Was Jesus a racist? It might not be question you would ask, but imagine a journalist today picking up Matthew 15:21-28 as a news item! Jesus has come out of Jewish territory – perhaps deliberately for a bit of peace – and seems to ignore a woman asking for help. Worse, she is described as “Canaanite” – the name of the corrupt pagan tribe the Israelites had displaced during the conquest of the Promised Land.
This is not casual prejudice. Jesus had sent out his 12 disciples (Matthew 10:5,6) “not .. to any Gentile territory or any Samaritan towns . . to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” The first call was to the people God had chosen for a special purpose – not all peoples were equal! There was a reason, of course. It was not some “superiority” in this nation, but the fact that their history should have prepared them for Jesus and his mission.
It is clear Jesus was not hostile to foreigners – in Matthew 8:5-13, we had read of the healing of the (Gentile) Centurion’s servant, and Jesus’ comment on his faith. Here again, we have, after hesitation, and conversation, healing of a “foreigner”, and at a distance. I suggest the problem is not in Jesus’ behaviour, but in our question. If we fail to think, we assume Jesus must match up to our standards. In fact, the reality is the other way, and we must understand and adapt to his. It is from his teaching and example we get the value given to other humans, including those of different race, language and culture. All are valued by God, and the Christian gospel, preached first to those prepared by their history, is open to all.
At the same time, different cultures, like individuals, are not the same. Israel was chosen by God for a special job, and the gospel had to be preached first to them. The centurion, and this Canaanite woman, anticipate a later stage when all may come by faith to Christian faith – and there remains a distinction between those who do, and those who do not. Christian, and non-believer.
The fight against racism is a Christian one, reflecting the understanding that every human is made in the image of God, and is of value to him. None are to be dismissed or devalued. But that does not mean that all cultures are of equal value – nor that ours is all good. There are parts of our culture that are thoroughly rotten. How do we judge them? Against common opinion? No. Against the standards of Jesus. If we lose the ability to tell the truth, that is bad. If we fail to care for the weak and helpless, that is bad – by gospel standards. In the same way, other cultures may need correction, not because we say so, or in comparison with “British” ways, but against the standard of Jesus.
Jesus wants to announce God’s Kingdom to his chosen people first – and that is right. If a centurion and a Canaanite woman are given faith to anticipate the situation after Easter, Matthew will record that to show his church how all are accepted by faith – but not to suggest that all people and all cultures, let alone all creeds, are equal.
I hope that you do stand against Racism, and make the effort to bridge the gap of language and culture to strangers. I also hope that you realise that cultures, and individual actions, are not all of equal value, and to be weighed not by the popular opinion of the moment, but by the teachings and actions of Jesus. Weigh actions by Jesus’ standard.