By the Rev. Darren Miner
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A few days ago, I received a letter from the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church asking all clergy to participate in a one-day event with the rather ungainly title of “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” Because of the short notice, what you will get is this sermon and a special collect at the Prayers of the People. Neither the sermon nor the prayer will end racism in this nation. But if they serve only to open our eyes, something important will have been achieved. So let that be our goal.
Even if I had not received marching orders from the Presiding Bishop, we might very well have explored the topic of prejudice. For both the Epistle and the Gospel touch upon this issue.
St. James is concerned about how fellow Christians treat rich people better than poor people, even at church. In other words, James is concerned with prejudice: prejudice for the rich and against the poor. James reminds his readers, and us, that God has endowed the poor with the gift of faith. God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the kingdom. And he warns his readers: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
And then we come to the Gospel reading and the disturbing episode with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus is hiding out in Gentile territory when he is confronted by a woman with a sick daughter. The woman is identified as a Greek-speaking Gentile, more specifically a Syrophoenician, a descendent of the Canaanites, the ancestral enemies of the Jews. Despite this ancestral enmity, the woman throws herself at Jesus’ feet and begs him to cast out the demon that has made her little daughter so sick. Jesus responds dismissively, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” The upshot of Jesus’ metaphor is that his ministry of healing is restricted to the children of Israel and not intended for Gentile dogs. In particular, Jesus is flatly refusing to heal the “little dog” who happens to be this woman’s sick daughter! (Keep in mind that in biblical times, the epithet “dog” was used to describe idolaters, prostitutes, and oppressors of the poor.)
Imagine, if you will, this desperate woman kneeling in the dirt and hearing Jesus refer to her beloved daughter as a “little dog.” If she had been a very proud woman, she might have told Jesus where to get off and let her daughter suffer as a consequence. Instead, she swallows her pride, accepts Jesus’ ethnic epithet, and then wittily argues that even dogs, such as she and her daughter, should be allowed to eat the bread crumbs that fall from the children’s table. With a wit born from desperation, this pagan woman turns Jesus’ own words back on him, and Jesus stands defeated. Admitting his defeat, Jesus tells the woman to go, the demon has been cast out.
So what are we to make of this difficult story? Well, first, let me be clear—I think that Jesus was in the wrong! He may not have been guilty of the sin of racism, but he came awfully close. He prejudged the woman based on her ethnicity, and he treated her with abominable rudeness because of it. (Now, when the evangelist Matthew retells this story, he explains away Jesus’ actions as a test of the woman’s faith, but in Mark’s recounting of this tale, no such mitigating intention is offered.) As embarrassing as this story is to Christians, it was preserved, I think, because it tells us something about the full humanity of Jesus, about Jesus’ ability to learn from his mistakes. Jesus starts out with the perspective that his ministry should be limited to God’s elect, the Jews, but he is jarred into a new realization by his confrontation with this Greek-speaking Gentile woman. Jesus starts out with the perspective that God’s grace is somehow limited, as if there were only enough to minister to the children of Israel, but he is awakened into the realization that God’s grace is more than sufficient. This story is not so much a story about a Gentile woman’s faith as it is about Jesus’ attainment of a fuller knowledge of his own humanity, of his own ministry, and of his Father’s unbounded grace.
And what convinces me that Jesus learned from his confrontation with the Syrophoenician woman is that the very next thing that Jesus does is to proceed to yet another Gentile region and publicly heal a man with impaired hearing and speech. Jesus no longer holds back his saving ministry from the Gentiles.
Today’s Gospel reading ends with the people saying, “He has done everything well.” I would beg to differ. When Jesus compared the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter to a little dog, he did not do well. However, when he learned from his mistake and changed his ways, then he did very well indeed!
On this one occasion, Jesus prejudged a pagan woman’s daughter as unworthy of God’s healing grace. All of us here today prejudge others all the time! We look at how people are dressed, and we make up our minds who they are and how we should treat them. We listen to their accent, and we make up our minds who they are and how we should treat them. We estimate their body weight, and we make up our minds who they are and how we should treat them.
And all too often, we look at a person’s skin color, or the texture of her hair, or the shape of his eyes, and we classify that person according to race and treat him or her differently based upon that classification. Some we will judge more worthy, or more intelligent, or more safe to be around, and others we will judge less worthy, less intelligent, less safe. We all do it to some extent or other. And it is wrong! It was wrong when Christians in St. James’ day judged fellow Christians according to their wealth. It was wrong when Jesus judged a desperate mother according to her religion and ethnicity. And it is most certainly wrong when Americans judge other children of God according to race. But such prejudices run deep. They are hard for us to discern in ourselves. They are even harder to root out of our institutions. And it doesn’t help when politicians play upon our fears and prejudices in order to “rally the base.”
But we have to make a start somewhere! So let’s start with ourselves. Here are a few suggestions: 1) Before you make a statement about someone of another race, consider how that statement would change if the person in question were of the same race as you. Would you make the same statement? If not, you might decide to revise what you were about to say. 2) If you are prone to making general statements about other races, stop it! I can guarantee that any statement that begins with the words “All blacks are…” or “Most Chinese are…” or “Every white man is…” shouldn’t be uttered out loud. In point of fact, such generalizations are intrinsically false. 3) When you walk down the street, and encounter a person of another race, notice how that makes you feel. Do you feel threatened? Do you clutch your purse a little tighter or check that your wallet is secure in your pocket? If you do, ask yourself why you feel that way. And even if you continue to struggle with such prejudicial fears, you can always stop these feelings from turning into behaviors. 4) And now, we get to the area of jokes. Don’t tell racist jokes ever. Don’t laugh at racist jokes ever. Don’t smile at racist jokes ever. And if your best friend in the whole world starts to tell you a racist joke, tell him or her to stop. 5) Last but not least, if you are truly brave, get some feedback. Ask a person of another race if you have ever made him or her uncomfortable by something you said or did.
Admittedly, these five suggestions are baby steps. They are not going to bring about the systemic transformation necessary to eradicate racism from our American institutions. But they just might transform you. These suggestions are small works. They require no public confessions, no extravagant displays of repentance, only self-awareness and a willingness to change. But by such small works, you draw closer to fulfilling both the commandment to love your neighbor and the baptismal vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.”
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.