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When Jesus Used a Racial Slur

The Lord used every tool at his disposal—including seemingly rude rhetorical ones—to draw souls to himself.

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

-Matthew 15:21-28


We might well imagine the media explosion if Our Lord were among us today and someone posted a video of his exchange with the Canaanite woman. It would be viral: “Jesus uses racial slur to deter Gentile woman!” “The so-called ‘Son of David’ invades Gentile neighborhood with his male followers and calls inhabitants ‘dogs’!” “Jewish rabbi humiliates Palestinian woman asking for healing!” The comments and retweets would be endless.

Our Lord’s followers might have defended him by pointing out his kindness to non-Jews, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, the Roman centurion whose faith he praised, prostitutes and tax collectors, and the woman who was unclean who grabbed hold of the edge of his garment. They might mention the parable of the Good Samaritan or his mercy to those outside the law.

His followers, orthodox Jews (practically the only kind in his day), would have understood the Galilean rabbi’s words and gesture of healing as part of his teaching. They knew that the Jewish people were to be a light to the nations, or as old Simeon said, “a light to enlighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel.” Jesus was drawing out of the Canaanite woman acts of deep humility and faith driven by her love for her daughter. This scene would teach his followers that his initial ministry was to them, to the Jews, but was eventually to be preached throughout the world as he commissioned them to go out and preach to all nations.

Today, the vast numbers of Christians in the world are of Gentile stock. Even so, they accept the witness of the scriptures that the revelation of the true God in the Old and New Testaments was made first to the Jews as a precious deposit, and then the Gentiles were made equal sharers in its riches and “great and precious promises.” Even though the Jews on the whole rejected Jesus and his claims, Christians know that they are “dear to God on account of the Fathers.”

Any believing Gentile Christian today would rather experience the challenging exchange with the Lord that the Canaanite woman underwent than to lack the faith and humility that obtained for her to become a grateful believer in Jesus, the Son of David, conqueror of the evil one.

The Lord is often tough with those he loves. Think of how he called the short-sighted Peter “Satan” and told him to get away from him, right after giving him his honorific name and vocation in the Church. Even his own mother’s implied request at the wedding at Cana was met with an austere reply before he did as she asked.

So far so good, but what about the ethnic slur? He calls the Canaanites, who were there in what is now southern Lebanon, “dogs,” unclean animals. The charming and rhetorically adept Canaanite woman does him one better and calls her people “whelps” or “puppies” in the original Greek. What of this?

First, not all of Our Lord’s works and actions are meant simply for our imitation. He does not tell his followers to go and do and say likewise in all things. His command to them is the new commandment to love as he has loved.

A comparison may help us here. When the Savior violently drove out the money changers from the temple, making a whip with his own hands and turning over their tables, he was angry with a righteous anger. The doctors of the Church, however, among them St. Francis de Sales, tell us that it is better to strive not to become passionately angry at all. The fact that the Lord became very angry does not provide for us a safe personal justification for our own “righteous” indignation. Such a thing would be the result of a higher gift of insight, such as the Lord possessed, not just the expression of emotional frustration at an injustice.

Just so, Our Lord, whose divinity is implied in the woman’s repeated pleas for healing, knew the inner workings of the heart of this lady who so loved her daughter. He knew that his initial ignoring of her, and then his rude words to her, would elicit her intrepid faith and confidence and true humility. He was not just indulging a racist slur, but rather moving to restore her and her daughter’s full dignity as a daughter of God.

The Savior came to bring us the salvation that works by faith and love and humility. He was not a social revolutionary calling for the overthrow of the established order. In his time both the Jews and the Syro-Phoenicians of the coast of Lebanon lived under Roman domination; they were both subject peoples. He chose to “suffer under Pontius Pilate” condemned both by the Romans and by the leaders of his own people.

So there is no sense in which Our Lord’s politically incorrect words would justify our use of ethnic slurs directed at the persons around us. As the saying goes, “Extreme cases make bad law.” He was motivated by insight and love, and he set free the woman’s daughter, even though she was not a Jew.

Racism is an error and a sin that deprives people of their dignity as men and women made in the image and likeness of God in the original and real unity of the human race. It is a sin against justice. Jesus committed no such sin; rather he redeemed us from it and poured into us that love which longs for his gifts to be given to all indiscriminately.

Rather than demonizing a person because he displays the necessary limitations of belonging to a certain culture in a certain time and place, we should demonize the real demons, like the one who vexed the woman’s daughter, and who “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

We should fight the real sources of injustice: sin, pride, and faithlessness, and look to the example of the Savior of all.

Let us pray for unity amidst the differences of race and experience, and resolve always to seek to stir up this faith-filled hope in our neighbors near and far. Then we will be true followers of the Son of David and Savior of all the nations.

 

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