lord of all.  For many, the primary image is the so-called “Cosmic Christ” seated on the throne in glory high above all the messiness of human life.  This image evokes a strong sense of the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present divine nature of Christ.  But the Jesus we encounter in the scripture today is far from that lofty image.  Jesus is human, right in the middle of the messiness and struggle and brokenness of the created world.  And Jesus’ human, creaturely nature appears to get the better of him in this story with the Syrophoenician woman.


When I was thinking and praying about scriptural texts that might challenge and guide us in this short “Pew Crashers” series, the woman we meet today sprang to mind pretty quickly.  After all, she is the one person that, in my opinion, unabashedly crashes Jesus’s pew!  Here’s the context:



This section of the Gospel according to Mark is explicitly about opening the traditional boundaries between insiders and outsiders.  Earlier in this chapter, Jesus opened a way for including Gentiles in the new community by declaring that the food laws aren’t the end-all be-all that some folks imagined they were.  And today Jesus has traveled across the border into foreign territory, to the land of Tyre, a nice “getaway” spot on the Mediterranean Sea.  That he didn’t want anyone to know he was there leads me to think that he was trying to have some sabbatical, trying to recuperate from recent events like the murder of his cousin John (6:27) and the constant criticism from the religious leaders (7:1-8).  I imagine that Jesus was exhausted from his   whirlwind tour feeding the hungry (6:30-44), healing the sick (6:53-56), and teaching tough crowds (7:9-23).  Jesus was bereaved, fatigued, and besieged.  No wonder he didn't want anyone to know he was there.”[i]  His retreat space gets invaded by the Syrophoenician woman who comes begging at his feet.  In addition to this invasion of space, several big lines are crossed here:  a woman is addressing a Rabbi, a member of an enemy tribe (Syrophoenicians were long-standing enemies and rivals of Israel) is asking for help, and that enemy woman’s daughter is possessed by a demon.  According to the “going” understandings of the day, the woman had three strikes against her:  inferior, enemy, evil.  Jesus was grieving, tired, under attack and now the recipient of a “pew crash”—and from that very human place, responds with the prevailing socially and culturally nurtured bias and bigotry of his tribe, calling the woman and her daughter dogs, the term of derision commonly used by Jews to refer to Gentiles as unclean.

This story makes many scholars race to rescue Jesus’s reputation.  Maybe he was joking or maybe he was intentionally rude to shine a light on the cruelty of the views held by most Jews or maybe he was testing the woman’s faith and always intended to heal her daughter.  Far from rescuing Jesus, these alternative readings seem even more cruel in light of the woman’s distress.  The hard truth is that that Jesus’s words as they are found in the story are demeaning and bigoted words, likely spoken out of unthinking exhaustion.


The woman who comes to Jesus doesn’t respond in kind, but acknowledges the lines that she is crossing even as she challenges them.  “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  I wonder if it was hearing the racial and cultural slur parroted back through the voice of this strong, determined, loving mother that snapped Jesus out of his initial posture.  Sometimes, having something you have said repeated by another makes you face with your own stuff.  This woman forced the issue, demanded healing, wouldn’t be quiet or stay away.  She sought help in the place where she believed it would be found.  And in doing so, she perhaps reminded Jesus of what he had wandered over the border to do: to bring good news to those considered “outsiders.”  The woman’s faith in the power of God to heal—and in the goodness of Jesus, even when Jesus wasn’t at his best—was extraordinary and, ultimately, healing.


Perhaps Jesus was carrying this experience with him as he continued his travels into Sidon and was intercepted by a group of people who brought a deaf man with a speech impediment before him.  We are not told that those in the group are friends of the deaf man, only that they want Jesus to “lay hands on him.”  It seems quite possible that “they” were using the man, wanting to see the “traveling Jesus show” perform some magic or miracle.  But what did the deaf man want?  In conversation with Dr. Kirk VanGilder, Foundry member and professor of religion at Gallaudet University, I have been challenged to consider how this story has been used in ways that justify bigotry and violence against deaf people.  When we step back and really look at the story, it does appear that the deaf man is set up as little more than an occasion or “object lesson” for Jesus to show off his divine powers as the messiah.  The assumption of the gospel writer—and so many others through the ages—is that of course deaf people want to become like hearing people.  This assumption, together with the example of Jesus who lays hands on the man to “heal” him without being asked, has led to all sorts of harm—physical, social, and emotional.  So did Jesus step out of one pile of bigotry into another?  Did Jesus unwittingly do harm as he sought to do good—“healing” a man who knew himself to be in no need of physical change?  Was there undocumented communication that took place between Jesus and the deaf man that gets Jesus off the hook?  Or is the blame here on the author of Mark who tells the story in a way that dehumanizes the deaf man and leaves Jesus holding the bag for many years’ worth of bigoted biblical interpretation and untold acts of violence against deaf persons?


As I pondered these questions, I kept coming back to the words used by Jesus in his encounter with the deaf man:  ephphatha—be opened.  However we answer the questions raised by the text and wherever the fault lies (Jesus, author, interpreters), the word spoken by Jesus—ephphatha—hangs in the air, full of creative power.  That is the word we need to receive.  That is the word that Jesus had just received himself through the encounter with the woman.  That is the word that, perhaps was still trying to get through to Jesus even as he speaks it in the context of opening another man’s ears. I imagine Jesus preaching to himself saying, “Remember that you, Jesus, are to reflect the fullness of God even within the limits and frailties of human flesh—and that means to reflect God’s open arms and open heart for the whole of creation. Ephphatha! Be open!”   


It likely makes lots of folks uncomfortable to imagine that Jesus ever made an error or that Jesus needed to deepen understanding or to learn new things.  After all, wouldn’t such a suggestion undermine the claim that Jesus was divine?  Well, there is much to say in response to this, but the short answer is “no” or, at least, “not necessarily.” 


The classic text from the letter to the Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” (Heb 4:15)  A common interpretation of this is that Jesus never made a mistake—that Jesus, as the perfect God, always knew the right thing to do and to say.  That would seem to imply that Jesus came into the world fully formed—like Athena out of the head of Zeus—but that’s not the story we tell.  We tell a story of a baby who grew and changed and learned…  So that common interpretation that Jesus as the perfect God never made a mistake has always struck me as contradictory—because if Jesus was truly tempted, he had to be able to desire or have the capacity for the “wrong” thing (otherwise it’s not really temptation).  But what if the divine nature in the human Jesus was revealed not through some omniscient “perfection” but rather in the capacity to learn and grow through new relationships, new information, through people who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, who pushed back on his healing methods and decisions, and who believed in him even when he wasn’t at his best?  What if, for example, in Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, his loving inclusion grew in ways that helped him even more fully embody and express God’s grace?  And what if that same encounter allowed Jesus to experience another very human struggle—physical and emotional exhaustion that breaks down patience, kindness, and receptivity—so that when Christ returned to God, God could truly stand in solidarity with us because God really knows what it’s like?  What if “without sin” means without stubborn pride, without an unwillingness to change one’s mind, without hardness of heart, without fearful rigidity?  Jesus was tempted to all those things, but didn’t give in to any of them.  In relationship, Jesus came to completely embody who he always was—fully human and fully divine.


A bigot is defined as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”  Because the very human Jesus was part of a human tribe the temptation to bigotry was real—and evidently slipped out in at least one encounter.  But Jesus was not obstinate or intolerantly devoted to prejudice.  Jesus is not a bigot.  That Jesus was susceptible to bigotry isn’t a sin, it is a result of being a human creature.  Being unwilling to recognize and purge our bigotry is the real sin.  And Jesus did not commit that sin.  Rather, as we look at the full sweep of Jesus’s life and teaching, he consistently lifts up the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized, those whom others held in contempt.  And Jesus took it even further because far from rejecting and hating and doing harm to the “other” as a bigot would do, Jesus became the “other,” the object of scorn, became the one dehumanized, despised and rejected, the one treated like an “object lesson” for what happens when you speak truth to power in the midst of empire, the one crucified for not taking “no” for an answer to the demand for justice and for peace. 


Some will reject the vision of Jesus I present today, needing a more perfect, less human version.  But it is this very human, perfected in love Jesus I find worthy of calling my Sovereign Lord and it is this Jesus who shows us what it looks like to be truly human—how to live in the Kin-dom.  I celebrate that the Christ whom we claim as Sovereign truly knows what it is like to be human, to be challenged, to make mistakes, to grow and to change and to be deepened through relationships with others—that’s a Lord I can follow.  I give thanks that Christ our Sovereign has revealed that changing our mind or admitting a mistake can be a sign of divine grace and not necessarily a sign of weakness—that’s a leader I can try to emulate.  And I am so grateful that Christ our Lord took to heart the word ephphatha, be opened…for in that open heart, in those open arms, we all reside…eternally.


As the ones who seek to follow this Christ, I pray that we have enough of the divine image upon and within us to be open to those who cry out for justice today, open to those seeking to be treated with dignity, open to the ones who crash our comfortable privileged pews with their insistence that black lives matter, open to the Syrian refugee and illegal immigrant, open to persons with disabilities, open to transgendered folks, open to the unhoused and underserved, open to the ones who interrupt our peace in their need.  Ephphatha! Be opened…and be changed; Ephphatha! and become more yourself; Ephphatha! and become more like Jesus, the one who came into the world to be like us so that we might be more like God.