Learning from Jesus' Xenophobic Moment


In our current political climate, simply mentioning immigration or the refugee crisis can end in heated conversation with lasting scrutiny and disdain. Family dinner tables host horrific debates and families turn against each other: siblings against parents against siblings against cousins against those closest to us.

For those of us that are religious, we look to our sacred texts in hopes that we might find the wisdom to deal with the issues honorably and appropriately. While there are certainly religious folks on all sides of the arguments, there is a passage in the gospels that I find appropriate in what is one of the most widely interpreted - and often avoided - passages in the Jesus story.

In this story, Jesus is in the area of Tyre, which was home to mostly Gentiles (non-Jews) and encounters a Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-29; CEB). We should not be surprised that Jesus meets a Gentile woman in a Gentile area. What we should notice, however, that Jesus is trying to hide, though unsuccessfully: "He didn't want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn't hide" (v. 24). He did not go to Tyre on mission. Instead, he was seeking to escape all the chaos (i.e. the crowds that were following him). Knowing that, we might understand the cause for his ornery attitude.

But are we really willing to give Jesus a "pass" for his degrading comments to the lady?

When the lady "came and fell at his feet" and "begged" Jesus to heal her possessed daughter, he responded, "The children have to be fed first. It isn't right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." Wow. Really, Jesus? Who are the children? The Jews? Is not calling an immigrant a "dog" xenophobic?

Yes, the gospel of Mark makes clear that Jesus' message is to the Jew, first, then the Gentile. Yes, the Gentiles have, until this point in Jewish tradition, been labeled as "unclean." So what is happening here? Why has this messianic figure spoken so harshly to a woman in need? If this were a Jewish woman, would she have to beg and insist like this?

Context helps further explore some of these questions.

Right before the story of the Syrophoenician woman is a story about the disciples eating food with unclean hands. This was an obvious violation of the Law, thus the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, "Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?" (v. 5) Jesus responds that it is from within that someone is unclean or contaminated. In other words, it is the heart and the sins that come from it that make one unclean: "All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God's sight" (v. 23).

That gives us a little background for the story, but fails to answer why Jesus responds to the woman the way he does. After Jesus' comments likening her to a dog, the woman's insistent, humble response surprises Jesus, "Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (v. 28). Jesus then responds, "Good answer!" he said. "Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter" (v. 29). Amazingly, the woman uses Jesus' own argument as a way to trap or trick him into healing her daughter.

And with that, the story ends.

This leaves us, the readers, with some hard choices to make. We have a few options: 1) Jesus makes a xenophobic comment but is impressed by the persistence of this woman; 2) Jesus learns that he was mistaken about the woman and this shows us how his mission is expanding beyond the Jewish territory and mindset. There are, of course, many that try to dilute this comment by adding some type of metaphorical or allegorical element to suggest that Jesus was justified in calling this woman a dog.

I reject these attempts to sterilize this story because I believe it carries a very important message for us today: we can learn some things from Jesus' xenophobic comment.

Notice that Jesus makes a statement about the woman, but once he listens to her, he learns about her and his experience with her changes his mind. It is so easy to "other" those that are different than us - whether that be Syrian refugees, or those coming to America from Mexico - but how much time do we spend talking to them? How much time do we spend seeking to understand where they are coming from and the loss or grief or sadness that they have experienced? Have we heard their stories? Are we even open to listening?

Jesus' xenophobic comments highlight his humanity. He was, after all, a man. He sweated and bled and cried. He spent his time and effort walking around to spread his message and recruit for his mission. And, from time to time, he got grumpy and sought to escape the crowds that followed. In this story, he let the pressures of his everyday life lead him to a moment that he learned from: he is initially wrong, but corrects his mistake.

If Jesus can learn from his own xenophobia, it is time that we learn from his, first, and then hopefully learn from our own. Perhaps that is the point, after all?