Isaiah 56. 1,6-8 and Matthew 15. 10-28
I’m going to say something shocking, now…perhaps to some of you. It’s this: the Bible contains rather a lot of racism.
This should not surprise us. The Scriptures we have inherited from our ancestors inevitably reflect the mind-set of the people when they wrote them. In particular, the Jews believed that they were the ‘chosen people’ – a special people who were set apart from all other nations, through which the salvation of all humanity would come. In a sense, this of course was true. Jesus was a Jew – and therefore, through Him, salvation for all the world did indeed come through the Jews.
But this truth bred some pretty uncomfortable ideas in the minds of certain Jewish leaders over the centuries. Despite all the awful things that happened to them as a people – all the conquests and defeats, the carrying-off into exile - they felt a deep sense of being special to God. And for some leaders, that special status drove them to believe that they were in some sense superior to other nations. They were the nation through whom God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity, after all. Didn’t that make them super-superior? And therefore, other nations were just not as special. They were less than the Jewish people. Inferior. And that the Jewish nation must remain ‘pure’.
A very good example of this mind-set can be found in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. After returning 70 years in exile, in Babylon, Nehemiah, the returned Governor, rebuilt the walls and the temple of Jerusalem. Many of the common people of Israel had not gone into exile. It was only the leaders who were carried off. The common people stayed behind and carried on their lives as best as they could under Babylonian rule.
But after rebuilding the walls and the temple, the high priest, Ezra, also newly returned to Jerusalem, stood up to pronounce to the common people that God now commanded them to separate themselves entirely from the nations around them. He sharply condemned them for having ‘mingled the holy race with the peoples around them’ (Ezra 9.2). Men who had married Canaanite women, for example, were commanded to divorce them and send them away.
Not all leaders believed this was what God wanted. Whilst Nehemiah and Ezra were battling for racial purity, many, like Isaiah and Jeremiah argued that their special status was a calling to servant-hood, not domination of others. The famous picture of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah is a key passage, which encourages the Jews to see themselves as servants to all humanity, being prepared to die in the attempt. Jesus embodied this idea, which is why the suffering servant passages are often seen (especially by Christians!) as a foretelling of his story.
And in this morning’s reading, also from Isaiah, we hear a call for all foreigners to be welcomed into the house of faith. ‘These foreigners’, says Yahweh, ‘will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in the house of prayer….’. Jeremiah had a similar vision, in which the people of all nations would be welcome onto the Holy Mountain of God.
And so, you see, racism was as much a live issue for the people of Bible-times as it remains for us today. Its pages are full of the clash of civilizations, competing endlessly with each other for dominance, and always claiming that their God was on their side. There have always been people who consider themselves essentially superior to everyone else. It’s part of fallen humanity’s nature to look down on, to ridicule, and to fear ‘the other’.
It was this inbuilt racism to which Jesus was referring when he spoke sharply to the Canaanite woman who was seeking healing for her child. We find him ministering in a foreign part of the area in which he lived. Canaanites, a conquered people, lived there. Jesus has chosen to expand his ministry beyond the Jews, beyond Galilee, Nazareth and Jerusalem, and into the heartland of foreigners.
And when one of them asks for his help, he sees an opportunity to prick at what he knew all Jews of the time would have been thinking. He clearly senses – or divinely knows – that this woman is someone with the capacity to teach the Jews all gathered around him. So he fences words with her. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. In other words, he boldly states that his mission is only to the children of Israel, not to the ‘dogs’ of other nations. But this woman has courage, and a quick intelligence. “Ah,” she replies, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table”.
I like to visualise Jesus laughing out loud at that reply! Yes! This is what he needs! Someone who can show by their wit, intelligence and their faith that they are just as good as any Jew, and just as deserving of God’s love. This fits entirely with the rest of his teaching – including the parable of the Good Samaritan, and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus wants the whole world, every nation and tongue, to know of God’s love. And that’s what he commands his disciples to tell, in the Great Commandment at the end of his time on earth. “Go,” he tells them, “and make disciples of all nations”.
And this, is what he commands of us too. There is no room for racism in Biblical Christianity. No nation is superior to another – whatever great things some of their individual people have achieved. God’s love cries out to every nation and every people…Come. Come up to the mountain of the Lord. Amen.