Last month, Rachel Held Evens posted the following tweet about Jesus, well-intended I believe, trying to address the issues of racism and the human
It’s fear of Jesus’ humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man changing his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person. But that’s a tricky one…— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) November 19, 2018
As you can imagine, this struck a nerve with many people, thinking she was called Jesus a racist. She later admits she wasn’t trying to call Jesus racist. This distinction is important as people can have racial biases (as in, we all have them), but racists cement their racial bias with rationalizations and justifications for their superiority and the inferiority of others. People who have racial biases but are not racists don’t let their biases control how they see others, allow their experience of different people to change what they think about them, rather than fitting people of other ethnicities into their racist boxes. So I can appreciate what RHE was perhaps trying to accomplish and the distinction she was trying to draw.
But RHE is not simply the thought of a person who went astray. It rather represents a distinctive hermeneutical problem that stems from the intellectual and cultural progressivism she inhabits. This becomes particularly salient when a United Methodist Bishop, Karen Oliveto, has charges brought against her in a message she gave to her annual conference, taking Jesus’s response to the Syrophonecian woman as an example of “giving up bigotry and prejudices” and admonishes against “making Jesus an idol.”1 The same constellation of emphasis upon Jesus’ humanity (and in the case of Oliveto to the point of saying something profoundly unorthodox and bordering on what would be considered heretical by most Christians throughout history) to read Jesus’ initial response to the
Allow me to state something clearly though: I am not trying to malign “progressives.” I share many similar concerns that they have on a lot of topics, but a) my rationale for understanding differs profoundly, which means b) I don’t always interpret the source of problems in the same way so that c) I don’t propose the same solutions that progressive-minded people do. This blog post is, in a sense, an attempt to expose these differing rationales and how, in the context of Christian faith, impact hermeneutics and the reading of Scripture.
What under-girds the progressive mindset is the attitude of a
What is particularly significant about this is that what amounts to evil in the eyes of progressives
Given the reality of inequality, the progressive mindset assumes negative appraisal of members of a minority group is automatically done in an unequal manner. In this case, the proper response isn’t to change how one views people of majority status with more negative attitudes, but to fight against negative attitudes towards minorities. This converges with principles of non-judgmentalism that many of us Millenials were taught growing up and an increased awareness of the role of psychological pain and stress in hampering people’s live. The right response to inequality is to become tolerant and open. Thus, by default, negative attitudes towards people deemed minorities is likely to be considered wrong, if not evil.
As a consequence, negative views of people with a minority, disempowered status are very salient to people in the progressive mindset. While there are still some taboos that if anyone, regardless of status, commits legitimates judgmental or critical views of them, by and large, any sort of negative or different treatment is immediately interpreted as some form of prejudice or bigotry. So, when Jesus initially “refuses” to help the Syrophonecian woman, the saliency concerns about racism takes controls the way they interpret the passage.
Furthermore, their attitude towards a form of non-judgmental equality hinders seeing another explanation for Jesus’ actions. In the progressive mindset, there is a large aversion to the idea of gross inequalities and superiority. The progressive mindset is particularly averse to all forms of exceptionalism and exclusivity; it stems from seeing the evils of the racial supremacist views of
However, it is this notion of a special status bestowed upon Israel that under-girds Jesus’s actions. Anyone who takes the Old Testament seriously as a source of faith has to grapple with the special
What was the nature of the special status? While many Israelites could rationalize this special status as having many functions, such that some may have thought their genealogical heritage meant that they would be treated more leniently in God’s eyes than the Gentiles, John the Baptist, Jesus, and even Paul undercut this explanation. In part, Romans contains Paul’s attempt to explain the significance of Israel’s special status while highlighting that the adherence to the Torah does not provide any special benefit in the eyes of God.
Rather, the special status Israel was seen as having was as a beacon of God’s light in the world. Genesis 18.16-21 highlights the role Abraham’s descendants will have in bringing blessing through their righteousness as a contrast to the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah, which first becomes clearly exemplified by Joseph as a blessing to the people of Egypt. When God was freeing Israel from Egypt, He told Moses to go to Pharaoh and say that all the plagues are happening and Pharaoh still lives so as to “to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth.” (Exodus 9.16). Then, after being freed from Egypt, God explains the purpose of the covenant He is forming with Israel, calling them “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19.6), suggest they have an intercessory role in the world while they also represent God’s holiness, as Leviticus repeatedly calls Israel to be holy as God is holy.
Then, Isaiah 49 speaks of a servant from Israel that God created and set out from their conception that they will be a “light to the nations.” (Isaiah 49.6). The wisdom of Sirach understands this role of being for all of Israel, where Israel shows God’s holiness and looking for God to use Israel to show God’s glory so that the nations will know God and God alone. (Sirach 36.4-5). Consistent is this idea that God will use the people of Israel to have an impact on the rest of the world, just as it was in the Exodus.
Thus, Israel is deemed as having a special purpose in the course of history to bring the world to a knowledge of God. However, even though this work is primarily predicated upon God’s actions, Israel must also reflect God’s holiness and righteousness through their way of life. Failure to do so doesn’t prevent God from accomplishing his purposes
In this light, one of Jesus’ primary roles is that of a voice of the charismatic authority like the judges, prophets of the Old Testament. 2 Jesus action is focused upon calling Israel back to its proper purpose as He speaks of the approaching kingdom of God. Many Israelites would have heard something along the lines of Sirach in this; God is about to do something, so we need to repent and get our act together to be apart of what God is doing. Jesus ministry in teaching about the nature of Torah in the Sermon on the Mount and disavowing the way the well-known expositors of the Torah have done it exemplifies this: Jesus is calling Israel to repentance and a new way of life so that they can get in line with the work kingdom work God is doing.
So, when we read the story of the Syrophonecian woman asking Jesus for help in Matthew 15.21-28, we can make sense of what Jesus says when he responds to her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (vs. 24). Jesus’ earthly ministry was not tasked with changing the world, but with calling Israel back to its proper vocation as God’s covenant people that they had forgotten and went astray from. Israel has a special status and Jesus’ purpose is to get Israel’s purpose back on track.
However, the woman continues to plead for help. Then, Jesus says “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (vs. 26) This is where progressives can hear a hint of objectification and contempt. IT is understandable because we in our modern world have heard how groups of people are treated as less than human, with the Holocaust as most salient. But, that is not how Jesus means this. This can also be understood as a metaphor describing Jesus’ actions: Israel has a special purpose and Jesus’ ministry is targetting towards them, just as bread is for children. The intended metaphorical point of comparison here isn’t Israel as the children and the Canaanites are like dogs as if there is some racial superiority latent here; this comparison is secondary to the purpose of the metaphor, as its pragmatic purpose is the comparison between bread and Jesus’ powerful healings as part of Jesus’ ministry intended for the ministry to Israel.
Then, the woman retorts, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (vs. 27), to which Jesus responds: “Woman! Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” (vs. 28) While some might understand Jesus change because the woman’s persistence of even because they see in faith some idea of association with Jesus, I would proffer something much simpler. She recognizes God’s purposes for Israel are on behalf of the world. Her response expresses a faith that what gets given to Israel does get passed on even to the world. Her great faith is that her, as an outsider to the covenant, are still to be a recipient of God’s blessing through God’s mission in and through Israel. Jesus’ response changes not because he changes views on racism, but because he sees her faith.
Thus, it is the schema of Israel’s special purpose from God for the purpose of the world that makes sense of the narrative, including the inclusion of the note about her Canaanite origin.
What happens in the progressive hermeneutic is that a different connection is made: the Canaanite’s ethnicity is seen as wrongly exclusive and thus Jesus’ metaphor is an act of dehumanizing racism, drawing the main intended comparison between the children and dogs in the story with Israel in comparison to the Canaanites. This is because marginalization and dehumanization
The criticism here isn’t with the progressive mindset, but it is the paradoxical narrowness in which they fit Jesus into a box of modern Western ideas, all while decrying other people putting Jesus into a box. This interpretation of Jesus engaging in bigotry/racism is, essentially, an act of appropriation for modern socio-political agendas and does not show the proper cultural respect for its meaning in its ancient context, particularly the discourse of a minority group of people (when it originally
I don’t say this to try to accuse Christian progressives of a hermeneutic of
Jesus is not engaging in a world of progressive equality: Jesus is engaging in the mission of God for Israel’s people according to the Scriptures. But by seeing everything through the lens of inequality, particularly of racial inequality, it controls understanding from seeing anything other than that, even if there is evidence in favor of seeing
- However, this can include even the charisma of rising kings as Sault and David received the influence of God’s Spirit in a special way prior to their ascent.