I woke up a month and a half ago and really should have been started for finals, but I couldn’t focus. I felt unsettled hearing news stories about the Syrian refugees many Americans wished to keep out of the country and the toxic language of those who wished to expand the ban to all Muslims on account of their religion. I felt unsettled in my position as a neutral skeptic of the “Royall Must Fall” movement—the protests, Facebook posts, and articles from my classmates who were demanding the alteration of the Harvard Law seal on account of its racist origins. I felt unsettled by the depiction of a cruelly prejudiced Jesus Christ in Mark 7. And I kept hearing my friend’s challenge offered over coffee a few days earlier: “What would a Christian theological response to all of this look like?” So I read Mark 7 once again and wrote the following reflection:
Mark 7:26-30 (NRSV)
26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
It’s one of the most unsettling passages in the New Testament. This isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about. This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens.
Uneasy theologians and pastors have created all kinds of workarounds to avoid dealing with the implications of the passage:
Maybe Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. (By offering up an offensive ethnic hierarchy? Seems unlikely.)
Maybe Jesus meant this as a temporal ordering of salvation first to Jews and then to Gentiles. (An understandable case taking the Bible as a whole, but not in this metaphor. More than time distinguishes between children and dogs.)
Maybe Jesus meant what he said affectionately—cute little puppies, not feral dogs. (Really???)
But it’s pretty clear: “Dogs” is pejorative throughout the Old Testament and ancient literature, dogs are the half-wild animals on the outskirts of town, closer to nuisance than afterthought. Children, on the other hand, are part of the family and inside the circle that matters most—the rightful recipients of care.
Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.
Orthodox Christianity has long held to the mysterious doctrine that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. The details and implications of the doctrine are complicated to say the least. But we often, at least in the American Church, defend and contemplate Jesus’ divinity without giving his humanity the same critical attention.
This story calls us to confront Jesus’ humanity.
Being human means being embedded in a culture. It means growing up with a certain worldview. It means inheriting traditions and language and biases—biases that can be wrongheaded and hurtful and alienating. Biases like the exclusion of Gentiles from the community of faith and the circle of those deserving compassion.
I don’t intend heresy, and neither did Mark. Mark doesn’t include this story to crush the community that worships Jesus Christ; rather, according to some scholars, he writes to a smallish community of Christians in ancient Syria to suggest a certain approach to encountering neighbors with hospitality.
You see, Jesus doesn’t cling to his prejudice.
He listens to the Syrophoenician woman. The outsider. The other. And he listens to a brilliant and courageous response, as she changes the terms of the debate and the impression of the metaphor.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
This woman suggests that Gentiles are not the dogs on the edge of town who must not be “thrown” food that would otherwise go to the children. In her metaphor, they are the dogs in the home who share in the meal of the children or eating what is kept on the best lick mat for dogs on the floor for it.1 This isn’t exactly a clear statement of equality, but it meets Jesus where he is and challenges him to shift his view. Perhaps Gentiles aren’t as different and insignificant as Jesus suggested. Perhaps they deserve the compassion of the Christ just as the Jews do.
Jesus listens. And he changes his mind.2 The healing initially denied the daughter is finally granted.
In Mark’s narration, this is arguably Jesus’ first face-to-face encounter with a Gentile, and it shakes him. It changes him. It changes the way he sees those who don’t share his ethnicity. Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry is one of ever-expanding inclusiveness. In Mark chapter 6, Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of Jews. In chapter 7, he encounters the Syrophoenician woman. In chapter 8, he miraculously feeds thousands once again—but this time thousands of Gentiles. An encounter with a Gentile woman fundamentally alters how Jesus sees and treats Gentiles.
The hero of this story is not Jesus, but the Syrophoenician woman. Her willingness to challenge unhealthy preconceptions is courageous and insightful and alters the unfolding of the Gospel. But Jesus also teaches us an important lesson here by modeling graciousness in a broken culture. Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere.
Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.
We can certainly learn from Jesus’ example. Perhaps we can analogize from the non-Jewish Syrian woman to . . . hmmmm . . . maybe non-Christian Syrian women, men, and children. (Turns out we don’t have to stretch the analogy too far at all.) Many politicians and American Christians are calling for the exclusion of Syrian refugees. Others call for the exclusion of all Syrian refugees except the Christians. The objections all follow a common theme: Christians aren’t dangerous because we know how they think and view the world—exactly like we do. But these Muslim refugees aren’t like us and they don’t think like us and we just don’t know!
Jesus didn’t know. So he listened and learned that Gentiles and Jews belong in community together. And he compassionately cared for the Gentiles after that, displaying a newly indiscriminate love that many of us hold as a central commitment millennia later.
It’s pretty simple. You can raise whatever dubious nationalistic policy argument you want about keeping Syrian refugees out—just don’t use the Gospel. Mark doesn’t allow it.
As a Christian, I find the refugee crisis an ethical no-brainer. Most of my friends, Christian and non-Christian, find it equally straightforward. But not all issues are so clear. I’ve learned that recently.
Students at my school, Harvard Law School, recently began protesting the school’s seal. It’s an innocuous-looking shield of blue with three bundles of wheat and a red banner that reads VERITAS above it. Honestly, it looks cool and academic-y. I liked it enough to buy my dad a pullover with the seal on the chest so he could brag about me to his friends. But then a bunch of students wanted to get rid of the seal. They began protesting. “Royall must Fall” became the name and slogan for a group of students objecting to the seal derived from the coat-of-arms of Isaac Royall Jr., a slave owner who played an important role in founding the school. These students ignited a controversy, and my first response, if I’m honest, was something like this:
“This is kind of ridiculous. It’s just some wheat on a school seal. No one even thought racism when they looked at the seal until everyone started talking about it. It’s not like this is the Confederate flag. This is the seal of Harvard Law School. Slave owner money is all over every old American institution. Lincoln was a racist. Do we need to take him off the penny? I’m all for combatting racism when it’s a real issue. But we’ve got student diversity and generally progressive politics here. No one thinks racism when they think Harvard Law School.”
I mean I had never experienced racism at Harvard law school. It pretty much always felt inclusive to me. I had friends of every race and from all over the world. But I have inherited bias. It’s not so easy to see systemic prejudice as a white guy who grew up in a Protestant upper-middle class family in Maryland.
But I decided to listen. I listened to my friends, particularly my black friends, who challenged my notion that the Law School was practically racism-free. They talked and wrote and Facebook-posted and gathered on campus to protest. When brilliant and caring people share honest accounts of feeling marginalized on campus, phantom victimization is a ridiculous explanation. Racism is real at HLS. It’s there even though it doesn’t usually appear as black tape on the portraits of black faculty as it did a few weeks ago. It’s subtly there in the gaps in the curriculum and little conversations in the hallways.
Royall was a cruel slave-owner. He joined in the burning of 77 black people. He made his fortune on the sweat of the enslaved. Some people see the seal as a way of remembering our tortured history, but for many of my classmates, it isn’t a redeemed symbol of remembering past racism—it’s a sign of our unwillingness to confront racism.
And then I read Mark 7. The words of the Syrophoenician woman that echoed in the cries of refugees began to echo in the words of my friends. Those ancient words didn’t sit easy, and I couldn’t hand-wave away Jesus’ clear prejudice. But the story is not a blemish in the narrative of the Christ. It is the very essence of Mark’s ever-expanding gospel. Jesus grew in love and shows us how to do likewise—how to listen and reconsider and respond accordingly in love.
Refugees are welcome and Royall Must Fall.
In the name and example of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Austin Steelman is a third year student at Harvard Law School.
- The distinction between the two types of dogs is not readily apparent in the English plain language. For more on this point, see Joel Marcus’s Mark 1-8 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries). ↩
- Other gospel writers also acknowledge Jesus’ change over the course of his lifetime. Luke writes that, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” Luke 2:52 (NRSV).Even if you can’t swallow Jesus changing his mind, this woman, who so many would have despised from the outset, passes Jesus’ test so powerfully that it calls for others to change the lens through which they see Gentiles. ↩