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.